Violence or Piety?
The story of the Akeda in the book of Genesis, chapter 22 illustrates the fine line between violent murder and pious faith in G-d. In verse two, G-d asked Abraham, “Take your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land or Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point to you.” This commandment by G-d has changed Jewish tradition forever and sparked endless study, interpretation, and debate. Why has this one chapter, this one story, this one commandment of G-d, reverberated throughout Jewish history as one of the most influential biblical stories of all time? Those who study the Akeda have had to struggle with the ethical, moral, and religious dilemmas that it creates. This struggle allows the Binding of Isaac to be interpreted in many ways and through many different mediums. Art, whether in the form of poetry, music, short stories, or paintings, has served to interpret this story in many ways throughout the centuries. In addition, Midrashim, which serve to fill in the inadequacies of the biblical text, have also been written to address the struggle of determining the meaning of the story of the Akeda.
The first question that arose in my mind was how could G-d command someone to commit the sin of child sacrifice? In the Jewish tradition, child sacrifice has always struck the mind and soul as the ultimate evil practice. Just outside of Jerusalem, there is a valley called Gai Henom. In this valley, the ancient Canaanites used to practice child sacrifice. In Hebrew, the word for Hell is Gehenom. The Hebrew world for hell was derived from the name of the valley where child sacrifice used to occur, because Judaism considers the practice so abominable. The place where child sacrifice occurs on this Earth should be considered equivalent to hell.
Despite this deeply ingrained belief in the evil of child sacrifice, Judaism places the Akeda at the center of its tradition and has allowed the story to influence thousands of years of Jewish study and learning. The reason the Akeda has maintained this paradoxical position of importance is because it can be interpreted as either a story of violence or a story of piety. In this paper I will examine works of art and Midrashim that authors and artists have used in order to come to terms with the true meaning of the Akeda in Jewish tradition and the struggle the story continues to pose to the human conscious. I will study the art and the Midrashim as evidence of the Akeda being either a story of violence or piety.
No matter how one interprets the significance and meaning of the Binding of Isaac, the violence inherent in Abraham’s actions and G-d’s test is too overwhelming to be ignored. I believe that the painting “Abraham and Isaac”, created by Rembrandt in 1684, best depicts the Akeda as an act of violence. Rembrandt uses very dark coloring to create an ominous mood for the viewer. One gets the impression that the act being committed by darkly casted Abraham is violent and cruel. Abraham’s gloomy, almost sinister coloring is contrasted with Isaac’s white and lighted appearance. Rembrandt successfully depicts a perpetrator committing a violent act against an innocent victim through his use of shading, light, and coloring.
This work also depicts the Akeda as an act of violence through the positioning of the characters as well as their facial expressions. The large knife that Abraham grasps obviously denotes a violent attitude in the painting, but moreover, the way in which he is grabbing the face of Isaac signifies violence. Instead of holding or caressing his son before this dreadful act, his facial grip on Isaac is quite violent. In addition, the angel comes down from heaven and physically restrains Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Rembrandt paints Abraham being forced by the angel to drop the knife as the angel aggressively holds Abrahams arm. This is certainly a violent depiction. Furthermore, the facial expression of the angel is one of rebuke and chastisement. His hand is raised as if to say, “Stop Abraham! How can you do this wrongful act?” As the knife falls to the ground, Abraham’s facial expression does not portray relief or happiness. He still seems determined to commit the violent task that he believes is according to G-d’s will. He seems to be struggling to determine whether or not the angel as the authority to violently interfere with Hashem’s commandment.
I believe that the Akeda is portrayed as an act of violence best in the Midrash Rabbah Genesis LVI:7.1 This Midrash reads, “AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD CALLED UNTO HIM OUT OF HEAVEN AND SAID: ABRAHAM ABRAHAM. And he said: ‘LAY NOT THY HAND UPON THE LAD.’ Where was the knife? Tears had fallen from the angels upon it and dissolved the knife.” This author of this Midrash clearly chose that the tears should come from the angels instead of Abraham. The angels are saddened by the violence that Abraham is showing in his willingness to sacrifice his own son. The tears of the angels dissolve the knife, but then Abraham says, “Then I will strangle him.” The angel replies, “LAY NOT THY HAND UPON THE LAD.” Once again, Abraham persists and pleads, “Let us bring forth a drop of blood from him.”
Abraham’s persistence to disobey the angel’s order to not harm Isaac can certainly be interpreted as his eagerness to fulfill G-d’s commandment and his lath of faith in the authority of the angel. However, this Midrash depicts the willingness of Abraham to commit violence against Isaac. Instead of accepting a reprieve from a horrible commandment, Abraham wants to strangle or at least draw blood from Isaac once his knife has been dissolved. This underscores the violence necessary in the heart of Abraham to stay committed to the task at hand. This Midrash successfully paints the Binding of Isaac as an extremely violent situation.
The Akeda can also be viewed as an act of piety. I believe that William Blake’s painting, “Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Isaac” is a great example of the artist portraying Abraham in a non-violent manner.
In his painting, Blake takes a completely different approach than the work of Rembrandt. Here Abraham and Isaac are depicted in an embrace and the viewer feels a sense of the loving bond between a father and son. There is relatively no violent attitude present. The knife that Abraham is holding is pointed down and away from Isaac. Based on his facial expression, Abraham seems so be looking off towards the heavens, pleading with G-d to change his mind about demanding Isaac’s sacrifice. With his left arm, Blake portrays Abraham as shielding his beloved son from the violent decree of Hashem.
