Fear and Trembling – Reinterpreting Kierkegaard’s Take on Abraham

Kierkegaard Abraham Isaac Fear and Trembling

In Fear and Trembling Søren Kierkegaard asks us to look at the story from Genesis of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Kierkegaard wants us to understand that Abraham is heroic not in an abstract sense, but in that this level of faith is something we should all aspire to. It’s only at this level of faith – where one can expect the impossible – that one can truly love God, which is the definition of true happiness for humankind.

The part of this story that I would like to examine is when God stayed Abraham’s hand, allowing him to sacrifice an animal instead. Let’s put aside that God demanded blood sacrifice in the first place. Why did God allow Abraham to spare his son’s life? According to Kierkegaard, Abraham could expect Isaac to be restored by God anyway. So why not allow Abraham to go through with the sacrifice and then restore Isaac – a move that would only serve to solidify God’s ultimate power.

I think this is because Abraham could only be viewed as heroic if he was willing to sacrifice his son, but not actually do it. If Abraham had gone through with the sacrifice, he would be seen as villainous rather than heroic. It’s the act of faith that must be held up, not the act of murdering one’s only son. Abraham’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” is in mind only, not in deed.

One has to imagine Abraham being relieved by God’s decision to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Even if Isaac was restored by God, could Abraham have lived with himself after killing his only son? Would Abraham have been able to find Kierkegaard’s highest level of happiness from actually committing the deed? Would actually committing the deed have sullied all the future Hebrews with another sin similar to Adam and Eve’s?

Indeed, if Abraham had actually gone through with the sacrifice, he may have ended up in the ninth level of Hell with Judas Iscariot. God never had any real intention of allowing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The point of the story shouldn’t be that Abraham’s faith was tested, but that God’s faith was tested. God was the one who needed to prove to Himself that he could place His faith in Abraham as the progenitor of God’s chosen people.

Yet it is God’s happiness that is supposed to matter above all else. The meaning of our existence, if we are to take the Bible literally, is to please God. Yet God has no faith in humanity to please Him. Abraham was still only living in Kierkegaard’s ethical form of life – he was merely following the orders of a superior. God is the one who was suspending the ethical by ordering His creation to disobey His laws, and by extension thereby disobeying His own laws.