Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Sacrifice of Isaac

This year, my Sinncity Amsterdam celebrates the 400th anniversary (15 July 1606) of the world-famous 17th century painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). This is why the greatest Dutch painter of the Golden Age is put into the spotlight throughout this year. I recently was invited to see some of his wonderful artwork.

Van Gogh Museum presents an exhibition by the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum featuring a remarkable confrontation between the two geniuses of Baroque art: Rembrandt van Rijn and his Italian counterpart, Caravaggio. In this first exhibition over 25 monumental paintings, by the masters of chiaroscuro, from various international museums provide a visual spectacle with powerful images of love, emotion and passion. Rembrandt-Caravaggio shows exclusively over here.

His great painting The Sacrifice of Isaac left an overwhelming impression. Off course because of the technique but to be honest more because of WHAT is painted. The ALLEDGED love that Abraham displayed towards God by his willingness to sacrifice his only beloved son. Muslims, Jews and Christians praise Abraham for this socalled act of love. Every father in the world is probably directly floored by this painting.

I could take the road of ethics now and ramble on the book "Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. The work begins with a meditation on the faith of Abraham when he was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, as told in Genesis chapter 22. Then follow the "Problemata," which address three specific philosophical questions raised by the story of Abraham's sacrifice:
  1. Is there a theological suspension of the ethical? (That is, can Abraham's intent to sacrifice Isaac be considered "good" even though, ethically, human sacrifice is unacceptable?)
  2. Is there an absolute duty to God?
  3. Was it ethically defensible for Abraham to have concealed his purpose from Sarah, Eleazar, and Isaac?

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard introduces the "knight of faith" and contrasts him with the "knight of infinite resignation." The latter gives up everything for a great cause and continuously dwells with the pain of his loss.

I won't go that road today..

No, I believe that Abraham must have been totally insane. Thats my belief today.

(Update: Rembrandt upper left and Caravaggio lower right. I see Abraham despair in Rembrandts painting but a decisive and cruel Abraham in Caravaggio's)

33 comments:

Tina said...

Dimitri: I could not agree with you more on this one. When I learned of the story of Abraham and Isaac as a child, I kept thinking in my head: "Jeeze... I sure hope MY mom and dad don't fall for this kind of test if asked."

Now that I am a mom (and a very liberal Catholic), it is disgusting and unthinkable. IMHO, if God wants me to kill my child in order to "prove" my love for Him and pass His test, then God and I need to seriously end our relationship.

One of the greatest gifts we human beings have on Earth is our unconditional love for our children. Could this be gift from God? Maybe. That is why it is so unspeakable to think that God would ask a man to kill his son in God's name.

I already loved my child without knowing her as I struggled to push her out of my body, I loved her when she was a shrill helpless newborn, but nothing could compare to the love I have for her now at age 3. And I only expect this love for her to grow and grow and grow as the yrs go by. I sometimes wonder if my heart will stretch beyond its capacity with all the love I have for her and will continue to gain.

Knowing that we parents feel that way about our children, what kind of God could test a father like that and ask a man to sacrifice his child?

Travis said...

Abraham wasn't insane, he was being obedient... and yes, the whole thing was a test. If you study the passage in the Bible a little closer, you will see that Abraham fully believed that even if after he killed Isaac that God would raise him from the dead. (Gen.22:5) You may also want to check out Hebrews 11:17-19.

DA said...

Tina I feel your emotions vibrating over here. The unconditional love is my standpoint to. Nothing could get in the way of that.

Welcome Travis. Thx for your opinion. Test or not, it is a parents primary obligation toward their children that they are sheltered, cared for, loved and supported. I would never take that test,never in my life would I even think of it. Would you?

Lisa said...

Kierkegaard before lunch time, Dimitri? Boy, are you challenging the limits of my existence! Some might say that blind "obedience" to a God leads to bad things . . . like a war in Iraq based on lies, that turns into civil war (hypothetically).

Granny said...

The last thing a child sees in this world is his father coming at him with a knife?

Do you think maybe he didn't tell anyone because they would have rendered him unconscious to stop him?

It's a horror story and the Old Testament is full of them.

madcapmum said...

