Mosaic Storytelling and Genesis Twenty-two - Nomi Schneck

Nomi Schneck is looking at the beginning chapters of Genesis in both text and art as a model for the creative process. She asks, “How do the early stories of creation provide a framework for exploring humanity’s role in a divinely orchestrated world?” Over the course of the fellowship, Nomi has been working on an outline for this project, examining how Genesis 1-11 provides a structure of creation, destruction, and rebuilding. The following excerpt, from her dissertation-in-progress, lays out some of her methodological approaches for decoding biblical images.

Painted on the walls of Roman catacombs, formed with tesserae on the floors and walls of churches and synagogues, and shaped on the exteriors of sarcophagi in Late Antiquity, the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice in a range of material spaces indicates its relevance in navigating issues revolving around both life and death.1 While iconographic studies trace the relationship between images from the same story and textual studies identify possible understandings of the story, neither address the exclusivity of the image as forming a unique telling of a story.2 A focus on narratological structures points to how a story is told, rather than simply what story is told. Details such as composition of scenes, presentation of characters, juxtaposition of images, and spatial context highlights how each visual rendition of Genesis 22 is not simply a narrative telling, but a narrative retelling, adjusted to a specific space and community.3

A comparison of the fifth-century Sepphoris synagogue’s rendition of Genesis 22 with two other Late Antique depictions of the same story will highlight how narratological structures provide access to reading an image in its specific context. Even without knowing artist’s intentions or communal receptions, narratological structures provide an interpretive method of the visual material that avoids generic interpretations through either imposing relevant texts onto the images or an over-reliance on neat iconographic typologies. I will look at the story on the floor of the sixth-century Beth Alpha synagogue, located in the Beit She'an Valley in the Galilee, the only other known synagogue floor to depict the Binding, and on the wall from the synagogue at Dura Europos, the earliest and only other known depiction of the story in Late Antique Jewish art.4 A close reading of the arrangement of narrative structures shows how each case forms a new story in its space. The scene at Beth Alpha emphasizes humanity’s conflicted nature while the painting at Dura Europos relates to the act of communal worship. This methodology of narratological structure will unpack how the story of the Binding forms at Sepphoris and how it fits with the broader visual program, the space of the synagogue, and the surrounding urban context.

a. Beth Alpha and the Animal-Human

Similar to Sepphoris, the Beth Alpha mosaic includes the two youth and the donkey within the narrative of the Binding. However, borders demarcate structural difference in the visual programs. While the braided border surrounding the Sepphoris mosaic divides the biblical story into two panels, a narrow-lined rectangular border at Beth Alpha encloses the story into a single scene.5 The wrapping of all narratological elements into one panel propels a sense of one-directional movement from left to right. The figures process in a horizontal line, beginning with the servants and the donkey, moving to the ram, and climaxing with the labelled Abraham and Isaac. The flames of the altar’s fire flicker as the destination of the procession. Although in Genesis 22, Abraham commands his servants to wait behind while he ventures forth with Isaac, through their placement in the scene they participate in the ritualistic act, with their feet and the donkey’s body turned in the direction of the sacrifice.

While the figures move from left to right, the text disrupts this directed path, forming a countermovement from right to left. Between the hand of God and the tree branch lie the words, “אל תשלח.” These two words, “Do not raise!” from the biblical text state the moment when the angel of God intervenes in Abraham’s actions right before the moment of sacrifice. “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him!” the angel cries. Although the two words in the panel begin this longer command, here they stand on their own to halt Abraham’s actions. As Abraham leans forward to offer his child as a sacrifice, “Do not raise!” interrupts his movements and confuses his goals. Should he return home and not complete the divine task set out for him? The viewer looks further to the left to find a solution with the biblical words above the ram’s body: “והנה אייל,” “And behold a ram.” Rather than simply walk away, Abraham offers the ram in place of his son. The words similarly begin a longer verse, “And behold a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.” Here, they stand alone to offer a resolution to such an abrupt shift in the theological drama. While the procession of figures leads the viewer toward Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, the text propels the viewer away from this act, toward Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram. The figures march toward tragedy, while the text leads toward rescue and hope. As opposed to the divided panels at Sepphoris, the placement of figures and text in a single panel at Beth Alpha allows for coexisting stories, both of Isaac’s sacrifice and of Isaac’s rescue. Rather than a neat linear chronology, the viewer simultaneously watches a father’s sacrifice of his son and the undoing of that sacrifice.

