Sermon of our Venerable Father Ephrem
On Abraham and Isaac

Saint Ephraim


Among the many metrical texts in Greek attributed to Saint Ephrem the Syrian are a number of long poems devoted to Old Testament figures. The one presented here is particularly interesting since it is clearly related to a text of Saint Gregory of Nyssa On the Nature of the Son, which may be found in PG 46:565-576. In the translation below the parts that are identical with St Gregory’s are underlined. It is very difficult to decide which text is the earlier and the few few scholars who have given any attention to the subject are divided. I am inclined to think that St Gregory’s text is the earlier, since it includes none of the passages in St Ephrem’s text which are explicitly Christological; for example the long typological series of stanzas (9 to 27) on the Incarnation, or that on Isaac and Christ (94 to 106). Whether the poem has links to the Syrian Ephrem is another very difficult question. The description of the tree on which the ram is found hanging as ’a Sabek plant’ must be based on the Septuagint, on the other hand the idea that the tree and the ram were a special miraculous creation is also found in St Ephrem’s own Syriac Commentary on Genesis, ’The ram had not been there, since Isaac asked about the lamb. The tree was not there, since the wood on  Isaac’s shoulders shows it. The mountain threw up the tree, and the tree the ram; so that by the ram which was hanging from the tree and became a sacrifice for Abraham’s son, might be prefigured the one who hung like a ram from the wood, and who would taste death for the whole world’. [On Genesis, 20.1]

The description of the moment of the sacrifice, stanzas 133 to 139, is,as the writer says, based on actual depictions of the scene and is reminicscent of extant examples from early Christian art, among them a number of sarcophagi.

The poem is written in the Syrian metre, known as the ’Metre of Mar Eprem’, which consists of lines of fourteen syllables, with a caesura after the seventh. These are sometimes printed as couplets of seven syllable lines. This is unknown in Greek prosody and is based neither on length of syllabes, as in Classical Greek, nor on patterns of stress accents, as in Byzantine poetry, but simply on the number of syllables. Greek Ephrem also uses on occasion octosyllabic lines, made up of two tetrasyllables. In this poem they are used for Sara’s Lament in stanzas 76  to 92.

The text is translated from the critical edition by Mercati. I have, for the moment, accepted his division into four line stanzas, though involves accepting that there some lacunae in the original.

The whole of the Greek text is also found among the (inauthentic) sermons of St John Chrysostom.

Abraham and Isaac

  1. God banished
    the righteous Abraham
    from his kinsfolk
    and from all his own.

  2. And he was in a foreign land
    under hardships
    waiting for the hope
    of the promise

  3. Much testing was brought
    upon the patriarch,
    through which his steadfastness
    to God
    was shown.

  4. A long time passed;
    his youth like a flower
    finally withered;
    old age was at the door.

  5. Nature suffering what
    was its own

    was bowed with old age.

  6. By old age was quenched
    for his wife also
    the strength and capacity
    for bearing a child.

  7. Both their bodies
    bowed under nature’s law
    now that their youth
    had been wasted away.

  8. But the hope in God,
    which flourished in them,
    was not only unageing,
    but also invincible.

  9. Therefore beyond hope
    she gave birth to Isaac,
    who bore in every way
    the type of the Master.

  10. It was not nature’s work
    that a dead womb conceived
    and breasts that were dry
    gave Isaac milk.

  11. It was not nature’s work
    that the Virgin Mary
    conceived without a man
    and without corruption gave birth
    [to the Saviour of all things].

  12. He made Sara
    a mother in old age;
    revealed Mary
    a virgin after child-birth.

  13. An Angel in the tent
    said to the patriarch,
    ‘At this time
    Sara will have a son.’

  14. An Angel in Nazareth
    said to Mary,
    ‘Behold, you will bear a son,
    O highly favoured.’

  15. Sara laughed
    seeing her barrenness,
    beholding her deadness
    disbelieving the word.

  16. ‘How, she said, will this be,
    Abraham and I
    are both incapable
    of having children?’

