Will the real Father Abraham please stand up.

For about 6 months now, I have wrestled with the “Abraham sacrificing Isaac” story. During this time, I have discussed with my classmates, read a daunting amount on the subject, and simmered the topic in my mind with no avail.

The main argument, or oddity if you will, about the story is Abrahams true state of mind in the famous Isaac sacrificial story.  Was Abraham crazy; was he marvelously obedient; or was it simply the social norm to sacrifice children without despair? Granted we only get the biblical writer’s side of the story, but I have spent many night wondering why Abraham would not rebel at the thought of killing his precious son whom her waited decades to birth.

Yes, there is a mystical side to this story as well as a faith-based assumption that Abraham knew what he was doing. But being the heretic that I am – I use heretic very lightly – I have to ask about the ethical implications of such and action and what it means to Bible readers today. I mean, come on; am I the only one who thinks its weird that one of the most celebrated stories in our faith tradition is a story about the “Father” of all Nations willing to murder his child in God‘s name?

Either way, while reading the jewel of a theologian by the name of Soren Kierkegaard, I came across this summary of his thoughts on the ethical implications of the Abraham- Isaac narrative. This may seem like a stale end to a very controversial post, but trust me, Kierkegaard is throwing around some heavy ethical brainage within this summary. Enjoy.

From Kierkegaard’s religious perspective, however, the conceptual distinction between good and evil is ultimately dependent not on social norms but on God. Therefore it is possible, as Johannes de Silentio argues was the case for Abraham (the father of faith), that God demand a suspension of the ethical (in the sense of the socially prescribed norms). This is still ethical in the second sense, since ultimately God’s definition of the distinction between good and evil outranks any human society‘s definition. The requirement of communicability and clear decision procedures can also be suspended by God’s fiat. This renders cases such as Abraham’s extremely problematic, since we have no recourse to public reason to decide whether he is legitimately obeying God’s command or whether he is a deluded would-be murderer. Since public reason cannot decide the issue for us, we must decide for ourselves as a matter of religious faith.

McDonald, William, “Søren Kierkegaard”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .


4 thoughts on “Will the real Father Abraham please stand up.

  1. Fear and Trembling is one of my favorites, one that I’ve read over and over. I think the book itself is complex, and defies any easy interpretation. That said, I still can’t help but think that Abraham was wrong, that he failed the test. He was supposed to challenge God, say no, just like he did regarding Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe that’s heretical, but I’m a good heretic too. Whatever the case, it’s always interesting to me that the models of faith presented in the Bible always fall short of what “we” think faith requires. Perhaps that tells us something about the nature of faith–and something about ourselves. Thanks for the post.

  2. Kierkegaard is becomeing more and more intriguing the more I learn about his life and theology. I have not finished Fear and Trembling quite yet, but I am beggining to lean toward it for my SRP, among Kierkegaards other works.

    Pertaining the the post, Kierkegaard present an alternate postition of suspended ethics in the story of Abraham, which I am not exaclty comfortable with or completely understand. But you are right, I find myself disagreeing with many of the major players in the Bible, strictly based upon what I have determined as “ethical.” Thats the thing; what about Abraham’s story makes it the so inspiring? Was is the failure of God’s challenge or the audacity to carry out such a demand in “faith.”

    Faith, in Abraham instance, is doing something unthinkable; expecting the impossible. And in Kierkegaard’s terms, that is the greatest expectation. But I still cannot bridge the “expecting the impossible” with the suspended ethics idea.

  3. I’ve stated this point before on a similar comment you made previously about this particular narrative: The nuances within the text itself make an intentional point to provide a clue into Abraham’s responsive emotions at the thought of killing the heir of promise, and they are neither apathetic nor coldly obedient. That said, I think it’s very problematic for you and I to try and analyze Abraham’s potential state of psychological well-being in Gen 22. While I think Kierkegaard’s work on the story masterfully, though only partly, thrives on assuming potential variations of Abraham’s thought processes (and by doing so beautifully allows the reader to almost step into the narrative herself/himself), I find it difficult to hinge our interpretation of the text (or attempt to construct a conclusion concerning its presumed notion of an ethical system) on an assumed state of psychological stability. However, I do think the question you (and Hollis) raise is extremely significant and one I, too, have been asking for years: Why didn’t Abraham stick up for his beloved son just as he was so boldly eager to do for a city full of people unknown to him?

    Josh, my hope is that neither of us achieve any sense of avail with this text or any other that baffles and calls into question our own deep sense of rationale; for in such lies its imperishable beauty.

  4. Thanks for your insight on both posts Adam. I truly appreciate that there are others, well-educated others I might add, who can help me sift through this challenging, yet important issue.

    As you said, it is difficult to achieve any sense of avail when it comes to understanding the implications and motivations behind this text. And maybe I am being a little speculative about Abraham’s psychological stability, but whether it is speculation or not, I cannot seem to put it down and say, “I just don’t know.” Curiosity rules me, and although I am not that naive to ever believe that “I” will ever fully fathom (or could even be able to fathom) the true answer(s) to this question, I have to agree that it is in this baffling journey to understand that the true beauty is revealed.

    I will never lose courage to take that journey knowing that there are people like you and Dr. Phelps that labor as well.

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