My pastor and I today were chatting (over email) about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I took the opportunity to point him towards the "Panegyric upon Abraham" with which Kierkegaard opens Fear and Trembling.
Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard the beautiful story about how God tempted Abraham, and how he endured temptation, kept the faith, and a second time received again a son contrary to expectation. When the child became older he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had separated what was united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more frequently his mind reverted to that story, his enthusiasm became greater and greater, and yet he was less and less able to understand the story. At last in his interest for that he forgot everything else; his soul had only one wish, to see Abraham, one longing, to have been witness to that event. His desire was not to behold the beautiful countries of the Orient, or the earthly glory of the Promised Land, or that godfearing couple whose old age God had blessed, or the venerable figure of the aged patriarch, or the vigorous young manhood of Isaac whom God had bestowed upon Abraham -- he saw no reason why the same thing might not have taken place on a barren heath in Denmark. His yearning was to accompany them on the three days' journey when Abraham rode with sorrow before him and with Isaac by his side. His only wish was to be present at the time when Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off, at the time when he left the asses behind and went alone with Isaac up unto the mountain; for what his mind was intent upon was not the ingenious web of imagination but the shudder of thought.
That man was not a thinker, he felt no need of getting beyond faith; he deemed it the most glorious thing to be remembered as the father of it, an enviable lot to possess it, even though no one else were to know it.
That man was not a learned exegete, he didn't know Hebrew, if he had known Hebrew, he perhaps would easily have understood the story and Abraham.
This led to a discussion of (a) whether the story was historical or not, (b) whether that makes a difference in how we read it, and (c) how we make sense of the story in the 20th century. Some of my thoughts on those questions follows:
I'm not sure if Abraham is a historical character or not, but I suspect that he was. That said, I'm not sure that all the stories which get told about the gentleman in question are, in fact, historical. For just one example, see the three stories about a patriarch passing his wife off as his sister: twice for Abraham and Sarah, followed Isaac and Rebekkah. Clearly the stories about Sarah envision her as a young woman, not as a 70 or 90-year old, and it's the same darned king Abimelech that shows up in the second Sarah story and the story about Rebekkah. Given this and other inconsistencies, it's hard to buy the idea that the stories are very historical or accurate. At least, my current thinking is that if you'd had a video camera, running over the entire world around 2000 BC, you would have had a hard time spotting this particular incident. (I could be wrong, of course, and I'm not sure I'd have the guts to say that in church: it could easily be misunderstood.)
That said, I have to imagine that these names and characters and tribes got their start somewhere, and that they originated with a real person is as good a guess as any.
I suspect, however, that my 21st century post-modern perspective on the meaning of history and its relation to story is probably an anomaly. I'm not quite sure how the original hearers (or authors or editors or canonizers) would have heard the story. Clearly they weren't thinking history in the modern sense, nor even in the ancient Greek sense of Herodotus and Thucydides: but I also doubt that they would have understood the stories to be "theological fables". My guess is that up until the 18th or 19th centuries, most people who heard the story would have imagined it as actually happening, and "actually happening" in way pretty much like what Genesis 22 says. I also suspect, though, that many of our modern problems with the story wouldn't have bothered ancient readers nearly so much. They were very clear on the need to fear God, and the idea that God could command you to kill someone else wasn't nearly so foreign or horrible to them as it is to us.
But whether this "happened" isn't really the point. (I think it's somewhat different with Jesus -- the historicity of Jesus in general and the "happenedness" of the resurrection in particular is a big deal for Christians, and for me.) The real questions around Abraham are something like: (a) Could God command something like this? (b) Does God command stuff like this? (c) How am I supposed to apply this story to my own life?
Of these three questions, I think it's most informative to start with the last one. I don't really know if God ever commands people to kill their family members, though Jesus' insistence that you must "hate your father and mother" comes uncomfortably close to the same thought. But I do think that the story of Abraham and Isaac plays a key role in the Bible, and any Bible which took that story out would be immeasurably cheapened. Whatever else the story might mean, it tells of a God who can and should terrify us, who may ask us to sacrifice that which we hold most dear, whose command (the story is clear) takes precedence over any merely human or natural tie. Let us be grateful that this God loves us, but let us also remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And there is wisdom aplenty -- in that sense -- in this story.
This reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's description of Hazel Motes in Wise Blood:
There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
As for where the story itself came from (if it doesn't reflect an actual, historical event), there's something like a scholarly consensus that the story originally functioned as an aetiological legend, along the lines of Jacob's vision at Bethel, or Jacob's wrestling with the angel at Penuel, explaining where and why the Israelites worshipped as they did. The particular aspect of worship which the story of Isaac supposedly explains is why Israelites don't engage (by and large) in human sacrifices. In other words, "God told Abraham to sacrifice a ram rather than his son, so that's what we do too."
I don't know if I buy that about the original form of the story or not, but certainly that's not how the story functions in its current context, where it's primarily about yet another challenge to God's promises: and this one, most horrifyingly, coming from God himself.
Of course, as a Christian, I think the real key to the story comes in the cross. The God who asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but then relented, did not relent when it came to His own Son. Somehow understanding that connection makes the story deeper, more frightening, but also easier to accept and hold onto.