|The Sacrifice of Abraham by Rembrandt|
Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Sinai. He followed God's order and set on a three-day journey to commit the deed. Nonetheless, when Abraham is about to stab his own son, God stops him through an angel and declares He has been satisfied with Abraham's behavior and particularly his unwavering faith.
Kierkegaard uses this example to illustrate his definition of faith. Faith to him is not an easy or convenient matter; it implies pain and sacrifice. It is not enough to simply “believe,” but it implies effort and recurring action. It would not be enough to go to church every Sunday or to read and study the Scriptures. To him faith includes suffering and being ready to renounce what is meaningful to one's life. It means wholly embracing faith in a world where it would seem an absurdity to do so.
Abraham's example helps us to illustrate his point. Abraham was told to act on faith and to sacrifice his own beloved son because God asked him to do so. At first glance, it seems an absurdity because how could God possibly benefit from the sacrifice of Isaac and why would He make Abraham, one of His chosen ones, suffer “needlessly”?
In this regard, Kierkegaard dwells on the anguish of the worried father. It was not based on a whim, but included careful deliberation and preparation. It took Abraham three days to get to the mountain, which means enough time to reflect about the deed. For three days he must also endure the presence of his son whom he knows he is asked to sacrifice. Had he known in advance that God would come to his aid in the last moment, it would actually diminish his unquestioning faith. Therefore, the anguish existed in obeying unconditionally to God's wishes.
What may father and son have talked about on this long journey, Kierkegaard asks? Did they talk at all? Did Abraham pretend that everything was fine or was he silent and worried for the following three days? Isaac apparently did not suspect anything and went along for the ride.
But what did Abraham say to him when he bound him, took up his glittering knife and was intent on killing his son? Did he play the madman? Would not Isaac think that God was needlessly cruel when He asked his father to kill him? Would Abraham pretend insanity or a lapse of reason to protect the faith of his son?
And more importantly, after all had been said and done, and they were on their way back home, what went through Isaac's mind about his father who was about to butcher him; what did he think about God who had asked his father to do so? Would there not be a grudge especially towards his father for being ready to sacrifice him?
On the other hand, how did Abraham feel? Of course, he must have felt great relief when he found out that it was not necessary to go through with the horrible deed. But would he feel ashamed towards his son for what he had almost done? Or did he believe that his son would be proud of the immense faith that his father had professed and actually follow Abraham's example?
On the side of Kierkegaard, it is clear that he has the greatest respect and admiration for the figure of Abraham. There is no higher faith than his; Abraham was ready to renounce everything he cherished in this world if it be God's wish. The Danish philosopher makes clear that Abraham did indeed love his son. Because had he not, then the sacrifice or the test of faith would be rendered meaningless.
Kierkegaard warns us not to take Abraham's case lightly. It is not a trifle, nor merely a “test.” It is an existential crisis. If we simply think it is a pleasing story especially because of its “happy ending” we miss the whole point. Only if we grasp the full meaning do we suffer with Abraham and his decision; if we don't lose sleep over it and do not toss and turn, if it does not resonate and touch us deep within our soul, then we have misunderstood this whole passage of the Bible.
Should we follow Abraham's example then? Evidently, Kierkegaard is not asking us to go and sacrifice our children for God. However, we should follow the intensity of Abraham's spiritual faith. This is the kind of faith that moves mountains.
Note: There is some debate about the actual age of Isaac during the sacrifice. Our usual impression is of a child or boy in his early teens; however, many claim that Isaac must have been at least 20 or maybe even in his thirties when this event took place. That would change our whole perspective about the incident.
Then the more than a hundred-year-old Abraham would have had a hard time tying up this young man. That would mean that perhaps Isaac had been a willing participant. It would diminish at least some of Kierkegaard's claims of existential anguish on Abraham's part. Nonetheless, ethically, it would be some kind of relief since it is not an innocent child that is asked to be slaughtered like a lamb, but somebody who is fully aware of the implications.