  17. Mary too was at loss,
    seeing her virginity
    and keeping its seals

  18. ‘How will happen to me,
    who do not know man?
    For this promise
    is foreign to nature.’

  19. But it was he, who beyond hope
    gave Isaac to Sara,
    who was born from the Virgin
    according to the flesh.

  20. Filled with joy were
    Sara and Abraham
    when Isaac was born,
    as God had said.

  21. Filled with joy were
    Mary and Joseph
    when Jesus was born,
    as Gabriel had said.

  22. Abundantly there flowed
    streams of milk
    from the mother in old age
    into the mouth of Isaac.

  23. Abundantly the breasts
    of the Virgin streamed with milk
    for the One who nourishes
    all the ends of the earth.

  24. Who will tell Abraham
    that Sara gives suck

    to a son in her old age?’
    cried the barren woman.

  25. ‘Who will tell mankind
    that I am a virgin,
    and having given birth I suckle?’
    said Mary.

  26. Sara did not laugh
    because of Isaac,
    but because of the One
    who is born from Mary.

  27. And just like John
    through his leaping,
    so Sara by laughing
    revealed the joy.

  28. The child grew to manhood
    and was radiant and fair
    with the bloom of youth
    of young men.

  29. Adding each day
    virtues of soul
    to the beauty of his body,
    he was a delight to his parents.

  30. You that have children,
    imitate him.
    How the father takes pleasure
    when he sees his child playing.

  31. How he rejoices when he sees
    his child making progress,
    or being serious
    about his lessons.

  32. But when Abraham, seeing
    these things, rejoiced,
    trial and heavy torment
    were brought
    to him,

  33. That he might show clearly
    to what he gave greater weight,
    to the influence of nature
    or the love of God

  34. As I recount,
    beloved brethren,
    the severity of the test,
    I tremble and am amazed.

  35. For once again God
    Abraham an order
    and summons him,
    calling him by name.

  36. ‘Take your only son,
    your beloved,
    whom you love,

  37. And offer him
    yourself as a sacrifice
    on one of the mountains
    that I shall tell you.’

  38. But when he said to him,
    ‘Abraham, Abraham,’
    gladly he obeyed,
    expecting better things,

  39. Ever awaiting
    an additional grace
    either to arrange a marriage,
    or to erect the marriage chamber,

  40. So that to its fulfilment
    might come the blessing
    and the multitude of descendants,
    as he had been promised.

  41. But let us learn
    the additional word to
    ‘Take your only,
    your beloved son.

  42. You see how the sharp points
    of the word pierce the father
    and how they rekindle
    the flame of nature?

  43. How they rouse the great love
    of the father for his child,
    calling him ‘Your only’
    and also ‘Your beloved’?

  44. So that through such
    names his burning
    love for him
    might test
    his intention.

  45. ‘And offer him
    to me as a whole burnt offering

    on one of the mountains
    that I shall show you.’

  46. What have you suffered
    as you heard
    these things?
    Did you not stagger
    at the telling,

  47. You that are fathers
    and have clearly learnt
    the love for your sons

    which comes from nature?

  48. For you know, you know
    how a father has received
    the report of the slaughter
    of any only

  49. Who would not be amazed
    such a word?
    Who would not at once
    turn away his face?

  50. <Or> who would not at once
    at this command not choose
    rather to die
    than to accept the order?

  51. Or who would not have
    remonstrated with him,
    putting nature forward
    as his advocate like this?

  52. Why, Master, have you ordered
    these things
    to be?
    Why have you uttered
    these unwelcome words?

  53. Was it for this you wished
    to make me a father,
    that you might all at once
    make me a child murderer?

  54. Was it for this you gave me
    a taste of the sweet gift
    that you might show me to be
    a byword to
    the whole world?

  55. That with my own hands
    I might slay my child

    defiling my right hand
    with the blood of my own kin?

