And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. Then the angel of the Lord called him from heaven- ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ and he answered, ‘Here am I.’ And he said, ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him’. (Genesis 22-10-12)
Consider the play of hands in this canvas painting. The helpless hands behind Isaac’s back render him a passive sacrificial offering. As for the hands of the angel of the Lord – one hand dramatically arrests the violent act at the critical moment, and the other knocks the knife from Abraham’s hand.
But what is Rembrandt communicating through Abraham’s left hand? Why does he cover the face of his child? Does the murderous hand asphyxiate the boy and position his neck for slaughter? Or does Abraham cover Isaac’s face to spare him the sight of his father committing an unthinkable act? Or could it be that at the moment of terror Abraham, the compassionate father, utterly dedicated to upholding the divine commandment to slaughter Isaac, is nonetheless unable to look his beloved son in the eye?
Abraham’s face displays everything we would expect- confusion, shock, and total lack of comprehension. Having girded himself for this death march, he is taken aback when called to a sudden halt. How did Abraham reconcile this withdrawal of the divine command with the original directive? If it was not to be consummated, what then was the purpose of this difficult and perplexing ordeal?
Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy
Photo courtesy of Hermitage, Leningrad.