Story of Isaac: From Genesis to Vietnam by Gal Nachimzon - Ourboox.com
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Story of Isaac: From Genesis to Vietnam

  • Joined May 2021
  • Published Books 1

Before we take a dive into the genius of Leonard Cohen, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the song:

 

 

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Now we can take a deeper look at each verse in the song.

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First Verse:

The door it opened slowly
My father he came in, I was nine years old
And he stood so tall above me
Blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold
Said, “I’ve had a vision
And you know I’m strong and holy
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain
I was running, he was walking
And his ax was made of gold

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In the first lines, we have exposure to the environment of the song. The first three lines are most likely a personal touch from Cohen:

 

“The door it opened slowly
My father he came in, I was nine years old
And he stood so tall above me”

 

Where he remembers his father at nine years old, standing tall above him. His father, Nathan Cohen, died when Leonard was just nine.

 

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The “Blue eyes” metaphor is used to show that this song is much deeper than just a song about a bible verse. Typically, people with origin from the middle east have darker eyes whereas people of European descent have brighter eyes, sometimes blue. As we will find out later, this song compares Abraham to the typical American father, so Cohen hints at that by pointing out the father’s eye color. At this point, the lyrics show the perspective of Isaac, and in this verse, Abraham explains to him that God has ordered him to sacrifice him, what we know as “The Binding of Isaac”.

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Cohen also mentions his voice is cold since as you can imagine he is not thrilled about having to sacrifice his son.

 

In the next lines, Abraham explains that he received an order from God, and although he is “Strong and Holy”, he must do as he is told by God. In the last three lines, we see that they have started their ascent up to the altar where Abraham expects to sacrifice his son. The last line mentions a gold ax, which can symbolize the purity of Isaac, and in turn, the young men being sent out to fight wars.

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Second Verse:
Well, the trees they got much smaller
The lake a lady’s mirror
We stopped to drink some wine
Then he threw the bottle over
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture
I never could decide
Then my father built an altar
He looked once behind his shoulder
He knew I would not hide

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The first two lines go:

 

“Well, the trees they got much smaller

The lake a lady’s mirror”

 

This indicates they have accented to a high location, due to the trees getting smaller (since the higher up you go, the less oxygen there is). The next line is possibly a reference to one of Cohen’s most famous songs, Suzanne, where it is said that Suzanne holds a mirror up to the speaker’s face to show him his “real face”. This might symbolize the unmasking of the politicians and generals who give the orders to send kids to war. As we will see later on, these higher-ups claim to be “men of peace”, but in reality, they are “men of war”.

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In the next lines Cohen sings:

 

“We stopped to drink some wine
Then he threw the bottle over
Broke a minute later”

 

This line once again shows us that they are at a very high altitude – if you throw a bottle over and it takes a minute to break (hit the ground), then you are at a point well above the ground.

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The lines:

 

“Thought I saw an eagle

But it might have been a vulture

I never could decide”

 

Are to show that Isaac (who is a metaphor for the young soldiers being sent out to war), sees what is happening, but can’t decide if it is good (the Eagle symbolizes braveness), or bad (The vulture symbolizes cruelty).

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Now Abraham is ready to sacrifice, so he builds the altar. He looks behind his shoulder to see maybe someone is there to stop him, in the biblical sense an angel and in a metaphorical way a general telling him the war is over.

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Overall, the journey Abraham made with Isaac up to the point of sacrifice can symbolize how fathers nurture and grow their boys for 18 years, and then send them off to die in a foreign country far away (sacrifice them because of a “divine” order they received).

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Third Verse

You who build the altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god
You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word

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This verse is God telling Abraham that this was all a test, but here instead of addressing only Abraham, Cohen writes:

 

“You who build the altars now

To sacrifice these children”

 

Which is plural, meaning he is addressing all of the fathers who were ready to sacrifice their children to war as if it was a test, which once again shows this song only uses the biblical story as metaphor.

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The next line goes:

 

“You who stand above them now

Your hatchets blunt and bloody”

 

This is a reference to the last line of the first verse, where the ax was made of gold. The ax symbolizes the purity of the soldiers who have been sent to war, where after the sacrifice is done (in the biblical sense that their fathers kill them with the ax), the ax is bloody and blunt, just like they are after they return from the war, if at all.

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The last line of the verse is:

 

“And my father’s hand was trembling, With the beauty of the word”

 

Refers to the end of the “Binding of Isaac”, where Abraham circumcises Isaac, which in Hebrew is called Milah, meaning word, which has a double meaning in the song. On one hand, the Binding (the Milah) is beautiful, as described in the bible, and on the other hand, the word is bad. The word refers to the orders from politicians generals to send kids off to war, which is ironic in comparison with the Milah (word) from God.

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Fourth Verse

And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
‘Just according to whose plan?’
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war
The peacock spreads his fan

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The line:

 

“And if you call me brother now

Forgive me if I inquire

‘Just according to whose plan?'”

 

Is in my opinion the most powerful line in the whole song. This line is aimed directly at politicians and generals, who give the orders to send kids to war (almost like playing God). Cohen here criticizes these higher-ups directly, by saying they justify their orders by making it look as if we are all brethren acting out a divine plan, wherein, in turn, Cohen asks “Just according to whose plan?”.

 

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The next lines go return back to the comparison that prevails in this song; the good and the bad (like the vulture and the eagle). As I stated about the opening of this verse, the generals and politicians make it seem like they are “men of peace”, fighting a war to stop wars (similar to how Buffy Saint-Marie wrote in “Universal Soldier”: “And he thinks we put an end to war this way”), but in reality, they are all “men of war”. This comparison is quite obvious here saying a man of peace looks to help, kills only if he must, and a man of war the other way around.

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In the live performance I included, Cohen sings the last three lines:

 

“Shame upon this uniform

 

And in the recorded version, Cohen sings the first line:

 

“Mercy on our uniform”

 

The “Mercy on our uniform”, is the image the higher-ups send, attempting to show a merciful army trying to restore peace in a troubled region, but in reality, the uniform wears the shame of the horrors its patron commits in the act of war.

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In the last two lines Cohen sings:

 

“The man of peace the man of war

The peacock spreads his deadly fan”

 

This may indicate that regardless of whether the soldiers themselves are “men of peace” or “men of war”, the peacock still spreads his fan, which symbolizes the destruction and death that comes from war, regardless of the intentions of privates. Most of the song criticizes politicians and generals for trying to build an image of “men of peace”, but they in fact are “men of war”. In comparison, here Leonard Cohen says that even if they are the mythological “men of peace”, the peacock still spreads his fan.

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Although this song was written during the peak of the Vietnam war, and in turn at the peak of the anti-war movement, this song doesn’t specifically talk about this war. Overall, even if this song wasn’t the biggest commercial success, it’s undoubtedly a masterpiece.

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Story of Isaac: From Genesis to Vietnam by Gal Nachimzon - Ourboox.com

By Gal Nachimzon, 2021, for Prof. Mel Rosenberg’s 60’s Music course at Tel Aviv University.

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