The Akedah: An Act of Piety or an Act of Violence?
The Akeda demonstrates that severe faith or blind faith can lead to an act of violence being construed as an act of piety. Can a man honestly slaughter another human being and call it piety? Can a moral God ask man to do an immoral act, and if He can, is the act pious rather than slaughter? The theological debate has left rabbis split on either side of a line drawn in sacrificial blood. However, the text of Genesis 22 offers little clarification in the words printed on the page. In the Akeda, God commands Abraham, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2 JPS). God’s demand seems entirely unfair for a man who could not conceive a child with his wife, Sarah. God had also promised His servant, Abraham, that he would “make his heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven” through Isaac (Genesis 26:4 JPS), but demands that he offer him up in burnt offering instead. Without questioning, Abraham saddles his ass and takes Isaac and two servants on a three day journey to the mount where he will forfeit his son to God. Upon reaching the mount, Abraham “picked up the knife to slay his son” (Genesis 22:10 JPS). The midrashim serve to illuminate and explain the plain verses as well as fill in the gaps left at this point. As can be expected from the text, they vary widely in their interpretations of the act and the motivations driving it. Like the division seen in the rabbinical interpretations, the debate on the sanctity of the binding of Isaac has also been interpreted by many artists. Some artists choose to depict Isaac wracked with terror while others choose to depict him as calm in his reverence for God’s commands. Through the artist’s paintings, their interpretations of the Akeda are illuminated. The interpretations of the rabbis as well can help to answer this theological debate: can an act of slaughter be absolved if done at God’s behest?
On one side of the debate, the rabbis see the Akeda as an act of piety, but what could possibly make a man so pious that he would slaughter his son? Love can cause a man to be pious, and Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LV: 8 demonstrates this. In this Midrash, R. Simeon b. Yohai states that, “love upsets the natural order.” Abraham’s extreme love for God was enough to upset the natural order. Genesis reads that “early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass” (22:3); Genesis continues by stating “he split the wood for burnt offering” and “put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife” (22: 3, 6). Surely Abraham had plenty of slaves for such mundane chores. However, his attention to the mundane preparations reflects his devotion. The care that Abraham takes in his actions reflects his love and reverence for God; he has been obligated to perform this sacrifice, and no other hands can ruin the sanctity of the act. The midrash continues by stating that while love upsets the natural order, so too does “Hate upset[s] the natural order: And Baalam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass (Numbers 22: 21): surely he had plenty of slaves?” R. Simeon b. Yohai clarifies his reasoning for including this statement by saying:
Let saddling counteract saddling. Let the saddling done by our father Abraham in order to go and fulfill the will of Him at whose word the world came into existence counteract the saddling done by Baalam in order to go and curse Israel. Let preparing counteract preparing…. Let the sword taken in the hand of our father Abraham, as it says, And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son (Genesis 22:10), come and counteract the sword grasped by Pharaoh's hand when he said, I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. (Exodus 15:9)
Abraham’s love for God is unyielding. He is devout in his fulfillment of his religious obligations, and in doing so, the midrash states that he “was rewarded for rising up and for going” by his son being spared and his covenant sealed. While Abraham’s love of God was enough to upset the natural order, it was also enough to inspire his piety; through his devotion to God are his son and his progeny blessed. The angel of the Lord states “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore… because you have obeyed My command” (Genesis 22: 17-18).
Orazio Riminaldi’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, painted in 1620, demonstrates an artist’s interpretation that parallels R. Simeon b. Yohai’s. The moment Riminaldi depicts is right as the angel of the Lord stops Abraham from sacrificing his son; this is his moment of reward for his piety. Abraham looks up with reverence at the Lord’s messenger. There is no violence or struggle represented in this picture. Abraham gently touches Isaac’s head. He does this to stabilize himself so as to have a clean strike, not to restrain his son. In this depiction of the Akeda, Isaac is not even bound. He lies there calmly, hands held in prayer with eyes closed. No fear is painted on his face, only acceptance. The angel does not appear to be struggling to restrain Abraham. He just calmly touches his hand. The angel is even peacefully lying on a cloud. The ram sits patiently waiting for Abraham to sacrifice it instead of Isaac. The artist also paints the angel and Isaac with white skin. White symbolizes purity, innocence, and peace. Abraham is painted as he would have been: a normal man, white-haired with age. This is intended to show him as he was: a man asked to do an extraordinary thing. What makes this representation so powerful is that he accomplishes his task. In doing so, he acts as an ensign for every man to follow. He represents the zenith of what man can accomplish if he is pious.
