With many Christians and people who follow the teachings of God, the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 was probably one of the most popular parts in the Bible. While the original story is a story of faith and sacrifice, the four divergent versions of Kierkegaard point out the complexity of the event that first seemed to be simple and straightforward. Kierkegaard has raised difficult questions about the nature and value of the Christian faith.
In the original story, God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to kill his one and only son, his most beloved son, on one of the mountains in Moriah. Abraham questioned no more than his faith and did, indeed, obey God and attempt to kill Isaac; but God’s angel came at the right time to stop Abraham and gave him a ram in replace of Isaac. Since God had seen Abraham’s fear and faithfulness, he blessed Abraham with numerous descendants.
At the beginning of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Genesis 22 in four different ways, in which he centers on the inner thoughts of the characters involved. In the first story, Kierkegaard describes how Sarah watched her husband and her son going from the window until “she could see them no more.” The way Kierkegaard used his words emphasizes the depressed and somber feeling of a mother who knew that her only son was about to be killed by her husband—her son’s father. He further describes how Abraham acted during the journey, that he “did not say a word” and with his “fatherly” expression. In this first version, Abraham decided to act like he didn’t love his son at all, and that all he needed was God. The truth was that Abraham would rather have Isaac loses his trust in his father than Isaac loses his faith in God. Thanks to every small detail, from Sarah’s emotional feelings to Abraham’s bleeding soul and Isaac anguished cry, the story-through Kierkegaard’s words-becomes more realistic and painful that it deeply touches my heart and soul.
The second story is shorter than the first and centralizes more on the actions of the characters. In this story, Abraham decided to not kill Isaac and sacrificed the ram that God had appointed instead. However, while Isaac continued to live and grow, Abraham saw no joy in his life, for he has disobeyed God.
In the third story, Abraham was confused about his actions and his faith. He couldn’t comprehend that it was a sin that he was willing to sacrifice his son for God had commanded him to do so. But it was a sin as he loved Isaac so much and has forgotten the duty of a father. Abraham did not know which sin is more terrible, for both of them gave him the same merciless consequence.
The fourth story focuses on Isaac more than Abraham. In this story, Abraham did not kill Isaac. He has trembled. Then they returned in the joy of Sarah, but Isaac has lost his faith for he has seen his dad disobeyed God.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard emphasizes that Abraham’s decision is morally repugnant and rationally unintelligible. However, he also shows that if nothing is higher than human reasoning, then belief in God becomes dispensable. Kierkegaard’s writings point to people who believed in the authority and goodness of God. By emphasizing the difficulty of understanding Abraham’s response to the divine command, he emphasizes the difficulty of faith itself. The third story puts a question on every one of us: “If you were Abraham, what would you do?” It seems unlikely that anyone would conclude that he or she would have acted as Abraham did. Just as Abraham’s faith is tested by God in the Book of Genesis, so does our faith is tested by personal reflection on the biblical story.
Though Abraham attempted to kill Isaac each time, he remained suffered and regretted his action. This aspect of the interpretation of Abraham offered in Fear and Trembling suggests that, far from being an idolater, Abraham regards human relationships (in this case, family relationships) as essential to life. In his work, Kierkegaard does not promote a particular judgment about Abraham but rather presents us with a dilemma: either Abraham is no better than a murderer, and there are no grounds for admiring him, or moral duties do not constitute the highest claim on the human being. Fear and Trembling does not resolve this dilemma, and perhaps for a normal person, there is no entirely satisfactory way of resolving it.
In conclusion, the question of how to respond to the suffering associated with love and loss is precisely connected to the question of how to stay in relation to God as historians have pointed out that human suffering presents a great challenge to belief in a just, loving, all-powerful God. For Kierkegaard, he could not understand why Abraham believes that the God who commands him to do what is most terrible and painful is also the God who loves him. While the original version was no more than a story of an idolater, the interpretation of Kierkegaard testifies to the extraordinary difficulty of religious faith.
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