This story is so very, very familiar to us that I think it’s important to look at it with a fresh perspective. So in this post I am including some pieces from media and the arts that force us to think about Genesis 22. I promise you in advance that some of these might be disturbing to you. Probably you will disagree with the portrayal of Abraham’s sacrifice in at least one, if not all, of these pieces. I hope you will share your reactions in the comments.
One of my favorite poems juxtaposes the story of Abraham with World War I. The poet, Wilfred Owen, is a tragic figure himself, who was gunned down at age 25 just seven days before the Armistice on November 4, 1918. This poem invites the reader to consider the effects of extreme religious devotion.
The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
The next bit of media comes from the BBC’s That Mitchell and Webb Look. The parody pokes fun at believers whose religion keeps them from thinking for themselves:
The image below is an etching entitled The Sacrifice of Abraham by Marc Chagall. The same study was done as a watercolor, as an oil painting, and as a drawing in pastel and China ink. Each has symbolic features which are not present in the others. A review of the etching describes it as follows:
“…the sacrifice of Abraham presents human drama as confrontation of two wills and two freedoms: that of the creator and his creature. Chagall’s rendering of this scene is of great subtlety. Using a mirror effect between the figures of Isaac and the angel, between Abraham’s posture and that of the heavenly messenger, he suggests complementarity and ultimate unity between heaven and earth. In the end, there will be no opposition between the faithful Abraham and his God, because there exists a perfect match between human obedience and divine mercy. The bound and naked Isaac is a symbol of extreme vulnerability and suggests acute sensitivity to the word of God. God answers in kind, rushing his angel in sudden descent to arrest the movement of Abraham’s knife. Thus, although bathed in an atmosphere of frightening proportions, the pictorial narrative speaks of two worlds reconciled by tender love. The latter, tender love, finds its artistic expression in the tiny white ram emerging from the thicket on the left. Too tiny for the giant knife, the ram is a reminder that God does not want sacrifices but love.”
Does this type of yielding and vulnerable submission make you more comfortable than the more fanatic type? Why or why not?
Now let’s explore what would happen if Abraham did decide to think for himself — to take a critical look at what God was asking him to do. What if that were God’s purpose behind the lesson, after all? This short story comes from the Fob Bible, which I own and I highly recommend. It is called “Abraham’s Purgatory,” and was written by Ben Christensen.
Abraham’s Purgatory (click to read)
I included the lithograph below by Salvador Dali because I think it is interesting how the Abraham and Isaac figures are so small and how the focus of the work is the angel. It dominates the picture and brings to mind the sacred nature of the sacrificial story. Dali’s angel is not an insipid, white robed choir boy. We see the figure from the back and it is both awe-inspiring, unknowable, and a bit frightening.
As you watch the following comedic sketch, ask yourself the question: “Is it easier to do something God asks if you want to do it anyway?” How much personal interpretation comes into play when we are deciphering God’s will?
Jewish Midrash suggests that it was difficult to dissuade Abraham from the act of sacrificial violence once he had decided to kill his son. The Midrash reads: “…and he said: Lay not thy hand upon the lad. Where was the knife? Tears had fallen from the angels upon it and dissolved it.” It was the tears of the angels, not those of Abraham that dissolved the knife. Yet, even after seeing the knife dissolve, Abraham is unconvinced and persists with the violence. “’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.” Abraham refuses to be deterred. His unaffected and immediate suggestion of an alternative method of sacrifice is shocking. Some may consider this to be steadfast piety, but the violent undertone stands in stark contrast with the Midrashim that emphasize piety over violence. After that method is refused, he then pleads if he may bring forth a drop of blood from his son. The use of the word “pleads” would lead one to assume that Abraham’s plea to G-d was an emotional one. The emotion, it seems, stems more so from an inability to sacrifice his son than from G-d’s request that the sacrifice be made.
The sculpture below by Berruguete is included for its portrayal of the human emotion on the faces of Abraham and Isaac. You will probably hear in your Sunday School lesson the idea that Isaac was a youth in his prime at the time of the sacrifice, while Abraham was an old man. This interpretation promotes the idea that Isaac was a willing participant in the act of submission to God. The sculpture visually portrays this idea, picturing Isaac as a strong and virile young man, capable of wresting himself free from his bonds. Though horrified and frightened, he is kneeling and complaisant.
The final piece of media I would like to include for your consideration is a biblical canticle written by Benjamin Britten. During this two-person opera, one singer assumes the role of Abraham while the other takes that of Isaac. Through the homophony of the two singers, God’s voice emerges as if it were a third solo singer. The use of the older tenor and the younger alto voices in the vignette below to sing the words of God is very moving.
GOD: Abraham, my servant, Abraham,
Take Isaac, thy son by name,
That thou lovest the best of all,
And in sacrifice offer him to me
Upon that hill there beside thee.
Abraham, I will that so it be,
For aught that may befall.
As they sing “Abraham,” the notes are first discordant, then resolve, aptly representing the theme of the story.
Abraham and Isaac by Benjamin Britten
The story of Abraham and Isaac is a powerful one. It is the most dramatic moment in the life of one of the most important of the Biblical prophets. I think that its inclusion in the Bible is meant to be disturbing and to evoke turmoil and discomfort. I hope that the Sunday School portrayal of this section of the scriptural record will not be too soft and fluffy.