Some rabbis see the Akeda as an example of violence, and the ultimate climax of the story, Isaac’s slaughtering, cannot be ignored. Midrash Rabbah Genesis LVI: 7 depicts the more violent side of the Akeda. It states that “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.” However, Abraham does not stop after the angel’s tears had destroyed the knife. It appears as if he is caught within the primal emotions brought on with murder. “Then I will strangle him,’ said he [Abraham] to Him.” Abraham will not be swayed from the sacrifice ordered to him by God. Once the kosher method of sacrifice has been denied Abraham, he decides that he will instead throttle his own son and makes this decision quickly. The violent nature of strangulation is in stark contrast to the idea of piety. Strangulation is a visceral method of killing, and a slow way to die. No one can say the act of strangulation is condoned if done in the name of God. The angel in turn says, “‘LAY NOT THY HAND UPON THE LAD,’” and “’Let us bring forth a drop of blood from him,’ he pleaded” was Abraham’s reply. The violent undertones of this midrash cannot be hidden underneath the umbrella of piety. Abraham does not ask for a drop of blood, he pleads for it. Does one pleading seem to be caught in reverence of God, or does it seem that he is instead caught up in murderous intent? Even if Abraham is being extremely pious, does his piety absolve him from murder? If he is absolved, how does this reflect on God? The Bible states that “cursed be he who is slack in doing the Lord’s work. Cursed be he who withholds his sword from blood” (Jeremiah 48:10). It appears that Abraham and God are in accord on this fact. Abraham is cursed if fails to do God’s work obediently.
Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, painted in 1596, is an artist’s rendition of the Akeda if it were as violent as Midrash Rabbah Genesis LVI: 7 depicts it. This painting is most strikingly different from the Riminaldi due to the expression on Isaac’s face. His eyes are filled with animalistic terror, and he appears to be crying out in pain. An onlooker feels as if he is watching a lamb go to the slaughter, bleating in horror. He cannot even turn and see the knife because he is held firm by Abraham to the altar. Abraham’s brow is creased in consternation at being interrupted by the angel, and his eyes are shadowed, hiding his intent. The angel tries to point to the ram waiting off to the side, but Abraham only glares at the angel in return. The muscles in the angel’s arm are taut as if he is straining to stay Abraham’s knife. Isaac is naked to accentuate his helplessness to the fate his father has decided. The color imagery is much darker than the Riminaldi as well. Gone are the whites and the blues. They have been replaced with black shadows as the sun sets in the background which is representative of the end of Isaac’s life.
After an analysis of the Akeda, the value-concept being taught is one of questioning God’s will. While there is no doubt that Abraham is pious, he should have questioned God in His intentions. The motivations behind the sacrifice are righteous while the act itself is not. In following God’s command, Abraham becomes an ensign for how one should be willing to follow God’s demands, but only to a point. In this way Abraham failed God’s final test; he abandons his own humanity in order to appease his God. This is a sacrifice entirely too demanding. God realizes this and stops the slaughter of Isaac. If anything should be learned from the Akeda, it should be that humanity is sacred and should never be sacrificed even if it is demanded by God.
Midrash Full Texts
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LV:8
AND ABRAHAM ROSE EARLY IN THE MORNING, AND SADDLED HIS ASS (XXII, 3). R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Love upsets the natural order, and hate upsets the natural order. Love upsets the natural order: AND ABRAHAM ROSE EARLY IN THE MORNING, etc.: surely he had plenty of slaves? But the reason was that love upset the natural order. Hate upsets the natural order: And Baalam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass (Num. XXII, 21): surely he had plenty of slaves? Hate, however, upsets the natural order. Love upsets the natural order: And Joseph made ready his chariot, etc. (Gen. XLVI, 29): yet surely Joseph had plenty of slaves? But love upsets the natural order. Hate upsets the natural order: And he made ready his chariot (Ex. XIV, 6): yet surely he had plenty of slaves? Thus hate upsets the natural order. R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Let saddling counteract saddling. Let the saddling done by our father Abraham in order to go and fulfil the will of Him at whose word the world came into existence counteract the saddling done by Baalam in order to go and curse Israel. Let preparing counteract preparing. Let Joseph's preparing [of his chariot] to meet his father counteract Pharaoh's preparing to go and pursue Israel. R. Ishmael taught: Let the sword of the hand counteract the sword of the hand. Let the sword taken in the hand of our father Abraham, as it says, And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son (Gen. XXII, 1O), come and counteract the sword grasped by Pharaoh's hand when he said, I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them (Ex. XV, 9). AND TOOK TWO OF HIS YOUNG MEN WITH HIM, A N D ISAAC HIS SON. R. Abbahu said: Two people behaved with propriety, Abraham and Saul: Abraham, as it says, AND TOOK TWO OF HIS YOUNG MEN WITH HIM; Saul, as it says, And Saul... went, he and two men with him (I Sam. XXVIII, 8). AND HE CLEAVED THE WOOD FOR THE BURNT-OFFERING. R. Hiyya b. R. Jose said in the name of R. Miasha, and it was also repeated in the name of R. Bannaiah: As a reward for the two cleavings wherewith our father Abraham cleaved the wood of the burnt-offering, he earned that God should cleave [divide] the Sea before his descendants, as it says, And the waters were divided (Ex. XIV, 21). Said R. Levi: Enough of this! In truth Abraham acted according to his powers and the Holy One, blessed be He, according to His powers. AND ROSE UP, AND WENT UNTO THE PLACE. He was rewarded for rising up and for going.
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. 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. 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," for indeed I ascribe merit to thee as though I had bidden thee sacrifice thyself and thou hadst not refused.”