Kafka, Kierkegaard, and the Akedah

    Daniel Weininger

In the Bible, the story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah) spans 15 psukim (verses).  There is no intricate dialogue or overtly expressed drama and outrage between Abraham and God, or between Isaac and Abraham.  The scene depicted is a very quiet one.  But despite its lackluster calm, hundreds of scholars have struggled with this entry—each expounding some new and previously unnoticed point, while repeating the same question: What actually happened during that three-day trek from home to the far off Mount Moriah? Søren Kierkegaard and Franz Kafka’s retellings of the Akedah are not incredibly different in that they too seek to analyze Abraham’s psyche.  What makes their interpretations so different from the story found in the Bible is that they each tack on new philosophical points and ideas to the story.  This essay will analyze the fundamental questions that Kafka and Kierkegaard, as well as thousands of years of commentaries, addressed:  What is Abraham true nature—is he pious or is he decrepit; is he a joyous man of God’s deed or a sorrowful victim?

            Franz Kafka analyzes multiple hypothetical Abrahams.  All Abrahams are, like Kafka, darker and more existential than their mold.  Kafka explains that the real Abraham is spiritually impoverished and is unable to extricate himself from this inert state of holiness.  Kafka writes that he can envision another Abraham who “would have never gotten to be a patriarch” (Kafka 37).  One must note that Kafka is not accusing Abraham of lacking connection to the Divine; rather he is suggesting that Abraham is at a point in his spirituality beyond which he cannot go.  Kafka repeats himself, suggesting this is not a bad thing, his spiritual aspects “are an asset, they make concentration easier for him, or they are concentration already” (37).  This is a description of the patriarch before the story or even the suggestion of an Akedah.  Abraham had hit a ceiling and in order to reach new and perhaps boundless heights, God had to take or revoke something from Abraham—Kafka writes, “If he already had everything, and yet was to be raised still higher, then something had to be taken away from him, at least in appearance” (39).  God’s command is a nurturing move for this impoverished man.  But this begs the question: is God so self-centered, so desirous of seeing Abraham’s dedication that he pushes an old man to nearly murder his own son in God’s name?

            Yet Kafka creates more imagined Abrahams: one who hasn’t the time to leave the house, who must be around all the time; one who hadn’t a son; who didn’t turn to God and ascend to Mount Moriah.  Through these other potentials, Kafka explores the character of the original, who—in Kafka’s opinion—was too secluded from the world.  

Abraham was too pure and straight, too altruistic and doubtful of his worth. Abraham thought he was unworthy of such a task.  Kafka goes as far as to say that Abraham is sheltered and wasn’t “mixed profoundly enough with the diversity of the world” (37).  According to Kafka, Abraham does not like the world, maybe because it is homogeneous and idolatrous.  Kafka writes of an alternative Abraham, one who would have “wanted to perform the sacrifice altogether in the right way…but could not believe that he was the one meant, he, an ugly old man” (39).  The key difference is that this Abraham is not a patriarch—at least by Kafka’s standards.  To Kafka he is simply a selfless head of house.  But Abraham’s name is so commonly recited in Jewish prayer, most famously in the Amidah prayer, “Blessed are you Lord our God, father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  His selflessness is exactly what makes him the ideal candidate for patriarchy.  He is the man who would be ready to perpetuate a religious message.  But Kafka contradicts himself.  He paints Abraham as a man afraid of the world, not for its uniformity, but for its potential to laugh at him for being “older and uglier, his son even dirtier.”  Is Abraham’s such a deep self-devaluation that he thinks others would call him out on his unworthiness?  To Kafka, the binding of Isaac isn’t even about Isaac at all—it’s really about an old man’s self-perception. Abraham is the focus of the Akedah, by Kafka’s account. It is almost as if he is being bound by this commandment to take “your son, your only son, the one you love.”  That’s a request that binds Abraham to choose one over the other. One of the largest questions with the original passage is why, if God wants Isaac, doesn’t God name him Isaac instead of “your son, your only son?” This binding of Abraham starts with the question that forces him to choose which son he loves most.  It may end with the death of a son, as well as, through Abraham’s perception, with the weight of the world’s ridicule on his shoulders.  Kafka’s depiction of Abraham stretches many of the traditional perceptions and places them in a context that contemporaries of Kafka may have related to better. Søren Kierkegaard also reevaluated Abraham in the story of the Akedah.

