One of the most horrifying stories in the Old Testament is that of Jephthah, which is found in Judges 11:29-40. The gist of the story is that Jephthah is about to go into battle against the Ammonites, but before he does he makes a foolish oath before God that he’ll sacrifice as an offering the first thing that greets him upon his return from war. Sure enough Jephthah kicks all kind of Ammonite ass, but lo and behold who should he first see upon coming home? It’s Mizpah, his daughter, his only child. So Jephthah decides he has to live up to his vow and goes ahead and kills his daughter as a burnt offering unto God. Terrible story, just terrible.
There are a lot of intriguing questions here, such as Did Jephthah really kill his daughter? or Why did Mizpah submit to this insanity? or Is oath-breaking really worse than human sacrifice? However this story really appeals to me in light of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac; or rather, Kierkegaard’s take on Abraham’s story.
Kierkegaard argued that most people a) take this story much too lightly and b) cheapen Abraham’s faith. They do the former by failing to account for the three-and-a-half days that Abraham wrestled with this; the agonizing journey to Mt. Moriah; the horrid preparations he had to make, etc. And secondly, they cheapen this story by casually calling this Abraham’s “trial,” usually with the remainder that Abraham knew all along that God will provide “a way out.” This easy escape plan renders, according to Kierkegaard, Abraham’s faith a mere trifle, wholly unworthy of repeated biblical praise.
After madly wrestling with the story for years, Kierkegaard draws from the Abraham & Isaac story this concept of the “suspension of the ethical.” He writes that, “the law is a sketch; love the fulfillment and complete definition.” Kierkegaard often refers to the law as “the universal,” and here it’s helpful to think of something like Kant’s “categorical imperative” which states that we ought to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Abraham almost violates this, coming within one knife-thrust of being a murderer and violating the transcendent, universal law. But Kierkegaard argues that “In Abraham’s case, duty is found in the doing of God’s will, which is itself higher than the universal. His duty transcends the ethical.” Abraham had to stop being ethical in order to fulfill the more pressing obligation of obedience to God.
But faith’s paradox is precisely this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the individual determines his relationship to the universal through his relation to the Absolute (i.e. God), not his relation to the Absolute through his relation to the universal. That is, to live by faith means that one has an absolute duty to the God and to God alone.
This is why Kierkegaard approaches faith’s paradox with “fear and trembling” (cf. Phil. 2:12). And this is where Jephthah comes in, for our moral acts are “a private undertaking, an act of purely personal conscience” done in the space of uncertainty: is this voice of God or of myself? I believe Jephthah knows fear and trembling intimately when he realizes he has mistaken God’s voice for his own.
Truly moral choices are a burden, an unbearable decision characterized by undecidability. But we still must act (for “God is pure act”), and this on faith: Kierkegaard’s leap. He contrasts the “knight of faith,” who acts on this paradox, with the “man of resignation.” These latter individuals are those who either fall back on apathy or indecision in light of the paradox, or those who give themselves over to the universal, consumed by misguided obligations to the law. They obliterate personal responsibility, always opting to defer blame with an easy, “But I was only following the rules, doing what’s right!”
Abraham and Jephthah both rejected those rules and suspended the ethical, as we all must do, in order to serve God: one’s daring leap was ultimately honored by God; the other leapt into an abyss. Thus Jephthah is both blameless and blameworthy: for forsaking the universal in pursuit of the Absolute, we commend him; for forsaking the universal but confusing the Absolute with the Self, we denounce him. The two contrasting figures, both praised in Hebrews, but equally instructive as in Abraham we see a knight of faith validated, whereas in Jephthah we see a knight of faith rebuffed.