Walking With Fear And Trembling

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Genesis 22:-14

July 2, 2017


They walk for 3 days.


Abraham saddles up his donkey,

takes two servants,

and his son, his favored son, the son whom he loves ,

and for 3 days they walk to what has become known as Mount Moriah –

the Temple Mount in Jerusalem today.


In writing about this text, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard

says you can’t understand Abraham,

you can’t know Abraham,

unless you think about these 3 days

and what these 3 days of walking were like for him.


Kierkegaard calls them days of “Fear and Trembling,”

and says that without this anxiety,

this dread that Abraham experiences during those 3 days,

Abraham wouldn’t be who he was.

It’s important to know that these are 3 days of fear and trembling.


There’s a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this:

“Why didn’t God send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?”

“Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task.

Instead, the angels said, ‘If you want to command death, do it yourself.’’[i]


This is a tough text.

One of the most difficult texts in the Bible.


In Anne Tyler’s book Saint Maybe,

a teenager complains when her uncle insists she go to church.

She argues that the Bible stories don’t make sense…

Jesus curses a fig tree…


And then she says,

“Abraham and Isaac. That one really ticks me off.

God asks Abraham to kill his own son.

And Abraham says, ‘Okay.’

Can you believe it?

And then at the very last minute God says, ‘Only testing. Ha-ha.’

Boy, I’d like to know what Isaac thought.

All the rest of his life, any time his father so much as looked in his direction Isaac would think –” at which point her uncle interrupts her.


What are we to make of this story?

Is it a story of a God who is just having fun with Abraham – ha ha?

Is it about a misguided Abraham?

(We all know stories of people who’ve done horrible things

and say God told them to.)


Noted atheist Richard Dawkins says,

“Any modern legal system would have prosecuted Abraham for child abuse,

and if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac,

we would have convicted him of first degree murder.”

And this is a point where we would agree with Dawkins!

Some say the whole purpose of this story

Is that it was a tale told to explain how

God put an end to human sacrifice

(which was practiced in some cultures in and around Israel),

and shifted practice to animal sacrifice.[ii]


It has to be more than that however…


On the one hand,

after these fourteen verses, the story isn’t mentioned again in the Old Testament.

When taken against the whole of scripture,

it seems like a small blip which we could easily ignore.


On the other hand,

over the centuries this story has become highly significant

for Christians and Jews and a parallel version of it also for Muslims.


For Christians, the story of the ‘sacrifice of Isaac,’

helped the early church

developed its understanding of the role of Jesus and his self-sacrifice.


For Jews, the story which they refer to as the “binding of Isaac,”

is so significant that it is read throughout the liturgy

during the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah.


For both Jews and Christians and later for Muslims,

this story demonstrates obedience to God, faith in God, and love of God;

radical obedience to God;

radical faith in God;

and radical love of God.[iii]


Back to Soren Kierkegaard…


Kierkegaard says that he heard this Bible story as a child.

His father was a Lutheran pastor.

As he grew older, for some reason this story of Abraham’s unequivocal obedience to God

resonated more and more with him,

even as he understood it less and less.


God commands Abraham to do the unthinkable:

To offer up his son, his favored son, the one whom Abraham loves.


He is asked to give up his beloved son,

He is asked to give up the child born to his favored wife Sarah,

In her old age and after a lifetime of infertility.


He is asked to give up all that he has been promised by God:

The great name; the great nation, the blessing, the land of Canaan.[iv]


God asks of Abraham not only a horribly painful act of sacrifice –

but also an act of self-sacrifice.


And here’s where the story resonates with me:

I don’t resonate as much with the sacrifice of someone else part…

I do resonate – deeply – with the self-sacrifice part,

and in particular with what Kierkegaard calls

the “fear and trembling” of those 3 days of walking.



There are those throughout history who have inexplicably been willing

to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others –

sometimes for the sake of those they know,

and sometimes for the sake of future generations.


There have been other Abrahams.


This story resonates with me because it makes me wonder about the fear and trembling

of the freedom riders as they sat on buses making their way south.

What was it like for them?


And what about the fear and trembling

of the marchers as they reached the peak of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma

and could see the dogs and the guns.

What was it like for them?


It makes me wonder about the fear and trembling

of soldiers in the last few days leading up to their deployment,

and mothers about to give birth.


It makes me wonder about the fear and trembling

of refugees as they begin to board boats in the Mediterranean,

and of Muslim girls as they put on their hijabs before going out the door in Fairfax County.


As Kierkegaard says,

we can’t understand Abraham,

we can’t know these other Abrahams,

unless we also know about what’s happening inside of them.

What makes them overcome fear, saddle up the donkey, and step out?


Genesis 22 is a story of faith in the midst of an uncertain future;

Of life in the midst of possible or even probable death.


It is not a story of blind faith as Richard Dawkins suggests,

but a story of trust in a God who provides….

especially in the midst of our fear and trembling;

especially when it seems we can’t walk another step;

especially when it seems impossible.


God provides.

We walk.

Thanks be to God.




[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3279

[ii] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3279

[iii] Jon D. Levenson in Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

[iv] Levenson


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