Poor Isaac, Indeed

Posted: April 15, 2014 in A Little Less Profound
Tags: , , , , , ,

By Glen

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as a commentary or criticism of anyone’s religious beliefs; just an honest wrestling with a troubling story, informed by Mikel Jollett’s insightful take on it.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. (Genesis 22:1-19)

The bible has long proven a fertile source of inspiration for poets and artists of all kinds – believers and unbelievers alike. Whatever your religious stripe (or lack thereof), there’s no denying that sacred narratives – and the bible in particular – are at the root of countless examples of the world’s best-known and most-cherished works of art.

Rock ‘n’ roll, though viewed by some as the devil’s music, is hardly immune. From Bono to Bruce to Bob (Dylan), many of our most acclaimed songwriters have woven biblical themes and imagery throughout their work. Sometimes they embrace it; other times they twist it, question it or outright oppose it – but they rarely ignore it.

So it’s noteworthy that Mikel Jollett, who frequently references literature (both popular and obscure) in his songwriting, does not often draw from the biblical well. Whether it’s due to a lack of personal familiarity with the material, a distaste for religion or just that he finds his inspiration elsewhere, you simply won’t find many allusions to scripture in the songs of The Airborne Toxic Event.

Hidden deep within the band’s catalog, however, and known only to those most dedicated fans who are given to scouring Youtube for TATE rarities, is one notable exception.

“Poor Isaac” is not, strictly speaking, an Airborne song, but rather an unreleased solo piece by Mikel that retells the biblical story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. In doing so, he takes an approach we would not expect (which, come to think of it, is exactly what we would expect of Mikel). But before we get to that, some personal and broader context is in order.

The Airborne Toxic Event’s appeal crosses every religious line. I personally know TATE fans who call themselves evangelical, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, pagan and atheist – and the actual list is no doubt much longer.

Me, I’m more or less agnostic these days, more certain about what I don’t believe than what I do (I’m working on it). But that hasn’t always been the case; not by a long shot. I’ve spent no small amount of time in various churches of various denominations, and even in seminary.

I’ve heard the story of Abraham and Isaac dozens of times, and expounded upon in many diverse ways. I’ve been taught that it’s a shining example of faith, an illustration of God’s provision for those who are faithful to him, an exhortation to love The Lord above all earthly commitments, a call to obey God even when it appears to make no earthly sense, and a foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of his own son.

And maybe some or all of those things are true; I don’t know. Often, though, the real, unspoken message behind the message has been: this story is not really as awful as it seems at first blush.

Because, let’s face it: the image of a father strapping down his terrified son over a pile of carefully prepared firewood, hovering over him with a knife, poised to slay and cook him, is unspeakably horrifying – whatever the father’s motivation or the moral of the story. But in all the sermons I’ve heard, I’ve never heard that acknowledged; at least not without some attempt to minimize it, justify it or otherwise explain it away.

Another writer recounts similar experiences with this story: “I can recall being troubled by this narrative as a youth. As an adolescent, I remember donning the mind of Isaac and feeling some sense of his likely terror at a similar age. I considered what it would be if my own father acted as Abraham. But time and conditioning and familiarity eventually led to an anesthetized acceptance – and a precipitated moral sense that was calibrated to match.”

Trust Mikel to give voice to the embittered victim, with no apologies or excuses tacked on. Just as he has opened my eyes to new perspectives in so many other areas of life, so too has he helped me see this story through new eyes – Isaac’s eyes – much as Bono did by narrating the Judas story through the perspective of the betrayer in U2’s “Until the End of the World.”

The biblical writer doesn’t tell us what Isaac was thinking as this episode was unfolding, but Mikel does. And though it’s just his best guess, I’m inclined to think he nails it, in all its terror and betrayal.

My God, he said, What did I do
To make you wanna watch me bleed?

And I feel sick tonight, I feel just like
The dancing flame in a funeral light
And I’m not sure if I want you to save me

And I’d be less uptight if I knew the sight
Of blood is just a weakness, right?
And not the whole reason you made me

Sometimes I think it is…

Oh and God just go and leave me all alone
I’m not your son, I’m not your son
Everybody dies alone

In your world, was it not quite hard enough for you
I guess like anyone, you’ve got
Your own scores to settle too

And I’m so pissed tonight, I feel just like
The last remaining Canaanite
And I’m not sure if I want you to save me

And I’d be less uptight if I knew the sight
Of blood is just a weakness, right?
And not the reason that you made me

How does it feel?

How does it feel? Whatever your religious persuasion, whether you believe this story to be history or myth, whether you find it redemptive or brutal, that is a question well worth asking.

