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.
1) Abraham’s Conflict: Idol Shop and Smashing Venus
Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 11:28
R. Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. “How old are you?” Abraham asked him. “Fifty years,” was the reply. “Woe to such a man!” he exclaimed, “you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object!” At this he became ashamed and departed. On another occasion a woman came with a plateful of flour and requested him, “Take this and offer it to them.”
So he took a stick, broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, “What have you done to them?” “I cannot conceal it from you,” he rejoined. “A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, ‘I must eat first,’ while another claimed, ‘I must eat first.’ Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick, and broke them.” “Why do you make sport of me,” he cried out; “have they then any knowledge!” “Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying,” he retorted.
Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. “Let us worship the fire!” he [Nimrod] proposed. “Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,” replied he. “Then let us worship water!” “Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water.” “Then let us worship the clouds!” “Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.” “Then let us worship the wind!” “Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.” “You are just bandying words,” he exclaimed; “we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.”
2) Sarah Triumphs: Sister Act (Entering Egypt) and Whip Angel Defends Sarah from Pharaoh
Genesis 12:1-20, Genesis 20:1-18
Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 12:11-14
…Where was Sarah? He had put her in a box and locked her in it. When he came to the customs-house, he (the customs officer) demanded, “Pay the custom dues.” “I will pay,” he replied. “You carry garments in that box,” said he. “I will pay duties on garments.” “You are carrying precious stones.” “I will pay on precious stones.” “It is imperative that you open it and we see what it contains,” he insisted. As soon as he opened it the land of Egypt was irradiated with her lustre (beauty).
Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 12:15-17
It is BECAUSE OF SARAI ABRAM’S WIFE. R. Berekiah said: Because he dared to approach the shoe of that lady. And the whole of that night Sarah lay prostrate on her face, crying, “Sovereign of the Universe! Abraham went forth [from his land] on Thine assurance, and I went forth with faith; Abraham is without this prison while I am within!” Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to her “Whatever I do, I do for thy sake, and all will say, ‘It is BECAUSE OF SARAI ABRAM’S WIFE.'” R. Berekiah said: Because he dared to approach the shoe of that lady.
R. Levi said: The whole of that night an angel stood with a whip in his hand; when she ordered, “Strike,” he struck, and when she ordered, “Desist,” he desisted. And why such severity? Because she told him [Pharaoh], “I am a married woman,” yet he would not leave her. R. Leazar said (the same was also taught in the name of R. Liezer b. Jacob): We know that Pharaoh was smitten with leprosy and Abimelech with the closing up [of the orifices]: how do we know that what is said here is to be applied there, and vice versa? Because “for the sake of” occurs in both places, that an analogy may be drawn.
3) Sarah Despairs: Abraham Taking Hagar and Sarah’s Despair
4) Sarah Laughs: Go Fetch and Sarah Laughs
5) Sarah Triumphs: Hagar is Expelled and Hagar and Ishmael are Expelled
Genesis 16:5-16, Genesis 21:9-21
Ramban’s Commentary on Genesis 16:6
“And Sarah dealt harshly with her, and she fled from before her face.”
Our mother did transgress by this affliction, and Abraham also by his permitting her to do so. And so, God heard her [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son who would be a wild ass of a man, to afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kinds of afflictions.
6) Sarah Abandoned: Abraham Hears God and Sarah Alone
7) Abraham’s Loss: Isaac Returns and Abraham Mourns
8) Sarah’s Legacy: Isaac Comforted and Abraham Returns to Hagar
Genesis 24:58-67, Genesis 25:1-10
Rashi’s Commentary: This is Hagar, but she is called Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful as incense and because she bound up her entrance in that she did not have relations with any man from the day she separated from Abraham.