Akedat Yitzchak ~ exploring the Binding of Isaac ~ session 3/10 ~ art and consequences

This session explores the characters of the story.

It might become two sessions depending on how long the discussion on the pictures below take.

Participants need the handout with the text from the first class for reference.

Depending on the size of the group, you might assign havrutot or breakout groups for a few of the pictures.

1. Why would the age of Isaac be important?

2. Look the following depictions of the story.

- How old is Isaac in each one?

- What does this piece tell you about Isaac, besides his age?

- What about Abraham, how is he depicted, besides his age?

- What are details in the pictures that are missing from the original story?

Mosaic at Beit Alpha synagogue, Bizantine period, Israel, 7th-8th century

Limestone, 11th century Church of St. Foy, Conques France

Icelandic manuscript, 14th century

Mantegna, Andrea1431-1506 - The Sacrifice of Isaac (c1490-1495)

12th century, Canterbury Cathedral, Stained Glass window

Sacrifice of Isaac. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1603

Sacrifice of Isaac. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1598 (but maybe by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi)

Rijn, Rembrandt Van. The Sacrifice of Abraham. Oil on canvas. 193.5 x 133.8 cm. c. 1635. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Jan Victors, Abraham and Isaac Before the Sacrifice, 1642, Oil on Canvas, 69x65 cm, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

19th century - St. John's Anglican Church, New South Wales

Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son; Marc CHAGALL; 1960-66; watercolour; Musée national Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Richard McBee: Akeidah Cloud, 1996, Oil on canvas, 24" X 24", Israel Bible Museum

Alan Falk. The Binding Of Isaac (The Akedah). Oil on Canvas. 69"x 48. C. 2002.

Binding of Isaac, Will Deutsch, 21st c.

The Sacrifice of Abraham - He Qi, NY, 2013

Editable stroke for sale - Sacrifice of Abraham, 21st c.

Isaac's age

One of the most important clues to Isaac's age during these events, is the context of the story.

Immediately after “the binding of Isaac” in chapter 22, we read that Sarah, his mother, died. 23:1 tells us that she was 127 years old at her death. Verse 17:17 tells us that she was 90 years old when Isaac was born. Therefore, Isaac would have been about 37 years old. We will see a midrash that actually states that.

The word “lad”/ “boy”

In the English translations of the text of Genesis, the word “lad” or “boy” is used to describe Isaac (22:5). In Hebrew, this is the word: na'ar. The New King James translation has a note in the text to indicate that this could also be translated with the words: "young man".

Exactly the same Hebrew word "na’ar" appears two verses earlier in 22:3. This is translated as “servants”, who could not have been children in any sense, as there was only one donkey, and Isaac and Abraham’s servants had to carry the wood on the three day journey. The area they traveled through on the approach to Jerusalem is dangerous, rocky, mountainous and mostly uphill. The Hebrew word "na’ar" is most commonly used to refer to a man who is not yet married. It is in some way similar to the English word “bachelor”. “Na’ar” does not give an indication of age, as we can see from the various contexts in which it appears in the Bible: it is used to describe everyone from the baby Moses to trained men of war.

Abraham, an old man of 137, could never subdue and tie up a young strong thirty something year old Isaac by himself. Isaac chose, of his own free will to obey his father. Isaac chose to do what his father asked of him, and in doing so, to lay down his own life. He was not forced to.

For the Jewish tradition, both father and son choose to do what God asks, and that is what makes the Akeda a mythic moment for our tradition. We will see more about this in another session.

