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The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest

Author: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman

The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest     The earliest significant Jewish art     Two opposing views     
Donatello and Chartres – suffering vs. piety     The view from Mecca     An outcry     
3 Rembrandts     Jews and the Akedah on the Threshold of Modern Times     More on Sarah — Sarah out of the closet     
Protest and Politics     

The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest
Some time ago at the beginning of Jewish history an inscrutable God, without explanation, orders his favorite founder, Abraham, to sacrifice his beloved son. Without questioning, the old man hastens to the task. Aware or unaware, the son participates in the preparations. In the end God changes his mind, but the father and son do not return home together.
You can`t be neutral. Either you marvel at the man`s faith and courage or you revile his madness. In fact, many critical issues in Judaism inform this foundation tale, even prefiguring the character of its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam:
·        The bewilderment/awe at being challenged by God: Is it God? Why me? How do I respond?
·        Sacred geography: the internal/spiritual and external/physical journey
·        Is human aggression hard-wired?
·        Love and tension in the family
·        The silencing of the woman
·        Is there a conflict between faith and morality?
Both piety and protest emerge from these issues: the acceptance of the biblical account as normative and right, and the critique of foundational sancta.
The biblical account already contains the seeds of its own deconstruction. Isaac`s question "where is the lamb?" expresses either total naivete or covert suspicion. Already in the earliest Midrashim, Isaac cries out, torn between faith and fear, imploring Abraham to bind him well lest his instinctive resistance blemish the sacrifice. As we shall see, by the Renaissance these reservations grow to outright confrontation and in modern times to rejection. We will hear both voices, read both texts, scrutinize the conflicting images, and then…

The earliest significant Jewish art
Prior to the 1930`s, most scholars were convinced that ancient Jewry produced no art. As a result, the discovery in 1932 of the biblical wall-paintings decorating the third century synagogue of Dura Europos, Syria stunned the academic world.
In these earliest extant examples of Jewish art (antedating comparable Christian art by two centuries) the community expresses its acceptance of pious rabbinic midrashim.
Center stage above the Torah ark, a naively drawn Abraham stands firm before the altar, knife raised, his back to the viewer.

Dura Europos Synagogue,
Akedah (detail)
The saving ram is tethered behind Abraham awaiting its theological moment. Tiny Isaac is impaled upon a monumental altar (see the Midrash in Targum Yonatan, below). He too looks away from us, as does Sarah (rarely represented in akedah scenes) in the doorway of her tent, the highest and most distant point of the scene. They are all focused on the hand of God, "the Place from afar" at Moriah (v.3), identified in late biblical times as the site of the once and forever restored Temple of Jerusalem170 years after its destruction, the Temple and its implements are visually restored at the center and left of this scene, together with the akedah, the symbols of diaspora hope for national and religious restoration. 

Dura Europos Synagogue, Akedah, 244
Just three years prior to the discovery of Dura, a stunning mosaic floor of a 6th century synagogue had been uncovered at Kibbutz Bet Alpha., the earliest akedah to be found in Israel. The naive style of the mosaic displays Jewish, pagan and possibly Christian elements. 

