CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Secret Introduction

1 Abraham bears a secret in Genesis 22. A double secret, a myste­rious secret, a secret with many implications. That is a possible rea­ding around which this paper evolves. [1] In fact, the narrative gives a very rapid indication of what it is about. It is clearly stated that the story is about God testing Abraham. But why? Regarding what? In the essay “La littérature au secret. Une filiation impossible,” Jacques Derrida suggests that the test simply is whether Abraham is capable of keeping a secret. [2] It is fascinating to read the story about Abraham in this way, that is to say as a story about secrecy. And indeed fascinating to see what unfolds in this reading. There are multiple layers opening to several possible paths. My reading is a complexe reading aiming at drawing out things and pointing to some aspects. Although I will follow one thread, in a sense, it is also a thread with many sides.

Keeping a Secret

2 If the story in Genesis 22, 1-14 is about whether Abraham is capable of keeping a secret, as Derrida suggests, the very character of the secret is odd. Or is it? God calls out to Abraham—“Abraham!”—and Abraham answers—“Here I am!” (Gen 22,1) Derrida points out that a relationship begins here. [3] There are certain implications when a call is made; an answer is expected, an answer is requested. This triggers off a series of events in Derrida’s reading of the Genesis text. As a matter of fact, the situation is complex, and merits further analysis. I will return to this later, with the help of Derrida. But first Derrida on this peculiar relationship.

3 Jacques Derrida indicates secrecy as a theme in the story about Abraham, Isaac and God in Genesis 22. Secrecy is undeniably a theme in Derrida’s reading of the narrative, or a thread, or a key. What happens in Derrida’s reading is that the answer, “Here I am,” entails an obligation to remain silent, and not to reveal to a third party anything of the intimate relationship God has with Abraham. In this way, it is, or it becomes, an issue of secrecy. [4] Secret, both in English and in French, basically means that something is kept from knowledge or view, that it is concealed or hidden, and should not be revealed. A secret can also be something concealed as private knowledge, shared only confidentially with a few persons. It can also be ‘mystery’, that is to say, something that cannot be understood or known.

4 For Derrida, the interest in secrecy is that the secret here does not lie in the hiding of something, as if there were an object that should be consciously and deliberately hidden and kept in secret. [5] It is not about being “private” either that is to say not about any inner private thing that in principle could be revealed or confessed but is kept private, kept secret, as a matter of fact. [6] No, the secrecy here is closer to confidentiality. It has to do with the respect of the absolute singularity in the relationship and Abraham’s commitment to be loyal to God. [7]

5 In a sense, the kind of secret that Derrida finds in the relationship between God and Abraham may be contrasted with ethical revealing; in ethics, like in politics and juridical contexts, hiding, in principle, is not permitted, and sometimes even punished. [8] It is true that sometimes secrets such as professional secrets, military secrets, industrial secrets, or secrets d’État, are allowed. They are there to protect something in particular, have a purpose and are temporary. For one reason or another, a secret must be kept—due to special conditions. In these situations the secret is conditional. In all these cases, the secret is also a problem. It is always against the rule, an exception that should be minimised. As soon as the circumstances are different and the situation changes, these secrets may be revealed. [9]

6 When Derrida suggests that God is testing whether Abraham can keep a secret, it is not about hiding something due to some need. It is about testing Abraham’s capacity to keep an exclusive relationship with God. As if God required of Abraham that he kept the relation secret; secret, not primarily in the sense of not letting anybody know about it (although that is also a part of it), but rather in the sense of an absolute alliance, or a very particular form of confidentiality. [10] The secret between God and Abraham is what Derrida elsewhere calls an unconditional secret. [11] If the secret is seen in this way, much is clarified regarding Derrida’s insistence on secrecy in his reading of the story. [12]

7 The more the unconditional character of the secret comes forth, and the more it becomes clear that Abraham is tested with regard to how capable he is of keeping an unconditional secret, in a unique, singular and exclusive relationship with God, the stronger the embarrassing traits become. Abraham is invited to accept, and he does accept, a singular relationship with God. Thereby he chooses to leave out his wife Sarah and his son Isaac. Abraham does not tell anybody about the call he has received and the subsequent command to kill his beloved son Isaac. In at least one reading of the story, Abraham chooses to lie (by not telling Isaac about God’s command to sacrifice him, and by the delusive statement to the servants) in 22,5. [13]

8 All this Abraham does in order to keep a singular relation with God following the commitment made by answering the call. And the choice to accept God is not a theoretical or abstract one. Abraham has to take action, physically and over several days. Eventually, Abraham has to kill his son and offer him as a burnt offering (Gen 22, 2-4 and 22,10).

