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Impossible Ethics: A Response to the Sacrifice of Isaac


Aaron Hollander '07


In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard tells of his lifelong fascination with the account of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19. The story has become part of Europe's (and therefore, America's) intellectual vernacular and, as it is most frequently retold, has become somewhat pedestrian and simplistic in its message: God tests Abraham's faith by commanding him to lead his firstborn son Isaac to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice him; Abraham has absolute faith in God and so follows the command, to the point that he draws his knife and places it to Isaac's throat. At that moment, God sees that Abraham's faith and obedience are complete and sends an angel to stop the sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac return home and the boy eventually becomes the patriarch of his people. The episode is most frequently conceptualized as an issue of faith in the will of God versus mistrust in the will of God, and as such makes golden fodder for a standard church sermon or a Sunday-school lesson (in Kierkegaard's Christian context).


But the sacrifice of Isaac shocked and unsettled Kierkegaard; he saw that the visceral, brutal nature of the ordeal undergone by both father and son had been "cleaned up" by the religious community, who downplayed, at least in public, elements in the story such as the three agonizing days it took Abraham and Isaac to reach Mt. Moriah, riding in silence and indescribable pain. To address the significance of this scriptural story adequately, believed Kierkegaard, we must recognize its horror, the inexplicability of the pain involved, the raw violence it does against the human being itself. We must, in a sense, see the story off the page, as if it were playing out before us in real time with the full weight and sensory impact of every moment of the ordeal. This is not at all to say that we must read the scripture literally and historically in order to appreciate it; we do, however, need to confront the occurrence between Abraham and Isaac, as it were, "face to face"; it impoverishes the deep and terrifying implications of this central Biblical episode to treat it as a sterile parable of a test of faith passed and left behind. Kierkegaard is asking us to look into the eyes of Abraham and Isaac on Mt.Moriah, to which demand this paper is a response. The apparent divide between ethical responsibility (of father to son) and religious obligation (of creation to creator) is of central significance to the Abrahamic faiths. Perhaps we will never find ourselves in a position of such an impossible choice, and perhaps we are never meant to emulate Abraham - but how can we respond to him?


The first question we can ask in an interrogation of the episode is: why is Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac to the Lord? What does this absolute obedience and faith in the plan of God offer to him or to his position as patriarch of Israel? Though many of his deconstructionist colleagues took up Kierkegaard's call to divest scriptural centerpieces such as this of their historical privilege, Jacques Derrida in particular was fascinated by the question of Abraham, and of the impossibility of consistent, satisfactory ethics. By refusing to accept tradition as truth, both Kierkegaard and Derrida were able to ask provocative questions like "what good is faith?" - questions that, if we choose to take the story of Abraham as historical, we must be certain that he himself asked. Another angle by which to frame this is, rather than questioning the motivation of such an act, to inquire instead about its aftermath. What did the binding of Isaac accomplish? Kierkegaard offers a hint when he "eulogizes" Abraham's faith from an unconventional perspective: if Abraham had doubted in God even for a moment,


            He would have cried out to God, "Reject not this sacrifice; it is not the best that I have, I   know that very well, for what is an old man compared to the child of promise, but it is the best that I can give you. Let Isaac never find this out so that he can take comfort in his youth." He would have thrust the knife into his own breast. He would have been admired in the world, and his name would never be forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired and another to become a guiding star that saves the anguished.[1]


So Abraham, through this impossible act of trust in the invisible plan of God against reason and ethics, has become a "guiding star" for those who follow him. In dark moments, perhaps they can recall Abraham drawing his knife with the last strength of his own will before he gives up entirely to God's. For such despairing individuals, goes the conventional interpretation, the example of Abraham who trusted in the Lord's providence even at the expense of his own humanity should bolster and soothe with the understanding that even the worst tests of faith are given ultimately by God. Humans can endure even the most wrenching horror when the ordeal of Abraham is taken as example.


