Search
  • Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

Dylan, Kierkegaard, and the Binding of Isaac

(First published in the Jerusalem Post on the 3rd of August 2022).

However you slice it, the binding of Isaac is a story that begs for interpretation.

What was Abraham thinking? Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son” Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?” God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but The next time you see me comin’ you better run” Well, Abe said, “Where you want this killin’ done?”

For many, these words may be unfamiliar, but readers of a certain age sing this song in their head when they read the lyrics to “Highway 61 Revisited”, the title song from Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking 1965 album.

As so often with Dylan, the song is equal parts provocative, incendiary, mystifying, thought-provoking, and quite silly.

But if we pay attention, we can appreciate that this nice Jewish boy from Duluth raises some profound theological questions. And so would anyone that picks up the Bible. After all, how could Abraham actually go through with the commandment to sacrifice his own son? It’s almost inconceivable.

On Dylan’s satirical account, the only way you could get someone to do the worst thing a person could do is through threats and terror.

That’s plausible. No normal person could decide to kill their own child – unless faced with absolutely trembling terror in the face of a wrathful Creator.

And yet, everything we know about Abraham pushes back against this reading. Abraham embodied kindness. His defining characteristic was welcoming strangers, and he showed hospitality and warmth to all. He begged God to save the people of Sodom, to spare even the wicked of that city from the punishment they seemed to justly deserve.


And if you think all that is impressive, let us also not forget that Abraham circumcised himself at age 99. If that’s not evidence of grit, determination, and bravery, I’m not sure what is.

So back to the central question. Here we have a person of exceeding bravery and limitless kindness, an advocate for the weak and the sinful. And when the Creator of the Universe says, “hey Abe, go kill your son,” he agrees because he’s frightened? It doesn’t add up.

But that raises another possibility that doesn’t sit very well with us either. Maybe Abraham agreed to kill Isaac because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith

One possible way out of this conundrum comes from an unlikely source: an eccentric 19th-century Danish philosopher named Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard seemed to be a bit of a weirdo. His romantic life was straight out of a Young Adult novel. He couldn’t stop himself from getting into self-defeating arguments with important people. He wrote under various pseudonyms, often arguing with himself in the process. And his prose could be so circuitous that reading his work is like navigating the Tokyo rail network.

He was also a genius who laid the path for 20th-century existentialism and had a major impact on modern philosophers and theologians.

Kierkegaard says we can only make sense of Abraham’s decision in terms of a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (maybe it sounds snappier in the original Danish).

To simplify greatly, Kierkegaard suggested that ordinary ethical duties do not hold in the face of a direct command from the Almighty. Rather than considering the ethical outcomes or teleology of an act, we take a leap of faith and accept an ethics of faith: that what God tells us to do is the right thing to do. Based on our singular relationship with God, we suspend our commitment to our ordinary sense of right and wrong and accept that God’s purpose is ultimately for the greatest good.

Based on our singular relationship with God, we suspend our commitment to our ordinary sense of right and wrong and accept that God’s purpose is ultimately for the greatest good.

In fact, Kierkegaard insists Abraham would have been ‘tempted by the ethical.’ He would have thought, ‘no, this is wrong; I cannot obey God’s command.’ He may have been ‘led astray’ and acted ethically! But through an act of faith, he suspended the ethical and followed the higher good of God’s purpose. It’s a genuinely mind-warping moral proposition.

In the end, God spared Isaac, the son miraculously born to Abraham when he was one hundred years old. Isaac never was going to be killed. But Abraham didn’t know that. He took a leap of faith and trusted in God’s infinite wisdom and goodness – against every instinct, every intuition, every natural inclination to the contrary.

Abraham’s Doubt

But we’re not entirely out of the ethical woods yet. If all this amounted to ‘Abraham followed God’s command because he had faith,’ that would hardly resolve the deep mystery of the story. After all, the whole problem is that we know Abraham to be a good, compassionate person. And murdering your beloved son seems horribly wrong.

So why did he follow this command? Kierkegaard seems to be writing a handbook for zealots.

He took a leap of faith and trusted in God’s infinite wisdom and goodness – against every instinct, every intuition, every natural inclination to the contrary.

Indeed, we could contrast Abraham’s action here to Abraham’s response when God wanted to destroy Sodom, and Abraham immediately started arguing. Come on, Abraham insisted, how bad can they be? Ok, they’re bad, but what if I can find fifty righteous among the wicked? Ok, forty. Ten, what about ten – I’m sure we can find ten good people?

That’s not the behavior of a zealot. A zealot would have said, yes, Lord, I will seek vengeance on your behalf. Place a sword in my hand, and I will smite them.

And no doubt Abraham saw the justice of God’s judgment and could perfectly appreciate the logic of God’s decision – yet he fought against that logic nonetheless. Your judgment is true, fair, and perfect, we can imagine Abraham thinking, and I beg you to spare them nonetheless. He desperately sought mitigating circumstances for a group of people who, strictly speaking, deserved no mercy.

Søren Kierkegaard

Here’s the crux, and at first glance, it appears counter-intuitive. Unlike the case of Sodom, there were no possible mitigating circumstances that could alter the killing of Isaac because there was nothing to mitigate. Abraham couldn’t contest God’s logic for humanitarian reasons because there was no logic. At least, no logic that any mortal could grasp.

In a sense, Abraham’s pure faith depended on doubt. He had to have enough doubt about his own ethical sensibilities and his own ability to logically reason the true and the good to take that leap.

Sometimes faith means recognizing we don’t have all the answers. That really, we barely know anything at all. And there is more to truth and goodness than we can imagine.

Does that sound kind of fuzzy and granola? On the contrary, it’s how the most hard-headed science proceeds. To gain knowledge, we test our hypotheses against the evidence. We reject theories when they are falsified by reality, and we even question our methods for doing science in the first place.

That’s not the way of the zealot. Absolute faith in something beyond ourselves is the opposite of blind faith in our own moral and intellectual genius.

Sometimes faith means recognizing we don’t have all the answers. That really, we barely know anything at all. And there is more to truth and goodness than we can imagine.

We can’t fully know the mindset of someone heading off to commit a suicide bombing or an act of holy or secular ideological ethnic cleansing. But I bet they don’t have any doubts about the mission at hand. They may have second thoughts, and they may be frightened. But they don’t say, ‘hmm, well, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but it must be right for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around. I hope someone stops me.’ They see the cold logic of what they need to do with frightening clarity.

That’s not Abraham’s faith. The fear of God, wrote the wisest of all men, is the beginning of knowledge. We need to be aware of our own fallibility. There are consequences to getting it wrong, and at all times, we risk making catastrophic mistakes. In the end, true wisdom is only possible through faith. And true faith depends on doubt.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All