Piety and Violence in the Akeda: Midrash and Art
The Akeda serves to illustrate the narrow gap between violence and dedication to G-d. With the Akeda arises the question: is it ever okay to ignore G-d’s orders? Why would He order Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, a son whose own birth was a miracle from the Almighty? In that way, G-d’s own demands may seem unfair, impious, and violent. Yet, as was reinforced during Sinai Scholars, the first commandment would later read, “I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me”. Quite simply, G-d expected to be respected, yet felt that a test was necessary.
This test, as we have learned, required Abraham to bring his son Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. To this order, Abraham seems to calmly acquiesce. Abraham brings two servants and a donkey for the journey, to travel alongside he and his son. Knowing and remembering less than I would like from my Hebrew school education, Professor Blumenthal explained to the class that G-d makes the same blessing to Abraham in Genesis 22 as in Bereshit Chapter 12. That makes it fair to assume that G-d never considered letting Abraham go through with the sacrifice, and still planned for Isaac to be the progenitor of the Jewish people. With this sentiment, doesn’t it seem even crueler that G-d would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering?
The Midrashim serve to fill the inadequacies of the biblical passages. Thus, the interpretations differ greatly. Whether it was appropriate or not of G-d to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son is not the issue at hand, however. The question is whether Abraham’s willingness to go through with the sacrifice is more an act of violence or a display of piety. Some Midrashim emphasize Abraham or Isaac’s devotion to G-d, and some underscore the violence within the act. Artwork has also served as a great source to illustrate the nature of the act. Artists ranging from Salvador Dali to Rembrandt and from Chagall to Caravaggio have depicted the Akeda in many different ways. Their paintings reveal their own analyses of the story, and how they imagine it took place.
The Akeda as an Act of Violence
The incident of violence in the Akeda cannot be ignored. G-d had ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, yet upon the altar, the word “slaughter” may have a more appropriate connotation. Midrash Rabbah Genesis LVI: 7 communicates the violence in the Akeda most accurately. 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.” The author surmises that it was the tears of the angels, not those of Abraham that dissolved the knife. This makes it relatively clear that it was the desire of G-d to stop the attempted sacrifice before father could take son’s life. The tears may remind the reader of the salt water used on Passover, remembering the tears shed by the slaves in Egypt. Here too, Isaac is a slave to his father’s will.
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. Some may consider this to be steadfast piety, but the violent undertone stands in stark contrast with the Midrashim that emphasize piety over violence. With the knife having failed, Abraham decides to strangle his son. Strangulation would seem to be a more violent alternative. Although less blood is likely to be spilled, strangling someone takes longer and could be more painful, if executed incorrectly. Also shocking is Abraham’s unaffected and immediate suggestion of an alternative method of sacrifice. 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 piece of artwork that best depicts the violent struggle Abraham undergoes is Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, painted in 1601.
What makes the painting so violent is Isaac’s facial expression. As Abraham wields the knife about six inches from Isaac’s face, one cannot help but imagine Isaac calling out in discomfort. He does not look to be screaming, but he looks visibly pained by Abraham’s strong grip on the back of his neck. The other aspect this painting that serves as a reminder of brutality is the angel. The angel has entered the painting and seized Abraham’s arm, yet it looks as if Abraham continues to struggle to bring the knife closer to his son’s throat. Lastly, it appears that the ram is an onlooker, with its head poised above Isaac’s. It seems to be calling out, “Abraham! I am here if you want me”.
The Midrash continues, “O Abraham, My covenant will I not profane. And I will establish My covenant with Isaac. When I bade thee, ‘Take now thy son,’ etc., I will not alter that which is gone out of My lips. Did I tell thee, Slaughter him? No! but, ‘Take him up.’ 2 Thou hast taken him up. Now take him down.” G-d reminds Abraham of the covenant to make Abraham’s people fruitful. “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” G-d rewards Abraham for his piety, knowing that the arduous task He requested of Abraham has been fulfilled.
Laurent de la Hire’s 1650 portrayal of the Akeda, entitled Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, shows the love between the father and son.
The emotional connection between the two is most noticeable in the way Abraham lays his hand upon the head of Isaac. He is not attempting to grab his throat, merely resting his hand on Isaac’s head in a fatherly way. Though this painting does not articulate the severity in which Isaac requested to be bonded, it does show the divine force intercepting Abraham before the deed can be done. The painting does not look violent in the least, and Abraham looks almost relived to have been intercepted. The angel calmly indicates that G-d (pointing above them) does not wish Abraham to go through with the act. Here, too, the ram is a witness, though little emotion can be detected on his face. No vibrant emotion can be detected anywhere in the painting, and even the colors are muted.
The paintings serve not only as good visual evidence of both the piety and violence, but also of the interpretation of the Akeda by artists of the time. And though the two paintings mentioned above differ, there are certain similarities. The ram is visible in both, alluding to the fact that G-d never intended to sacrifice Isaac.
After analyzing the Akeda and reading relevant Midrashim, the pious sentiment of the story seems to outweigh any violent aspect it may entail. The fact that G-d made the same covenant to the Jewish people twice makes it much more compelling to believe that Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac was one of a religious nature as opposed to a violent nature. Abraham respected His wishes and would have done anything to please Him. A pertinent question may then be to ask why Abraham was so devoted. It most likely has to do with G-d’s miracle of granting Sarah fertility at the age of 90. That had been enough to entrap Abraham, who trusted G-d wholeheartedly from then on. Crying upon the altar while preparing to execute his son, he found solace in one thought, that he was obeying the will of his Creator.
The full midrashic sources
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:7
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
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:8
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