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Fear and Trembling

Updated: Apr 26

"God tested Abraham . . ." These words begin an awe inspiring narrative, just one chapter in the Bible (Genesis 22) - small in length but massive in its gravitational pull on commentators. For example, the Talmud (in Sanhedrin 89b) sees Abraham as a Job like character. In Job, the Satan (Adversary) taunts God saying that Job does not really love God, but is a righteous man because God rewards him. God falls for the taunt (remember, this is literature, not theology), and allows the Satan to unleash calamity upon Job.

In the same way, the Talmud sees the Satan taunting God and says that Abraham is ungrateful - he has not even offered a dove as a sacrifice to God. God, flustered, says that Abraham would sacrifice his son Isaac if asked! Satan apparently says something like "Yeah, right," so God tests Abraham.

Medieval commentators are quizzical about an omniscient God testing anyone - would not an all knowing God know the future, and hence know exactly what Abraham was going to do? Good question, if one takes the Bible as journalism, not literature, and if one holds that God is omniscient. I believe neither.

Once we realize that the Bible is literature, not journalism, we ask what this tale is doing in the Bible - why this tale is told. I think the answer lies in the first and last words of the narrative. In the first words, God tests Abraham, asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. We, the readers, know that God's motivation is not to receive a sacrifice, but to test Abraham. In the final words of the narrative, an angel of God, speaking for God, says, "because you have done this thing {been willing to sacrifice Isaac}, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I shall bless you . . ."

One function of this finely wrought little narrative is to inform the reader that God does not require sacrifice of the firstborn, because God knows we would do it if asked. In other words, this narrative is told to halt the practice of child sacrifice.

Was this really a problem? The prophet Micah, for example, seemed to think so. In Micah 6:6-8, we find the following:

"With what shall I come before Adonai and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

The prophet Micah prophesied from roughly 740 to 700 BCE, long after this narrative was composed. In Micah's time, it seems, there was still a pull toward child sacrifice. The story of the binding of Isaac tells us that Abraham, who established what was to become the Israelite covenant with God and therefore stood for all his descendants, spiritual and biological, was told that child sacrifice was unnecessary. This moral maxim was enshrined in law in vehement terms in Leviticus 22:5:

"Say to the Israelites: 'Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.

The function of this story, of course, does not exhaust its meaning. Meaning is certainly created partly by authorial intention - the narrative contains many clues as to the dramatic intention of the narrative, how the narrative is to be experienced by the reader. Trying to infer the intention of the author, however, is fraught with problems. How can we really know for sure the range of meanings intended by the author? Some of those who are obsessed (as is yours truly) with the study of meaning (called "hermeneutics") hold that it is better to focus on how the text has gained meaning over the generations and how that meaning has had an effect on those later generations. (This approach is discussed fully by Hans Georg Gadamer in his book, Truth and Method.)

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)is one of the greatest modern commentators on this narrative. The Binding of Isaac is central to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. If we accept the idea that one of the ways to study the meaning of a text is to study the history of effects it has had on later generations, no study of this powerful narrative can be complete without knowing what Kiekegaard, the father of modern existentialism, had to say on the matter, even if one might disagree with him here and there.

For our studies tomorrow, we will focus on Kierkegaard and the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac.

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