Unlike in the Rembrandt painting, Abraham is not aggressively holding the head of Isaac down, and Isaac is not even bound on the altar. The emotion is of sadness on the part of Abraham. This sadness and regret signifies Abraham’s piety. He has complete faith in G-d, and therefore is willing to do what he must, which is why he is still holding the knife. However, it is Abraham’s faith in combination with his love for his son that Blake captures in this painting. Paintings, like all art, reflect the interpretations of their artist during their time periods. Rembrandt chose to depict the Akeda as an act of violence, while Blake chose to portray Abraham as a symbol of piety.
The Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LVI:8 is another example of an interpretation of the Akeda as an act of piety. This midrash depicts Abraham much differently than the previous one I have discussed. The text reads, “AND ABRAHAM STRETCHED FORTH HIS HAND- He stretched forth his hand to take the knife, while tears streamed from his eyes, and these tears, prompted by a father’s compassion, dropped into Isaac’s eyes. Yet even so, his heart rejoiced to obey the will of his creator.”2 Here we see a completely different portrayal of Abraham. The author aims to illustrate that Abraham was a compassionate man who was simply following Hashem’s command due to his unwavering faith and piety. The author’s goal to is portray Abraham as a faithful individual who also feels the unfathomable pain of having to sacrifice one’s own beloved son. In this Midrash, Abraham is the one crying instead of the angels. Despite his immense sadness, Abraham need to obey the will of his creator overpowers his love for his son. The Midrash continues with G-d stating, “O Abraham, My covenant will I not profane, and I will establish My covenant with Isaac.” Hashem is acknowledging the piety of Abraham by granting him this blessing following his willingness to obey the commandment of his G-d.
I believe that after studying paintings and Midrashim that illustrate the Akeda as either an act of violence or an act of piety, that ultimately the story is one of pious character on the part of Isaac and Abraham. Isaac is piously willing to obey both his father and G-d, while Abraham is willing to make the hardest decision imaginable in the service of his creator. One may question how Abraham could willingly sacrifice or murder his son, and then contend that Abraham’s violence caused him fail the test. However, I believe that after all the miracles, trials, and tribulations that Abraham faced prior to the Akeda, his relationship with Hashem was far too developed and complex for any one of us to comprehend. His relationship with G-d prior to the Akeda is what provided him the faith necessary to obey this horrible divine commandment. Therefore, piety, not violence, is perspective from which his actions should be analyzed.
1 Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:7
AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD CALLED UNTO HIM OUT OF HEAVEN, AND SAID: ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM (XXII, 11). R. Hiyya taught: This is an expression of love and encouragement. R. Liezer said: [The repetition indicates that He spake] to him and to future generations: There is no generation which does not contain men like Abraham, and there is no generation which does not contain men like Jacob, Moses, and Samuel.1 AND HE SAID: LAY NOT THY HAND UPON THE LAD, etc. (XXII, 12). Where was the knife? Tears had fallen from the angels upon it and dissolved it. ‘Then I will strangle him,’ said he [Abraham] to Him. ‘LAY NOT THY HAND UPON THE LAD,’ was the reply. Let us bring forth a drop of blood from him,’ he pleaded. NEITHER DO THOU ANY THING TO HIM, He answered -’inflict no blemish upon him.2 FOR NOW I KNOW- I have made it known to all-that thou lovest Me, A N D THOU HAST NOT WITHHELD, etc. And do not say, "All ills that do not affect one's own person are not ill,"3 for indeed I ascribe merit to thee as though I had bidden thee sacrifice thyself and thou hadst not refused.”4
2 Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:8
(Another comment: R. Isaac said: When Abraham wished to sacrifice his son Isaac, he said to him: ‘Father, I am a young man and am afraid that my body may tremble through fear of the knife and I will grieve thee, whereby the slaughter may be rendered unfit and this will not count as a real sacrifice; therefore bind me very firmly. Forthwith, HE BOUND ISAAC: can one bind a man thirty-seven years old? (another version: twenty-six years old)5 without his consent? Presently, AND ABRAHAM STRETCHED FORTH. HIS HAND-he stretched forth his hand to take the knife while the tears streamed from his eyes, and these tears, prompted by a father's compassion, dropped into Isaac's eyes. Yet even so, his heart rejoiced to obey the will of his Creator. The angels assembled in groups above. What did they cry? The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth; He hath broken the covenant, He hath despised the cities (Isa. XXXIII, 8) -has He no pleasure in Jerusalem and the Temple, which He had intended giving as a possession to the descendants of Isaac? He regardeth not man (ib.): if no merit has stood in Abraham's favour, then no creature has any value before him.)l R. Aha said: [Abraham wondered]: Surely Thou too indulgest in prevarication! Yesterday Thou saidest, For in Isaac shall seed be called to thee (Gen. XXI, 12); Thou didst then retract and say, Take now thy son (ib. XXII, 2); while now Thou biddest me, LAY NOT THY HAND UPON THE LAD! Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: ' O Abraham, My covenant will I not profane (Ps. LXXXIX, 35), And I will establish My covenant with Isaac (Gen. XVII, 21). When I bade thee, "Take now thy son," etc., I will not alter that which is gone out of My lips (Ps. Ioc. cit.). Did I tell thee, Slaughter him? No! but, " Take him up."2 Thou hast taken him up. Now take him down.’3