Issac: A Cipher

by Vered Arnon

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard discusses the Akedah incident from Genesis. Abraham is the focus of the story and the discussion, but Isaac is an essential figure. Despite his important role, he is completely ignored as an individual in Kierkegaard’s discussion. While this seems unjustifiable and harsh, I think that Isaac really has to be ignored. When Kierkegaard maps out how the story functions to illustrate Abraham as a knight of faith, all the relations are centred around Abraham himself, and God. Abraham relates to the universal, to the absolute, and to the absolute as an individual above the universal. His relation to Isaac is merely part of these relations, not a direct relation to Isaac as an individual.

Abraham loves Isaac. His love for Isaac is his relation to the universal, to the ethical. Because he loves Isaac, he doesn’t want to kill Isaac. If he didn’t love Isaac, then sacrificing Isaac wouldn’t be meaningful. Even though Isaac plays an important role here, the only one being considered as an individual is Abraham. Ultimately Abraham’s love for Isaac is a reflexion of Abraham’s love for God. Isaac himself is a cipher, not to Abraham, but in the context of the story. But if he were brought into consideration as an individual, then the story would no longer be about Abraham as a knight of faith.

Abraham loves God. His love for God and his obedience to God is his relation to the absolute. His relation to the absolute is concerning him, and him alone. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Issac, but this was an issue between God and Abraham. Isaac couldn’t even understand it if Abraham were to try to explain it to him. In fact, Abraham couldn’t even try to explain it to Isaac even if he wanted to, according to Kierkegaard. To take Isaac into consideration as an individual here would detract from Kierkegaard’s point that when relating directly to the absolute, one is utterly and completely alone as a single individual.

Finally, Abraham relates to God as an individual above the universal. This relation is even more alone and singular than his relation to the absolute. In this relation, the universal is suspended, and here Isaac is completely a cipher. His role was symbolic before, but here he doesn’t have any role at all, since the relation is something entirely internal for Abraham. In this relation as an individual to the absolute above the universal, Abraham makes the motion of faith. Kierkegaard writes, “Thus, either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the single individual stands in absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is lost” (Fear and Trembling, p120). If Isaac were taken into consideration here, then Abraham would no longer be the single individual, and the suspension of the universal would fail, and Abraham would be ‘lost’.

Kierkegaard writes that the process is more important than the conclusion. Jumping ahead to the end of the story loses its point. Even if Kierkegaard did take Isaac into consideration, he would have to do so by looking at the impact of this event on Isaac, and that would be looking at the end of the story, not at the process itself. While Isaac is present, he’s not part of the process, so while it seems insensitive to give him no consideration, the entire point would be lost if Kierkegaard were to alter his discussion and include Isaac as an individual.

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