Although the placement in a single frame allows for multiple possibilities in one frozen moment, subdivisions in the narrative still form. The ram’s vertical placement disrupts the horizontal movement. While the ram faces to the right in the same direction as the figures, it stands vertically, rather than horizontally.6 This conflicting stance disrupts the clear, linear movement of animal and human feet, forming a chronological division between preparing for the sacrifice and the actual moment of sacrifice. The servants both participate in the procession, moving the viewer forward, and stand in their own space, waiting for Abraham’s return from the mountain. Further divisions form through leaf branches. A double branch serves as a platform beneath the servants’ feet. A smaller branch picks up from where the donkey’s rope ends, further isolating the servants and including the ram in the sacrificial scene with Abraham. A final branch under Isaac places the protagonist in two scenes. Isaac exists both as part of the pre-sacrificial scene with the ram and Abraham and as part of the sacrificial scene with the flaming altar. Awaiting sacrifice, he floats between both possibilities at once. Isaac’s unusual position emphasizes this dual placement. With his arms crossed, lying on logs next to the altar, he looks like an object of sacrifice.7 However, he is also not an object of sacrifice. He does not lie on the altar flames and remains outside of Abraham’s reach. While their fingers skirt each other, they do not touch. The branch beneath Isaac emphasizes his dual placement. Both possibilities remain at once, frozen in the single image. The floor tells the story of Isaac’s sacrifice and of Isaac’s not-sacrifice, and the viewer vacillates between these two possibilities.

The branches under the ram and under Isaac emphasize their relationship as visual foils. Abraham looks at the ram with one eye and at Isaac with the other. Rays emanating from God’s hand, which mimic His fingers, point in both directions, as well. The viewer, like Abraham, glances back and forth between Isaac and the ram. Which one will end up in the flames? This visual relationship between the two figures fits with the mixing of animal and human throughout the panel. The mosaic shows man as animal as Isaac lies like a beast, awaiting sacrifice. The mosaic simultaneously shows animal as man. The ram, domesticated like the donkey, tied to a tree, awaits human action. The procession of figures consists of an entanglement of animal and human, joining together for a uniquely human sacrifice that mimics an animal sacrifice. The servant’s legs hide behind the donkeys’, confusing the viewer in demarcating between person and beast, while their outlined bodies blur placement and space. The movement of figures begins with this animal/human hybrid and then leads to a pattern of human, animal, human, climaxing with Isaac. Is he an animal, subjects to human hands and awaiting slaughter, or is he a human, saved from this outcome? The story on the floor of Beth Alpha uses the familiar story of the divine command of a father to sacrifice his son to depict the conflicted nature of humanity. In the sacred space of the synagogue, the congregants see humans like animals, if not for the intervention of divine protection. Isaac plays the role of object of sacrifice but is also rescued by the true animal sacrifice, the ram.

b. Dura Europos and Communal Worship

The composition of the Binding of Isaac in the third century synagogue of Dura Europos presents methods of divine worship, drawing a link between ancient sacrifice and contemporary communal prayer.8 As opposed to the multi-scene panels at Sepphoris or the lively procession in the single panel at Beth Alpha, the painting arranges the elements in a simplified scene of core elements: Abraham, Isaac, the lamb, and the hand of God. Placed in a column on the right side of the Torah niche, the viewer can identify Isaac lying on the altar with Abraham standing beside him. Above, the hand of God reaches outward and a mysterious figure stands in an architectural facade, while below, the ram faces a tree. The visual elements defy arrangement as a narrative scene. The figures float in isolation as objects in space. The deconstruction of narratological elements into independent objects fits with their columnar arrangement to the right of the central visual component, the representation of the Temple. To the left of the Temple stands a menorah, lulab and etrog, critical ritual components for Temple worship. Arranged on the right side of the Torah niche parallel to these liturgical Temple vessels, the story of Isaac’s almost sacrifice transforms into an object of ritual.