Bet Alpha Synagogue, Entire Floor                       Bet Alpha Synagogue, Akedah, 6th century
 On entering the synagogue, the worshiper first encountered the akedah, a focal narrative of Jewish tradition.  The worshiper next saw a zodiac, centered on the sun god Helios and his chariot. Is this a synagogue? It is likely that these pagan symbols were interpreted as representing the ritual calendar of the congregation - but, it is also evidence of a Judaism culturally alive to the imagery of the Greco-Roman Byzantine heritage. Finally, in the third section, closest to the holy ark, the worshiper saw (as in Dura) the doors, menorah and ritual tools of the restored Temple.
The playful color patterns and paper-doll character of the figures belie the theological intensity of the akedah scene.
The two servants stand at the left, together with the ass (v. 5).  At the center point, the ram hangs from a bush, rather than being caught in the thicket, as recounted in the Bible (v. 13). Above, a haloed hand of the angel "calls out": Do not raise [your hand] (v. 11 – 12). On the right, the child Isaac is held aloft between Abraham and the burning altar (v. 10). The artists altered the sequence of the story by placing the ram at center stage. Thus the mosaic seems to focus on God`s compassionate substitution of Isaac by the ram, rather than on Abraham`s extraordinary act of faith. It has been suggested that the hanging ram is based on Christian iconography, connecting Isaac, the ram and Jesus as parallel sacrifices. But just as in the use of the pagan zodiac, the borrowing of this model does not imply a heterodox interpretation, but rather cultural contact.   
Contemporaneous with the Bet Alpha mosaic, the rabbinic community in Palestine produced an Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah called Targum Yonatan (Pseudo Jonathan). The writing of this document began in pre-Christian times and was completed shortly after Islam came on the scene. I wish I could have known that guy. Over 600 years of imaginative rewriting of the bible. The text looks like a fabric into which daring colors have been interwoven. The daring color is the paraphrase, the words of the Targum stuck in between the words of the Bible to expand and explain. These insertions are not questions; they are the answers. We have to ask the questions that provoked those answers. Those answers constitute the rabbinic theology in the early Christian centuries. They reveal how Jews of those early centuries dealt with the harrowing tale of the akedah. They were not subversives. They were its greatest supporters. They even got God off the hook for giving those awful orders.
The following text shows how the colorful weaving was done. Upper case letters are the biblical text. Lower case, the targum insertion.
   1.   AND IT WAS AFTER THESE THINGS when Isaac and Ishmael argued, that Ishmael said, It is right that I should inherit Father since I am his first born. But Isaac said, It is right for me to inherit Father because I am the son of Sarah his wife and you are the son of Hagar my mother`s maid. Ishmael answered saying, I am more worthy than you because I was circumcised at age 13; if it had been my will to hold back I would not have risked my life to be circumcised. But you were circumcised when you were 8 days old; had you known what it was all about you would not have risked your life. Isaac replied, Today I am 37 years old. If the Holy One, blessed be He, were to ask for all my limbs I would not hold back. Immediately these words were heard before the Lord of the universe and immediately the word of THE LORD TESTED ABRAHAM AND SAID TO HIM, ABRAHAM!
This text answers the question "Why did God test Abraham?" and concludes with a tale of sibling rivalry. In other words, it wasn`t God`s idea, it was those quarreling kids that forced the test. Targum Yonatan takes God off the hook.

Two opposing views
We now jump ahead several centuries, to what is loosely called "the Middle Ages" and go from the Jewish context of Bet Alpha and Dura to the Christian sphere.
In this milieu too, the akedah appears frequently in the works of medieval Christian artists, who understood the near sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguring of Jesus` crucifixion and its physical context is the Church and the Church service.

Chartres Cathedral, Sacrifice of Abraham
A parade example of the Christian reading of the akedah can be found in the north transept of the gothic Cathedral of Chartres. Here, Abraham and Isaac stand as one column, their feet on the ram. Their parallel faces look upward serenely, toward the angel hovering over the adjacent figure of Melchizedek. Abraham caresses Isaac`s face. Despite the fact that Abraham`s right hand grips the sacrificial knife, there is an air of calm and faith, in which Abraham and Isaac are completely one. Isaac`s crossed hands and feet identify him as a christophorous (Christ-like) figure.
Fifty years earlier, in the Romanesque church at Souillac, a surprisingly different approach to the akedah is taken. In 1939, world-renowned art historian Meyer Schapiro argued that the sculptures in this 12th century church reveal reservations about church doctrine regarding submission and dominance.   
"It should be observed … that the theme of Abraham and Isaac, which is not only a symbol of salvation and of the Crucifixion but also…of submission to authority… is parodied on the opposite side of the trumeau by images of conflict between a youth and an old man, wrestling pairs who resemble Abraham and Isaac." 

 Souillac Cathedral, Trumeau (left)          Souillac Cathedral, Trumeau (right)
                                    Sacrifice of Abraham                                    Wrestling figures                                           
Thus in Souillac we have an ambivalent presentation of the akedah: on the one hand, Abraham and Isaac submit, with bowed heads, to the will of God; on the other hand, their piety is undermined by the juxtaposition with images of human strife and the questioning of divine authority.