The Midrashim look at the test
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם (בראשית כב, א), כְּתִיב (תהלים ס, ו): נָתַתָּה לִּירֵאֶיךָ נֵס לְהִתְנוֹסֵס מִפְּנֵי קשֶׁט סֶלָּה, נִסָּיוֹן אַחַר נִסָּיוֹן, וְגִדּוּלִין אַחַר גִּדּוּלִין, בִּשְׁבִיל לְנַסּוֹתָן בָּעוֹלָם, בִּשְׁבִיל לְגַדְּלָן בָּעוֹלָם, כַּנֵּס הַזֶּה שֶׁל סְפִינָה. וְכָל כָּךְ לָמָּה, מִפְּנֵי קשֶׁט, בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְקַשֵּׁט מִדַּת הַדִּין בָּעוֹלָם, שֶׁאִם יֹאמַר לְךָ אָדָם לְמִי שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה לְהַעֲשִׁיר מַעֲשִׁיר, לְמִי שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה מַעֲנִי, וּלְמִי שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה הוּא עוֹשֶׂה מֶלֶךְ, אַבְרָהָם כְּשֶׁרָצָה עֲשָׂאוֹ מֶלֶךְ, כְּשֶׁרָצָה עֲשָׂאוֹ עָשִׁיר, יָכוֹל אַתְּ לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ וְלוֹמַר לוֹ יָכוֹל אַתְּ לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמוֹ שֶׁעָשָׂה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר מֶה עָשָׂה, וְאַתְּ אוֹמֵר לוֹ (בראשית כא, ה): וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן מְאַת שָׁנָה בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ, וְאַחַר כָּל הַצַּעַר הַזֶּה נֶאֱמַר לוֹ (בראשית כב, ב): קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ וְלֹא עִכֵּב, הֲרֵי נָתַתָּה לִּירֵאֶיךָ נֵס לְהִתְנוֹסֵס.
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested [nisah] Avraham (Gen. 21:1). It is written, “You have given a nes (flag, banner) to those who fear You, that it may be displayed [lehithnoses] because of truth [koshet], selah” (Ps. 60:6): this means, trial after trial, greatness after greatness, in order to test them in the world and exalt them in the world like a ship’s flag. And why all this? ‘Because of truth, selah’: so that the attribute of justice [din] may be verified [titkashet] in the world. Thus, if one says: ‘Whom God wishes to enrich, God enriches; to impoverish, God impoverishes; whom God desires God makes into a king; when God wished, God made Avraham wealthy, and when God wished God made him a king!’ Then you can answer that person and say, ‘Can you do what Avraham did?’ And the person would ask: 'What did he do?' and you say: "Avraham was a hundred years old, when his son Itzchak was born to him" (Gen. 21:5); yet after all this pain it was said to him: "Take, please, your son, your only son" (22:2), yet he did not refuse. This is ‘You have given a flag to those who fear You, that it may be displayed’.

~ How does this midrash understand the "test"?

~ To whom is the test for?

