Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel

I wrote this new post on the “akedah”, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, because I keep thinking about two paintings I saw on the subject last week, one at the Archivio di Stato in Siena and one at the Uffizi in Florence.  How does one transform a brief and enigmatic written story into a painting?

Vincent van Gogh, 1885

The words

Abraham almost kills his son Isaac in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“and he saw”).  God tells him to do it.

And after these events, God nissah Abraham.  And [God] said to him: “Abraham!”  And [Abraham] said: “Here I am.”  And [God] said: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there as a rising-offering on one of the hills that I will say to you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 22:1-2)

nissah (נִסָּה) = tested, evaluated, assayed.

The phrase I translate here as “go for yourself” is lekh-lekha, which could also be translated as “get yourself going” or even as “go to yourself”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  This week’s Torah portion gives the place-name Moriyah a folk etymology explaining that it means “the vision of God”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem.)  A “rising-offering”, my literal translation of olah, is one that is completely burnt up into smoke.

The next sentence begins with Abraham getting out of bed; perhaps he heard God’s request in a dream.

And Abraham got up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey and he took two of his servants with him and his son Isaac and he split wood for the rising-offering and he stood up and he went to the place that God said.  (Genesis 22:3)

The Torah appears to list everything Abraham does between hearing God’s request and arriving at the hill in the land of Moriyah.  It does not say that he speaks to his wife Sarah, Isaac’s mother.  It does not say that he tells anyone where he is going, or why.  It does not say that he wonders why God, who promised him many descendants through Isaac, now tells him to kill Isaac even though the young man is still unmarried and childless.  It does not say that Abraham has any second thoughts, or any thoughts at all.

Maybe Abraham finds God’s request so incomprehensible that he is incapable of thought.  He can only go through the motions as if in a trance.

He does not know that God is testing him.

The journey from Beersheba to the designated hill takes three days.  When they arrive, Abraham leaves the two servants and the donkey at the bottom of the hill and walks to the top with Isaac, who is carrying the wood.  Abraham carries a fire-stone and a knife.

Then Isaac talked to his father, Abraham, and he said: “My father!”  And he said: “Here I am, my son.”  And [Isaac] said: “Here is the fire and the wood.  But where is the sheep for the rising-offering?”  And Abraham said: “God will see to the sheep for the rising-offering, my son.”  And the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8) 

Next we see Abraham, who was already 100 years old when Isaac was born, building an altar.  (Altars in the book of Genesis are made out of big stones.)

Tintoretto, detail

And they came to the place that God said.  And Abraham built an altar there and he laid out the wood and he bound his son Isaac and he put him on the altar, on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand and he took the knife to kill his son.  (Genesis 22:9-10)

Abraham, who argued with God earlier in this week’s Torah portion about destroying Sodom,1 still does not question God’s request that he use his own son as an animal offering.  He simply picks up the knife.

Then a malakh of God called to him from the heavens and said: “Abraham!  Abraham!”  And he answered: “Here I am”.  And [the malakh] said: “Don’t you stretch out your hand against the youth, and don’t you do harm to him!  Because now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.”  (Genesis 22:11-12)

malakh (מַלְאַ֤ךְ) = messenger, emissary.  (A messenger from God is often translated in English as “angel”.)

The text says the divine malakh speaks to him, not that it appears to him.  It has to call Abraham’s name twice before he pays attention.  Then the malakh delivers its message referring to God in the third person, then switching to the first person, as if God is talking directly to Abraham by the end of the speech.

All of these divine communications are auditory, not visual.  When Abraham looks up, he sees a ram in the bushes behind him, not a malakh.  Hearing the voice of a malakh is a far cry from seeing a burning bush, like Moses,2 or a crowd of six-winged serafim with faces, hands, and feet, like Isaiah.3

And Abraham raised his eyes, and he saw, and hey!  A ram, behind [him], caught in the thicket by its horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and sent it up as a rising-offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels, 1285, Uffizi

The pictures

The climax of the story is the moment when Isaac is on the altar, Abraham is holding the knife, and the angel stops him.  This is the scene that artists have depicted over the centuries, often with a ram in the lower background.  But a painting needs a visual representation of God’s malakh.

