Perhaps the most famous of reflections on this passage of scripture comes from Soren Kierkegaard in his book “Fear and Trembling.” After an introduction, four “retellings” of the story are given, each with it’s own emphasis and peculiarities. At the end of of each vignette, Kierkegaard also includes a short description of how the story ties to a mother weaning her child. Today, I post Kierkegaard’s introduction and his first reflection.
Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard that beautiful story of how God tested Abraham and of how Abraham withstood the testing, kept the faith, and contrary to expectation, got a son a second time. When he grew older, he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had fractured what had been united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more often his thoughts turned to that story; his enthusiasm for it became greater and greater, and yet he could not understand the story less and less. Finally, he forgot everything else because of it; his soul had but one wish: to see Abraham; but one longing: to have witnessed the event. . .
His craving was to go along on the three day journey when Abraham rode with sorrow before him and Isaac beside him. His wish was to be present in that hour when Abraham raised his eyes and saw Mount Moriah in the distance, the hour when he left the donkeys behind and went up the mountain alone with Isaac – for what occupied him was not the beautiful tapestry of imagination but the shudder of the idea.
This man was not a thinker. He did not feel any need to go beyond faith . . . Neither was he a biblical scholar. He did not know Hebrew; if he had known Hebrew, perhaps he would have more easily understood the story and Abraham.
“And God tested Abraham and said unto him, ‘Take Isaac, thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon the mountain which I will show thee.’ ”
It was early in the morning when Abraham arose, had the donkeys saddled, and left his tent, taking Isaac with him. Sarah watched them from the window as they went down the valley – until she could see them no longer.
They rode in silence for three days. On the morning of the fourth day Abraham said not a word, but he raised his eyes and saw Mount Moriah in the distance. He left the servants behind, and taking Isaac’s hand, went up the mountain alone. But Abraham said to himself, “I will not hide from Isaac where this journey is taking him.” He stood still, he laid his hand upon the head of Isaac in benediction, and Isaac bowed to receive the blessing. And Abraham’s face epitomized fatherliness: his gaze was mild, his speech encouraging.
But Isaac was unable to understand him, his soul could not be uplifted. He grasped Abraham’s knees, he pleaded at his feet, he begged for his young life, and for the fair hope of his future, He called to mind the joy in Abraham’s house, and he called to mind the sorrow and the solitude. Then Abraham lifted the boy up and walked on, holding his hand, and his words were full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. Abraham climbed Mount Moriah, but Isaac understood him not.
Then for a moment Abraham turned away from his son, and when Isaac saw his father’s face again, it was changed, his gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror. Abraham seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, “Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think that this is God’s desire? No, it is what I want!”
Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his anguish, “0 God in heaven, have mercy on me. God of Abraham, have mercy on me. If I have no father on earth, then you be my father!” But Abraham said softly to himself, “0 Lord in heaven, I thank you. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster than he should lose faith in you.”
When the child is to be weaned, the mother blackens her breast. It would be hard to have the breast look inviting when the child must not have it. So the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother – she is still the same, her glance is as loving and tender as ever. How fortunate the one who did not need more terrible means to wean the child!
In this story Kierkegaard seeks to show Abraham as being protective of God and God’s image to his son Isaac. Isaac is shown begging for his life, imploring his father not to kill him. “He begged for his young life, and for the fair hope of his future.” Isaac does not, cannot understand how his father could do such a a terrible thing, and Abraham is unwilling to place the blame for his actions on the God who has commanded them. “Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think that this is God’s desire? No, it is what I want!”
Isaac’s terror in this short story is palpable, and he begs for mercy not only from his father, but also from his father’s God. The later brings a quiet response to Abraham’s lips, “0 Lord in heaven, I thank you. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster than he should lose faith in you.” Abraham seeks to hide from his son the terrible thing that God has asked him to do.
In another reflection on this passage of scripture, Dan Clendenin, on his website journeywithjesus.net writes:
Abraham faced at least four inter-related challenges to believing the command of God and then acting upon that belief. First, he would have been entirely reasonable to conclude that he was being deceived by malign influences—sickness, demons, hallucinations, infirmities of his old age, etc., and that the visions and voices that he heard originated not with a loving God but from a temptation of the worst, evil sort. If that was the case, he would have “obeyed” by dismissing the voices as delusions. Similarly, we can imagine praising Abraham if he concluded that he somehow deceived himself through religious zealotry couched in pious platitudes. Today we invoke this rationale to condemn in the harshest terms suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq, or Christians who bomb abortion clinics, all who claim that God told them to commit some atrocity. Third, at a simple, rational level, the command of God challenged Abraham to embrace the absurd, the irrational, or the unintelligible. What sense does it make to murder the son of promise through whom God had promised to bless all the earth? Fourth, Abraham had to transcend normal ethical expectations. Good parents love and nourish their children, they do not murder them in religiously-inspired violence and claim that “God told me to do it.”
Clendenin goes on to give voice to some of the questions the story raises:
- What are we to make of a God who commands child sacrifice? Might God ask me to do something similar today?
- How would we respond to a believer who invoked this passage to abort her baby as an act of obedience to what she heard as God’s command?
- Does the Bible sanction religious violence?
- What about the divine bait-and-switch in this passage, where God asks Abraham to do the incomprehensible, and then at the last minute provides an alternative (which smacks of psychic torture)?
- How could Abraham possibly have known whether Isaac would be spared (as it so happened), whether he might kill Isaac only to have God raise him from the dead (the interpretation of Hebrews 11:17–19), or whether God might have him murder Isaac only to provide him with yet a third son of promise after Ishmael and Isaac?
And as many others have asked, I too ask the following: How do we worship and serve a God who asks everything, absolutely everything and anything, of us?