ה' צַדִּיק יִבְחָן וְרָשָׁע וְאֹהֵב חָמָס שָׂנְאָה נַפְשׁוֹ (תהלים יא, ה), אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן הַפִּשְׁתָּנִי הַזֶּה כְּשֶׁפִּשְׁתָּנוֹ לוֹקֶה אֵינוֹ מַקִּישׁ עָלָיו בְּיוֹתֵר מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהִיא פּוֹקַעַת, וּכְשֶׁפִּשְׁתָּנוֹ יָפֶה הוּא מַקִּישׁ עָלָיו בְּיוֹתֵר, לָמָּה שֶׁהִיא מִשְׁתַּבַּחַת וְהוֹלֶכֶת. כָּךְ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינוֹ מְנַסֶּה אֶת הָרְשָׁעִים, לָמָּה שֶׁאֵין יְכוֹלִין לַעֲמֹד, דִּכְתִיב (ישעיה נז, כ): וְהָרְשָׁעִים כַּיָּם נִגְרָשׁ, וְאֶת מִי מְנַסֶּה אֶת הַצַּדִּיקִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ה' צַדִּיק יִבְחָן, (בראשית לט, ז): וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָֹּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו וגו'. וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן הַיּוֹצֵר הַזֶּה כְּשֶׁהוּא בּוֹדֵק אֶת הַכִּבְשָׁן שֶׁלּוֹ אֵינוֹ בּוֹדֵק אֶת הַכֵּלִים הַמְרֹעָעִים, לָמָּה שֶׁאֵינוֹ מַסְפִּיק לְהָקִישׁ עָלָיו אַחַת עַד שֶׁהוּא שׁוֹבְרוֹ, וּמַה הוּא בּוֹדֵק בְּקַנְקַנִים בְּרוּרִים, שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ הוּא מַקִּישׁ עָלָיו כַּמָּה פְּעָמִים אֵינוֹ שׁוֹבְרוֹ, כָּךְ אֵין הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְנַסֶּה אֶת הָרְשָׁעִים אֶלָּא אֶת הַצַּדִּיקִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ה' צַדִּיק יִבְחָן. אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר לְבַעַל הַבַּיִת שֶׁהָיָה לוֹ שְׁתֵּי פָּרוֹת אַחַת כֹּחָהּ יָפֶה וְאַחַת כֹּחָהּ רָע, עַל מִי הוּא נוֹתֵן אֶת הָעֹל לֹא עַל אוֹתָהּ שֶׁכֹּחָהּ יָפֶה, כָּךְ אֵין הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְנַסֶּה אֶלָּא הַצַּדִּיקִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ה' צַדִּיק יִבְחָן.
Ad-nai tries the righteous; and His soul hates the evil ones and those who love violence (Ps. 11: 5). Rabbi Yonatan said: When a flax worker knows that his flax is of good quality, the more he beats it the more it improves and the more it glistens; but if it is of inferior quality, he cannot give it one knock without it splitting. Similarly, Ad-nai does not test the wicked - why? Because they cannot withstand it, as it is written "And the evil ones He expels like the sea" (Isaiah 57:20) and who does God test? The righteous, as it says "Ad-nai tries the righteous." "And it was, after these things, his master’s wife cast [tisah] [her eyes upon Yosef and said, “Lie with me."(Gen. 39:7)" "And it was, after these things" - Rabbi Yonatan said: A potter does not test defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he test? Only strong vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, the Holy One of Blessing does not test the wicked but the righteous, as it says, ‘Ad-nai tries the righteous.’ Rabbi Eleazar said: When a man possesses two cows, one strong and the other weak, on which one he puts the yoke? Surely on the strong one Similarly, God tests only the righteous, as it says, ‘Ad-nai tries the righteous.’

~ How does this midrash understand the "test"?

~ To whom is the test for?

דָּבָר אַחֵר, ה' צַדִּיק יִבְחָן, זֶה אַבְרָהָם, וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם. רַבִּי אָבוּן פָּתַח (קהלת ח, ד): בַּאֲשֶׁר דְּבַר מֶלֶךְ שִׁלְטוֹן וּמִי יֹאמַר לוֹ מַה תַּעֲשֶׂה, אָמַר רַבִּי אָבִין לְרַב שֶׁהָיָה מְצַוֶּה לְתַלְמִידוֹ וְאוֹמֵר לוֹ (דברים טז, יט): לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, וְהוּא מַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט. (דברים טז, יט): לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים, וְהוּא מַכִּיר פָּנִים. (דברים טז, יט): לֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד, וְהוּא לוֹקֵחַ שֹׁחַד. לֹא תַלְוֶה בְּרִבִּית, וְהוּא מַלְוֶה בְּרִבִּית. אָמַר לוֹ תַּלְמִידוֹ רַבִּי אַתָּה אוֹמֵר לִי לֹא תַלְוֶה בְּרִבִּית וְאַתְּ מַלְוֶה בְּרִבִּית, לָךְ שְׁרֵי וְלִי אֲסִירָא. אָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי אוֹמֵר לְךָ אַל תַּלְוֶה בְּרִבִּית לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲבָל תַּלְוֶה בְּרִבִּית לְעוֹבֵד כּוֹכָבִים, דִּכְתִיב (דברים כג, כא): לַנָּכְרִי תַשִׁיךְ וּלְאָחִיךָ לֹא תַשִּׁיךְ. כָּךְ אָמְרוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים כָּתַבְתָּ בְּתוֹרָתְךָ (ויקרא יט, יח): לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר, וְאַתְּ נוֹקֵם וְנוֹטֵר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (נחום א, ב): נֹקֵם ה' וּבַעַל חֵמָה, נוֹקֵם הוּא לְצָרָיו וְנוֹטֵר הוּא לְאֹיְבָיו. אָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֲנִי כָּתַבְתִּי בַּתּוֹרָה: לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, אֲבָל נוֹקֵם וְנוֹטֵר אֲנִי לְעוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים, (במדבר לא, ב): נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּתִיב (דברים ו, טז): לֹא תְנַסּוּ אֶת ה', וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם.

