Is Abraham an unethical cur who bases his faith on irrational and potentially evil surfaces? Is Abraham just an absurd being given an absurd problem? Is he nothing more than a Knight of Faith? These are all questions that I hope to cover as I go through my assessment of Kierkegaard’s explanation of Abraham’s situation.
Abraham: Irrationally Unethical or Religiously Knighted?
First, we must be given the situation in which he was set in, to even begin to analyze what it is that was right or wrong with Abraham. The gist of the story is this: Abraham has trouble conceiving a child with his wife, Sarah. He already has a child with Hagar, named Ishmael which was conceived in an effort to help a childless woman live out her dream of a family through concubines, her slave Hagar and Abraham’s child with her. This is not necessarily pertinent to the story in any way other than the fact that, though he already had a child, the effort to conceive Isaac was not something to be taken lightly (Genesis 21). Now as soon as Isaac was born, Hagar and Ishmael were sent away, most likely due to their role in the family being completed and Ishmael being replaced as “son” with Isaac. At the beginning of Genesis chapter 22, we see God speaking to Abraham about Isaac, and the test he’s about to be given. This is where the part of the story that Kierkegaard uses as a basis for his “Knight of Faith” in Fear and Trembling takes place. In Genesis 22:03, God calls to Abraham; “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Now at this point, Abraham takes his young son, Isaac, and takes him up to the mountain with a knife for the sacrifice and some wood to burn the offering. In verse seven, Isaac asks of his father, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb?” and Abraham replies, “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” They continue up the mountain, and get to the place Abraham was told to go, and so he began to prepare the altar for the burnt offering, placing his son upon it. Now the bible does great justice to not go into the pleads of Isaac, which may very well torture and torment any human being but I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of “No, father, No” and “Please don’t sacrifice me to God, I am not a lamb.” At that point, just as he was preparing the knife to slay Isaac and burn him for the offering, an “Angel” appeared to Abraham. In verse twelve, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld me your son, your only son.” Now if I were a religious scholar, I’d probably be beginning to cringe at the secular view of said passage, but that will come later, for the story has not fully been completed yet. Abraham hears more from the Angel, who calls from heaven, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Now that’s quite a mouthful, even for God, but after that Abraham and Isaac descend from the mountain.
Part 1: The Events of Abraham by the Accounts of Bible and Soren Kierkegaard
Now that you know the story of Isaac and Abraham, we must take a look at what it meant to Kierkegaard, who said that because of this, Abraham was a Knight of Faith. To try to slay his child, took a leap of faith. And though he could not be certain it was God speaking to him, his fear of the true God spurred him on to the purpose given to him to sacrifice his son at the altar. Now should he have continued to sacrifice Isaac after being told to stop, he would be an absurd madman. Should he have sacrificed Isaac and it was not God that told him to do it in the first place, he would have been an absurd madman. But because he did it in the name of God, and God stopped him because it was an order to test his faith, he was rewarded. This proof from Kierkegaard is an example of the perforation of religious ideals into the Kierkegaardian version of Existentialism, and thus the reason why Nietzsche and Sartre and Camus, all needed to amend it with different versions of religious and secular definitions, with the same basic principles. Now, Isaac was not really given much voice in the story, and perhaps it is not the meaning of it, but based upon the existentialist view of “choice” and “will” then if Isaac was not entirely naïve at the end, when he was about to be sacrificed, he would most likely have struggled, and tried to get loose. Choosing, on his own, to possibly try to stop his father’s perceived madness. Isaac may also have prayed to God for rescue, thus leading to the “revelation” that Abraham had after God allowed Isaac freed. These are also elements in this story and the analysis that may have shed further and better light upon the matter, but it is definitely not necessary for analyzing the purpose of whether or not Abraham’s methods were mad and unethical, or sane and full of religious valor.