Kierkegaard expresses his opinions of the Akedah by telling it through a framed series of thoughts of a Danish man (who may very well have been Kierkegaard himself). From his youth through to his older years the man’s admiration of the story of the Akedah grew.  The man’s desire, Kierkegaard explains,

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 blessed, or the venerable figure of the aged patriarch, or the vigorous young manhood of Isaac (Kierkegaard 26)

Instead, Kierkegaard says, “His yearning was to accompany them on the three days’ journey when Abraham rode with sorrow before him” (26).  Why is this three-day trip so important?  In the Bible, there is only a silent line that only speaks of the preparations of the trip.  The very next line reads “on the third day” (Genesis 21:4).  There is nothing of the actual journey.  But this man’s tale is nothing more than a lure that hooks readers into the story’s lessons and characters, and not an actual analysis. The rest of Kierkegaard’s writing takes on a different, more imaginative form.

Kierkegaard writes a number of different imagined stories of Abraham’s encounter on the top of Mount Moriah.  The first story is the most detailed.  It starts on the morning of the third day, when Abraham first sees Mount Moriah.  Upon leaving his two servants at the foot of the mountain, Abraham immediately decides to reveal the truth of the situation to Isaac.  Isaac, as any son would be, is horrified by his father’s intentions and begins to cry and beg for mercy. After exhausting his peaceful attempts at calmly escorting the boy to his supposed death, Abraham erupts in anger,

‘Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire.’ then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, ‘O God in heaven have compassion upon me…If I have no father upon earth, be Thou my father!’ But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, ‘O Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster rather than that he should lose faith in Thee’ (27)

This first rendition of the Akedah by Kierkegaard presents the reader with an Abraham entirely devoted to God.  When this version is read alongside the text, it is not outside of reason.  When God tells Abraham to take his son, Abraham does not respond with an equivocation or verbal acceptance.  The sentence immediately following the end of God’s demand is “And Abraham arose in the morning and prepared his donkey.”  The instant preparation for the journey is a clear-cut answer that fits flawlessly into the picture of Kierkegaard’s first sacrificial Abraham.  Kierkegaard’s selfless Abraham—one who puts his own relationship with his son after that between his son and God—is not so selfish that he is embarrassed, as is Kafka’s. But Kierkegaard’s first version does not end here.

            After the main storyline of the Akedah, Kierkegaard adds a little more.  He explains that when a child must be weaned, the mother must blacken her breast to convince the child to stop its suckling.  In the context of the Akedah story, this passage has two potential interpretations.  The first is that God gives and takes away. God will provide nurturing when it is necessary but will “blacken” it when the “child” (maybe Abraham) is ready.  The second is as follows: Abraham is the mother (perhaps an androgynous embodiment of both him and Sarah), and Isaac is the child.  Kierkegaard says that “the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother is the same, her glance is as loving and tender as ever” (28).  The blackened breast, then, is Abraham’s standing in Isaac’s eyes.  To Isaac, Abraham has blackened himself.  In Abraham’s eyes, like the mother, it was done in order to mature his son.  He is still as loving and tender as the the mother of the metaphor.  The final line of the metaphor reads: “Happy the person who had no need of more dreadful expedients for weaning the child” (28).  It cogitates on the concept that those who do not have to suffer by forcing a drastic change are fortunate, a category that does not apply to Abraham and Issac.

            Abraham leaves home and “embraced Sarah, his bride of old age,” in Kierkegaard’s third version of the story. Abraham’s decorum is blander and more ominous in this reading.

