Rembrandt’s etching titled Abraham’s Sacrifice[i] displayed above and his earlier painting[ii] known as the Sacrifice of Isaac are a study in contrasts. They depict two strikingly different appreciations of one of the most enigmatic tales in the Bible[iii] known as the Akedat Yitzchak (Binding of Isaac) or simply as the Akeidah[iv].
As Rembrandt’s title for the etching implies, it is a visual representation of the sacrifice made by Abraham. It is not called the sacrifice of Isaac and it does not purport to view the scene from Isaac’s point of view, whose eyes are covered. Rather, it is portrays Abraham’s act of devotion to G-d, as demonstrated by his seeming willingness to sacrifice his beloved son and only heir Isaac[v].
A closer analysis of the etching and the Biblical text reveal a number of anomalous aspects of Rembrandt’s depiction. For example, it does not show Isaac bound, placed atop wood arranged on the Altar and ready to be ritually slaughtered, as described in the Biblical text. Instead, Isaac is unbound and leaning on Abraham’s lap, in the seemingly protective grasp of Abraham’s right hand.
This is in stark contrast to his earlier painting, noted above and shown below, which portrays Isaac with hands secured behind his back, lying on a pile of wood and outstretched neck ready to be slaughtered. It depicts the intervention of the Angel, grabbing firm hold of Abraham’s knife wielding right hand and apparently causing the knife to be dropped from his grasp.
The Rembrandt etching has many other differences, including some peculiar aspects. Thus, unlike Rembrandt’s earlier painting and many other artistic representations of the Akedah, Abraham is shown holding the knife in his left hand, not his right. Instead, his right hand is used to cover Isaac’s eyes. At the same time, his right arm seems almost to be shielding Isaac’s neck from the path of the blade. Abraham is also holding the knife well removed from Isaac’s neck and would not only have to move his left hand, he would also have to rotate his body, to bring the knife to bear. This is not the posture of a person ready to strike. Rather, it is more like a theatrical pose designed to emphasis the presence of the knife, while keeping it as far away from Isaac’s neck and any potential harm, as possible. The Angel is holding Abraham’s right arm firmly in place, with his right hand, and his left hand is on Abraham’s upper left arm. If Isaac was in any real danger and the Angel’s mission was to prevent actual harm, he might have better employed both hands to grab and restrain Abraham’s knife wielding left hand.
To put this all in perspective, the Biblical narrative begins with G-d requesting[vi], not commanding, Abraham to participate and even using the word please[vii]. Why would Abraham just meekly acquiesce? He vehemently argued[viii] with G-d about the determination to destroy the thoroughly wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; why did he not do so for his innocent son?
The request G-d made to Abraham is also ambiguous. G-d did not ask Abraham actually to sacrifice his son; rather, the phrase used is “V’Halehu Shom L’Olah”. If G-d meant for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as an Olah sacrifice, then the text should just have said ‘Olah’; not ‘L’Olah’, which has an entirely different import[ix]. Indeed, it connotes that something else would be sacrificed, not Isaac[x].
Moreover, G-d prohibits[xi] human sacrifice. Why would G-d ask Abraham to sacrifice any human being, let alone his son, in order to worship him[xii]? Indeed, as the Midrash[xiii], Rashi[xiv] and the Ibn Ezra[xv] each point out, G-d didn’t mean for Abraham actually to slaughter his son Isaac, as a human sacrifice[xvi]. Furthermore, as the Talmud[xvii] reports, G-d never intended to harm Isaac[xviii].
Other details recorded in the Biblical text are inconsistent with this being an Olah sacrifice of Isaac[xix]. There’s the arrangement of wood piled on the Altar, but there is no reference to there being a fire on the Altar, a necessary threshold requirement for an Olah, also known as a burnt offering[xx]. Then, Isaac is trussed, hand and foot[xxi], a violation of the sacrificial protocol that requires efforts be made to avoid causing unnecessary suffering[xxii].
