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Abraham and Moral Obedience

Caravaggio Depicts the Patriarch's Inner Turmoil

Michelle Mueller
December 1, 2006

Introduction

The story of Abraham and Isaac is a classic tale about a father and son, and a human's struggle to follow the Lord's commands. The tale contains several themes, which form a firm foundation for theological reflection. In this essay, I will evaluate those themes, specifically piety and blind obedience. Most versions of the story uphold Abraham as a pious follower of the Lord. Biblical scripture offers a written account of the story, but artistic representations are also useful in a moral analysis of the story.

The text of Genesis prefers the values of piety and blind obedience. Two paintings by the Italian artist, Bartolomeo Caravaggio, express the virtues of piety, obedience, and internal strife. Abraham follows the Lord's command, but he looks towards the angel with gratitude when he stops him from sacrificing Isaac. Caravaggio thus demonstrates Abraham's turmoil. Although Abraham follows the Lord's command, he at least has some regrets about sacrificing his son. Abraham wishes to please the Lord, but Abraham prefers to allow his son to live than to murder him at God's command.

In this essay, I will summarize the story of the sacrifice, drawing on Biblical Scripture and legend. The two paintings by Caravaggio will feature as the main objects of reflection in this essay, but a few biblical scholars will assist my analysis. Because I have written this paper for a course on Christian Iconography, I have chosen one Biblical story with two graphic representations, in order to conduct a full analysis. Caravaggio has chosen one story and has determined an ethical standpoint, from which to examine the story. After Caravaggio thought about the story, Caravaggio then put his ideas into his artwork. An examination of Caravaggio's work will add to the work of this course because the readers of this essay will see how one painter can present theological values through painting.

Summary of the Sacrifice in Genesis

In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the Lord orders Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. According to Genesis, Abraham does not carry out the execution of his son, although he intended to. An angel stops Abraham from following through with the task. It turns out that the Lord never intended for Abraham to sacrifice his son, and that the Lord had only asked for Abraham to do so in order to test Abraham.

The text of Genesis clearly describes the great sacrifice the Lord has asked Abraham to perform. The text reads: "He said, 'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.'" (Genesis 22:1-3). The Lord emphasizes that Isaac is the most revered being in Abraham's life. The Lord describes Abraham's son Isaac as the one "whom you love." The Lord knows that Isaac is a weakness for Abraham.

Yet, Abraham does not hesitate to sacrifice Isaac, who is supposedly the one whom Abraham loves! The verse continues, "So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac…" (Genesis 22:3). Abraham shows very little remorse at the request to sacrifice his son. Many scholars have examined the exchanges between the angel, Abraham, and Isaac.

In The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel comments on the importance of Isaac in Abraham's life. Regarding the line, "your only son Isaac, whom you love," (Genesis 22:2), Shalom Spiegel explains, the greater the sacrifice, the greater the loss (Spiegel, 71). Because Abraham is asked to sacrifice the being who is closest to him, his own progeny, the Lord has asked Abraham to place his devotion to the Lord above all other matters of importance in his life. Were Isaac not a treasure in Abraham's life, the sacrifice would carry much less meaning.

According to legend, the Lord gave Isaac to Abraham when his wife Sarah proved barren. The child was then a special gift, a miraculous new being whose birth Abraham and Sarah did not foresee. The sacrifice then becomes a reversal of the Lord's gift. The Lord asks Abraham to return the favor: to sacrifice the child he had given to the couple when the couple otherwise had little hope. Although the Lord reclaims a special gift to the family, the child Isaac also mirrors the covenant between the Lord and Abraham. The child is a symbol of their bond, for Isaac was the fulfillment of Abraham's wishes.

Spiegel stresses the importance of Isaac in Abraham's life. Spiegel presents a tormented character, a father asked to sacrifice his only son. From my perspective, however, Abraham does not seem that complicated a character. In Genesis 22, Abraham does not hesitate to sacrifice his son. Abraham barely even questions God here. Abraham seems fairly like a thoughtless donkey, ready to follow the Lord's command. The text presents Abraham in this episode as a devout follower. The text congratulates Abraham for following through with the Lord's commands, even if this particular command was only a test.

Fortunately for Isaac, the Lord is not as cruel as he appears in the beginning of the chapter. The Lord's angel stops Abraham from slaying Isaac, and all live happily for at least a little while longer (Genesis 22:12-13). Because Abraham proves that he would heed the Lord's request, Abraham passed the test. The Lord did not actually want Abraham to sacrifice his son, but he wanted to know that Abraham feared him. Because Abraham was so ready to sacrifice his only son, Abraham proved that he was ready to surrender to the Lord's will.