Another opinion: “The Lord tests the righteous.” – This is Abraham – “Sometime after these things, God tested Abraham.” R. Avin expounded: (Ecclesiastes 8:4) “Since a king's word is supreme, who can say to him: ‘What are you doing?’” – R. Avin said: [This may be compared] to a teacher who commands his student, saying to him: (Deuteronomy 16:19) “You shall not judge unfairly,” but [the teacher himself] judges unfairly; (Deuteronomy 16:19) “Do not take a bribe,” but [the teacher himself] takes a bribe; Do not lend on interest, but [the teacher himself] lends on interest. His student said to him: Rabbi, you said to me: Do not lend on interest, but you lend on interest? [Is it] permitted to you but forbidden to me? [The teacher] said to him: I said to you: Do not lend on interest to a Jew, but you may lend on interest to an idol worshipper, as it is written: (Deuteronomy 23:21) “You may lend on interest to a foreigner, but you may not lend on interest to your brother [Israelite].” Thus Israel said before The Holy One Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, you wrote in your Torah: (Leviticus 19:18) “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge,” but you take vengeance and bear a grudge, as it is said: (Nahum 1:2) “The Lord is vengeful and fierce in wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on His enemies.” The Holy One Blessed be He said to them: I wrote in the Torah: (Leviticus 19:18) “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen,” but I take vengeance against idol worshipers – (Numbers 31:2) “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites.” It is written: (Deuteronomy 6:16) “Do not test the Lord” – [but] “God tested Abraham.”

~ How does this midrash understand the "test"?

~ What questions does the midrash raise? How does it answer them?