Isaac alive and bound is placed on top of the woodpile on the Altar and only then does Abraham reach and take the slaughtering knife in hand. This is wholly at variance with the usual Olah ritual that requires the animal to be sacrificed first be slaughtered elsewhere, not on the Altar[xxiii]. It must also be skinned and sectioned into pieces[xxiv]. The blood is required to be drained and collected for sprinkling around the Altar[xxv]. The arrangement of wood must be placed on a fire already burning on the Altar[xxvi]. It is only then that the actual sacrificial parts of the burnt offering are placed atop the wood on the fire already burning on the Altar[xxvii].
Interestingly, as noted above, the Rembrandt etching does not display a bound Isaac lying atop a wood arrangement. Instead the wood is strewn about and seems haphazardly placed elsewhere in the scene. There also appears to be a basin in the foreground of the scene. However, it is not placed in a position readily to capture the immediate surge of blood resulting from severing a major artery, as would be the case if this were intended to be an actual ritual slaughter. The basin, like the wood, appears to be no more than a symbolic stage prop.
The Biblical account of the Akedah, involving Abraham and Isaac, is not representative of a typical Olah sacrifice and neither is the scene depicted in the Rembrandt etching. But, that is the essential point; it was not intended to be, nor was it, an actual Olah sacrifice of Isaac.
It is suggested that the Rembrandt etching was informed by knowledge he may have gained from discussions with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. He was a neighbor and reported confidante of Rembrandt when it came to Biblical matters. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel was familiar with the works of such luminaries as Maimonides[xxviii] and the Abarbanel[xxix]. In this regard it should be noted that the Abarbanel[xxx] focuses on the Akeidah from the perspective of Abraham and also cites to the teachings of Maimonides on the subject, summarized below.
The Akeidah, as Maimonides[xxxi] well notes, was not a genuine test. G-d doesn’t need tests, because G-d is omniscient. G-d already knew what was in Abraham’s heart and didn’t need a test to confirm it. Maimonides explains that the term “Nisah”, as used in the Biblical text, is not about proving Abraham’s devotion; rather, it is about showing others how properly to worship and demonstrate true devotion to G-d[xxxii]. The object was to teach mankind what is proper conduct and worthy of belief. In line with the forgoing, Maimonides notes the meaning of the phrase “to know”, as used in the Biblical text, is so that all people may know; human sacrifice is wrong and this is so whether done in the name of idolatry or the one true G-d. The prevailing culture at the time erroneously believed that sacrificing a child was virtuous and a required act of devotion, which endeared the person to G-d; however, to the contrary, it was actually an anathema [xxxiii]. The Akedah was designed to publicize this most cogent message that G-d doesn’t want human sacrifices[xxxiv].
Abraham’s assumption of the scripted role in this real life drama was a veritable personal sacrifice. He was renown for his opposition to idolatry and all of the nefarious practices associated with it. He knew G-d didn’t desire human sacrifices. He is also the Biblical paradigm for virtuous conduct and graciousness. Yet, in this morality play, he’s called upon to play the part of an awe struck ideologue, intent on callously sacrificing his very own son. There was also inherent danger. Abraham would have to use a real knife and assume a genuine posture of being willing to go through with the sacrifice.
In another ironic twist, G-d says to Abraham, please, bring his son Isaac along, to play the part of the child to be sacrificed. Abraham had waited so many years to have a miraculous child with his aged wife, Sarah. He loved his son Isaac and would have done almost anything for him. Isaac is the blessed child, who G-d promised[xxxv] would inherit Abraham’s mantle, fortune and right to the land of Israel. He is to be the next stage of development of the nation, which Abraham founded. Is the good, gentle and kindhearted Patriarch of the new nation now supposed to sabotage all his dreams and blessings by killing his own wonderful son?
Abraham must have struggled mightily to obtain the proper motivation to deliver a believable performance. His challenge was to make it real, because there were those who said the reason Abraham did not sacrifice his son like everyone else was because he was somewhat deficient in his belief and devotion to G-d. Abraham pored himself into the role to act genuinely in character; so much so that one of G-d’s angels became concerned he might actually have consummated the deed[xxxvi].