Set aside preconceptions, and just sit with this story for a moment. Turn it up loud, close your eyes and imagine yourself as Poor Isaac. See how it feels to be him. Feel the fear… the desperation… the godforsakenness. Let it tear at your soul, and see if it doesn’t help you see this episode in a new light. I bet it will.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic Event Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.

  1. Wow. Ive never heard this track. I am a Holy Spirit filled Born-Again Believer in Jesus Christ the Savior, as well as a music lover. Discovered TATE several years ago and immediately fell in love with the magic and chemistry that weld them together. Mikel is one of the most brilliant lyricists of our time, and I think that he gives a very interesting perspective that IS undeniably overlooked. It makes my heart hurt for Isaac. It doesn’t personally diminish how I feel about My Father’s love for each and every one of our souls, but Isaac’s voice in this piece really draws out an empathy for his hurt and anger, that I truly hope is something that he indeed never actually experienced. I believe, personally, that contrast has to be present in order for things to seem significant. We all remember and are impacted by the worlds heroes, lovers, and villains, and the more we remember or think about it. In this story, besides the obvious horror, I think I have always felt that the example had the be the most horrendously awful scenerio that could be asked of Abraham, and as with all of his other perfection to detail, God certainly mastered that here. I think it is worth mentioning that this story is told during a time that the Bible is trying to illustrate not only God’s character, but also the faith of those who were hearing his word and acting in obediance. Its awful and beautiful at the same time.

    Thank you for sharing this. What a great 6am thought provoking journey to start the day! 🙂 God Bless & Rock On, my friend.


  2. racoolknight says:

    The New Testament gives some light on this, Hebrews 11.17-19, Abraham be leaved God would raise Isaac from the dead. Isaac was a willing sacrifice, be leaving God too! Thus a foreshadow of Jesus and Easter Sunday!


  3. racoolknight says:

    Can’t wait for Firefly, we’ll be in the front singin’ every song!


  4. racoolknight says:

    It’s ‘believed’ this auto corrector gets me every time. The key to understanding this is Abraham’s instruction to his servant “WE will go and worship and WE will come back.”
    There are a bunch of other cool things about this passage: “God will provide himself a sacrifice.” That is, God will provide the sacrifice and God Himself IS the sacrifice! The Bible stresses Abraham believed God!


  5. Nick says:

    Sorry to shake up an old tree, but does anyone know how this song got posted onto YouTube? Are there other pieces of Mikel’s/TATE’s floating around the world needs to scour the Internet for? Anyway, I nailed the chords to this song (for the most part) and hope to film a cover of it soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] finally, while this may not be for the religiously sensitive, pairing “Poor Isaac” with the Brick Testament was a stroke of […]


  7. […] Poor Isaac: When I heard this old Jollett demo soundchecked in Vancouver last month, my jaw dropped. What seemed like an out of left field choice for tuning up an acoustic guitar makes a lot more sense now. “Poor Isaac” rocks as hard as a (mostly) acoustic track can, Jollett’s voice seething with a rage befitting the character he’s voicing. […]


  8. Listening to SOGOW nonstop in preparation for the Orange County show on Sunday, it struck me that in addition to “Poor Isaac,” whose shared theme with “Highway 61” leaps to any Dylan fan’s mind right away, “April is the Cruelest Month” also evokes for me one of Dylan’s most amazing songs, “Chimes of Freedom.” It seems strange to have two such songs on the same album when I haven’t noticed anything similar before, although given the title of this album and Dylan’s lifelong preocccupation with Biblical imagery, I guess it would make more sense for them to be on this one than on another. I know that TATE recorded a song for the Dylan tribute/charity album, but I haven’t seen anything in particular discussing links between the Dylan and Jollet “oeuvres.” I’m not positing any direct connections between the two songs, mind you; it’s more like a conversational echo. If you look at the lyrics of “Chimes of Freedom” (http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/chimes-freedom if you don’t know them), there’s some shared vocabulary and obviously a common nod to poetry/ poetic imagery.

    As a fan who mostly listens to music rather than hunting down interviews etc., I thought I’d ask those more dedicated to knowing all there is to know about TATE if there has been any discussion of Dylan as an influence on Mikel. Growing up with hippie California parents would certainly make constant Dylan on the soundtrack of one’s childhood plausible… Any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, there seems to be lots of common ground between Mikel and Dylan. Surprisingly though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Mikel name him as an influence. He talks a lot about Bowie, Springsteen, the Smiths, the Cure and others, but not Dylan. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s something there though. Enjoy the show tonight – it’s gonna be a blast!


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