The Secret is Double

9 This secret is a double secret. First, Abraham keeps a secret and does not reveal to anybody that God has called upon him and required the most enormous and hideous sacrifice. That is a secret that Abraham knows and shares with God. Not a word about consulting whomever it may be, not talking with Sarah or anybody else, and not even informing her. It is glaring in comparison to other details given about the preparations. Perhaps it is not really possible to keep the secret in this case. Other people are always implied anyway. For instance, in this narrative, Isaac will die, and Sarah will lose her son. The servants will be there accompanying Abraham on the way back from Moria’h, but without Isaac. Abraham may suspend the secret. He may choose not to say anything. The secret will not remain secret in so far as God’s command is implemented. Moreover, Derrida notes that, at the very moment Abraham lifts his arm and the knife in order to kill Isaac, the latter must also see the anguish in the face of Abraham, and so the secret is shared. [14]

10 At the same time there is another secret, on another level. There is an arch-secret, namely the secret regarding the reason and the meaning of the demand that Abraham sacrifices Isaac; this remains a secret to Abraham as well. He does not know what is going on, he does not know the reasons, and the utter meaning. Abraham does not know the meaning and the purpose of the command. [15] Indeed, there is no purpose, and no meaning, other than to test Abraham. There is a distinction, a difference, between the two secrets, the doubleness of the secret. However, on at least one point, there is no difference. The double secret is marked by the unconditional trait, and this is important in Derrida’s reading. This unconditional feature implies another significant trait of this narrative.

11 When Abraham is induced into secrecy, led to keep a secret, it is Abraham who is there, and no one else. It is Abraham who keeps or accepts the secrecy; it is Abraham who emerges as a responsible subject. By keeping the secret, he acts as a responsible subject. Nobody else could do it in his place, and he bears the secret without taking refuge in any overarching system, or principle, or mainstream position. Abraham acts on his own. Therefore, one could also say that this narrative, about keeping a secret and being responsible by answering the call from God, is also a story about the genealogy of the subject. It is the genealogy of the subject saying ‘I’. Jacques Derrida maintains that it is a story about the I and its relation to itself, as an instance of being for the other, being responsible, being singular. [16] Responsibility requires a subject that cannot be replaced by someone else or something else in the very act of taking the responsibility. It is solely from the perspective of irreplaceableness that it is possible to speak about a responsible subject. [17]


12 In Derrida’s reading, Abraham assumes his responsibility when he keeps an unconditional secret. It appears to be a very strange kind of responsibility. Abraham takes his responsibility by not asking (God for reasons and meaning). Abraham takes his responsibility by not complaining (about God’s frightful and bloody command). [18] Should it not be the opposite? Should not a responsible person ask and complain?

13 How can Derrida’s talk about responsibility be understood? How can responsibility be linked to not asking, to not complaining? In order to follow the thought, it is perhaps better not to stick to the word responsibility and the connotations it usually has. In order to understand Derrida here, one could approach the issue of responsibility obliquely. It seems that as soon as a question of justification is enounced, or a complaint made, there is also a reference to something outside the singular relation I-Thou. References are made to ethics, to an ethical norm, to some standard, to some system. In other words, asking for justification entails putting the other (here: God) within a framework, within a totality. Complaining or asking for justification implies referring to a system that can and must encompass Thou and I. Thus, it also de-responsibilises me. It is not me who says and requires, it is the law that says, and the ethical norms that require. Or rather, perhaps it is me who rejects or accepts your saying, your claims and your commands, but I do so with reference to an external standard. Put differently: asking for an explanation, or complai­ning, implies that I do not accept you and the relationship with you, unless you enter into the communality; I do not accept your sayings unless they can be justified according to a general framework.

14 The test that Abraham is undergoing, in Derrida’s exposition of the narrative, is a test regarding the extent to which Abraham is capable of keeping a secret. In other words, it is a test regarding the extent to which he is capable of being singular and capable of resisting the temptation to rely on the system, on the frame, on a totality, on ethics as a set of rules, or on rational justification. Is Abraham capable of being in an unconditional relationship with God?