In this paper, I would like to evaluate the values of piety and blind obedience. In the paragraphs above, I have included direct verses from the Biblical passage, but in the following sections, I will analyze those particular values as they appear in artistic representations of the sacrifice of Isaac. The text provides a foundation for the analysis; the paintings will act as the actual "sites" for discussion. In Genesis, Abraham expresses blind obedience until the angel intervenes.

Every artist who represents the sacrifice of Isaac will project one's own interpretation of the sacrifice into the work. In this essay, I will analyze two of Bartolomeo Caravaggio's paintings in light of the ideas I have expressed above. I have included a copy of the two paintings at the end of this essay. Please see the final page so that you may follow the comments on the artwork. In order to draw conclusions from Caravaggio, I will examine Abraham's facial expressions and will study the exchange between Abraham and the angel.

Analysis of Caravaggio's Paintings

Bartolomeo Caravaggio painted two significant works depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, one in 1598 and the latter in 1603. (Both paintings share the title, "Sacrifice of Isaac.") In each, Abraham looks directly into the face of the angel, from whom Abraham takes direction. Although Caravaggio presents Abraham as a strong, bold man, Abraham has no issue looking towards the petite angel for guidance. Caravaggio's paintings are a mix of horror (Abraham having tied down his son and holding him by the hair or by the back of his neck forcefully) and angelic innocence. In the earlier painting, the angel appears with a glowing expression on his face. The angel seems to speak softly to Abraham and is able to cause the patriarch to release Isaac.

Both paintings expose the sincere connection between the angel and Abraham. Abraham's quickness to heed to the angel's directions show a softness in Abraham's character. Balancing the three characters, Caravaggio is able to portray Abraham's strength as well as his softness in one painting. The combination of these characteristics enhance a moral discussion of Abraham's actions. The moral theologian feels torn: does Abraham act piously, or does Abraham act cruelly without thinking? The artist Caravaggio asks the same question the moral theologian would. Because Caravaggio is an artist, he is able to ask the question through his painting, and does not need to provide an answer.

Viewing Caravaggio's paintings, the observer might feel the same curiosity the reader of Genesis 22 experiences. The interpreter experiences confusion over Abraham's actions. Does Abraham feel relieved when the angel appears to stop him? Had Abraham been hoping for the Lord's command to have been a test? Both the binding around Isaac's waist, Abraham's firm grip around his son's neck, and passages from the text indicate that Abraham feels quite ready to slay Isaac. Yet, Abraham's gaze into the angel's eyes show that Abraham does not mind a call to pause.

The later painting (1603) shows Abraham and the angel in a slightly altered posture. Caravaggio again presents Abraham looking intently at the angel, but Abraham faces forward so that the viewer is able to see Abraham's expression. Abraham looks stern, yet faces the angel intently. The angel is a messenger of God, and although he is a small being, the angel manifests God's strength. The patriarch Abraham stops immediately and heeds the angel.

Through his paintings, Caravaggio was able to demonstrate some of Abraham's emotions. Caravaggio presents Abraham's strength, as well as his feeling of submission to the Lord and his inner turmoil. The softness in Abraham's gaze when facing the angel represents his readiness to stop the action. Although Abraham, a pious devotee, would sacrifice Isaac to the Lord, he would prefer to halt than to carry through with the action. When the angel interferes, Abraham looks towards the angel with gratitude and reverence. The expressions on Abraham's, Isaac's, and the angel's face reveal the many emotions of the story cycle.

In Caravaggio's two paintings, Isaac appears in opposing poses. In the later painting (dated 1603), Caravaggio depicts Isaac in a trapped position. There is a painful expression on his face, since his father Abraham holds Isaac down forcefully. Yet, in its parallel (dated 1598, included in the Piasecka-Johnson Collection), Isaac seems slightly freer and observes Abraham and the angel. Here, there might be an element of voluntary submission in Isaac's participation in the sequence. Although the scene still toys with the idea of Isaac's death, the characters seem calm. Isaac, pinned down, looks earnestly towards the other two, who will determine his fate. Isaac seems either too trusting or too overwhelmed by the experience to express fear or to fight his father's grip. The expression and posture of Isaac in this painting echo the Midrashic theory that Isaac offered himself as a sacrifice willingly.[1] Furthermore, this earlier painting turns the tale into folly. Since Isaac does not appear threatened, the scene seems less terrifying. Once an author or artist exaggerates the folly of a story, the reader or viewer is able to enjoy the playful aspects of the story. The interpreter turns away from the grave aspects of the Sacrifice of Isaac, and the Akedah becomes a metaphor for surprises in life.

