Dylan, Kierkegaard and Isaac’s affair

However you cut it, the Binding of Isaac is a story that demands interpretation.

What was Abraham thinking?

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you gotta put me on”
God says, “No.”
Abe says, “What?”
God said, “You can do whatever you want, Abe, but
Next time you see me coming, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where do you want this murder done?”

To many these words may not be familiar, but readers of a certain age sing this song in their head as they read the lyrics to “Highway 61 Revisited”, the title track from Bob’s groundbreaking 1965 album Dylan.

As often with Dylan, the song is simultaneously provocative, incendiary, mystifying, empowering and quite silly.

But if we pay attention, we can appreciate that this nice Jewish boy from Duluth raises deep theological questions. And so would anyone who takes the Bible. After all, how could Abraham keep the command to sacrifice his own son? It’s almost inconceivable.

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

It is 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 runs counter to this reading. Abraham embodied goodness. His main characteristic was welcoming strangers and he showed hospitality and warmth to all. He pleaded with God to save the people of Sodom, to spare even the wicked of that city from the punishment they seemed rightly deserved.

Bob Dylan www.biography.com

And if you think that’s all impressive, let’s also not forget that Abraham was circumcised at age 99. If that’s not courage, determination and bravery, I don’t know what is.

So let’s get back to the central question. We have here a person of extreme bravery and boundless kindness, a defender of the weak and sinners. And when the Creator of the Universe says “hey Abe, go kill your son”, he accepts because he is afraid? It doesn’t stick.

But that raises another possibility that doesn’t sit 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

A possible solution to this conundrum comes from an unlikely source: an eccentric 19th-century Danish philosopher named Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard seemed to be a little weird. Her romantic life was straight out of a young adult novel. He couldn’t help getting into doomed arguments with important people. He wrote under various pseudonyms, often arguing with himself in the process. And his prose could be so twisted that reading his work is like navigating Tokyo’s rail network.

He was also a genius who paved the way 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 ethics” (perhaps this sounds more vivid in the Danish original).

To greatly simplify, Kierkegaard has suggested that ordinary ethical duties do not stand up to a direct order from the Almighty. Rather than considering the ethical outcomes or teleology of an act, we take a leap of faith and accept an ethic 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 highest 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 highest good.

In fact, Kierkegaard insists that Abraham would have been “tempted by ethics”. He would have thought, ‘No, it’s wrong; I cannot obey God’s command.’ He may have been “misguided” and acted ethically! But by an act of faith, he suspended ethics and followed the higher good of God’s purpose. It is a truly mind-blowing moral proposition.

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

Abraham’s Doubt

But we are not quite out of the ethical wood yet. If all of this boiled down to “Abraham followed the commandment of God because he had faith,” that would hardly solve the deep mystery of the story. After all, the whole point is that we know that Abraham is a good and compassionate person. And murdering your beloved son seems horribly wrong.

So why did it follows this command? Kierkegaard seems to be writing a handbook for fanatics.

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

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

This is not the behavior of a fanatic. A fanatic would have said, yes, Lord, I will seek revenge on your behalf. Put a sword in my hand, and I will strike them.

And no doubt Abraham saw the justice of God’s judgment and could fully appreciate the logic of God’s decision – but he fought that logic nonetheless. Your judgment is true, just and perfect, we can imagine the thought of Abraham, and please spare them nevertheless. He was desperately looking for extenuating circumstances for a group of people who, strictly speaking, deserved no mercy.

Soren Kierkegaard

Here’s the crux, and at first glance it seems counterintuitive. Unlike the case of Sodom, there was Nope possible mitigating circumstances that could alter Isaac’s murder as there was nothing to mitigate. Abraham could not challenge God’s logic on humanitarian grounds because there was no logic. At least, no logic that no mortal could grasp.

In a sense, Abraham’s pure faith depended on doubt. He must have had enough doubts about his own ethical sensitivity and his own ability to reason logically about truth and good to take this step.

Sometimes faith means recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. That really, we know almost nothing at all. And there is more to truth and goodness than we can imagine.

Does it sound a bit fuzzy and granola? On the contrary, this is how the most stubborn science proceeds. To gain knowledge, we test our assumptions against the evidence. We reject theories when they are falsified by reality, and we even question our methods of doing science in the first place.

This is not the way of the fanatic. Absolute faith in something beyond us is the opposite of blind faith in our own moral and intellectual genius.

Sometimes faith means recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. That really, we know almost nothing at all. And there is more to truth and goodness than we can imagine.

We cannot fully know the state of mind of someone who sets out to commit a suicide bombing or an act of holy or secular ideological ethnic cleansing. But I bet they have no doubts about the mission at hand. They may have doubts and fear. But they don’t say, ‘hmm, well, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but it must be just for reasons I can’t figure out. I hope someone will stop me. They see the cold logic of what they must do with chilling clarity.

That’s not Abraham’s faith. The fear of God, writes the wisest of all men, is the beginning of knowledge. We must be aware of our own fallibility. There are consequences to being wrong, and at any moment we risk making catastrophic mistakes. Ultimately, true wisdom is only possible through faith. And true faith depends on doubt.

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