The Midrash Rabbah[xxxvii] provides the back-story for how Abraham prepared for this role. It begins with posing the challenging inquiry of how could Abraham purport to sacrifice the son given to him at one hundred years of age and insinuating he must have lost his mind. Abraham’s response is that he received the child with this understanding and thus was going forward with G-d’s request. The Midrash goes on to posit, but, where does it end; if G-d asks more of Abraham will it not eventually break his resolve? In essence, why continue; why not stop now, because eventually there will be something asked that Abraham will perforce refuse. Abraham responds he is willing to withstand more too. The Midrash concludes this discussion by posing the ultimate challenge that in the end, if Abraham does in fact go through with the sacrifice of his son, then G-d will just turn on him and blame him for being a murderer. Abraham’s answer is that this too is the understanding.
Abraham somehow found the motivation he needed so as to deliver a most convincing performance, which appeared real, because it actually was real. He fully assumed the role and became the character he was to portray. Thus, in the moment, Abraham was truly able to sacrifice his son, despite his natural predisposition and ethic of being thoroughly and immutably against any such reprehensible practice.
The Midrash goes on to describe how Isaac went through a similar process. He first had to recognize the fact that his father was about to sacrifice him. The image of a forlorn mother is invoked in an effort to dissuade him from participating. Isaac’s response is that this is indeed his understanding. Isaac’s emotions are further stoked by the suggestion that if he was gone, then the fine garments his mother made for him would be inherited by his rival Ishmael. This is a particularly sensitive allusion. As the Talmud[xxxviii] records, the precipitating cause for Isaac’s role in this drama resulted from a contretemps between Isaac and Ishmael. It seems that Ishmael was belittling Isaac by touting his own sacrifice, in acceding to being circumcised at thirteen years of age. He notes that Isaac was only eight days old and had no say in the matter. Isaac retorts that Ishmael merely sacrificed a minuscule piece of flesh and he, Isaac, was willing to sacrifice his entire body to G-d. Isaac is a tough guy; but in offering to sacrifice his life to win a dare contest, he may have been less than circumspect and exhibited a lack of wisdom. Nevertheless, he was primed to play the role of the stoic self-sacrificing son, unflinchingly willing to be offered as a sacrifice by his father.
Isaac was likely thirty-seven years of age[xxxix] at the time. Like Abraham, Isaac was similarly challenged to act in a manner inconsistent with his ordinary character and demeanor. He was not the one who was supposed to go gently into the night. He was the strong one, who believed in strict justice[xl] and was willing to fight and sacrifice himself for a just cause. As the Bible[xli] later describes him and some of his exploits, he is a very successful farmer, cattleman and businessman. He is unyielding in the face of wrongdoing and does not back down. When the Philistines, who are jealous of his success, bury the wells that his father Abraham dug, he digs them up again. As a young, strong and vibrant individual, in the prime of life, he could easily have overpowered his aging father. However, instead, he not only cooperated in his own ritual slaughter, according to the Midrash Tanchuma[xlii], he actually stretched out his own neck to receive the blade. The Midrash Rabbah[xliii] also notes that it was Isaac’s idea to be tied up hand and foot in order not to flinch involuntarily and thereby spoil the sacrifice.
Thus, the scene is set for one of the most improbable dramatic presentations in the Bible. Whatever the preparatory process, as the Bible records, they were ready to and did credibly play the roles assigned to them. Abraham, the champion of the one G-d, who railed against human sacrifice, was voluntarily participating in the sacrifice of his son. Isaac, the consummate tough guy, known for his not taking guff from anyone, including Ishmael, was ready to surrender and be tied hand and foot by his very old father.
Father and son, with differing characters and personalities so at variance with the roles they are called upon to play, set out together to fulfill G-d’s plan. The Midrash[xliv] explains that when they approached Mount Moriah, Abraham asked Isaac whether he saw what Abraham saw and Isaac answered yes. Their united devotion to the mission was symbolized by their walking together, as one.
There are also subtler aspects to the lessons of the Akedah. There are limits to what may be done in the name of love or awe of G-d. Maimonides cautions that false prophets may arise preaching messages that are inconsistent with this principle and he urges don’t believe them. This message is particularly poignant in our times. G-d does not desire the faithful to drive a truck into innocent pedestrians in order to kill or maim them, in his name or otherwise. Proclaiming Allahu Akbar, while doing so, doesn’t change this basic truth. Anyone who says otherwise is not speaking in G-d’s name; don’t be misled.
Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi[xlv], further develops the theme of the Akedah expressed by Maimonides. He too explains that it was not a test to prove Abraham’s mettle. Rather, it was a means of publicizing the principle that G-d did not want human sacrifices. The Akedah was designed to inform the world of this fundamental principle of faith. In modern parlance, it was a teachable moment. It was designed to uproot, undermine and weaken the established, albeit mistaken, belief, embedded in the hearts of the people, that it was noble to sacrifice children to their deities.
The binding of Isaac symbolically adds a further dimension to this ethic. Self-sacrifice may seem entirely noble, but there are also limits on this kind of seemingly virtuous behavior. It is not always wise for a person to sacrifice his or her self for a cause. Like most things in life, these are not casual decisions that can be made on a whim. The Talmud[xlvi] is extremely circumspect on when self-sacrifice is appropriate. In this regard, consider the circumstances of Isaac’s argument with Ishmael prior to the occurrence of the Akeida, reported in the Talmud, as noted above. It appears to have been foolish for Isaac to offer to sacrifice himself to win what amounts to a childish dare contest about who was more courageous. Yet, as the Talmud notes, it precipitated the Akeida. While, this may appear to be a harsh punishment for an irresponsible and imprudent boast, in the context of this analysis, it provides a compelling reason for Isaac’s participation in this dramatic presentation. It may also help explain another esoteric description of what occurred at the Akeidah, recorded in the Zohar[xlvii].
The Zohar notes that Isaac was born with a soul derived from the left side. At the Akeida, his soul was replaced with one from the right side. Like most esoteric works, the language used cannot just be taken literally. Often there are code words used that are intended to convey a conceptual theme or communicate an abstract idea. In this case, it is suggested that the terms left and right may have a number of nuanced gradations of meaning.
The Talmud[xlviii] discusses left and right in the context of a person’s nature, as symbolically represented by the two kidneys. Thus, a person’s wicked nature and impulses are ascribed to the left kidney and the seat of a person’s good nature and impulses is said to be the right one.
The Midrash[xlix] offers a variety of further interpretations that expand the meaning of left and right, beyond just right or wrong. As King Solomon notes in Ecclesiastes[l], wisdom is associated with the term right and foolishness with the term left. The Midrash also notes that the left is associated with the acquisition of wealth and material success; while, the right is associated with acquiring Torah and spiritual success.
It is suggested that in the case of Isaac, the soul from the left side represents unrestrained strength, not tempered by wisdom, which is easily triggered and can foolishly be applied to yield unfortunate results. Replacing it with a soul from the right side, within the context of the Binding of Isaac, symbolizes a transformational process. Isaac, endowed with strength and a heroic character, comes to recognize his instinctual response of self-sacrifice must be restrained and applied wisely. Being foolhardy in applying his prowess was not an ideal. Hence, it is Isaac, who demands to be bound. Among other things, it mitigates the possibility of being triggered into a wasted and foolish act of pure bravado[li]. As Avot[lii] so poignantly declares, who is a strong and heroic individual (a Gibor), a person who restrains his or her instinctual urges. After all, our guiding principle is, subject to extremely limited exceptions[liii], not to die for the religion; but rather to live by it[liv].
The Akeidah was a part of Isaac’s process of refinement of his innate character traits to achieve the quality of Gevurah[lv], which may be defined as constrained power. This required conditioning and training so as to become immunized from being triggered into any inappropriate behavioral responses. The Akedah was the equivalent of a live-fire exercise in military training, for Isaac. It was a real knife Abraham was wielding and any wrong move by Isaac, whether because of hubris or involuntary flinching could have resulted in catastrophic consequences. This was a serious business and an unemotional and sober attitude, as well as, physical restraint was required to avoid unintended harm. To complete his training, Isaac also needed a change of perspective, away from his past life and habits. He had to develop new and improved patterns of behavior, which would enable him to become the exemplar of Gevurah. Thus, Isaac did not immediately return home with Abraham, after the Akedah. Instead, as the Midrash Rabbah[lvi] reports, he went to the Academy of Shem V’Ever to study for three years[lvii].
