THE SARAH PAINTINGS OF RICHARD MCBEE

 Traditionally the family has been a narrative institution:

It was the past and it had a tale to tell of how things began, including the child himself; and it had counsel to give.

Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), p. 139.

Written by Judith Margolis

For the body of work called “Sarah’s Trials,” Richard McBee, artist, writer and Ortho- dox Jew, transformed his examination of the dysfunctional marriage of Abraham and Sarah into sixteen large oil paintings, arranged as eight diptychs, each more than twelve feet across. In order to present the narrative from Sarah’s point of view, McBee delves into traditional sources, including many of the midrashim that, for Orthodox Jews, are almost inseparable from the biblical narrative itself. Pairing the paintings with texts emerging from these sources, McBee creates an imagined paraphrase of Sarah’s observations. The resulting images become a visual midrash on the subversive and creative role played by the two women in the triangular relationship joining Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.

Richard McBee, Author

The Divine imperative underlies, indeed propels, the entire narrative of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.  God commands and tests our beloved protagonists.  They must carefully parse His words and figure out what exactly He wants of them.  It is their earnest reactions and the effects those actions have on those around them that fuel our stories and lay the foundation for generations of conflict, strife and commentary.

Abraham Hears God

The curtains have parted, the orchestra has forewarned us of an impending tragedy; the characters take their places center stage to interact with each other in a story that is well known to the audience. But like a great opera, it is the music, the scenery, the acting, and the nuances that blend to enhance and dramatize the plot. The first and continuing impact of Richard McBee’s epic series of paintings of the complete history of the biblical Sarah is of an opera on a grand scale.


The First Mother maintains her hold
 on the Jewish imagination.

What were the first words in the Bible spoken by a Jew?

Was it about monotheism, social justice, the sanctity of land, peace or peoplehood?

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Sarah’s only child.  Our forefather gets up early and obeys, not telling Sarah his wife of 47 years.  According to Rashi (Genesis 23:2) when she finds out about this, she dies of shock.  This has always disturbed me.  Upon reflection other things about their relationship seemed problematic. 

Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister to protect himself, once, and then again 25 years later, both times exposing her to danger. This never seemed evidence of an ideal loving couple. Ramban (Genesis 12:10) commented that this act of betrayal and lack of faith fated Abraham’s descendants to be enslaved in Egypt. 

When Richard McBee talks about Abraham and Sarah's marriage, he calls it "a deeply problematic human relationship," which leads him to ask, "Do we look at biblical figures as paradigms of behavior?"

McBee is not a therapist who thinks he is living in biblical times, nor is he an anti-theist seeking to undermine the bible. McBee, a painter, identifies as both a feminist and an Orthodox Jew, and as such, he is very concerned about how Abraham treated -- or rather mistreated -- his wife.

SARAH REDUX

Confronting Richard McBee’s series of paintings, Sarah’s Trials, is as much about engaging with the concept of Midrashic narrative and its multi-layered plotlines as it is about appreciating the paintings themselves. The duality of the painter’s deeply-rooted impulses, both reimagining and recreating stories, can be both enlightening and bewildering for the viewer, since we’re in the realm of ostensibly familiar legends.Tale-telling lies at the heart of much Western Art.

Biblical and Midrashic Texts
Each painting is inspired by the Biblical text in several chapters of the book of Genesis and by midrashim  and other rabbinic interpretations of the texts. Most of these midrashim come from a collection called Midrash Rabbah, which dates to the early 5th century CE. 
 

Genesis 28: 10 – 22

10 And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

13 And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; 14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

The Stolen Blessing (1)

Genesis 27: 1 – 29

1And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said to him, My son; and he said to him, Behold, here am I. 2  And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death; 3  (K) Now therefore take, I beg you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow and go out to the field, and catch me some venison; 4  And make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.

The Stolen Blessing: Esav's Blessing

Genesis 27: 30 – 41, Genesis 27: 1 – 29

1 And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said to him, My son; and he said to him, Behold, here am I. 2  And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death; 3  (K) Now therefore take, I beg you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow and go out to the field, and catch me some venison; 4  And make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.

 

The Binding of Isaac

Genesis 22: 1 – 24

1        And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. 2  And he said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.