Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Abraham and Isaac

(The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing
Isaac to God
by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669,
Dutch painter, printmaker, and draughtsman)

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most difficult to understand and accept.

As told in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament, the story begins when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the only son born to him and Sarah. But before Abraham completes the act, an angel calls out, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do nothing to him. I know now that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me.” Then Abraham “looked about and saw a ram caught by its horns in the bush. He went and took it, and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son.”

What is the meaning of this story?

First, it is a test of Abraham’s trust in God, who had condemned human sacrifice before. It is also the final and conclusive instruction against the offering of human sacrifices to the gods, a common practice among the tribes around the Jews at the time.

Rembrandt made this painting in 1663. It is one of his many Biblical histories where he used as models persons he met in the flourishing Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.

“The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings,” wrote Kenneth Clark in
Civilization, “goes beyond that of any other artist who has ever lived. Of course they are masterpieces of sheer picture-making. . . . We used to be told that painting shouldn’t compete with literature. Well, perhaps not in its initial stages. Or, rather, the literary element should not obtrude itself till it has taken the right shape. But when form and content are one, what a heavenly bonus this kind of human revelation can be.”

The first of the two poems below was written and put to music by Leonard Cohen, a Canadian poet and singer and the son of a rabbi. Many of his earlier verses and songs (see the post of September 18) are inspired by the Scriptures.


The door it opened slowly,
my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I've had a vision
and you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told.”

So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.
Well, the trees they got much smaller,
the lake a lady's mirror,
we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
but it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
he looked once behind his shoulder,
he knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father's hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
forgive me if I inquire,
“Just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
man of peace or man of war,
the peacock spreads his fan.

~ Leonard Cohen, born 1934, Canadian poet, novelist, singer, and songwriter

To listen to Leonard Cohen perform this song, click on to this link (you may have to cut and paste):

The second poem is inspired by Rembrandt’s painting. It provides an additional explanation for this story — the Christian view that this thwarted sacrifice of an only son prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God, on the Cross at Cavalry.


He really meant to do it.
All it took was an angel’s merest touch
to stop him, but the boy’s hands
were tied, the father’s fingers
wrapped around his jaw
(perhaps to smother him — one paltry act
of mercy before the fatal slice?).

What kind of God would require
such appalling fidelity?
What kind of father could bear
to imagine the blade
leaving its trail of red
in the tender skin of a throat
no beard has covered?

What would it take?

What must be the magnitude
of a love that would go this far?
The look in Abraham’s eye
is crazed. The angel’s message
relieves him (though all his life
some madness will haunt him,
and Sarah will follow his steps
with darkened eyes).

You don’t have to do this
any more. Another father
will take your place
Another son will be led to slaughter.
The promise will be fulfilled,
Israel’s seed will be planted.
Let him grow old and die.

~ Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, born 1949, American poet and essayist, from Drawn to the Light: Poems on Rembrandt's Religious Paintings

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