In medieval Europe, Christian artists conflated a malakh from God with Isaiah’s serafim, and started a tradition of humanoid angels with bird wings, as in this 1285 painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:

Bible subjects were not supposed to be depicted realistically in the Middle Ages; their purpose was to stimulate awe and worship through symbolic images.  When the Renaissance began in Florence (circa 1380-1420) artists shifted their focus to realism and science, even in religious paintings.  Although the Renaissance spread all over Europe, the artists of Siena, a city south of Florence, stuck to the older tradition for another century.  Here is how Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra painted the Sacrifice of Isaac in Siena in 1485:

Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra, 1485, Archivio di Stato, Siena.  Photo by M. Carpenter

The angel in this miniature has bird wings, but they melt into the clouds, leaving a general impression of the sky as heaven.  It is more important that the angel’s clothing is diaphanous, in contrast to the opaque fabric that the fully-human Abraham wears.  Isaac is mostly nude with a diaphanous loincloth, ready for the transition from life in this world to life after death.  His discarded clothes lie on the ground to his right, and a ram grazes calmly to his left, but Isaac is prepared to leave the physical plane.

Although Isaac’s face looks pained, his hands are in a Christian prayer position, indicating his consent to the sacrifice.  He kneels on a sculpted marble altar that looks almost like a halo floating off the ground; the painter is not interested in depicting a realistic stone altar like the ones in Genesis.

Abraham is raising a sword, not a knife, implying that he is striking a blow in a metaphysical battle.  The angel reaches for it rather lackadaisically, while its right arm hangs limp; the mere presence of this manifestation of God’s power is enough to stop the action.

At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence I was arrested by a very different depiction of the same scene.  Tintoretto (a.k.a. Robusti Jacopo), a Venetian High Renaissance painter, created more than one version of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Here is the one in the Uffizi, which he painted in 1550-55:

Tintoretto, 1550-55, Uffizi Gallery.  Photo by M. Carpenter.

The cascading composition creates dramatic interest rather than a contemplative mood.  Isaac looks as though he would fall off the woodpile if Abraham let go of his shoulder, and although he looks passive, he is not praying.  He half-sits on the woodpile, a more realistic indication of the altar than da Volterra’s floating marble oval.  But like da Volterra, Tintoretto omits the biblical detail that Isaac is bound.

The angel’s bird wings are mostly out of the picture, and appear solid, not at all like the clouds.  The angel and Isaac both wear white fabric wrappings that are as opaque as Abraham’s more colorful costume, bringing all three characters into the physical world, along with the bemused ram looking up from the bottom right.

Tintoretto shows Abraham holding a knife; it is not a symbol, but a real detail from the biblical story.  The angel stops him by lightly laying a hand on his arm, as a human being might do to get someone’s attention.  The focus of the painting is the glance between the angel and Abraham.  As their eyes meet, the angel’s expression is gently admonishing, while Abraham’s is stunned, not yet enlightened.

Tintoretto painted the climax of the story in terms of its emotional drama, employing realism, a  composition fraught with tension, and a choice of details that all emphasize Abraham’s human dilemma.  I am sure I am not the only viewer who has responded to this painting by imagining myself in Abraham’s place, and wondering what his choice means.

Da Volterra, on the other hand, took the medieval approach of turning a biblical scene into an object of worship.  He referred to the story by including its main elements, but he freely added details such as the sword and the floating marble oval to increase the symbolism.  His angel is as passive as the clouds around it, merely a symbol of God’s contact with the world.


Does either painting address the question of whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test?  Da Volterra’s version implies that Abraham is simply carrying out what God has ordained.  I think he must have taken the divine words “now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me” as evidence that Abraham passed God’s test.  Abraham’s unselfish—and unquestioning—obedience was the right thing to do.

But for a Renaissance man like Tintoretto, and for me, the interpretation of the test results is not so easy.  Tintoretto’s painting leaves the question open.

And in the context of the whole Torah, in which God appears to enjoy arguing and bargaining with first Abraham4 and then Moses5 when lives are at stake, I think God wants Abraham to question the command to sacrifice his son.  I propose that God did not actually want him to kill Isaac; after all, God sent an angelic voice to stop him in time.  Since Abraham failed to do what God really wanted, he failed the test.  And that is why Abraham never heard God’s voice again.

  1. Genesis 18:23-33.
  2. Exodus 3:2.
  3. Isaiah 6:2-6.
  4. Genesis 18:23-33.
  5. Exodus 32:9-14, 33:12-17, and 34:8-10.

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