Countless readers throughout the generations have drawn inspiration from the great struggles and challenges endured by the biblical heroes. Therefore, it is not surprising that the hardship of one of the most beloved heroes of the bible – Abraham, the first father of the Jewish people, the first monotheist – is re-imagined again and again in Western art and literature. One of the hardships treated numerous times by the decorators of Hebrew manuscripts in the Middle Ages was the punishment imposed by Nimrod King of Ur Chasdim on Abraham – death in a fiery furnace. In fact, the story does not even appear in the Bible. It is actually an early legend found in Genesis Rabbah (ch. 38, 13) that was composed by the Sages to complete the missing back story of Abraham.
In the well known story, Abraham is thrown into the fiery furnace because of his refusal to worship idols, but he is miraculously saved by divine intervention. In three 14th century manuscripts this divine intervention is depicted in three different ways.
The Golden Haggadah | The British Library, London, England, 14th century; Add. Add. 14761, f. 36v
In the Golden Haggadah, a Passover Haggadah made in Barcelona around the year 1320, Nimrod, King of Ur Chasdim can be seem as he commands his subjects to throw Abraham into the fiery furnace. Inside the furnace we can see the angels, (identifiable by their wings), who appear anxious that Abraham not even enter into the boiling furnace.
The Golden Haggadah | The British Library, London, England, 14th Century; Add. 27210, Fol. 003r
The second image of casting Abraham into the fiery furnace is found in the Leipzig Maḥzor which was composed around the same year. In the Maḥzor which is in the University Library in Leipzig, the hand of God saves Abraham from the fiery furnace.
Leipzig Maḥzor | Leipzig University Library, Leipzig, Germany, 14th centuty; Ms. frag 8
The third depiction of Abraham being saved from the fiery furnace is found in the Barcelona Haggadah, which is closer to the Golden Haggadah in terms of style and place of origin. And yet, the depiction is different. Here, Abraham is clearly visible inside the furnace, and the two angels are ushering him out.
The Barcelona Haggadah | The British Library, London, England, 14th century; Add. 27210, Fol. 003r