God said, ‘Take your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains.’
The story of Abraham is one of the oldest and most intriguing in the Bible: God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham obeys, although ultimately a ram is killed in Isaac’s place.
The text, handed down in Judaism as the “Binding of Isaac”, is also significant in Christianity and Islam. All three religions interpret the episode, and the questions it raises, differently. In Islamic texts for example, Abraham’s son Ismail, not Isaac, is sacrificed, and there is no binding at the altar.
Multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke and British film director Peter Greenaway have revived this old text into an immersive installation. Their new exhibition Obedience, at the Jewish Museum, takes you on a journey through 15 rooms, focusing on the different episodes and characters of the story.
It is heavy subject matter, and the rooms are loaded – with video installations, music, objects, modern images and old manuscripts. Every room has different floors, lighting, smells, sounds and visual stimuli, resulting in a heightened sensual experience.
However, subtle aspects carry through, binding the narrative together. For example, the pebbles on the floor of The Devil’s Room, that glow like hot coals in the dark, red light, take on new significance when we read about Hajj pilgrims stoning the devil, like Abraham, in The Islam Room. The sacrificed ram of Judaism becomes the Lamb of God in Christianity; the firewood that Isaac gathers becomes the wood of the cross.
What becomes a constant, ever louder echo reverberating through all the rooms is a focus on Isaac / Ismail, the child Abraham was willing to sacrifice. Boddeke and Greenaway have interpreted the story as a human drama, in a modern context. Images of children and their parents make us question Abraham’s obedience, for which he was praised and rewarded.
A video of children from all over the world repeating the lines “I am Isaac” or “I am Ismail”, allusions to child refugees, and contemporary images of suffering children make us question whether we, like Abraham, are sacrificing children in obedience to wealth. Provocative.