Sacrifice of Isaac, from Commentary on the Pentateuch, part 2 by Joel ben Simeon

Joel ben Simeon

Sacrifice of Isaac, from Commentary on the Pentateuch, part 2, 1460s, Illumination on parchment, 240 x 170 mm, The British Library, London, MS Additional 14759, fol. 1v,

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‘Where I am going, you cannot come’

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

On this illustrated Hebrew manuscript page, we are invited to wonder what Abraham’s two attendants did while he went on alone with Isaac. The young men lie on the grass on either side of a small stream of running water. It has been a long, three-day journey and they are worn out. So—their thirst slaked—they rest, while the donkey feeds on the grassy foothills of the mountain. One of the young men has fallen asleep.

Abraham and Isaac must face the next part of their ordeal without company, and in foregrounding the two attendants like a sort of barrier, the artist awakens our sense that we, too, might be trespassers if we tried to journey onward to the mountain summit.

Abraham’s only explanation to the attendants is that he is going some way further (‘yonder’, v.5) in order to ‘worship’. Just what might this ‘worship’ be?

Whatever visual models the artist may have had in mind in decorating this page, the reclining postures of the attendants may seem to us reminiscent of figures in Christian tradition. We might see in them the prostrate forms of the sleeping disciples who could not stay awake with Jesus in his hour of agony in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 24:32–42; Luke 22:40–46). Because Peter, James, and John could not accompany Jesus in that great test, he, like Abraham, had to face his ordeal alone. Maybe Abraham’s act of ‘worship’ can be read in conjunction with Christ’s agony as an offering to God—almost too painful to bear.

Or are the attendants a little like the soldiers outside Christ’s tomb after his death and burial, traditionally shown sleeping—ignorant of the fact that what looks like a place of death is destined to unleash resurrection life? Some rabbinic commentators suggest that Isaac really did die on Mount Mori′ah, but was restored to life again. In this light, like Christ, Isaac embodies the victory of God’s promises even over death. The cost, though, is hard to reckon for those of us who look on from a necessary distance towards this ‘yonder’.

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