(י) וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא ה' יִרְאֶה (בראשית כב, יד), רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר, אָמַר לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאָמַרְתָּ לִי (בראשית כב, ב): קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ, הָיָה לִי מַה לְּהָשִׁיב, אֶתְמוֹל אָמַרְתָּ (בראשית כא, כב): כִּי בְיִצְחָק וגו', וְעַכְשָׁו קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ וגו' וְחַס וְשָׁלוֹם לֹא עָשִׂיתִי כֵן אֶלָּא כָּבַשְׁתִּי רַחֲמַי לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ, יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּהְיוּ בָּנָיו שֶׁל יִצְחָק בָּאִים לִידֵי עֲבֵרוֹת וּמַעֲשִׂים רָעִים תְּהֵא נִזְכַּר לָהֶם אוֹתָהּ הָעֲקֵדָה וְתִתְמַלֵּא עֲלֵיהֶם רַחֲמִים. אַבְרָהָם קָרָא אוֹתוֹ יִרְאֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא ה' יִרְאֶה. שֵׁם קָרָא אוֹתוֹ שָׁלֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית יד, יח): וּמַלְכִּי צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אִם קוֹרֵא אֲנִי אוֹתוֹ יִרְאֶה כְּשֵׁם שֶׁקָּרָא אוֹתוֹ אַבְרָהָם, שֵׁם אָדָם צַדִּיק מִתְרָעֵם, וְאִם קוֹרֵא אֲנִי אוֹתוֹ שָׁלֵם, אַבְרָהָם אָדָם צַדִּיק מִתְרָעֵם, אֶלָּא הֲרֵינִי קוֹרֵא אוֹתוֹ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם כְּמוֹ שֶׁקָּרְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יִרְאֶה שָׁלֵם, יְרוּשָׁלַיִם. רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חֶלְבּוֹ אָמַר עַד שֶׁהוּא שָׁלֵם עָשָׂה לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא סֻכָּה וְהָיָה מִתְפַּלֵּל בְּתוֹכָהּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים עו, ג): וַיְהִי בְשָׁלֵם סֻכּוֹ וּמְעוֹנָתוֹ בְּצִיּוֹן, וּמָה הָיָה אוֹמֵר יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁאֶרְאֶה בְּבִנְיַן בֵּיתִי. דָּבָר אַחֵר, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהֶרְאָה לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ חָרֵב וּבָנוּי חָרֵב וּבָנוּי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא ה' יִרְאֶה, הֲרֵי בָּנוּי, הֵיךְ מָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (דברים טז, טז): שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה. אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר ה', הֲרֵי חָרֵב, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (איכה ה, יח): עַל הַר צִיּוֹן שֶׁשָּׁמֵם. ה' יֵרָאֶה, בָּנוּי וּמְשֻׁכְלָל לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא, כָּעִנְיָן שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קב, יז): כִּי בָנָה ה' צִיּוֹן נִרְאָה בִּכְבוֹדוֹ.

(10) "And Avraham called the name of the place "Ad-nai Yireh" [Ad-nai will see] (Gen. 22:14). Rabbi Yochanan said "he said to Him: 'Master of Worlds, at the hour that you said to me "Take please your son, your only son" (Gen. 22:2), I had what to respond. Yesterday You said "For through Itzchak [will I make your line great]" (Gen. 21:22) but now "Take please your son"!? And God forbid that I don't do as you've asked me; instead, I conquered my mercy to do Your will. May it be your will, Ad-nai our God, that in the hour when the sons of Itzchak come to do transgressions and bad deeds, that this very Binding [Akeidah] be remembered for them, and may You be filled with Mercy on them!' Avraham called it "Yireh", as it says "and Avraham called the name of the place Ad-nai Yireh." Shem called it Shalem, as it says "And Malchitzedek, the king of Shalem..."(Genesis 14:18) The Holy One of Blessing said "If I call it Yireh, as Avraham called it, then Shem, who was a righteous man, will become angry; and if I call it Shalem, Abraham, who was a righteous man, will be angry. Instead, I call it Yerushalayim [Jerusalem], as they called it together: Yireh Shalem. Jerusalem. Rabbi Berechiah said in Rabbi Helbo’s name: While it was Shalem, the Holy One of Blessing made for Godself a sukkah [booth] and prayed in it, since it says "In Shalem is set His tabernacle, and His dwelling-place in Tzion" (Psalms 76:3). And what did He say? ‘May it happen that I see the building of My house." Another interpretation: It [this verse] teaches that the Holy One of Blessing showed him the Temple destroyed and built, destroyed and build [a second time], since it says: "the name of that place Ad-nai Yireh" (Ad-nai sees): this is it built, as you say [the verse] "Three times in a year shall all your males be seen [yira'eh] (Deut. 16:16). "As it is said to this day in the Mountain of Ad-nai [is seen, Heb. yira'eh]" (Gen.22:14) This is it destroyed, as in the verse "on the mountain of Tzion, which is desolate" (Lam. 5:18). "Ad-nai is seen" this is it built and perfected in the future to come as the topic [in the verse] that is said: "When Ad-nai built Tzion, He will be seen in His glory" (Psalms 102:17).

~ How does this midrash understand the "test"?

~ What questions does the midrash raise? How does it answer them?