15 Jacques Derrida says “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is no outside-text). [19] That is to say, nothing is completely isolated; there is always a frame and taking the frame into account changes the picture. [20] It seems that, on this very point, the embarrassing singularity is shown in another light if read in this way, viz. avoiding being tempted by the totality, the system, and the security that obedience to a system can offer. It is about avoiding to be tempted by a system that reduces Thou to just a brick in the wall, and reduces me to just a spokesperson for a general opinion, for a universal law, or for an impersonal standpoint. [21]

16 Jacques Derrida draws attention to the similarities between this singularity and the keeping of a secret—and in this particular way refusing to appeal to a totality, a system, ethical norms, and standards—and prophecy. He maintains that in philosophy there is assuredly a search for absolute criteria, for objective criteria, which implies standards, norms, justification, rationality, and consequently a search for totality. Precisely on this very point, prophecy has another profile. The prophetic word does not accept being subjected to some external criteria, as some sort of tribunal that would make judgements and evaluate in a neutral or objective manner, according to some norm. The prophetic word is its own criterion, so to speak. It finds its index of truthfulness in its own inspiration, not in transcendental criteria. [22]

17 Hence, one may see Abraham in Genesis 22 as standing up as a prophet, and not as an administrator of a system; there is no other and nothing else to rely upon other than himself, his own judgement and his own decision. Therefore, it is impossible for Abraham to ask God for justification, since that would imply reference to a set of norms applicable by anybody and applicable to anybody. Therefore, it is impossible for him to either complain about what God commands, or ask God for an explanation. One important implication is that Abraham is faced with the necessity to make a decision. His own decision.

18 Seeing Abraham as a prophet, in the sense of deciding and thereby affirming himself as a subject, also entails seeing him taking the responsibility without leaning on some other and external authority. Even if there were laws, ethical norms, and standards available to him, there is simply a point where a decision must be taken. [23] In the very moment of deciding, Abraham is not guided or controlled by some knowing. He is alone in his proper singularity when it is the moment to decide. There is no one else who can take the decision. Forced thus to take the responsibility, Abraham takes it. [24]

19 Taking a decision, while disconnected with either knowing or given norms, means being responsible. Such decisions, which are taken without claiming that particular knowledge or a particular norm requires them, are based on a commitment beyond knowing and beyond certitude. [25] If a decision is solely related to knowledge, and deduced from some knowing, taking a decision means nothing other than putting to work a cognitive apparatus to unfold a theorem. Therefore, as soon as responsibility is brought in under the heading ‘knowledge’ or ‘objectivity’, or as soon as it is subordinate, it is reduced to nothing. [26]

20 We do not know what deliberations Abraham made regarding God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. According to the narrative, nothing is said to anybody and nothing is discussed. The point is: even if discussions take place, and even if Abraham has some criteria for evaluating, deciding, and judging, a moment of decision is required. Whatever criteria there may be are not enough at the moment of decision, the non-programmed and non-preconceived decision required in the judgement. [27] Even if Abraham asks God for an explanation, God’s answer can never be the last word, and never decisive for Abraham, should he be a responsible subject.

21 I think that this is only one side of a multifaceted story, though. It is true that prophecy does not function as a megaphone for the establishment; a prophet cries out in order to shake the establishment, the established views, the established forms and the ordinary approach. In so doing, prophecy does not follow standards and norms, and does not submit to external criteria. In that particular sense, the prophet is alone, and has to step forward as a responsible voice. Yet, prophecy also calls for repentance.

22 At a certain point, a judgement is required, which means that someone will have to take the responsibility. For example, a law cannot cover all cases, and a judge has to make the decision. But, it is equally true that the decision, when the sentence is pronounced, is made with the call: “be just!” [28] There is a demand for justice. [29] Moreover, the lonely voice of the responsible prophet is tied to the cry: “Repent! Be just!”

23 Hence, prophecy is not empty. Perhaps the prophet is not bound by a code, or obliged to follow any detailed prescriptions. Perhaps it is correct to speak about a lonely prophet, a single subject, and a simple individual acting without or beyond codified norms. And yet it is not as simple as that. A call for justice is there. A call to be righteous. Repent, and do what is good. Besides, the character of a “lonely voice” has two wings, so to speak. Two readings seem possible. There are perhaps two tendencies. Two separate conclusions may be drawn from the idea of the prophet’s “lonely voice.”

