A MEDITATION ON A MIDRASH: “ABRAHAM’S DAUGHTER” BY ARCADE FIRE by Sara Frykenberg


The wages of the sin of sacrificing our children is their death, whether the sacrifice is to some supposed higher order, to absolute obedience or to appear to be the “good Christians” we are “supposed to be”…

Maybe its because I enjoyed the books more, or because of my sister’s all too expectation-garnering reviews or even, because I’d seen this theme before, in an amazing yet gruesome Japanese movie, Battle Royal, I left the theater unsatisfied after watching The Hunger Games. I did however, LOVE the song that played at the end of the movie, which I downloaded before we left the theater.  I listened to it in the car on the way home.  I listened to it the next day, the day after that and for days after that… I listened and listened, and I found surprise, power, anger, sorrow and a channel for grieving that I had needed in the Midrash “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire. 

Abraham took Isaac’s hand and led him to the lonesome hill

While his daughter hid and watched, she dare not breathe

She was so still.

I discovered the practice and potential power of Midrash from my teachers in graduate school.  The idea of an “extra-biblical” story that might help to expound upon Biblical passages that are all too often unexplained or unsatisfactory to (my) feminist consciousness was very appealing to me—and it is still appealing to me.  But I have to admit that the feminist Midrash I read in my classes seemed too positive and did not resonate with me.  The pieces were too much like a tender hug or a mother hen covering my wounds with her wings.  I wanted to hear a story of Bible that could help me make sense of the violence I’d discovered in my childhood religion.  I needed a story of Bible that honored my violent struggle to counter the abuse within it and within me.

Like Isaac, I was too intimate with my abuser: unable to avoid walking hand and hand with him when pushed to do so.  Asked to create a prayer or Midrash for a class once, I wrote about the way I would turn the radio in my car up when I started to hear ‘God’ speak to me.  I didn’t know how to listen and tune out the abusive maxims that played over and over again in my head (maxims that surfaced every time I even thought about the divine).  My story didn’t celebrate the divine or reclaim God/dess, but it did reflect my reality at the time.  Listening wasn’t safe—at least not the kind of listening I knew.  I didn’t want God’s embrace.  I wanted the distance to learn how to embrace again, because I had also been like Abraham’s daughter; hiding while I waited to see if abuse was going to happen, silent to survive, but present, unable to breathe and usually praying that God would stop what was going on.

Just as an angel cried for the slaughter, Abraham’s daughter raised her voice.

Abraham’s daughter raised her voice: she wasn’t silent anymore.  The wages of the sin of sacrificing our children is their death, whether the sacrifice is to some supposed higher order, to absolute obedience or to appear to be the “good Christians” we are “supposed to be.”  At some point, this daughter got tired of “dying to herself” to be closer to God.  Her protest reminds me of how I have raised my own voice in song to heal myself, to express anger, to create power through mantra and just to go about my daily life.

A roommate asked me once if I knew that I was always singing little songs.  Well, no, I hadn’t realized; but I am a lot more conscious of it now.  I often sing along to music; but I also make up songs, particularly when cooking dinner—not particularly deep or artful songs, though joyful all the same.  I usually sing about the food I’m making or even to the food I am making.  I sing messages to my sister’s voicemail.  I sing to my husband, who sings to me.

Katniss Everdeen raises her voice too, singing to mourn for her friend Rue and her loss. Singing “Abraham’s Daughter” for days, I realized that I was also mourning.  I was mourning a loss of connectedness and a paradigm of violence.  Specifically, I was mourning the fact that to mutually connect is sometimes excruciating for me.  It hurts to connect: it’s raw and vulnerable, like new skin too easily torn.  But singing and recognizing this mourning, I heard my own voice.  Singing, we can prevent the advent of lifelessness that so often follows abusive violence.

Then the angel asked her what her name was, she said, “I have none.”

Then he asked, “How can this be?”

“My father never gave me one.”

Feminist scholars point to the way women’s voices, experiences and names are missing in the Biblical texts; and they also re-member what they can of these names and histories.  Listening to this song, however, was the first time I ever heard this understanding voiced in popular culture.  It thrilled me to hear it expressed; but I also wondered how many of the people who purchased this album would understand the artist’s allusions?  How many would be angry that the daughter was nameless, regardless of the allusions?  How many would indict the Father?

