The stories that mean most to us bring us back to our own unintelligible and yet immeasurably meaningful lives. Arthur A. Brown, “Storytelling, The Meaning of Life, and the Epic of Gilgamesh“
Next week a group of Reform Jewish-Americans and Christian and Muslim Palestinian-Americans, residents of the greater Philadelphia area, will meet in my home to begin (I hope) the process of becoming neighbors. While the gathering is intended to be informal and introductory, there is still intellectual and spiritual preparation to do. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the date for the first meeting was, after many fits, starts and changes, eventually set to follow a week’s study of Parsha Vayeira.
These weeks spent with the life of Abraham in Parshot Lech Lecha and Vayeira are challenging for the concentration of colorful episodes, their juxtaposition of the soap-operatic, the profound, and the profoundly disturbing in the texts. Last week we left Abraham on the verge of elevation to cultural icon, his transformation from Abram to Abraham realized by circumcision (his embodiment, literally, of the covenant with God), on the verge of transformation from tribal chieftain to national patriarch. This week Abraham’s transformation is completed with the birth and near-sacrifice of Isaac. But how much takes place along the way!
Chagall’s biblical histories
The pace of the episodes in Parshah Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:24; JPS translation) can leave a reader breathless, and I turned to Marc Chagall’s numerous illustrations of the Hebrew Bible (produced mostly in the 1930’s, published after 1956) to catch my wind within his visual history. In various cycles of lithographs, etchings and colored drawings (a click on any of the images should take you to its source), Chagall addressed:
- the challenge of the couple’s infertility, and the visit of three angels to their tent to announce the eventual birth of their son (Gen. 18),
- the complex story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom (in which Abraham and God debate the destruction of Sodom, Lot defends the angels against the Sodomites, who are later destroyed for their wickedness (Gen. 18:16-19:29), and Lot’s daughters seduce their father (Gen. 18:16-19:36))
- Abraham sends Sarah on a second trip into a Pharoah’s harem, the second “wife-sister” episode with Abimelech (Gen. 20), following which
- Sarah bears Isaac (who like Ishmael before him is circumcised), and then works to have Hagar and Ishmael expelled from the community to insure Isaac’s preferred inheritance (Gen. 21), and finally
- the aqedah … Abraham’s final trial of faith: the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22)
These images offer the chance to explore the week’s portion through a single artist’s lense, and demonstrate Chagall’s straightforward journey through the Jewish narratives of his traditional Russian background. But one of Chagall’s later works, the “Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1965), refracts a more complex vision of Parshah Vayeira, reading the aqedah through the three “Abrahamic” traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In this single frame, Chagall presents simultaneously the central sacrificial narratives of the three “Abrahamic” religious traditions: the sacrifice of Isaac in Judaism (witnessed by Sarah, at the left), the sacrifice of Jesus in Christianity (carrying the cross, just right of center), and the sacrifice of Ismail in Islam (carried by Hagar, in the upper right corner). While some use Chagall’s earlier images of Abraham and the angels as the paradigm of the “open tent”, the symbol of multi-faith connection and shared values, it seems to me that this complex painting opens a window on the inter-textual “cultural glue” that binds the three traditions. This later Sacrifice seems to bring the study of Vayeira to the verge of a paradigm shift for the sheer breadth of its vision.
This image stuns me, and I race to look at the equally stunning text and commentaries to which it relates – Robert Alter’s translation is provided below (in my condensed version). In spite of its length, it is possible to “hear” the thematic and poetic echoes between the two stories:
- Abraham is put in the position of losing both his sons in spite of having circumcised each of them into the covenant with God;
- neither mother receives a warning or explanation for the treatment of her child;
- Abraham rises early in the morning for each trial, which includes the absence of an essential saving element eventually supplied, and discovered suddenly, by divine intervention (water for Ishmael, the ram for Isaac); and
- through each boy Abraham receives (indirectly or directly) a blessing of powerful successors.
And there are other resonances between the narratives, beyond translation (some mentioned in the translator’s notes): the boys are referred to equally tenderly as a “lad” (yeled), both boys receive names associated with God’s hearing (Isaac, the “laughter” heard by God; and Ishmael, “God will hear”), and Abraham’s ability to hear is critical in both trials (he must listen to Sarah’s voice with respect to Ishmael, and to God’s voice the aqeda). On the basis of the many echoes and parallels shared by the Ishmael and Isaac stories, I wonder if the special claim Jewish tradition asserts on behalf of Isaac as Jacob’s favorite (and the Jewish people as God’s favorite) obscures the extent to which Torah speaks otherwise. Rashi explains God’s command to Abraham, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac” (Gen. 22:2):
Your son. He [Avraham] responded, “I have two sons.” He [God] said to him, “Your only one.” He responded, “This one is an only son to his mother and the other is an only son to his mother.” He said to him, “Who you love.” “I love them both,” he answered. Then, He said, “Yitzchok!” Why did He not immediately reveal [this] to him? So that He not confuse him suddenly, and become bewildered and deranged [….]
