Abraham – Paragon of Faithfulness?


Sacrifice of Isaac by Michaelangelo Caravaggio

One of the most challenging stories in the Bible is found in Genesis 22. It’s the story of God’s test of Abraham’s faith. Is he willing to sacrifice Isaac, the promised child, through whom the promise of blessing is to descend? According to Genesis, Abraham complies. The chapter is rather stark. There are few details. We don’t hear much conversation between God and Abraham, who simply gets us the next morning, takes Isaac and two young men with him, on a journey that will lead to what appears to be an unmentioned place of sacrifice. So, will he or won’t he go through with it?

                The Bible Study group I lead each Wednesday is studying the story of Abraham as told in chapters 12 through 25 of Genesis. We spent our time this week in Genesis 22, a chapter that raised just a “few” questions and concerns. It was a good conversation, but I’m not sure anyone is ready to follow Abraham’s example when it comes to the life of faith. This might be a bit too far! In Jewish tradition, this is known as the Akedah, and it is an important text that is designated for reading on Rosh Hashanah. But as Jewish theologian Aaron Koller writes: “If it does not immediately provoke revulsion, the terror of the story increases the more one dwells on it.” (Unbinding Isaac, p. xxi).

In any case, the passage does raise questions about the nature of faith and whether there are limits to how far we’re willing to go with the path of faith. Do you have room for doubt? In Hebrews 11, which begins with the premise that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval” (Heb. 11:1-2) Among those ancestors is Abraham, who by faith set out on a journey not knowing where he was going, all because God called him. In the course of the discussion of Abraham’s faith, the writer of Hebrews writes:

17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

One of the questions raised by the passage, which is so spare is whether Abraham believed, in the end, he would have to sacrifice his son, through whom the covenant promise was to be expressed, or would a substitute be provided at some point. That possibility is hinted at when Abraham answers Isaac’s question as to the missing lamb. Abraham simply said God will provide. But how certain was he? Of course, the writer of Hebrews suggests that in the end, if God can raise the dead, then even if Abraham went through with the sacrifice God could restore him. And, in fact, according to Hebrews Abraham did receive him back.  

One of the best-known interpretations of this passage comes from the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In his book, Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard portrayed Abraham as the “knight of faith” who acted in faith without any doubt expressed. Kierkegaard suggests that if Abraham had any doubts as to whether this was the right course, he would have gone up the mountain and told God that while not the best gift, he hoped that God would receive the offering of his own death. Instead, Abraham “believed the ridiculous.” [Fear and Trembling, p. 21]. But is Kierkegaard correct in his reading? Or is this one of the “texts of terror,” that challenges us in our faith?

I find it interesting that in verse 19, after God provides the ram that substitutes for Isaac, it’s said that Abraham returned to the young men and then headed home. No mention is made of Isaac. What happened to him? Why has he been erased from the story? I wonder if this suggests that even though Isaac spared, the relationship between father and son was broken. The text doesn’t say, but I wonder.  

One last thing here. Kierkegaard asserted that the ethical, which is the universal, was suspended in this test. If the universal is stand then shouldn’t Abraham be charged with attempted murder, rather than being honored for his faith? Kierkegaard writes that faith is paradoxical. That’s because the individual stands above the universal. He writes: “If that is not faith, then Abraham is done for and faith has never existed in the world, just because it has always existed. For if the ethical life is the highest and nothing incommensurable is left over in man, except in the sense of what is evil, i.e. the single individual who is to be expressed in the universal, then one needs no other categories than those of the Greek philosophers, or whatever can be logically deduced from them” [Fear and Trembling, p. 63].

I understand Kierkegaard’s commitment to the idea that faith transcends boundaries, but does that suspend the ethical? Aaron Koller, a Jewish theologian, answers Kierkegaard in his powerful study of this story, writing: “The ethical cannot be purposefully suspended by God because God aspires to the ethical. The very notion that Abraham would be forced to choose between faith and ethics, then, is not anachronistic, but clashes with fundamental Jewish ideas of revelation and morality.”  [Unbinding Isaac, p. 111]. I believe that Koller is correct, and Kierkegaard is not. Faith, if it is to be true, can’t supersede the ethical. Thus, perhaps, the writer of Hebrews is mistaken. It’s also possible that Abraham misheard God. Or, perhaps, as Immanuel Kant wondered, how could Abraham know that this was truly God speaking?

So, what is the nature of faith? What does it mean to say "Here I Am?" And are there limits to how far we will go? That is, if what we hear doesn’t comport well with what we believe about God? That is the conundrum posed by the story of the Akedah, the intended sacrifice of Isaac by his father. Thus the question that always stands before us: what is faith?  


Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610. Sacrifice of Isaac, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54822 [retrieved October 14, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(c._1603).jpg.


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