I wonder too, how “namelessness” might also be a kind of power from which to create one’s own name.  Namelessness hurts, it makes me angry and it can be used to silence.  But as many feminists have seen, there is also creative potential in the supposedly “nameless.”  There is a different kind of power to be found in naming or finding the names of the unnamed.

Barbara Ardinger spoke beautifully about the power of new and magical names in her Sunday post.  I too have felt the power of a new name when given my yogic name, Sat Amrit Kaur.  Sat Amrit means the nectar of truth—the sweetness of authenticity. And Kaur traditionally means “princess” or “lioness.”  I choose lioness.  I choose to be more of myself by understanding the complexity of my connections.  I choose to continue to make peace with my given name, Sara, and to love her by name.

And when he saw her, raised for the slaughter, Abraham’s daughter raised her bow.

“How darest you child defy your father?”

“You better let young Isaac go.”

I dare.

I remember the first time I actually acted to prevent abuse without negotiating, dissembling or conforming in order to avoid punishment.  It was not nice.  It was not non-violent.  I physically struggled with a man to prevent him from throwing a woman down a flight of stairs; and it took the two of us to free her from his grasp.  But the woman stayed alive.

Abraham’s Daughter is not a gentle Midrash, nor is it an “ideal” expression of the way in which we can reclaim and re-imagine the divine.  It does, however, speak to many of our experiences and to our culture’s “closeness” to abusive power.  And I believe, like this daughter, we can use our closeness to powerfully counter and hopefully, creatively transform the kind of power that maintains abuse in our lives.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

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Categories: Christianity, Ethics, Family, Feminist Awakenings, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, Herstory, Identity Construction, Loss, Naming, Scripture, Violence Against Women, Women's Suffering

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11 replies

  1. Thanks for that Sarah. Your words take me back 40 years to a time when I had a recurrent dream of being chased and strangled by a male figure. Working through it in therapy, I was unable to say: Noooo even when my woman therapist put her hands on my throat and squeezed. How beautiful that NOOOO was when I was finally able to speak it. In this case, I think my dream was about being silenced, not about physical or sexual abuse, but it was abuse nonetheless!!! Thanks again for your voice!

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    • Thank you Carol!
      I agree– ‘Nooooo’ is such a powerful word to find!
      I can’t tell you how many times I have had men literally put their hands on me, or sit near me in uncomfortable ways or even ‘allowed’ sexually more than I wanted, just because I couldn’t access the word “no,” or in some cases, couldn’t find the power to keep saying no. Sometimes the word would literally be screaming in my head and I still couldn’t vocalize it. Hence, I really honor it when the word does come out— like in the story I told above. I honor that ‘no,’ though it was violent. I am working to release this ‘no’ in safer spaces too– which is a work in progress, but does feel a lot better than having the ‘no’ violently push itself out of me!

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  2. OH MY! I just realized why I have felt so uncomfortable with the latest “in” term referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, “the Abrahamic Traditions.” I was wondering why a term like Biblical religions doesn’t raise my hackles, but that does–and no it is not the inclusion of Islam that offends me. Now I see it–it is identifying all 3 traditions with one of the worst stories in the Bible that offends me! Abraham is not the model of “faith” or if he is, then the story should be read as showing why it is wrong to have absolute or blind faith in any authority, even if you think that authority is God! Sorry Kierkegaard.

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    • I think about this story a lot actually (and a lot lately as I’ve been thinking through this Midrash for some time). I also think a lot about Sara and Hagar’s story… which is another reason why I’m still making peace with my name. Intimacy with abuse just oozes out of these stories for me– which I think is why I loved the song so much: it makes the abuse so clear.
      I agree with you, this idea of identifying with “Father Abraham,” is very difficult and uncomfortable to me… I do not understand how he could sacrifice Isaac; and I don’t think I ever did, despite the many many many reasons I was given as a child.