Rashi’s midrash reflects Abraham’s sensitivity to the needs of both of the mothers of his sons, Abraham’s love for each of his sons, and God’s care for Abraham’s paternal needs as well. Rashi’s point of view amplifies what the text makes clear: that the two stories are more united by their numerous echoes, rhymes, and parallels than they are separated by difference. I am curious about how the other faith traditions treat the stories.
Islam & the sacrifice of Ishmael
According to my limited research, knowledge of and access to Islamic sources, Islamic texts and tradition share the gist of Rashi’s midrash: Abraham/Ibrahim loves both his sons, as does Adonai/Allah. The Qur’an (Koran) repeats its own variation of Ibrahim’s terrible test, which Muslims understand to require that Ismail be taken and bound for sacrifice (source). Traditional Islamic commentaries relate that Ibrahim later visited Ismail’s household to confirm his choice of a spouse (rejecting the first wife, approving the second; this story is also transmitted in Jewish midrash), and that father and son later worked together to build the Ka’aba, viewed by Muslims as the first structure dedicated to the worship of God. Muslims commemorate annually Ibraham’s obedience to Allah’s command to sacrifice his son in the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and the annual festival of Eid-ul-Adha, offering prayers, Qur’an readings and the ritual sacrifice of sheep (literally or symbolically). The Ka’aba has since become a symbol of unity for Muslims – all prayers, no matter when or where they are performed, are oriented in its direction. Though the Qur’an never mentions Hagar by name, the ordeal of her search for water is symbolically honored by travelling between two hills near the Ka’aba (the Sa’i, or “hastening”) during the Hajj.
Christianity: Sarah and the “new” covenant
Biblical scholar Irene Pabst’s recent study of the interpretation of the Sarah-Hagar story in rabbinic and Christian patristic literature provides an interesting twist on the obvious, surface resemblance between Isaac and Jesus as sacrifice. According to Pabst, the Christian fathers contended that Hagar was rejected just as Israel and the first covenant (Judaism) were rejected in favor of Sarah, the Church and the New Testament (the second covenant). This patristic approach builds on the Synagoga-Ecclesia dichotomy central to early Christian theology, clearing the way for the development of a Christian identity independent of the Church’s Jewish origins.
So what can one make of Chagall’s reference to the sacrifices central to the three traditions? The presence of so many women in the painting is noteworthy: Sarah, Hagar and Mary are all clearly visible, as is each one’s distress. It may be that the artist seeks to remind men of the impact of sacrificial ordeals on their women. Or, it may be that Chagall is speaking to the three traditions, reminding them that God (as angel) is listening to the voices raised in each community’s ordeal, and that they cannot hide within the space of their own pasts, pretending that they have exclusive access to divine favor, forgetting that God hears all of them, sees all of them, accepts the sacrifices of all of them. For the time being, this latter speculation will be my model for approaching Vayeira in general; it will inform my participation in the meetings I hope will create a community of neighborliness for the Jewish- and Palestinian-Americans within my reach.
From Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004), pp. 102-11:
” And the LORD singled out Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age [….] And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac [….] And Sarah said, “Laughter has God made me, Whoever hears will laugh at me” [….] And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. And she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slavegirl and her son, for the slavegirl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” [….] And God said to Abraham, “Let it not seem evil in your eyes on account of the lad and on account of your slavegirl. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slavegirl’s son, too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:1-13)
“And Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulder, and he gave her the child, and sent her away, and she went wandering through the wilderness of Beersheba. And when the water in the skin was gone, she flung the child under one of the bushes and went off [….] And she sat at a distance and raised her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad and God’s messenger called out from the heavens and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice where he is. / Rise, lift up the lad / and hold him by the hand, / for a great nation whil I make him /”. And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and gave to the lad to drink [….] (Genesis 21: 14-21)
“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham” and he said, “Here I am.” And He said, Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering [….] And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son [….] And Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son” [….] And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering instead of his son [….] and He said […] I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed [….] And all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to my voice.” (Genesis 22:1-19)