Donatello and Chartres – suffering vs. piety
Donatello, Sacrifice of Abraham                Chartres, Akedah               
                                                                       ca. 1418                      
If we were to write a legend under the Chartres akedah, it might be "And the two of them went together" (vv. 6, 8). Donatello`s portrayal of the akedah from 1418, while preserving the columnar structure of Chartres, might be asking: Did the two really go together? While in Chartres, Abraham and Isaac are harmoniously parallel, Donatello`s figures, distorted in expression and proportion, almost ugly, strain in opposite directions. Note particularly the shoulders of father and son. This akedah connotes suffering rather than piety.
A little known midrash, apparently written in 16th century Italy seems to reflect reservations similar to those of Donatello about the akedah:
At that moment [that Abraham informed him that he was the sacrifice], Isaac acquiesced with his mouth, but in his heart he said, "Who will save me from my father? I have no help other than God, as it is said `My help is from the Lord`".

The view from Mecca
Islam follows in the path of Judaism and Christianity, also cherishing the figure of Abraham, as the friend of God. However, the bound son is not identified in the Koran`s account of the akedah. But by the time the first paintings of the akedah appear in Islamic art in the late Middle Ages, normative Islam had designated Ishmael as the offering. 

Riza-i Abbasi, Abraham’s Sacrifice, Qisas al-Anbiyya, 16th cent.
In this 16th century Persian manuscript of the Tales of the Prophets, an invisible X intersects the landscape. A single figure occupies each quadrant. One diagonal, following the mountain, separates heaven and earth. The other, connects the heavenly pair (angel/ram) to the earthly pair Abraham/Ishmael). Ishmael enraptured crouches unbound and compliant. Abraham presses on the youth, one hand pulling his son`s hair and the other holding the knife to his own breast, as if the patriarch would sooner kill himself.  Abraham is torn between love of his son and the divine command. The lines of the X meet at the juncture of heaven and earth anticipating what must or must not happen. 

An outcry

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02
Our first glance at Caravaggio`s painting focuses on the horror in Isaac`s face; this is no devout illustration of patriarchal piety, but what Phyllis Trible calls a "text of terror". Two parallel diagonals of light lead us from the face of Isaac, to the angel, to Abraham and to the ram. Despite these physical connections, the relationships are disconnected: the angel points approximately but not directly at the ram; Abraham looks approximately but not directly at the angel; Isaac approximately faces the viewer; only the ram looks directly at Abraham and the angel while nuzzling up to Isaac. The avoidance of eye contact is Caravaggio`s way of expressing the surreal madness of the scene. 

3 Rembrandts
Although no contact can be demonstrated between Caravaggio and Rembrandt, they are often linked as the masters of Baroque use of light, shadow and drama. Rembrandt treated many Jewish and biblical themes, including repeatedly the akedah.
Here we will examine three of these treatments, spanning 30 years of the artist`s tumultuous life.

Rembrandt, Abraham`s Sacrifice, 1635
The oil painting above, from 1635, was produced during the period of Rembrandt`s greatest popularity as a portrait artist, a popularity that diminished as the artist became less flattering and more honest in his portrayal of his subjects. The diagonal structure of the picture and the use of light are dramatic techniques that propel the viewer between two focal points: Isaac`s body and Abraham`s face.  Light on the hands of Abraham and the angel emphasizes the agitated moment. Isaac`s exposed chest radiates light and vulnerability. Abraham, in a state of paralyzed shock and sadness,

is so intent on doing God`s command that the angel must call to him twice before he drops the knife (compare Caravaggio`s Abraham).
During the next five years of Rembrandt`s life, Saskia, his wife, gave birth to four children, who died at birth; she herself died when the fifth child, Titus (who survived) was born; Rembrandt`s later akedot took on a different pathos; 

Rembrandt, Abraham and Isaac, 1645

In the 1645 etching, father and son have arrived at Moriah; Isaac sets down the wood and asks his only question "Father, here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?" (Genesis 22:7). Abraham`s right hand holds his heart; the index finger of his left hand lies at the center of the line between his eyes and Isaac`s as he answers ambiguously "God will see to the lamb for the offering, my son" (v. 8). Does Isaac know more? Stunned by this answer, his eyes are dark holes; he stands at the edge of a precipice, dark lines swirling above and behind his head. 

