A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The Sacrifice of Isaac in Visual Art and Poetry

There’s been some discussion over at the Changing Lives through Literature blog about an article I wrote this summer.   You can click here to learn more about this program, which engages offenders in a process of reading and self-discovery as an alternative to incarceration.

In the thread, someone mentioned a poem about Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of Isaac: Bert Stern’s poem “Midrash: Abraham” in his new book  Steerage:

…his knife raised and the
cascading weight of everything
crashing down, to leave him
broken there, complete and alone,
bent by perfection.

That got me thinking about how many poets and visual artists have responded to the horrific story in Gen. 22, known in Jewish tradition as the Akedah or “binding” of Isaac.

Some that have been most powerful to me:

  • Eleanor Wilner,  “Sarah’s Choice” (published here), which provides Sarah’s refusal to sacrifice her son
  • the 12th c poem by Ephraim of Bonn, included in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, which searingly sets the slaughter of Jews as a on-going Akedah
  • Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (a print hangs over my desk at LTS), which graphically shows the terror of Isaac
  • Yehudah Amichai, “The Real Hero of the Sacrifice of Isaac,” which sees the ram as the only hero of the story
  • the sculpture of George Segal, which uses the Akedah as a focal image for the Kent State shootings


I look forward to learning about which artistic presentations that others find powerful.

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