I read many of the Bible's stories in much the same way I read fairy-tales, which is to say very seriously, but certainly not literally. So a story like this teaches me about letting go attachments. I was horrified by it as a child, too, but I was horrified by Bluebeard and by Cinderella's sisters who lopped off their heels and toes, and all the other gory, outre old stories. I think hyperbole is meat and drink to the psyche.

DA said...

Too serious Lisa I know, I must lighten up. It's our obligation to never blindly follow anything indeed.

It's full of horror Granny and I must admit to have seen (on movie, I never actually had bible studies) some gems too. Its all about interpretation I guess. Good thing to have liberal Christians too..

Very true MCM, relativation is important. On the other hand fairytales and sad stories such as Bambi never lead to holy wars, cruisades or terrorism.

madcapmum said...

Well, they could if you took them literally, I suppose - Crusade of the Quadrupeds!

And the whole "literal thing" is why I don't go to church, because it seems to be inextricably wrapped up in the power structure, and I'm not keen to hand over my autonomy to someone who's being influenced by the lure of power and influence, leaving the whole money issue aside entirely. It's so darn easy to say "This is what God wants", and there seem to be so many people eager to believe it, no matter what their brains tell them to the contrary.

DA said...

LOL; or "Cinderella goes Iraq".

I feel exactly the same. I've posted on this before MCM. Human autonomy comes with great responsibility.

Kathleen Callon said...

"Fear and Trembling" is one of the worst books I have ever read. While some may look to Abraham's sacrifice as novel, I am scared by it. This man is the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? Sarah wasn't the greatest either. Hagar didn't sound all that nice, either. These are the parents of monotheism as we know it? Scary.

Rembrandt and Caravaggio? Together? That would be heaven. Much, much better than reading "F and T".... how large are the paintings?

DA said...

Won't start on Muhammed for now Kat:-) The Rembrandt is about my size (182 cm) and the same painting of Caravaggio is half of it I guess. Wait, I'll add Caravaggio's painting too..

Message to all: had to add word verification because of amount of spam. Hope this helps..

Travis said...

Well, see I think anyone's highest obligation to be obedient to the Creator. But even then, in 6000 years of history, it only happened once... and even then, God wouldn't let Abraham do it... it was just to test Abraham's faith. And with so many commands in the Bible about how we are to love, nurture, and care for our children and families, I can say with certainty that God would never ask anyone to really kill their children.

Pirate said...

what great human spirit you live near. to have al that artistic spirit floating in your land must be a joy.

sevenstonestorapa said...

Although we are taught to believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, the truth of the matter is that man decided that at the Nicene Council and approved of some writings and disproved of others (eliminated them), So how are we to know what was really "divinely" inspired? Prior to their very human decisions, the so-called Christian Bible had a lot more in it. And the Catholic Bible contains more that the Protestant Bible. So who knows? Go figure. After reading some of the discarded books, I can understand why they were eliminated. Perhaps other books or stories should have been deleted also.

Zee said...

Rembrandt was the master of darkness and light, that's for sure. As for the "father, son and god thing" - it never happened. At least that is my latest recollection.
Even if it did, still more pious than muslims blowing themselves up killing bystanders and themselves in the hope that Allah will reward them with 12 "virgins" once in "heaven" for a cause that is dubious to say the least.
Hope they will run out of "virgins" in a matter of short time "up there'! Ohhps, no incentives left...
Oh for goodness sake, it all started with the Cain and Abel imagery.

Lorraine said...

Nope. Never. I'd question anyone who would ask me to hurt a child. Like any loving parent, I would face hell before I'd let anyone hurt him!

Lindsay Lobe said...

The basis for most world religions and Christianity is is the mythical and magic.

Do we get upset about the magic in Shakespear ? I agree with Zee, its imagery and was never meant to be taken literally, by its various authors,who worshippeed many different gods until the idea of the one true god became popular.

To reinforce that stories were told and myths created, using the "Father figure".

I like the idea Of Albert Schweitzers sacrifice when he left for Africa,to become jungle Doctor,
prepared to lose his financial independence and become reliant for the rest of his life on donations from friends.

He was prepared to discontinue his career as Concert artist.
He renounced all academic teaching and lecturing activities.

However just as Abraham was spared his sacrifice Schweitzer to his great joy found himself in the same position.