  56. Am I to become a child murderer?
    Is this what you order,
    and is it in such sacrifices
    that you take you delight

  57. Do you command me to slay
    most dear son,
    by whom I had hoped
    with Sara to be buried?

  58. Is this the sort of bridal chamber
    I am to erect for him, tell me?
    Is this the sort of joy
    I am to prepare for his marriage

  59. Am I to light for him
    not a
    bridegroom’s torch,
    not lights of gladness,
    but a funeral fire?

  60. Shall I put a garland on him?
    Shall I erect a bridal chamber?
    Shall I besides
    set up dances?

  61. Shall I be, as you said,
    father of the nations,
    who am not worthy
    even of my one child?

  62. But the just man did not give
    any such answers

  63. ..................>
    having become obedient,
    he set love alight
    more fiercely than the fire.

  64. Sharper than the sword
    he made his fond love;
    for with it he cut
    the bonds of nature.

  65. Having left behind and discarded
    like something earthly
    the burden of his
    compassionate nature

  66. He gave up his whole self
    with fervour and busied
    himself with the command

    to slaughter his son.

  67. But to his wife
    he said nothing of this;
    nor did he share it with her,
    acting to the best advantage;

  68. For he considered
    for him woman was
    unworthy of credit
    prejudicial to counsel.

  69. For he did not agree,
    but disapproved
    of Adam’s accepting
    Eve’s counsel

  70. So, lest Sara suffer
    some womanly emotion
    lest she grieve
    like a mother,

  71. And shake the intensity
    and inviolability
    of his love for God,
    he strove to keep her unaware

  72. For what loud lamentations
    would Sara not have used,
    either to her child,
    or to his father?

  73. What would she have not done
    as she saw her own son
    being forcibly dragged
    away to be slaughtered

  74. How would she not,
    wrapping him in her arms,
    clasping him tightly,
    have pulled him close to her?

  75. What words would have not
    to Abraham,
    and with loud laments
    cried out her distress?

    The following stanzas, which form Sara’s Lament, are in Octosyllabics.

  76. ‘Spare, spare your own kind;
    spare your child, Abraham,
    spare him, do not become
    an evil tale for the world

  77. This offspring is my only one;
    this is my first;
    first and last

    in my labour pangs was Isaac.

  78. Do not cut off the one grape cluster
    that we bore as our fruit,
    when through old age we were
    no longer part of the vine.

  79. Do not harvest the one ear of corn
    [that we bore as our fruit]
    with the trenchant sickle,
    the one who blossomed from us,
    from the deadness that was ours.

  80. Do not smash the staff
    on which we were supported.
    Do not break the rod
    on which we take our rest.

  81. Do not blind the eye
    which we two have gained.
    Do not remove our memorial
    from the earth beneath the sky.

  82. Do not slaughter like a sheep
    the lamb that we possess.
    Do not take away our joy
    and fill us with lament.

  83. Whom, after him, shall we
    see at out table
    Who will call me ‘Mother’?
    Who will minister to our old age?

  84. Who will shroud us when dead?
    Who cover our bodies with a tomb?
    Who preserve the memorial
    of us for ever childless?

  85. You see the young man’s beauty,
    the flower of his youth,
    on which, if you saw it in a foe,
    you would surely have compassion

  86. He has been given as the fruit
    of my yearlong prayers
    he has been left as the branch
    of my succession

  87. He is all that is left of our line;
    he the staff of old age;
    he alone is the hope
    of our lack of hope.

  88. If you mean to thrust the sword
    into the neck of my most dear son,
    then kill me first,
    so granting me the greatest grace.

  89. Let the funeral mound be common,
    and common our memorial.
    Let a common dust
    cover both our bodies.

  90. Common be the death
    of the barren and her offspring.
    Let a common gravestone
    tell the suffering
    of both.

  91. Let not Sara’s eye see
    Abraham a child murderer,
    nor Isaac, slain as a child
    by the hands of his father

    Here the poet reverts to Heptasyllabics

  92. These and things like them
    Sara would have done
    had she known that her dear son
    was about to be slaughtered.

