The thrust of Soren Kierkegaard’s 1843 influential book “Fear and Trembling” is long reflections on Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, a story told in Genesis 22.[1] Kierkegaard concludes from his analysis that Abraham represents the prototype of faith, for he showed faith when he was willing to obey God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Ethics, Kierkegaard stresses clearly demands that a father not kill his son. But faith, he continues, is something higher than ethics and demands the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” with “teleological” meaning “purposeful” and “suspension” implying “a temporary pause.” He states that that the story teaches that morality must give way to faith, which is a higher level. The concept attributed to Kierkegaard, “leap of faith,” is derived from this analysis, one must leap over morality to the higher level “faith,” although the words do not appear in his book. 


Kierkegaard was not alone

Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik cited Kierkegaard in many of his writings and agreed with him. He taught on many occasions that the human duty is to “surrender one’s self” to God, the quote is from the rabbi’s many writings. Many other religious leaders of all religions agree with Kierkegaard.


Problems with the biblical story

The story in chapter 22 is called the Akedah, a word meaning “binding,” referring to Abraham’s binding of Isaac before starting to kill him. A careful reading of the reveals many difficulties, such as: Why did God need to test Abraham? Didn’t the all-wise deity already know that Abraham was dependable and loyal? Didn’t God know what the outcome would be before the test? What is a test? If the purpose was to use Abraham as an example for others, couldn’t God have done this without causing Abraham huge worries before and after a three-day journey to where the sacrifice was supposed to be made?[2] Why didn’t God tell him where he should sacrifice Isaac? Why was Isaac so silent during the three-day trip other than to ask simple questions? Why didn’t Abraham inform Sarah where he was going and why he was doing it, even if he had to lie? Why doesn’t the Bible tell us Sarah’s and Isaac’s reactions when the event was concluded? Why was it necessary to bind Isaac?


Is Kierkegaard correct?

Once it is realized that Kierkegaard’s analysis fails to answer most of these questions, it should be clear that Kierkegaard’s analysis of the Abraham story of Genesis 22 to extoll “faith” is wrong. The story has nothing to do with “faith.” Maimonides states in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:24 that the story “shows the extent and limit of the fear of God.”

There are two possible ways to understand the story. The first takes the story literally. Abraham heard God speak to him and demand that he kill Isaac. Abraham agreed to do so for how could a human who heard God’s command disobey the command? Abraham obeyed God not because of “faith” but out of fear to disobey the all-powerful deity. The story shows that Abraham obeyed God even when God demanded an act that caused him great pain.

The second way clarifies the story by using Maimonidean insights from his Guide of the Perplexed.

Maimonides tells us that trials are not divine inflictions. They are natural human struggles. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:24, Maimonides writes: “The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe…. This is the way how we must understand the accounts of trial; we must not think that god desires to examine us and to try us in order to know what He did not know before. Far be this from Him; He is above that which ignorant and foolish people imagine concerning Him, in the evil of their thoughts.” In 2:48, Maimonides explains that while scripture states that God did something, it happened according to the laws of nature, and Scripture states that God did it only to remind us that God was the ultimate, although not immediate cause, because God created the laws of nature.

The second way to understand the story is that God did not actually speak to Abraham. It reflects Abraham’s thinking. If so, again, his act has nothing to do with “faith.” Abraham looked at the pagans of his generation and saw that they showed their love of God by sacrificing to God what was dearest to them. Either in a dream or day-time thinking, he wondered whether he should do the same. At first, he thought the pagans were right and God wanted the sacrifice of Isaac, but he then realized that God is not cruel and would not require that he murder his son to show love. This interpretation sees chapter 22 showing how Abraham rose higher in his understanding of God than his neighbors.

By realizing that the story reflects Abraham’s thinking about himself, how he should show his love of God, we can understand why there is no mention of Sarah, little focus on Isaac, that the internal struggle took time (symbolized by three days), and the other problems are similarly answered.



[1] Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[2] Abraham ibn Ezra explains that the number seven indicates a complete act, while three, being about half of seven symbolizes a somewhat long but not very long endeavor.