The Paris Bach Society donated a piano with organ pedals specially adapted to the tropics. He was able to return (between long intervals in Africa) to Europe as an esteemed professional as his performances continued to grow in popularity.

He was only totally reliant on the financial help of others for a short period as his publications and acclaimed recitals soon made him financially independent.

He was also highly acclaimed and sought after as a Lecturer in Europe and in the leading universities in the USA.

Okay ....that's my idea of a modern day interpretation. Criticise if you will, but for God's sake lets use our imagination !! just like the Bible authors did.

Its the fundamentalists who choose to take these stories literally that are the cause for concerns in the World to day whatever their religious persuasion may be !

Best wishes

Travis said...

Yeah... I can see where my taking literally what the Bible says can cause a lot of problelms. Things like:loving my neighbor as myself..
or submitting myself to the governing authorities... or giving to those in need... or refraining from being dishonest... or loving my wife more than myself... or teaching my son to be good, moral person...
Yep, I can where a literal interpretation causes a lot of problems for society!

Gary said...

What a fantastic painting. I'd love to see the show.

As for Isaac, I can only imagine conversations with dad after this day:

"Want to go out for a coffee son?"

"Gee dad, I'm kind of busy."

"Hey, want to go fishing tomorrow - just you and me?"

"Ahhhhh dad, I think I have to polish my sandals and pick sand out of my toenails ... maybe another time."

Not to mention his wife:

"He did what to you Isaac!!!"

This God is a man-made myth and the story is a fairy tale - valuable as all fairytales in its allegory and metaphor, but only lost souls believe this stuff is real (with all due respect to my mom and others).

Blogger formerly known as JBlue said...

As I recall, Sarah was supposed to be barren, and Isaac was a miracle baby. My guess is, if Abraham had killed him, when he came home and told her what he'd done, she would have kicked his ass, then cut his throat. At least, that's my fantasy.

Tina's comment resonates with me, of course. I would die for my children.

Fouad said...

Dimitri, just look around and watch all those people killing themselves and others in the name of faith, and they sure aren't getting their orders directly from the big guy himself...

arulba said...

I think it is probably true that Abraham didn't exist but rather represents a tribe of people that probably sacrificed their first born children as a matter of course. Archaeologists have uncovered many Many tribes did this throughout the area of Ur that Abraham is said to have come from.

The way I imagine it is that Abraham plans to do to his child as was the custom and then suddenly realizes it might be OK to question the culture. And just as he questions the culture, he notices the Ram.

The story is represents the end of human sacrifice and the beginning of animal sacrifice.

The picture is wonderful. Gives me goosepimples. Has all kinds of modern implications for me, actually. We sacrifice our children for all kinds of things that are much less than God these days.

Progressive Traditionalist said...

I think Abraham was a real person, and the story as told is real.
As Arulba noted, sacrifice of the firstborn child was common among the people of the area at the time, though it was usually done within a few days of birth, and incineration was the most common method.
Early population control.

Kathleen Callon said...

Religion is personal. What feels right is right, so whether or not texts are perfect or tainted shouldn't matter.

The Dalai says we're born into our tribe for a reason, but that we should relinquish the parts that don't fit us, and add what feels right from other faiths...

I think there as many paths to God?Creator as there are people, and so long as we focus on ourselves instead of converting others, we'd all be better for it.

Travis said...

Religion is personal. What feels right is right??

Truth is not relative; Truth is absolute. 2+2 = 4 no matter how anyone feels about it. Why is this so hard for people to grasp?

Bebe said...

Travis: with all due respect, you are speaking about math which is not the same as truth. Truth IS relative.Truth can be interprted and twisted.
The Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Intifada, the Taliban were all because of a particular version of the truth.
No one needs to prove their faith to be a good person. One needs Be a good person, practice fairness and tolerance and not judge others by what they believe privately.
DA: The stories I heard from the bible when I was a child made me think that God was a less than benevolent being. I could'nt understand why faith had so much testing and punishment,fear and tragedy involved. I didn't get it then and I still don't.
The Renaissance pictures of these stories that I saw in museums had more to say to me about the nature of people and life, even as a kid.
I was lucky to grow up in NY.

arulba said...

2+2=4 is only correct if using an interval or ratio measurement scale. It is not correct when using a nominal or ordinal scale.