Yet Kierkegaard argues that we should not be satisfied with such an interpretation, and he asks a question of fine deconstructive form: do we want Abraham as guiding star? Kierkegaard gives a hypothetical account of a man who, hearing in church the praise of Abraham who "gave the best he had" to the Lord, might go home and wish to do the same by sacrificing his own son to God. In such a circumstance, the same preacher who had extolled the virtues of Abraham would be forced to lend the whole force of his being to prevent this man from murdering his child in an insane religious fervor.[2] No matter what the motivation, outcome, or requirement of faith that enables Abraham to commit wholly to killing Isaac, his act is an ethical rupture. Abraham's relation to God may be intact, though disturbed, as is Isaac's own relation to God - but the relationship between Abraham and Isaac must be forever shattered. The ethical co-commitment of father and son is dissolved on Mt.Moriah; according to Derrida, this is the true nature of Abraham's sacrifice - the sacrifice of ethics to obligation.[3]


What is the significance of this sacrifice to us in our response to the scriptural story? It is true that Abraham hurts himself with the binding of Isaac more than he could ever hurt Isaac, thus making the sacrifice chiefly his own; furthermore, his trust in God's providence was not unfounded (for Isaac is spared by the will of God), so religiously he may be justified. Ethically, however, he is a murderer; on this point Kierkegaard and Derrida are resolved, and the starkness of such a claim contributes to the deconstruction and reanimation of this story. Abraham makes himself a murderer for God, neither symbolically nor without his own consent: the blade is drawn, the commitment made. To infuse the story with its full weight, we might imagine that the angel switches Isaac for the ram during the very pull of the knife across his throat. Kierkegaard answers the question of ethical necessity and religious obligation by privileging an ethical basis to human life and interaction, with religious commitment contingent on moral justifiability: "If faith cannot make it a holy act to be willing to murder his son, then let the same judgment be passed on Abraham as on everyone else."[4] And if we are unwilling to pass this judgment on Abraham, then the essential question is: what sets him apart from us that his ethical code is different from ours? Should ethics be relative to religious status and hierarchy, or to the extremity of one's commitment to God?


According to Derrida, the binding of Isaac points to an "absolute dissymmetry"[5] in the ethical relationship of Abraham and God. This is to suggest that Abraham, the human, is held accountable to the unknowable, yet appropriate-by-definition, will of God; to behave responsibly towards God requires, in this case, to betray the horizontal ethics that govern his relations with others.[6] God, meanwhile, is under no obligation to Abraham - presumably, it is not an option for Abraham to "require" God to acknowledge the commitment Abraham has to his family and refuse the sacrifice (or even substitute himself). This asymmetrical accountability of Abraham and God to one another is founded in the asymmetry of the "gaze" between them; God's plan is, as mentioned above (and rehearsed ad infinitum in ecclesiastical settings), inscrutable by the human mind. Abraham can have no understanding of why God requires this sacrifice of him and so is in no position to oppose it by his limited, self-contained ethical instinct. On the other hand, God gazes into Abraham's soul where even the latter cannot see himself: Derrida writes that it is a gaze "that sees me without my seeing it looking at me. It knows my very secret even when I myself don't see it."[7] Accordingly, God's requirements take into account and supposedly (in the assumption of a God who is "good") are in the ultimate service of Abraham's whole being; in this case, the requirement is to sacrifice not only his beloved, firstborn son, not only the structural integrity of his ethical code, but the very legitimacy of his relationships with his home and his family as well. And we have still not answered the question at the heart of Kierkegaard's essay and my own: why?