The Shaarei Orah[lviii] points out that it took both Abraham and Isaac, acting together, to bring this message home to the world. Abraham’s character is associated with kindness and compassion, which is equated to the divine attribute of mercy. Isaac’s character is associated with strength, which is equated to strict justice. The Bible relates how Abraham grabbed hold of the fire and the knife. These were Isaac’s weapons of war. In essence, Abraham was, symbolically, tempering Isaac’s innate strength and the power of strict judgment, by softening it with kindness and mercy. Unbridled strength that is not tempered with goodness is not a virtue. The world cannot function based only on ruthlessly enforced judgments, because if this were the case then it would have been destroyed long ago. The attribute of mercy is what keeps so many alive and able to repent and earn forgiveness. The combination of these virtues is represented by Isaac assisting Abraham to tie him up. Their walking together represented the symbiosis they achieved, which better enabled them to face the world and overcome its challenges.
Has the world changed so much since then? There are still some terrorist regimes who enslave children, brain wash them with an ideology of violence, akin to idolatry and coerce them into being terrorists. Is that any less a form of human sacrifice? An even more glaring example are the modern suicide bombers and their mentors. Instead of treasuring life, they operate on the assumption that killing people, in an act of so-called martyrdom, is the quickest and surest way to enjoy heavenly delights. There are those who honor them and celebrate the taking of innocent lives. Don’t they understand that G-d abhors human sacrifice? Even more mystifying are the educated and cultured individuals, who should know better and yet sometimes justify or otherwise condone these terrorist acts. Don’t they appreciate they are helping to perpetuate the canard that this form of human sacrifice is somehow acceptable?
We are enjoined not to take the life of others[lix] or blithely sacrifice our own lives. We treasure life and the opportunity to do good deeds and the other Mitzvot; so as to live by them. May we so be blessed.
[i] Dated 1655.
[ii] Dated 1635.
[iii] Genesis 22:1-19.
[iv] It is recited daily and featured as the Torah portion on Rosh Hashanah. It is also a regular part of the annual cycle of Torah reading in Parshat Vayera.
[v] Abraham had other sons besides Isaac, including Ishmael with Hagar (Genesis 16:15) and others (Genesis 15:1-6) with Keturah (according to Rashi, Keturah was Hagar, as noted in his commentary on Genesis 25:1). However, Isaac was his only son with Sara (BT Sanhedrin 89a).
[vi] BT Sanhedrin 89b.
[vii] Genesis 22:2.
[viii] Genesis 18:22-32.
[ix] It literally means bring him (Isaac) up to an Olah, not as an Olah.
[x] Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 22:1. See also Bechor Shor commentary on Genesis 22:2.
[xi] See Deuteronomy 12:31. See also Leviticus 18:21 and 20:3 and Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:5.
[xii] See the Chizkuni and Haemek Davar commentaries on Deuteronomy 12:31. See also Sifrei Devarim 81:6.
[xiii] See Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 56.
[xiv] In his commentary on Genesis 21:1.
[xvi] See also Bechor Shor commentary on 22:12.
[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, at page 4a and Rashi commentary thereon. In this regard it should be noted that the ram caught up in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13), which was ultimately sacrificed by Abraham, was a part of G-d’s master plan of creation (see Avot 5:6).
[xviii] Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi, in the Gevia’ Kesef, noted below, points out that Abraham never lit the fire for the sacrifice, as a precaution, so that the smoke wouldn’t accidentally suffocate Isaac.
[xix] This analysis assumes Abraham observed the Torah, as reported in Mishna (Kiddushin 4:14), Talmud (BT Kiddushin 82a, Yevamot 67b and Yoma 28b, as well as, JT Kiddushin 48a) and Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 64:4), based on Genesis 26:5. It should also be noted that the Bible (Genesis 8:20) refers to Noah bringing ‘Olah’ sacrifices. This is in contradistinction to the sacrificial offerings made by Abel and Cain (Genesis 4:3-4), which are referred to as Mincha offerings. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that there were traditions and rituals associated with each type of named offering. Moreover, Isaac remarks to Abraham (Genesis 22:7) noting the presence of the wood and the fire and asking but where is the sheep ‘L’Olah’. This indicates a familiarity with a prescribed ritual.