The Two Faces of Responsibility

24 When Derrida sees an issue of infinite and undecidable responsibility, and when he makes a point of it in his reading of Genesis 22,1-14, it has potential for political thought. Here Derrida’s reading can be seen with emphasis either on the individual or on taking a decision. In other words, on the lonely and single prophet or on the cry that the prophet is called to enounce. The first reading implies individualism as the focal point; the key message is then that human beings are primarily individuals who, as individuals, decide. The prophet is thus seen as a singular voice, with emphasis on singular. The second reading draws attention to the voice of the prophet. The cry. This reading sees decision making and evaluation as central. The emphasis here is on responsibility and decision making, not on the individual. I or/and we will have to take a stand; there is no way that we can or should remain silent pawns in a pre-organised play. Decisions are made, and standpoints are taken, because they have to be made. The content and the outcome of decisions cannot be pre-established, as long as they are decisions.

25 True enough, various discourses on responsibility may be read as individual-centred. Close at hand is Emmanuel Levinas. [30] When Levinas talks about the constitution of the subject as an event in which the self realises that s/he is responsible for the other, [31] it is of course a vision of what it is to be a human being and a subject that could be seen as individualistic. It is I (not “we”) who becomes a subject when confronted with the unilateral responsibility that I (not “we”) have towards the other. [32] At the centre is the self, not the group or the community. The self is a separate entity apparently of individualistic or atomistic kind. [33]

26 But there are also two other traits that are as important. First, Levinas talks about becoming a subject. The fundamental structure of this subject is not an already existing free and autonomous individual. [34] Emmanuel Levinas sees the self as determined and delimited by jouissance, that is to say by the pleasure of sensations like feeling grass under your feet, the wind in your face or eating something nice. The self is not defined by freedom, autonomy, agency, or power, [35] but becomes a subject by realising that s/he is responsible, and endlessly responsible, for the other. [36] Emmanuel Levinas does not presuppose a free, individual and autonomous subject who exists first, but a separate self, formed by and in jouissance, who is endowed as a subject when encountering the other. [37] So yes, in this reading of Levinas the subjectivity is not formed in terms of an anonymous collectivity. Subjectivity is not identified as a free, atomistic “individual” either. Hence, seeing the responsible subject does not automatically entail individualism, at least not as an individual, autonomous subject. Second, what Levinas calls the third person is inscribed in the responsibility that I has towards the Neighbour. This is already obvious in the narrative about Abraham: Isaac, Sarah, and the servants are present all along. Abraham must—in some sense—relate to them. I will come back to the third person. My contention is that talking about “the responsible subject” is not necessarily to stress individualism in any simplistic sense. The emphasis is elsewhere.

Responding Differently

27 Now, another aspect should be introduced. There are two separate issues that may be held apart. On the one hand there is the secret, and the necessity that Abraham does not question or complain when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac. It is necessary for this to be so if Abraham is a subject taking on the responsibility of judging and deciding without cowardly running to some authority—a law, a norm, a codex, a general opinion—and ask it to lift the burden by deciding in place of Abraham.

28 On the other hand, there is the issue of fulfilling the task. That Abraham cannot ask God to justify the command, and cannot accuse God of making an immoral command, do not prevent him from deciding not to obey the command. As Levinas says about the self that becomes a subject when realising that there is an infinite responsibility for the other: the self becomes a subject exactly in that insight, regardless of what s/he does. Refusing to shoulder the responsibility is an issue of second order. The fact that I am confronted with my responsibility cannot be taken away, and is not dependent on how I act upon it. It is not possible to withdraw from responsibility. [38]

29 Hence, in concordance with his role as a prophet, it is not necessary for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac even though he is confronted with the obligation to do so. Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad clarifies that the prophet who speaks of freedom must also accept and live freedom. That entails taking into account the possibility of refusing to obey an order or a command. [39] If the prophet has a free role, it is always necessary to consider the possibility that a prophet will act in disobedience, Von Rad adds. [40]

30 In general terms, it has to be in this way that a subject becomes a responsible subject, regardless of how s/he handles the situation. It has to be so, otherwise someone refusing to fulfil an obligation would simply not become a moral subject, and subsequently not be held responsible for one’s acts. The constituting dimension has to constitute the subject regardless of what decision and what act are undertaken.