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  3. This has me thinking about several aspects of my own name. First of all, my mother named me by taking the first letter in the names of each of her four foster brothers and adding a hyphenated Ann which is the middle name of her only foster sister. This family was very important to her. I also named my own son after her foster-father. We are people not connected by blood but through love. It’s hard to believe when I write this out, that in time, as the violence against me became unbearable, I learned to loath my own name. I sometimes don’t recognize it when another says it. “Who’s that?” I think, then I remember it refers to the person in this body. My own name became alien to me. It’s something I have pondered for years.
    I married for the first time as a teenager. One of the bravest things I ever did was leave that marriage behind but that’s a long story for another place and time. After that marriage I reverted back to my maiden name. But when I remarried and it came time to sign the legal papers, I had to cross out my own name, initial the error with my ex-initials, and re-write my name replacing my own last name with my ex-husband’s last name. It made me a little sick. It tarnished my wedding day. My own name was literally lost in the transfer. I lost the legal claim to my own name. I felt like chattel transferring owners. I felt invisible at my own wedding. (didn’t help that we eloped and didn’t know anyone else in the room, so there was absolutely no point of reference to find myself in that room)
    Definitely both these experiences were as you say due to our culture’s closeness to abusive power. It was a systematic stripping down, and tearing off of my personhood, and in a holy place. I feel a blog post coming out of this, thanks.

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    • Thank you for this reply and for sharing your story.
      I definitely understand the way a name can become estranged, or something you hate. I hated the name Sara for a long time, preferring my family nickname, Sassy (think sas-a-fras, not ‘sassing back’), to my given name. I found later, its because I was still hating the little girl who had loved the femininity and the ‘princess proper-ness’ she attached to the name Sara. I was blaming her, not the abuse around her, for what I was struggling with as an adult– so, I work to actively love this little girl, who was so prissy and who is a part of me.

      The way you talk about the “systematic stripping down, and tearing off of my personhood, and in a holy place,” really resonates with me– this is definitely how I have experienced intimacy to our culture’s (and religions’) intimacy with abuse. … the literal stripping away of personhood that makes us smaller and smaller….

      Thank you again,
      Sat Nam,
      Sara

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  4. Sara, this is a lovely essay……….and you speak truth, too. I can’t help but think of poor Tamar. And Isaac’s poor unnamed daughters (Genesis 19:4-8, ff) who got thrown out the door to the Sodomites while the also unnamed angels were visiting. Angels–hah! There are a lot of sad stories in that holy book.

    And thanks for mentioning me. I like your name.

    Carol, I’ve been calling the Abrahamic religions the standard-brand religions for years and years. I think standard-brand is the best descriptor. This is my Official Permission for anyone else who likes the phrase to use it. Blessings!

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  5. Such a poignant, evocative, and moving post, Dr. Frykenberg. I am a long-time–and very much obsessive–Arcade Fire fan and their music has spoken to my soul, uplifted my spirits, and, to be quite frank, simply saved me, time and time again. (The band’s second album, Neon Bible, is particularly relevant to this blog post, and I would love to hear your thoughts on that! :) Interestingly enough, Arcade Fire’s co-founder/frontman Win Butler also has a degree in Religious Studies, which explains why I have always associated his music with the spiritual, the ethereal, and the transformative.) I really admire, appreciate, and empathize with how you frame our encounters with the myriad abuses of power; they are terrifying, they are life-altering, and they are what drive so many of us mad. Yet I think that, as feminists, we are in a particularly unique position to *pursue* violent social institutions and “follow the terror,” as it were, thus enabling ourselves to confront the powers that be and, as we have so extensively discussed and deconstructed in class, slowly but surely re-vision authority (i.e., finding the mutual “power-to” in the face of the very much tyrannical “power-over”).

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    • Thanks so much Farah,
      I also am a big Arcade Fire fan and love engaging the religious themes in their music. I particularly like, “The Well and the Lighthouse,” and its allusions to the end times where the lion and the lamb will lay down together… but aren’t yet ;)
      I like the way you bring up “power-to,” which is such a great way of explaining how power that resists abuse can often incorporate aspects of violence as it also tries to part with particular kinds of oppressive violences. … Where does “follow the terror,” come from? I find that an interesting idea as well (and perhaps, a useful one); though I have to admit that my initial thought was “no, the daughter hear is leaving terror,” howbeit, in a violent way.
      Thank you for your comment and your thoughts!
      -Sara

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Trackbacks

  1. AN ALTAR WITHOUT GOD? A “PLACE” FOR THE SACRED by Sara Frykenberg « Feminism and Religion
  2. Grading in Purgatory? How about a Change of Scenery? (A Little Levity and Thought for the End of the School Year) by Sara Frykenberg «

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