  93. Therefore Abraham said
    nothing of this to her,
    that nothing might hinder
    the work of his hands.

  94. He laid on the boy
    the faggots of the wood,
    since the Saviour also
    bore the Cross.

  95. When Isaac was about
    to go to the slaughter,
    the ass followed
    and Abraham’s servants.

  96. And when Christ was about
    to go to his Passion,
    he mounted on a colt
    showing the call of the nations.

  97. While his disciples also
    followed him,
    bearing tokens of victory
    and crying, ‘Hosanna!’

  98. Isaac bearing
    the wood went up
    the mountain to be sacrificed
    like an innocent lamb.

  99. The Saviour too bearing
    the Cross went out
    to be sacrificed on Calvary
    like a lamb for us.

  100. As you look on the sword
    think of the lance.
    As you consider the altar,
    imagine Calvary.

  101. As you contemplate the faggots
    reflect on the cross.
    As you look on the fire,
    meditate on the love.

  102. Look too on the sheep
    hanged by its two horns
    on the plant
    that is called ‘Sabek’.

  103. Look too on Christ,
    the Lamb of God,
    hanged by his two hands
    upon a Cross.

  104. The plant called Sabek
    means ‘forgiveness’,
    for it saved from slaughter
    the old man’s child,

  105. It foreshadows the cross
    that forgives the world
    its sins
    and grants it life.

  106. The ram hanging
    on the Sabek plant
    mystically redeemed
    Isaac alone,

  107. While the Lamb of God
    hanged on the cross
    delivered the world
    from Death and Hell.

  108. Isaac was torn
    from his servants
    when about to go
    up the mountain to death.

  109. Christ was torn
    from his disciples,
    when about to go
    to the slaughter for our sake.

  110. The righteous Abraham
    left the servants
    lest there might be from them
    some slave-like action
    against the sacrifice.

  111. And taking Isaac,
    alone he led him up alone,
    while they carried together
    fire, sword and wood.

  112. But what did Isaac
    with his sweet voice
    call out and say?
    He addressed him, saying,

  113. ‘Tell me, father,’ he says,
    See, here are the fire and the wood;
    Where is the sheep
    for the holocaust?’

  114. Again the boy’s voice
    pierces his father to the heart
    again another dread
    trial held him.

  115. Again another testing
    seized the just man,
    no feebler than the first
    no more compassionate.

  116. How could Abraham
    not be smitten with tears,
    who no longer expected
    to hear the greeting, ‘Father’

  117. No longer to hear
    the voice of his dearest child?
    He says nothing mournful,
    utters nothing sorrowful

  118. But with unruffled soul
    and unflinching thought
    he accepted the sweet
    words of the boy.

  119. And he answered
    and spoke with him,
    God, my child, will provide
    a sheep for the sacrifice.

  120. Abraham said this either
    to encourage the boy,
    or to prophecy
    the future

  121. When he had reached with haste
    the appointed place,
    he builds the altar,
    the place of sacrifice.

  122. He prepares the knife
    and gets ready the fire,
    and the father places
    the wood beside the boy

  123. After this the father
    binds his son,
    and nature does nothing
    to prevent him.

  124. Isaac gave himself
    to his father
    to use him
    in whatever way he wished

  125. At whom should I marvel first,
    at which be amazed?
    What garland of praise
    should I weave first?

  126. That for the one who laid hands
    on his most beloved son,
    through his love
    and goodwill towards God,

  127. Or for the one who obeyed
    his father unto death

    and accepted from him
    a heavenly slaughter?

  128. For the former raised
    himself above nature
    honouring God’s command
    rather than nature’s;

  129. While the latter obeyed
    his father unto death,
    knowing that to grieve his father
    was worse than death

  130. Then Abraham took
    the bound youth;
    his hand did not grow numb,
    he did not change his mind.

  131. Whenever I have seen
    the icons of this youth
    I have never been able
    to pass them by without tears,

  132. The powerful skill
    bringing to my sight

    a clear understanding
    with this story.