Rembrandt, Abraham`s Sacrifice, 1655
Finally, in the 1655 etching, we return to the altar scene. The angel, Abraham and Isaac form a single figure in embrace; diagonal lines from the right bring divine light to Abraham`s left hand, which holds the knife. Now it is Abraham`s eyes that are black holes. The drama of 1635 has become profound pathos of 1655.  The artist is unwilling to let it happen, so he undermines the scene. On the one hand the diagonal of divine light can only mean blessing; on the other, Abraham becomes left-handed, awkwardly distancing the knife from Isaac. Kierkegaard writes "Abraham knew joy no longer". 

Jews and the Akedah on the Threshold of Modern Times
We now return to the realm of Jewish art, after a long pause. Contemporaneously with the careers of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Italian Jews produced a variety of printed Hebrew books, including the Venice Haggadah of 1609.

Venice Haggadah, Akedah, 1609

This akedah (on the right) contains several elements of Christian iconography, including Isaac`s crossed hands, Abraham`s sword and the corporeal angel. The use of non-Jewish iconography is not at all unusual and may be found in a variety of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, in all parts of Europe, throughout the Middle Ages. In our picture from the Venice Haggadah smoke rising from a fire-pot divides the picture in two. The scene on the left is variously interpreted as: 1) contemporary Jews celebrating Passover or 2) the elderly Isaac with the studious Jacob, Esau the delinquent hunter and the children of Israel in Egypt; thus, it is either an illustration of the magid (narration) or an actualization of the akedah.  Strangely enough, the akedah is never actually mentioned in the text of the haggadah; its placement here, accompanying the retelling of Israel`s history and the blessing of God`s steadfastness, is evidence that the akedah was understood as the quintessential symbol of God`s protection.
The connection of the akedah with Rosh Hashanah derives from the motif of judgment and mercy and is linked to the symbol of the shofar.   The less well-known connection with Passover derives from an association with the paschal sacrifice, which faded after the destruction of the temple.

A century later, God`s antithetical qualities are daringly embroidered on a Torah curtain from southern Germany, as the compassionate angel emerges from a cloud suggestive of the opposite: the face of the angry God.


Torah Covering, Germany, 1747
The saving ram is slipping away, across the well-defined borders of the curtain, leaving the hapless Isaac to the "mercy" of midat hadin (the quality of harsh judgment).
Up to now, we have presented artworks focused in the main on the climactic moment at the altar. In the early 20th century painting below, Moshe Mizrahi fills out the laconic biblical text with four midrashic tableaux reflecting major themes in the development of literary Midrash, within a frame of majestic columns and traditional images of Jerusalem.

Moshe Shah Mizrahi, Akedat Yitzhak, c. 1920
In the uppermost panel, Sarah, strangely absent from the biblical narrative, is manipulated by Abraham into letting Isaac depart for “graduate” Torah studies.

Above the trio is the text of their discussion, a quote from the liturgical poem עֵת שַׁעֲרֵי רָצוֹן לְהִפָּתֵחַ "when the gates of acceptance open", sung at the climax of the Rosh Hashana service. “But not too far,” Sarah admonishes her husband.  This same 12th century piyut, painted in the early 20th century by Mizrahi, morphs in the 1990`s into the song "The binder, the bound and the Altar," by Ehud Manor and Meir Banai. The pious submission in the piyut and the painting become a modern song of outrage/protest:
            And whenever the razor is drawn
            I will say, Please, Lord, Remember
            Lord of the Universe, don`t forget
Below, at center stage of Mizrahi`s painting, the altar scene is reenacted, programmed according to the Midrash from the sixth day of creation. This is no hastily built altar, but the venerable shrine first built by Adam and renewed by Noah at the sacred center of the universe. 
9. AND THEY CAME TO THE PLACE THAT GOD HAD TOLD HIM; AND ABRAHAM BUILT THERE THE ALTAR which Adam had built, which had been destroyed by the flood, which Noah had again built and which had been destroyed by the generation of the division; HE ARRANGED THE WOOD ON IT, AND BOUND ISAAC HIS SON, AND LAID HIM ON THE ALTAR ON TOP OF THE WOOD.     Targum Yonatan

The ground cover is manicured, the actors formally set in place. Curious midrashic elements neutralize the inherent terror: Isaac’s hat on the branch behind Abraham (painted the color of the flowers on the other tree), his coat and shoes waiting to be donned again after the service, as the fire pot waits on the far side of the altar. Isaac and the angel wear identical outfits to indicate their special relationship. The column under Isaac’s head leads upward through the knife, held frozen, connecting heaven and earth.
In Mizrahi`s rendition, the special ram is not caught in the thicket but is part of the tree, as if his existence is part of the divine plan.