The Binding of Isaac at Dura Europos shows the use of narrative as liturgical tool. Based on iconographic and textual comparison, Goodenough argues that the story represents the shofar, the ram’s horn. Blown in the synagogue on the Jewish New Year, the shofar reminds the congregants of the ram’s horn caught in the thicket that replaced Isaac, recalling the potential for divine rescue amidst dire circumstances.9 While the narrative may replace a liturgical object, it also includes one, the large altar upon which Isaac lies. The sacrificial altar stands parallel to the menorah, adjacent to the architectural Temple, as another significant ritual furnishing. The altar serves both a narrative function, in supporting Isaac in the biblical scene, and a symbolic function, as another ritual object arranged by the Temple. The presentation of the Binding employs images as a liturgical tool for access to the divine. Placed directly above the Torah niche, the Temple symbols connect the model of sacrificial worship from the past with the current model of synagogue worship based on Torah reading and prayer.

The unusual stance of the figures includes them in the act of liturgical worship. Rather than facing the congregation, Abraham and Isaac turn backwards.10 Through this presentation, the congregants stand in the same direction as the biblical characters, toward the Torah niche. Rather than turned frontally, so that the viewer can look at them and place them in a narrative moment, the biblical figures join the viewer, similarly facing the direction of the Temple image above the Torah niche. Abraham’s handling of his knife emphasizes his role as congregant. The two components of knife and Isaac appear disconnected. Abraham does not hold the knife outstretched as if about to murder his son, as seen in Beth Alpha. The blade, in fact, is not pointy at all, and the knife’s shape recalls the shape of the lulab across the Temple facade. Abraham stands like a congregant, holding his object of worship, similar to the congregant of the ancient Temple holding the lulab and the contemporary congregant standing in prayer. The mysterious figure in the scene similarly fits this model of congregant. Scholars propose a range of identifications for the figure, from Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Ishmael, to one of the servants.11 While the visual material lacks information on the figure’s specific identify, he too becomes a member of the congregation, standing as if in prayer.

The hand of God emphasizes the use of narrative as liturgical tool. As opposed to Beth Alpha, the hand does not point to the Binding, but to the central Torah niche. The symbol of God directs both Abraham and the congregant to the place of communication with the divine. On the synagogue wall at Dura Europos, Abraham’s actions become a form of divine service, just like Temple worship and synagogue ritual. The altar placed above the Torah niche connects past and present, Temple worship and contemporary synagogue practice. Congregants participate in these sacred acts of the past by offering their own sacrifices of prayer. The Binding of Isaac at Dura Europos draws a link between Abraham’s actions of divine service through sacrifice, Temple worship, and contemporary prayer.

c. Sepphoris and the Focus on Minor Characters

A comparison of the Binding at Beth Alpha and at Dura Europos shows that although both spaces rely on the biblical trope from Genesis 22, through particular details and visual arrangement they tell new stories relevant within their spaces. The choice of scene and elements of its presentation form a journey through time, where the viewer both transports back to the story and also transports the story to his contemporary reality to consider its continued relevance. The congregants in the Beth Alpha synagogue confront a frozen moment of Isaac’s sacrifice and of Isaac’s salvation, and through this, the close relationship between animal and man. The Dura Europos synagogue shows a story of Isaac wrapped in Temple ritual and contemporary synagogue worship.

At Sepphoris, the Binding consists of multiple scenes. Aside from the double panel of the servants and the moment of the sacrifice, a damaged panel below contains the remnants of a third scene. In what remains, the top of the head of a female figure, adorning a veil, stands in the silhouette of a door, while evidence of another figure to the right shows through the edge of a garment. Further to the right, part of a third figure reclines. Based on iconographic comparisons, especially with the depiction of the Binding at San Vitale in Ravenna, Weiss and Netzer conclude that the scene presents the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah at Elonei-Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15).12 As opposed to San Vitale where the sacrifice appears in the edge of the lunette, parallel to Sarah standing in her home, a minor aspect of a larger scene that focuses on the eucharistic meal, here Isaac’s sacrifice plays a more significant role, serving as a climax to a chronological story. If accurate, the narrative progression shows the struggle of the long-awaited announcement of Isaac’s impending birth, only for his life to be jeopardized. However, the lack of information prevents a more conclusive analysis of this scene.