  133. Isaac was placed
    near the altar,
    crouched on his knees
    before his father

  134. With his hands tied
    behind him
    to his rear Abraham,
    treading on his bent knee.

  135. Then, with one hand
    bending back towards himself
    the young man’s hair
    he leans towards him

  136. And Isaac’s face
    looks towards him,
    gazing pitifully

    and awaiting the blow.

  137. With his right hand
    armed with the sword,
    he aims for the slaughter,
    touches the body

  138. Already the knife’s point
    was at his throat;
    he pushed the sword
    against his stomach.

  139. And then there came
    a voice from God
    restraining the assault,
    preventing the deed,

  140. ‘Abraham, Abraham’,
    it says, ‘do not lay
    your hand on Isaac,
    nor do any evil to your son.

  141. For now I know truly
    that you fear God,
    and for my sake did not spare
    your beloved son.

  142. See, a ram is bound
    on the Sabek plant.
    Take it and offer it
    instead of Isaac,

  143. That you may be fully assured
    that I have accepted
    your sacrifice,
    your fervent choice.’

  144. Angels marvelled with
    Principalities and Powers,
    Thrones Dominions
    and all the angelic hosts.

  145. The heavens were amazed
    with sun and moon
    and choirs of stars
    at the wonder.

  146. While God was pleased
    by the single choice
    of holy Abraham,
    who had proved most faithful.

  147. And he said to him, Blessing I will bless
    and multiplying I will multiply
    your descendants upon earth
    like the stars of heaven,

  148. Since you have eagerly
    obeyed my voice
    and hastened to fulfil
    my commandment.’

  149. And God gave
    a sheep from the rock
    instead of the child
    to complete the sacrifice.

  150. For God is not pleased
    by a dead sacrifice
    offered to him
    through ash and smoke,

  151. But a living sacrifice,
    holy, well-pleasing,
    the reasonable worship
    he seeks from us,

  152. As the Apostle
    clearly exhorts us all,
    knowing that this
    is well-pleasing to God.

  153. For God did not wish
    to make Abraham
    a child murderer
    when he told him to offer his son,

  154. But so that he might show all
    the inhabitants of the world
    that Abraham loved
    God very greatly,

  155. Because for his sake
    he did not spare Isaac
    although he was
    his only child.

  156. And so too God
    revealed a mystery,
    great and marvellous,
    to his friend Abraham.

  157. For through the sacrifice
    he became a priest;
    while by the type
    he made him a prophet.

  158. And God Most High
    made known to him
    that he too would
    give his only Son

  159. For the world’s sake,
    so that God become man
    might save the human
    race from error.

  160. For this he signified
    in giving in place of Isaac
    a sheep from the Sabek
    to become the sacrifice.

  161. For since disbelieving men
    would not believe
    in the child-bearing
    of the Holy Virgin

  162. – How could she have
    without marriage to a man
    given birth a son;
    something truly impossible –

  163. Therefore he brought
    the ram from a rock
    that by this means
    the marvel might be assured,

  164. Because everything
    that is ordained
    by the will of his divinity
    is instantly realised.

  165. So, as there the word
    brought a sheep into being,
    so in the Virgin
    the Word became flesh.

  166. And as the sheep
    was bound to the plant,
    so the Only-Begotten
    was nailed to a Cross.

  167. Therefore Isaias
    cried out and said,
    ‘He was led like a sheep
    silent to the slaughter.’

  168. While again the Lord
    said to the Jews,
    ‘Abraham desired
    to see my day,

  169. He both saw it and rejoiced,’
    the day that is of the Passion
    typified by Isaac
    on the holy mountain.

  170. Blessed is God
    who foreshadowed for us
    all our salvation
    in the holy scriptures.

  171. And he came and fulfilled
    the words of the Prophets,
    and ascended in glory
    to his Father,

  172. That in every place
    we may worship the Father
    with Son and Spirit
    to the ages. Amen.


All texts and translations on this page are copyright to Archimandrite Ephrem ©

Taken from his website: http://web.ukonline.co.uk
which has subsequently been changed to: http://www.anastasis.org.uk

Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
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