In Genesis 22, Abraham both discloses himself and also seems to remain hidden. He is addressed three times in the course of the chapter—first by the voice of God, then by Isaac, and finally by an angel. His response is the same in each instance: hinneni/hinnenni, which is often translated ‘Here I am!’, but means something more like ‘Behold me!’
The exclamation is rich in meaning. It has connotations of ‘beholden-ness’: Abraham is a duty-bound man. It also contains the command ‘hold me!’: the child’s cry to be held and loved (a cry to which Abraham is preparing to close his ears in his binding of Isaac). But at a literal level, ‘Behold me!’ also simply suggests a willingness to be seen.
Artists have responded to the challenge of ‘beholding’ Abraham in this last way, and they help us to do the same. They show him. But what sort of man do they show? As the literary theorist Erich Auerbach (1953: 9) has pointed out, in the text itself, ‘nothing is made perceptible except the words in which he answers God ... with which, to be sure, a most touching gesture expressive of obedience and readiness is suggested, but it is left to the reader to visualize it’.
In Rembrandt’s drawing, Abraham’s gaze meets ours directly, asking to be reciprocated, but by no means giving everything away. It is guarded as well as engaging. This simultaneous advance and retreat enacts, in a facial expression, the journey of Abraham and Isaac more broadly. With his ‘Behold me!’, Abraham steps forward to accept his commission, but his stepping forward is also a going away—first from Sarah, and later also from the attendants he leaves behind to enact a ritual they cannot be permitted to behold. Their sleepy demeanour in the illustrated Hebrew manuscript enhances their detachment from what is going on: theirs is a nescience as blithe as the donkey’s. And despite the best efforts of our imaginations, Abraham and Isaac seem to leave us behind too. Their thoughts and feelings are not explained to us; it is a strange and terrifying task that Abraham has undertaken to perform, and Isaac’s role in it is incomprehensible, to him, to us, and (perhaps) to Abraham himself. Again, Abraham withdraws even as he steps forward.
In another way, the fame of this story means that we are already ahead of him, awaiting his arrival. In Brueghel’s painting, we are given a perspective on this vulnerable band of people from above. It is as though we are already on the mountain, seeing them painstakingly draw nearer. However, even knowing the story, and knowing Abraham’s destination, we are unknowing of so much. We see Abraham, but we are conscious at the same time that we can see only a fraction of what there might be to see: no facial expressions; neither zeal, nor the drawn lines of sorrow, nor fear. He is under our gaze, but far from us—even further below us in Brueghel’s painting than he is above us and ‘yonder’ (v.5) in the Hebrew manuscript. Brueghel’s painting asks us to be patient, for it is not yet clear what Abraham will be shown to be when his ascent is finally accomplished.
In all three images, in different ways, Abraham is on display but opaque, known and unknowable. Perhaps this puts us in the position not only of the attendants but of Isaac, held close to Abraham’s body or walking close at his side, but in the dark about what he intends.
Auerbach, E. (1953). 'Odysseus’ Scar', in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. by W. R. Trask, Princeton: Princeton University Press
22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriʹah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”