Seeing Abraham and Isaac

For many readers, the story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most troubling stories of the Bible. By this point in Abraham’s story, God already has made a covenant with him, having promised to bless him and make him the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Yet suddenly, “God tested Abraham.” God does not mince words in his command to Abraham. And Abraham, who only recently pleaded with God on behalf of the Sodomites, simply obeys. For many readers, the dramatic action of the story–told mainly through narration–sparks the visual imagination. Indeed, the story has been depicted in painting throughout the ages. The written biblical account does not provide much insight into the characters’ internal states. Is Isaac suspicious when he asks his father where the lamb is? Does Abraham suspect that God will provide a lamb in place of his son? And so a visual depiction seems poised to answer a question on the forefront of most readers’ minds: What were Abraham and Isaac thinking and feeling?

An unusual visual depiction of this story–indeed of all the stories in Genesis–is contained in illustrator R. Crumb’s recent book, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Using a comic book format, Crumb provides a visual interpretation of the first book of the Pentateuch that can deepen Christians’ understanding of its narratives of faith. Crumb’s book has been reviewed extensively elsewhere, so instead of providing a general evaluation of it here, I aim to show its capacity to engage readers deeply with the biblical text by examining closely its depiction of the story of Abraham and Isaac. (Samples from the book, including a frame from the Abraham and Isaac depiction, can be viewed online.)

Crumb’s biblical characters are cartoons, but they are expressive cartoons with furrowed brows, taut lips, and wide-eyed wonder. Early in the journey to the mountain, Crumb’s Isaac looks carefree, smiling as he rides on the back of the donkey and carries the wood for the sacrifice. But after he and his father depart from the two manservants, Isaac’s face shows signs of concern. After Abraham announces that God will see to the sheep, Isaac’s face shows signs of comfort. Yet this turns to despondency in the next scene when Abraham builds the altar. As his father binds him, Isaac’s face communicates misery. Abraham’s face, which until this moment had communicated a kind of resigned sadness, becomes harsh and angry as he prepares the pyre and his son for it. As Isaac’s expression turns to dismay, Abraham’s suggests his dedication to the task, even as the sweat at his brow at the moment of intervention by God’s messenger suggests angst and internal struggle.

As Abraham responds obediently to the messenger, his face suggests surprise and hope against hope. In the scene after Isaac is spared, Crumb depicts Abraham as a figure physically doubled over, simultaneously overwhelmed and relieved. Crumb then depicts graphically the scene in which Abraham sacrifices the ram: the violence of the act and Abraham’s face suggest a kind of bloodlust. Finally, Crumb shows Abraham and Isaac together as they make for home. Isaac looks overwhelmed by the experience. Abraham’s facial expression is grave but otherwise ambiguous.

How–or even whether–Abraham has come to terms with being tested by God is unclear. One effect of the test, as depicted by Crumb, is an increased closeness between father and son. When they headed for the mountain, Abraham led the donkey on whose back Isaac rode; they ride for home together, both on the donkey’s back. Yet whether this is because Abraham feels compelled to protect his son (his arms are wrapped around Isaac) or because Isaac is caring for his father (he leads their way with a stick) is unclear. The main point of the original biblical story is to present Abraham as a paradigm of faith–to show his complete obedience to and trust in God. The story presents righteousness not as conformity to an abstract moral code but rather as faithfulness to a relationship. By this measure, Abraham is a model of righteousness. Do Crumb’s visual depictions of Abraham’s emotions diminish this message, making him seem a little less righteous when his face conveys anger or bloodlust? Perhaps. But they also make him seem more human. As the paradigm of faith, we expect Abraham to be obedient, even when the act of obedience seemed contradictory to God’s promise. But we also expect humanity of Abraham.

In Deuteronomy 28, God makes it clear that he expects his people to serve him “joyfully and with gladness.” Is Abraham, as drawn by Crumb, therefore less than a model of righteousness–or is he both as faithful and as human as anyone can be?

Garth E. Pauley teaches in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Calvin College.