Scientifically, you cannot measure 2 quarts of water + 2 quarts of water equals and assume you are going to get 4 quarts of water. To be scientifically accurate, you would have to measure the results. Everything in the universe is in motion and some of that water evaporates.

2+2 does not always equal 4.

Tina said...

Bebe: I agree with you 100% that truth is relative. For example: The Bible says that God created everything in 6 days and on the 7th day he rested. This story may be "true" to believers, but can never be proven as a truth. It is a belief. And this Biblical story is nothing more than a myth and is no more true than the Hindu myth that the gods created everything by churning a sea of milk. Do Hindus believe that it is true that the gods created everything by churning a sea of milk? I'm sure they do. But their belief does not make it a truth.

That is why it is so important to keep the wall between church and state absolutely separate. I am a liberal Catholic, but that is my belief system, and I do not expect anyone else to believe as I do nor have their children forced to believe as I do. My beliefs are my truths. They are not nor do they have to be the truths of anyone else. But thinking that way requires mutual respect and tolerance... something that is fast becoming so extinct in the US.

Progressive Traditionalist said...

Not to be contentious here, but just to point out that it is the people who are relative, the truth is not relative. That doesn't mean that people that don't embrace your views are somehow "wrong," it means they have a different place.
Consider it much the same as a three-point perspective drawing. Is one drawing to be considered in error if the points are not the same?

Being "right" doesn't always mean that other people are "wrong," and saying that does not make the truth "relative;" although these are distinct possibilities.

If a man is to hop his way to God, then those who choose to come by crawling or by dragging themselves prostrate over the ground should have no complaint. The arrival is the important part, the means is a matter of personal predilection.

Lindsay Lobe said...

I think reality and knowledge is the same thing. When we say anything or make a statement about something, say an object, we are only able to do because we have information on it. This blog does exist as I can assign features to it.

Knowledge is transmitted from one subject to another, and thereby loses its dependence on any single individual but it remains real. We can say the truth is the truth if we wish, but we are all trapped in this wondrous universe at this point of time and only have a tiny concept of it all. We can’t step out and view it independently to find out what is the universal truth. We don’t know what that universal truth is, but we can believe individual truths just as the previous commentators have indicated.

We can say time is always linear, which it isn’t since as its warped by gravity, but the differences here on Earth as so small its okay to believe its entirely linear. Relativism in no excuse for lack of morally but it exists to large degree in all of our activities and how we see the world.
In fact the very essence of physics involves certain beliefs that become concepts before they are attempted to be proven.
Guys like Einstein . Dirac and Poncare placed concepts above the Truth in terms of importance.

Matt said...

That's a tough one, I have issues with that and many other aspects described in the bible, I can only say that I will never understand them and I am not sure I want to. :)

Matt said...

But you gotta think, that why wouldn't God ask you to be willing to Sacrifice your child.. when he sacrificed his. Lots of violence.. I don't have the answers.

DA said...

Buddha said: “that we must not believe in a thing said merely because it is said; nor traditions because they have been handed down from antiquity; nor rumors, as such; nor writings by sages, because sages wrote them; nor fancies that we may suspect to have been inspired in us by a Deva (that is, in presumed spiritual inspiration); nor from inferences drawn from some haphazard assumption we may have made; nor because of what seems an analogical necessity; nor on the mere authority of our teachers or masters. But we are to believe when the writing, doctrine, or saying is corroborated by our own reason and consciousness. "For this," says he in concluding, "I taught you not to believe merely because you have heard, but when you believed of your consciousness, then to act accordingly and abundantly."” - Secret Doctrine III 401.
And Jesus said (John 8:32) "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

I was touring Europe last week but I am happy to see CafeDA alive and kicking during my absense :-)Thank you all for your thoughts.

There have been major human rights conflicts throughout history in which both or all sides quoted “the absolute truth” from the Bible to support their positions. This has happened over human slavery, women's suffrage, the use of contraceptives, the roles and status of women, female ordination, how to discipline children, racial segregation, inter-racial marriage, abortion access, religious tolerance, equal rights for gays and lesbians, same-sex marriage, etc.

So “truth” as such in a contemplative way is absolute. But practical truth is very relative to my opinion indeed.

I think that truth itself must feel quite lonely here on earth amongst wayward mankind.