To take a new approach to the question of Abraham's anti-ethical obligation that nevertheless seems to justify his patriarchy of all the Semitic peoples, let us compare him with a figure of equal significance to his respective tradition: Vessantara, the last incarnation of the Buddha before the lifetime in which he achieves enlightenment. Vessantara's tremendous acts of sacrifice - first his elephant, then the rest of his property, then his home and kinship, then his horse and chariot, then his children, and finally his wife - are the deeds of non-attachment that enable his birth as the savior of humanity. He speaks of his actions: "I did not think twice about abandoning Jali, my daughter, Kanhajina, and my devoted wife, Maddi; it was all done for enlightenment."[8] Vessantara rejoices at his sacrifices, making them in the expectation of merit enabling him to lead humankind out of the bondage of samsara. Though Abraham's sacrifice is the diametric opposite of joyful, could it be that the violation of his and his family's lives is necessary, in a grander scheme, because of the role that they are to play in the history of Israel? When does the end justify means such as this - when escape from samsara for humanity is the reward? Does Abraham need to taste this profound humility and sourness of life in order to somehow fulfill the patriarchy of his people? As Kierkegaard asks us, without knowing the answer any more than Abraham does, "What does it mean to be God's chosen?"[9]


Another possibility, which I feel to be somehow more conceivable, less intellectually shattering than the conception of God bringing this ordeal in order to empower Abraham, is the possibility that the absolute faith needed for the future of Israel, and which is being tested in the episode, is not Abraham's but Isaac's. Kierkegaard retells the story several times, each subtly different in structure, detail, and implication; in the first retelling, we get a glimpse of a deeper meaning to the ordeal:


            Abraham turned away from [Isaac] for a moment, but when Isaac saw Abraham's face again, it had changed: his gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror. He seized Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground, and said, "Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think it is God's command? No, it is my desire." Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his anguish: "God of heaven, have mercy on me, God of Abraham, have mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then you be my father!" But Abraham said softly to himself, "Lord God in Heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you.[10]


Here is the most profound, most moving sacrifice of Abraham, which provides an interpretation of the episode that may come near to justifying it; though the specific words are not in the Genesis account, we can still propose that by drawing the blade in this pivotal moment Abraham sacrifices his own fatherhood of Isaac, and in that severance Isaac turns to God with his whole self, his faith intact. And such a faith is not unjustified: God indeed spares Isaac, and though Abraham is doomed - both ethically and relationally - Isaac will have the faith he needs to lead Israel forward. Isaac is a spiritual hero for his faith in the darkest moment, and Abraham is, can be, a spiritual hero for going beyond the call of God's obligation and giving up the last, blessed link he has to his son, sacrificing, indeed, "his very best" to the will of God and the future of his people.


Yet ultimately, the story is never settled. Like Vessantara, Abraham makes (or is committed to making until the final moment) a sacrifice of a body that does not belong to him; neither patriarch has an ethical obligation to his possessions, as Kierkegaard points out, but they each do to their children - "the highest and holiest"[11] of ethical obligations. No matter what the outcome, however we justify or explain away the rupture of ethics with a "grander scheme," both Vessantara and Abraham are betraying particular others. Neither can ever quite be rid of the violence he does against the most sacred ethical relationship in his life, and this fact is enough to demand that we who follow the spiritual tradition to which Abraham contributes not be held to the same standards of faith and obligation. His are not footsteps for us to follow. And Kierkegaard's unnerving example of a contemporary man wishing to repeat Abraham's sacrifice must give us serious pause. If our first response to such a man would be either the notion that he were a madman or criminal, or, more likely, that he were tragically deluded in false imagination of God's call, what keeps us from asking the same of Abraham? What if Abraham had misunderstood the will of God - what might have been lost in translation between divine speech and human understanding? What would we think of him then?




Caputo, John D. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. IndianaUniversity Press, 1997.


Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death, trans. D. Wills. ChicagoUniversity Press, 1995.


Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling, trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong. PrincetonUniversity Press, 1983.


Morris, Richard, trans. Cariyapitaka. London: Pali Text Society, 1882.

[1] Kierkegaard, p. 20-1

[2] Kierkegaard, p. 28

[3] Derrida, p. 67

[4] Kierkegaard, p. 30

[5] Derrida, p. 91

[6] Caputo, p. 200

[7] Derrida, p. 91

[8] Vessantara Jataka, from Morris, p. 10

[9] Kierkegaard, p. 18

[10] Kierkegaard, p. 10-11

[11] Kierkegaard, p. 28