13.      AND ABRAHAM LIFTED HIS EYES AND SAW, BEHOLD a certain RAM that was created in the twilight of the completion of the world, CAUGHT IN THE THICKET of a tree BY ITS HORNS; AND ABRAHAM WENT AND TOOK him AND OFFERED HIM UP INSTEAD OF HIS SON.Targum Yonatan

In the next tableau, we backtrack to the moment when father and son, grey beard leading black beard, leave their servants (captioned "Stay here with the ass", v. 5). The servants are identified midrashically as Ishmael and Eliezer and contemporized as nargila smoking Turkish gendarmes. Thus, three historic "languages" (biblical, midrashic and the artist`s present) are effortlessly woven together.

Finally, a subsequent journey brings closure to this akedah, when Eliezer meets Rebecca, Isaac`s future bride. Two women frame Mizrahi`s account: Sarah sets the story in motion and Rebecca`s act of kindness echoes God`s saving hand in the akedah, guaranteeing continuity for Abraham`s seed.

More on Sarah — Sarah out of the closet
Independent of Mizrahi`s introduction of the hidden Sarah, contemporary artists are bringing Sarah out of the closet. 

M. Ardon, Sarah, 1947
In 1947, Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon paints the worst scenario. Isaac lies dead at Sarah`s feet, his mother a large, grotesque weeping figure, screams the call of the shofar. Parallel and opposite the fallen Isaac, a fallen ladder of Jewish continuity conveys two dead ends: Jacob`s ladder, that will not be, and the train tracks to Auschwitz. The faceless mother and child echo the universal pieta motif, the mother holding her deceased child, whether in antiquity or in our times.

                  Women with dead Warrior,                   Glenna Goodacre,Vietnam Nurses Memorial, 1993
                          Sardinia, 1000 BCE 
Some twenty years after Ardon`s Sarah, Israeli Yizhak Frankl brings Sarah out of the house, to a startling position under the altar. Is she the ultimate sacrifice or is she the angel? 

Yitzhak Frankel, Akedat Yitzhak, 1960

Protest and Politics

George Segal, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1978
The protest movement against the Vietnam War reached a climax in May 1970, when four student demonstrators were killed at Kent State University by the state militia. The University commissioned George Segal to create a memorial – but rejected his Akedah, having had in mind a sweet young thing placing a rose in the muzzle of a gun. Princeton University subsequently acquired this akedah, in which a brutish father directs the knife against his draft age son. Proportionately, the son is bigger than his father, but on his knees; he could rise up and overpower the older man. Such is the power of the older generation to manipulate the younger.

George Segal, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1973
In an earlier (1973) Akedah, Segal already shocked his audience; a less than majestic Abraham, your neighbor in jeans, overfed and under exercised, towers above an angelic child. Is he about to leap up and flee? Embrace his father? Note that the knife is turned away at the final moment. By chance (?), Segal`s work was first exhibited immediately before the Yom Kippur war, in the summer of 1973. It seems to be a recurring national theme: in Christian art throughout Europe you see the holy family and the crucifixion; in Jewish art, both in Israel and abroad, you see the akedah.
In fact, the akedah appears to be a central obsession of Israeli artists, writers, poets and thinkers. And while the akedah used to evoke images in the Israeli imagination of self-sacrifice for the sake of national redemption, it has become, mainly since 1967, the focus of protest against the seemingly unending demands on the young. As a result, several striking transformations have taken place in treatments of the akedah: in addition to the highlighting of Sarah, as in Ardon`s painting, the ram has turned into a symbol of these insatiable demands, as in many of Menashe Kadishman`s works:

M. Kadishman, The Binding of Isaac, 1982-85
 The story has within itself the seeds of its own subversion

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