So they rode in silence along the way and Abraham’s glance was fixed upon the ground until the fourth day when he lifted up his eyes and saw afar off Mount Moriah but his glance turned again to the ground (28)

As if he were wandering intentionally, aimlessly and in a daze, Abraham sees Mount Moriah from afar after four days, not three as was originally described in the Bible.  The very way in which Abraham carried himself emanated sadness.  His unwillingness to commit the act is further perpetuated atop the mountain.  Abraham silently prepared Isaac for the sacrifice and “then he saw the ram which God had prepared.  Then he offered that and returned home” (28).  Unflinchingly and immediately, Abraham replaced the boy with the ram.  If this weren’t enough, the story tells of how Abraham “became old, he could not forget that God had required this of him. Isaac throve as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened and he knew joy no more” (28).  Abraham’s distaste for God is overt. He cannot reconcile their relationship. But if this were so devastating a request why did he even go as far as the mountain?

            Kierkegaard includes another metaphorical follow up about the mother and child, which can be read in two ways. First, God, Abraham’s mother, removes Gods’-self from Abraham’s life:

When the child has grown big and must be weaned the mother virginally hides her breast, so the child has no more a mother. Happy the child which did not in another way lose its mother (28).

The child who does not lose the mother in this manner is a happy one.  But Abraham did lose God this way, which caused a deep strain between the two.  The second interpretation of this metaphor returns to the idea that Abraham is the mother figure and Isaac, the child.  But unlike the other stories where it is the mother affected by the child, the child is affected—or in this case unaffected—by the mother.  Isaac escapes this incident not having scathed his image of his father or that of God, and as the quote reads, “happy the child which did not in another way lose its mother” (28).

            An additional reading of Kierkegaard’s Akedah describes Abraham as leaving “Sara, the young mother,” riding “pensively,” and thinking of Hagar and of the son whom he drove out into the wilderness.”[1]  Atop Mount Moriah Abraham draws the knife. The sentence immediately following describes Abraham’s lonely ride back to the holy mountain. There, he begs and prays to God “to forgive his sin” (28); he had in fact been prepared to offer Isaac but could not—and he could not understand how this withdrawal could be a sin in the eyes of God.

Similar to the first story, this other rendition uses the metaphor of a mother to weaning child to further elucidate its point.  “When child must be weaned,” it reads, “the mother too is not without sorrow at the thought that she and the child are separated more and more” (29).  When applied to the story the metaphor creates questions: How could Abraham be without sorrow?  How could he so easily slay one son having already lost another?  Abraham did not kill Isaac but at the very least he certainly strained their relationship when “he drew the knife” (28). The metaphor states: “Happy the person who has kept the child near and needed not to sorrow any more” (29), meaning the person who has kept their child close and not encountered sorrow.

As found in the writings of both Franz Kafka and Søren Kierkegaard, Abraham is not so plain a player in this occurrence.  To Kafka, Abraham is a foolish yet selfless old man; one incapable of doing God’s deed for sheer lack of belief that it is required of him to do. For Søren Kierkegaard, Abraham is an entirely different person.  Abraham is a sad and broken man after this affair.  With each of Kierkegaard’s stories, the audience is given exact reason why this is true.  Abraham does not have “more expedients for weaning the child” (28), nor can he be lost by his child in another way, nor escape sorrow.  Each story ends with a metaphor saying how a person can be happy by not encountering dread, loss, or sorrow; yet each time Abraham encounters pain.  Seen through the works of Kafka and Kierkegaard, Abraham is more complex and more human than a saintly patriarch—he is the shameful old father of a dirty child and he is the pain-ridden middleman between the child and God.


Works Cited


Kafka, Franz Parables and Paradoxes, Abraham, Schoken Books, 1961


Kierkegaard, Søren Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, Princeton University Press, 1983

[1] Kierkegaard, Søren Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, Princeton University Press, 1983, p28