Two Visions of Genesis 22

July 15, 2013

Two Visions of Genesis 22

Today is Rembrandt’s 407th birthday (thank you Google doodles). During his career as an artist, Rembrandt portrayed the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) in two very different ways. The earlier attempt is a more violent interpretation of what transpired on Mount Moriah. Abraham’s hand is covering Isaac’s face as Isaac struggles to become unbound. Isaac appears as a faceless sacrifice, with little identity other than divine appeasement. The knife, pointed blade-down, seems to be cutting through the air unhindered by restraint or reason. The angel of the Lord seems frantic to gain Abraham’s attention, knocking the knife our of a surprised Abraham’s hand.

Later in life Rembrandt decided to offer another vision of the Binding of Isaac, and this attempt tells quite a different story. The later work shows Isaac as a willing participant, knelling in submission. Abraham seems to be comforting the boy, holding the knife upturned as if to dawdle long enough for the LORD to intervene. Abraham’s face lacks surprise; rather he seems to sigh in tearful relief. Rembrandt’s frantic messenger is now one of comfort and mercy, with arms surrounding Abraham as if to say, “It’s ok. You don’t need to do this.”

What do you see in these pictures? The biblical text is specifically ambiguous in exactly what’s going on. Isaac asks his father as they are walking up the mountain, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham replies, “The LORD will provide the lamb, my son.” Does Abraham mean that God will have a lamb waiting for them? Is Abraham referring to his own son, Isaac? Is this pure foreshadowing of what God accomplished through Jesus? Was the event more like Rembrandt’s early or later offering?

How is it that Rembrandt can tell two different stories from the same text? Maybe these works of art are not meant to be snapshots of an event, but rather pictures of Abraham’s thoughts as he traveled up the mountain in gut-wrenching expectation?

What is the truth? Do I own truth? Do you? Is truth somewhere in the space between you and me? Maybe you have that facebook friend who seems to be the only one who knows the truth about everything. Unfortunately they aren’t shy about sharing it and telling you why you’re wrong.

Some days instead of seeking truth, I think truth finds us, at least, it’s not something we create. ”The Truth shall set you free,” Jesus said (John 8:32). It is something Christ does on our behalf, experienced and expressed as freedom, liberation, you know, the face of Abraham from Rembrandt’s later offering. To answer, “What is truth” will take longer than this article can afford, I’m afraid, but let me say this. When we are free to be in relationship with one another, when we are no longer shackled with suspicion of each other and fear of the unknown, when we freely value one another as a child of God, when race, class, or creed are compliments rather than contrasts . . . we will know that Truth, whether sought or stumbled upon, has been proclaimed.