Jo Milgrom, on the Sacrifice

Jo Milgrom, another biblical scholar, has written extensively about the sacrifice of Isaac and Abraham. Milgrom writes, "Through each discourse we are witness to the polarity of Abraham's devotion, his love of God and his love of his child" (16). Milgrom believes that the story presents Abraham's love for both.

Towards the middle of Milgrom's text, Milgrom defines myths and his thoughts on the making of myths. (See pages 164-169.) Milgrom discusses the Garden of Eden; The Tree of Knowledge; and universal knowledge. Milgrom thinks broadly about biblical themes, in relation to Isaac and Abraham. In this particular text, Milgrom focuses on The Binding of Isaac, which scholars have titled, The Akedah. For this paper, Milgrom's analysis of The Akedah is most important, but some consideration of Milgrom's theological perspective would also help the reader contextualize Milgrom.

Milgrom writes of Eve and of notions of morality, obedience, and disobedience. Although in this section, Milgrom writes about a different biblical story, some of Milgrom's concerns of Adam and Eve reoccur in an analysis of Isaac and Abraham. In the story of Adam and Eve, the theologian would wrestle with Eve's rejection of the Lord's decree. In the case of Isaac and Abraham, the ethicist would debate over Abraham's readiness to serve the Lord versus his mistreatment of his son Isaac. Had Abraham not demonstrated the will to serve the Lord, Abraham would have acted disobediently, just as Eve did.

In the case of Adam and Eve, the pair subversively (come up with a better verb here) gained by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The couple gained understanding of the world, although it cost them their stay in the Garden of Eden. With Isaac and Abraham, Abraham and Isaac both gained because the angel stopped Abraham. Abraham was able to keep his son, and Isaac was spared his life.

Conclusion

Before the description of the sacrifice, there is a scene in Genesis whereby the Lord leads Abraham outdoors and promises a bright future with many children. The text reads, "He [the Lord] brought him [Abraham] outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:5-6). The verses above place weight on Abraham's unconditional belief in the Lord. The Lord considers Abraham's automatic belief righteous behavior. Again, these verses emphasize the religious values of total obedience and blind trust in the Lord. In the case of the sacrifice, Abraham believes that whatever the Lord requests has a greater purpose. When the Lord asks that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son, Abraham assumes that the sacrifice is for the greater good. Although the Lord has just asked that he commit an atrocious act, Abraham has so much faith in the Lord that he immediately responds to the request. One could even say that Abraham acts enthusiastically.

The Akedah (the story of Isaac and Abraham) teaches about sacrifice, piety, and trust in the Lord. Abraham earnestly followed the Lord's commands. Abraham did not understand why the Lord would ask him to sacrifice his son, but Abraham had so much faith that he assumed there was a greater purpose. Finally, the Lord sent an angel to stop Abraham, and he and his son lived happily afterwards. The reader of the tale (or the viewer of the artwork) is left to ponder the values tossed around in the story. Abraham's actions have left an imprint on the reader's memory. Anyone who knows the story of Isaac and Abraham will continue to reflect on its morals. Themes from the story will often reappear and resurface in the life of the reader. On these occasions, those familiar with the story will call on it for guidance.


Bibliography

Bodoff, Lippman. "The real test of the Akedah: Blind obedience versus moral choice." Judaism: Winter 1993; 42, 1.

Caravaggio, Bartolomeo. "Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio).", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Translated by David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Genesis 22. The HarperCollins Study Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Edited by Wayne A. Meeks. New York, NY: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling, and Repetition. Edited by Robert L. Perkins. Imprint Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993.

Klossowski, Pierre. The Baphomet. Translated by Sophie Hawkes and Stephen Sartarelli. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1988.

Lee, Kristina Jo. "Unbinding the Akedah." A Senior Thesis Presented to the Religion and Philosophy Department, Culver-Stockton College. Canton, MO: November 2004.

Milgrom, Jo. The Binding of Isaac. The Akedah – A Primary Symbol in Jewish Thought and Art. Berkeley, CA: Bibal Press, 1988.

Perkins, Robert L. "Abraham's Silence Aesthetically Conceived." In International Kierkegaard Commentary. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993.

Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.

Spiegel, Shalom. The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: The Akedah. Translated from the Hebrew, with an introduction, by Judah Goldin. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.