Given the damaged status of the mosaics, the servants panel provides the most information on narrative structure. The panel presents the servants on their own, engaged in conversation. They actively wait for Abraham and Isaac’s return. One figure sits, indicating that he did not just arrive at this spot. His comrade holds a spear, standing guard. The scene lies simultaneous to the main event of the Binding. While Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son, the youth wait. How does a full panel devoted to these minor characters add to the program and contribute to the story of the Binding? The mosaic shows two moments, one with main figures engaged in action and one with minor figures anticipating the outcome. Both of these realities share equal space on the mosaic floor. The program prioritizes that which takes place to the lay people who “stay here,” (Gen 22:5), remaining behind from “the place which God had told” (Ibid., 9) as much as the action of those engaged with the divine command. The congregants who stood in this space travel back to the moment in their historical narrative of the Binding to meet not only Abraham and Isaac, but the servants, as well, facing ordinary, seemingly unnecessary characters and not only biblical heroes. Through the placement of the servants in their own panel, the story at Sepphoris pays as much attention to key players in the story as to those who do not understand the significance of what takes place. However, this story does not stand alone, but presents itself as one component of a larger floor mosaic, consisting of the central zodiac wheel and Temple imagery. How does the specific portrayal of the Binding at Sepphoris fit with the rest of the visual program?

Figure 1: Genesis 22 at Sepphoris, from Zeev Weiss, The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message Through Its Archeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2005).

Figure 2: Genesis 22 at Beth Alpha, Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3: Genesis 22 at Dura Europos, from Jensen, Robin M. (1993). "The Binding or Sacrifice of Isaac: How Jews and Christians See Differently," Bible Review. 9 (5): 42–51


1 Examples exist from a range of other media, as well, including illuminated manuscripts, lamps, gold glasses, and ivories. See the catalogue in I. Speyart van Woerden, “The Iconography of the Sacrifice of Abraham,” Vigiliae Christianae 15 (1961), 243-255 as well as the Index of Medieval Art database that contains over one hundred examples of the story from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

2 Jensen’s effort to balance iconographic and textual sources points to the problems with both models. Iconographical approaches remain inconclusive and often reflect a “lack of overall attention to the overall programmatic context” (107). Textual sources may provide cultural insight, but “the most significant images cannot be easily explained by a few lines of text or reduced to simple formulae” (95). While Jensen argues for a close analysis of how painters and sculptors reinterpreted stories, she fails to show how to proceed or to offer a reinterpretation of the story from any of her examples (R. Jensen, “The Offering of Isaac in Jewish and Christian Tradition,” Biblical Interpretation 2.1 [1994], 85-110).

3 Some scholars use texts to relate images to contemporary concerns. Here, too, the combination of visual material, textual source, and political reality leaves out a close visual analysis of the image itself. See, for example, Kessler’s argument that the Binding at Dura Europos serves as propaganda against Christian polemics, (K. Weitzmann and H. L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, [Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990], 157) and Englard’s interpretation of the Binding on Late Antique synagogue floors as responding to the political context of withstanding trials against Christian persecution (Y. Englard, “Mosaics as Midrash: The Zodiacs of the Ancient Synagogues and the Conflict between Judaism and Christianity,” Review of Rabbinic Judaism 6.2 (2003), 208-201).

4 For the Beth Alpha excavation report, see E. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha: an account of the excavations conducted on behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (Jerusalem: The University Press, 1932). For the synagogue at Dura Europos, see Kraeling, The Synagogue; E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York, 1964), vol. 9.

5 For a discussion of this scene, see Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha, 40-42; S. Yeivin, "The Painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac in the Beth Alpha Synagogue," Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society 2 (1946), 20-24; R. Wischnitzer, “The Beth Alpha Mosaic: A New Interpretation,” Jewish Social Studies 17.2 (1955), 133-44; N. Avigad, "The mosaic pavement of the Beth-Alpha Synagogue and its place in the history of Jewish art," in The Beth She’an Valley, The 17th Archaeological Convention (Jerusalem, Ha-Ḥevrah La-ḥaḳirat Erets-Yisrael ṿe-ʻatiḳoteha, 1962), 63-70; J. Wilkinson, “The Beit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic: Towards an Interpretation,” Journal of Jewish Art 5 (1978), 16-28; M. Schapiro, “Ancient Mosaics in Israel: Late Antique Art- Pagan, Jewish, Christian,” in Late Antique, Early Christian, and Medieval Art: Selected Papers (George Braziller, Inc: New York, 1980), 27-31; J. Gutmann, “Revisiting the ‘Binding of Isaac’ Mosaic in the Beth-Alpha Synagogue,” 79-85.