[xx] Deuteronomy 1:8.
[xxi] Genesis 22:9 and see Rashi commentary thereon.
[xxii] BT Shabbos 54a.
[xxiii] Deuteronomy 1:11.
[xxiv] Deuteronomy 1:6.
[xxv] Deuteronomy 1:5.
[xxvi] Deuteronomy 1:7.
[xxvii] Deuteronomy 1:8
[xxviii] See, for example, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s work, Mikveh Israel, Section 33, which refers to Maimonides.
[xxix] See, for example, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s work, Mikveh Israel, where he cites the Abarbanel in Section 2, as well as, his work, Mission to Oliver Cromwell, where he refers to the Abarbanel in Sections 28 and 32. It should also be noted that his wife, Rachel, was a member of the Abarbanel family.
[xxx] Abarbanel, Genesis, Parshat Vayera, Chapter 22.
[xxxi] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:24.
[xxxii] See also Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 22:1.
[xxxiii] See Sefrei Devarim 81:6. See also Chizkuni and Haemek Davar commentaries on Deuteronomy 12:31.
[xxxiv] See also Don’t Sacrifice the Children, by the author, in The Times of Israel, The Blogs, dated November 3. 2017.
[xxxv] Genesis 17:19.
[xxxvi] Genesis 22:12.
[xxxvii] Genesis Rabbah 56:4.
[xxxviii] BT Sanhedrin 89b.
[xxxix] See Bereishis Rabbah, Chapter 55, which states that Isaac was age 37 at the time of his argument with Ishmael, noted above. The Akedah occurred thereafter. See also Genesis 23:1, which records that Sarah was 127 years of age at the time of her passing on, after hearing about the Akedah. Since, as noted in Genesis 17:17, Sarah was 90 years of age at the time of Isaac’s birth that would make him approximately 37 years of age at the time of the Akedah. The Targum Yonatan on Genesis 22:1, though, states Isaac was age 36 at the time of his argument with Ishmael. Ibn Ezra (in his commentary on Genesis 22:5), though, argues he was only about 13.
[xl] These are definitions of the term “Gevurah”, a quality, which is ascribed to Isaac. See Zohar on Parshat Lech Lecha, in Volume 1, at page 39a, of the Aramaic/Hebrew edition, by R’ Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg.
[xli] Genesis 26:12-15.
[xlii] Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso, Siman 16, Vaetchanana 6:1 and Ki Tisa 24:4. See also Rashi commentary on Exodus 32:13 and Sefer HaYasher, Genesis, Vayera 20.
[xliii] Genesis Rabbah 56:8.
[xliv] Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 56.
[xlv] In his work, Gevia Kesef, Chapter XIV (Page 217, et. seq. of the translation by R’ Basil Herring, published by Ktav in1982).
[xlvi] BT Bava Kamma 91b.
[xlvii] Zohar, Pekudei 2:257a and 227b.
[xlviii] BT Brachot 61a
[xlix] Numbers Rabbah 22:9.
[l] Ecclesiastes 10:2.
[li] See Rav David Tzi Hoffman commentary on Genesis 22:1-19.
[lii] Avot 4:1.
[liii] BT Bava Kamma 91b.
[liv] Leviticus 18:5. See also BT Sanhedrin 74a, as well as, Yoma 85b (regarding saving a life overrides the strictures of the Sabbath).
[lv] The term Gevurah as used in the Zohar represents the stage of creation where the pure energy of creation is constrained in order to give form to matter.
[lvi] Genesis Rabbah 56:11. See also Targum Yonatan and Haemek Davar commentary on Genesis 22:19.
[lvii] At age forty, Isaac marries Rebecca, as recorded in Genesis 25:20.
[lviii] A kabbalistic work by Rav Yosef Gikatillah, in the Fifth Gate, Sixth Sefirah, 54.
[lix] Exodus 20:30 and Deuteronomy 5:17.