The way we imagine Abraham today is a problem. There is no single Abraham whose dignified portrait we can hang above the mantle, expecting him to gaze down approvingly on our interfaith salons and seminars. But what visual art can show us, more palpably than any other medium, is a multiplicity of Abrahams, figures who embrace and exclude each other at the same time.
Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son – known to Jews as the Akedah, to Christians as the Sacrifice of Isaac, and to Muslims as the Dhabih, is a major theme in the scriptures, and practices of all three faiths. For each religion—albeit in distinct ways—Abraham’s willingness to slaughter his son has come to be seen as the defining moment in the patriarch’s spiritual life. At the core of this story is a terrible divine demand, and a horrifying human willingness to execute it. Even the notion that this sequence of events constitutes a test for the patriarch—a major theme in each of the Abrahamic religions—leaves faith and obedience worryingly entwined with violence and bloodshed. For some commentators, this is compelling evidence of the “violent legacy of monotheism.” While it is reductive to read it as a cause of contemporary violence, the story does reinforce a logic which values religious commitment above the preservation of human life; a hierarchy with a dubious historical track record.
In the modern era, Marc Chagall has engaged with the binding, or sacrifice, perhaps more than any other artist. In his fullest treatment of the scene, The Sacrifice of Isaac(1960-66), Chagall depicts two angels. The first raises an arm in warning. The second—probably the same angel, a second later—swoops to earth with both arms urgently extended.
For all its Jewish resonances, Chagall makes a point of acknowledging the sacrifice’s centrality for both Christianity and Islam. Each of the three faiths, he seems to suggest, have a stake in this story. Yet the story itself, he intimates, may not be a tale of deliverance so much as a test gone horribly a wry, ending in flames
The image of a slaughtered Isaac has been a dominant motif in Zionist thought and Israeli culture. From the 1940s onward, it began to be used utilized paradoxically, according to one scholar, to express “both the slaughter of the Holocaust and the national warrior’s death in the old-new homeland.” In the eighties, the Lebanon War (1982)—regarded as a conflict of choice by many—served as the catalyst for another transformation, as Isaac was read as the victim of unnecessary sacrifice demanded by the State. Writers including A.B. Yehoshua, Yitzhak Laor, and Yehuda Amichai, and painters such as Avraham Ofek and Moshe Gershuni, recast Abraham as villain or patsy rather than hero.
A fuller version of this Essay appears in the Summer 2014 issue.
Dr. Aaron Rosen is the Lecturer in Sacred Traditions and the Arts at King’s College London. He is the author of Imagining Jewish Art (Legenda, 2009). His next book, Religion and Art since 2000, is forthcoming from Thames and Hudson.