6 Scholars debate this unusual iconographic depiction of the ram. Sukenik, and later Gutmann. argues that the mosaicist needed to accommodate to a lack of space on the horizontal plane (Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha, 40; Gutmann, "Revisiting the ‘Binding of Isaac’ Mosaic in the Beth-Alpha Synagogue," 70). Yeivin describes the depiction as intentional, in order to create a naturalistic representation of the ram tangled in the tree ("The Painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac in the Beth Alpha Synagogue," 21-3), while Bregman connects the iconography to examples in Christian art where a lamb tied to a tree symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice (M. Bregman, “The Depiction of the Ram in the Aqedah Mosaic at Beit-Alpha,” Tarbiz 51 [1982], 306-9).

7 Gutmann discusses Isaac’s unusual depiction, “who appears to float awkwardly in mid-air beyond the reach of his father’s hands” ("Revisiting the ‘Binding of Isaac’ Mosaic in the Beth-Alpha Synagogue," 80). He traces this to models of Isaac blindfolded, held by a rope by Abraham, and argues that the artists failed to comprehend their models. However, placing Isaac beyond Abraham’s reach fits within the image presenting Isaac between sacrifice and non-sacrifice. Goodenough discusses the unusual depiction of Isaac including, “Two dark bands…beyond my power of comprehension” (E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953) 248.) However, Jensen points out, in ancient Jewish and Roman tradition, victims lay bound next to the altar and then placed on the fire to burn after the act of sacrifice (Jensen, “The Offering of Isaac in Jewish and Christian Tradition,” 105). Isaac’s unusual stance could show him lying down, with the bands behind him indicating his bound stance, awaiting sacrifice, before placed on the flames.

8 Excavations of the site of Dura Europos took place between 1929-1937. The discoveries revealed a diverse fortified city that transition from Roman rule in the second century to a Roman colony under the Severan dynasty in 211 AD. The synagogue paintings, probably painted in 244-5 CE, buried in 256 and excavated in 1933, serve as a critical finding for a diverse range of research from topics, including attitudes toward Jewish art, the origins of biblical art, and the relationship between Christian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman art. For information on the Isaac scene, see Kraeling, The Synagogue, 56-9; 1. E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 9, 72-75; K. Weitzmann and H. L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, 156; J. Elsner, “Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image: The Case of Dura Europos,” Classical Philology 96.3 (2001), 269-304.

9 Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 9, 72-75. See Avi-Yonah’s criticism of this interpretation (M. Avi-Yonah, “Goodenough’s Interpretation of the Dura Paintings: A Critique,” in The Dura Europos Synagogue: A Reevaluation, ed. J. Gutmann [PA: American Academy of Religion, 1973], 121-2). Kessler also reads the narrative as representing the shofar and understands these images as a polemic to historicize God’s covenant with the Jewish people (K. Weitzmann and H. L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, 156-7).

10 Scholars view their backward stance as reflecting the community’s conflicted views of figural art. See Van Woerden, 222; E. Kessler "Art leading the story: The Aqedah in early synagogue art," in From Dura to Sepphoris, 76-7.

11 For a summary of opinions, see Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues-Archaeology and Art, 394.

12 Weiss and Netzer, Promise and Redemption, 32.

About Nomi Schneck

Nomi Schneck’s work explores art as a commentary on biblical stories and themes. As a PhD candidate in the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University, Nomi’s dissertation questions how the appearance of biblical art in Late Antiquity fits within broader patterns of visual storytelling and mythmaking. During her ten years teaching English literature and Tanakh at Jewish day schools, Nomi developed a creative arts workshop and journal as well as a summer seminar, Visualizing Jewish Texts, combining museum visits with beit midrash study. Her work has been funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.