The poem "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young", usually attributed to Wilfred Owen although much of it was written by Siegfried Sassoon, is a slight retelling of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22) in such a way as to turn it into an allegory of the First World War.

Not counting the chilling last two lines, how much does this poem differ from the Bible story? I've looked at this version of Genesis 22, but of course there are many versions and translations of the Bible which must have various slight differences between them. I'm interested in how much of the wording of the poem was designed to be WWI-specific. For example:

  • clearly "took the fire with him, and a knife" is not specifically part of the war allegory, as almost exactly the same words appear in the Genesis link above;
  • I suspect that "parapets and trenches" is a war reference, and that all Abraham builds in any version of the Bible story is an altar;
  • what about, for instance, "belts and straps"? Do they appear in some version of the Bible story, or are they meant to represent the uniforms worn by young conscripted soldiers?

Most of all, I'm interested in "the Ram of Pride". In the Bible story, Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son. But does the symbolic identification of this ram with Pride have any Biblical background, or is it an invention of the WWI poets?


1 Answer 1


How much does this poem differ from the Bible story?

The poem appears to be mostly consistent with the original Biblical story (starting with Gen. 22:3, through part of Gen. 22:13). As to your three bulleted points:

  • "took the fire with him, and a knife" is, indeed, part of the story (Gen. 22:6).
  • The only thing Abraham built was an altar (Gen. 22:9).
  • "Belts and straps" do have some relevance to the story in the Bible, as Abraham "bound his son Isaac (Gen. 22:9). (Radak explains in his commentary to that verse that the binding was Isaac's initiative, to ensure that any last minute struggle would not invalidate the sacrifice.) I was not able to find any commentaries who describe what Abraham bound his son with; I assume that belts and straps are only meant to represent uniforms of soldiers.

One small difference that I noticed between the poem and the Bible is that Isaac does not say "Behold the preparations, fire and iron," as he does in Owen's poem, but rather "Behold the fire and the wood." The absence of the knife from Isaac's question has been discussed on our sister site, Mi Yodeya.

Another difference I noted was Owen's use of the name "Abram;" while it is true that Abraham was originally called "Abram," his name was changed to "Abraham" earlier on (Gen. 17:5), and so it appears in this passage. It's possible that the name "Abram" was used in the poem for the purpose of meter.

One more small difference: the poem implies that the angel said "Behold, / A ram," and suggested that Abraham offer the ram instead of his son. However, in the Biblical narrative, the angel stops speaking in verse 12, and the "Behold, a ram" and decision to use that ram as a replacement sacrifice are ascribed to Abraham (in verse 13).

The "Ram of Pride"

I looked around a little bit, but I couldn't find any Jewish commentary that links the ram with pride. There are a few questions about the ram on Mi Yodeya (1, 2, 3) along with some other questions about the Binding of Isaac that might help you understand the poem better (this one in particular, the tag more generally).

The only possible link that I could think of is the use of the word "קרן" in verse 13; the word literally means "horn," but can also mean "strength" or "pride" (as in Ezekiel 29:21 or Psalms 132:17). However, I don't think that this is the intended meaning, here -- none of the sources I skimmed mentioned this interpretation, and Even-Shoshan's קונקורדנציה החדשה does not list Gen. 22:13 as one of the verses where קרן carries this meaning.

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    The trouble (for me) with reading almost any question on Mi Yodeya is that they use so much jargon. Take that one you linked as being particularly helpful: "Torah", "Akeidah", "meforshim", "Rashbam", "lehavdil", "Kierkegaard", "teleological" - I don't know what any of those words mean, and that's just the question, let alone the answers!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 7, 2017 at 20:10
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    Yeah, we're working on jargon. If there's something you need translated, you can leave a comment or mention something in the main MY chat. I'll try to put a little work into those posts, but I don't have the time right now. (And Kierkegaard, teleological are not Jewish terms, btw)
    – Shokhet
    Apr 7, 2017 at 20:14
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    @Randal'Thor - just for right now: Torah = Bible. Akeidah = the Binding. Mefarshim = commentators. Rashbam = a Rabbi. Lehavdil = to separate. (I have no idea what the other words mean o_o)
    – Mithical
    Apr 8, 2017 at 20:40

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