The Secret Responsibility, and Faith

31 The secret that Derrida refers to in Genesis 22 is secrecy that has nothing to do with content; there is no thing to hide. No, there is no other secret than the very demand to keep the secret. In other words, the demand to be exclusive, unique. [41] In this singular relationship with God, Abraham is prepared to sacrifice Isaac, not only the most beloved one, but also the child of promise; that is to say, Abraham is prepared to sacrifice the future. [42] When Abraham is ready to complete the act, he seals the unconditional relationship with the greatest gift to God; nothing compares to you God, he says. Thus, the covenant is absolute, and absolutely singular in its act of electing and selecting. Consequently, if the secret is maintained, there is no longer anything that is sacred to Abraham; he is ready to sacrifice everything, anything… [43]

32 Sacrificing Isaac is meaningless. What is at stake is the test of unconditional love, the sworn relationship between two entities or two partners. But precisely in order to make this work, this must be without meaning, without wanting to say something, and without any particular object. The only object, the only objective, is the unconditionally singular covenant. [44] If there were an object, and an objective in the sense of a purpose, and a meaning, then the secret would be a conditional secret, which also implies that it could be allowed, and tolerated. It does not follow automatically that, as soon as there is purpose and meaning, an act is permitted. Still, purpose and meaning make it possible to judge an act as permitted. In a specific situation, the circumstances will have to be examined and analysed. Various interests have to be balanced. What are the costs? What are the gains? After having considered pros and cons, one action is legitimate, the other not. Put differently, if there were some reason behind God’s command, it could be allowed; if there were some reason behind Abraham’s decision to carry out the task, it could be permitted; if some reason were given for Abraham’s silence, it could be allowed or even seen as necessary. For example, if Abraham were to sacrifice Isaac for the common good, or for some “higher good,” the issue would be a different one, but that is not the case, as Søren Kierkegaard points out: Abraham is not prepared to sacrifice Isaac in order to save the people or the State, or in order to calm some wrathful gods. [45]

33 If there cannot be an objective (a conditional secret), “test” as an objective cannot be either. There would be a purpose and a meaning with a test. Abraham could then understand God, and God’s command could be justified according to some shared rationality. In this narrative, though, God does not provide reasons, does not share motivations, does not say what the deliberations are, or even the decisions. If God shared all this, told all this, and were totally transparent, God would no longer be God. If the other shared all reasons and explained everything, if there were no secret, the other would not be the other; there would be a single homogeneity. [46] Hence, if the whole business in Genesis 22,1-14 were known as a test of Abraham’s fide­lity, there would be no secrecy in the command any more. So, is this test possible as a test?—“After these things God tested Abraham…” (Gen 22,1)

34 Perhaps it is not a test in a scientific mode; not about measuring—either as measuring the level of faith or measuring whether there is a capacity for faith or whether there is faith at all (like in a laboratory test of whether some chemical substance can be detected). Perhaps it is a test that just by taking place plays the role of creating a bond extending from Abraham to God, and from God to Abraham; a singular and responsible relationship, not relying on a commonly established framework (ethics, rationality, reason). Perhaps the test must be seen as a purpose that is narrated to the reader/listener. That is to say, no purpose is discernable to the actors within the narrative.

35 This does not preclude the fact that the purpose of the narrative may be to tell a story about and discuss the responsible subject. Now, if it is indeed a story about the responsible subject, which is a Leitmotiv in my account of Derrida’s reading, this absolute responsibility has to be balanced in order to be meaningful. If there were absolutely nothing that made a difference, as the subject decides, responsibility would also crumble to pieces. If ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘maybe’ were equal to silence or just a cry in the dark—everywhere, always—there would not be a decision.

36 As a matter of fact, both Derrida and Levinas discuss some correctives. There is also a call echoing in the background: “Be just!” It is perhaps exactly this that Derrida identifies in the force of justice behind the law, and behind the enforcement of the law. It seems to be exactly this that Levinas sees in the third person who will always break up the I-Thou relation, bringing in the dimension of justice. In Levinas, the third person is someone other than the Other, but also another other, and the other’s other. That is to say, there is also a dimension of comparing, and of justice. [47] The third is described as the presence of the poor, the naked, and the stranger in our midst. It is an unavoidable dimension other than being responsible for the Other. [48] Not all the bread can be given to the Other unproblematically. Isaac cannot be sacrificed to God unproblematically. This dimension is discernable in Derrida as well. In fact, he claims that responsibility requires a double and contradictory movement. On the one hand, one has to respond in one’s own capacity, as oneself, as an irreplaceable singularity; one has to be responsible for what one does and what one says. On the other hand, one has to respond to the call of goodness, as someone who is called to be good, just or righteous. [49] This means that one does not necessarily have to effectuate what the other commands. There is also a call for justice here. This leads on to another question.

37 There seems to be a problem with Abraham not saying no to God’s command after all. Or at least a problem in the sense that Abraham so unhesitantly is ready to effectuate God’s order, prepared to kill his son and offer him as a burnt offering. To be more exact, Abraham, after three days of walking, is still prepared to go to the bitter end. That is, it is a problem if it is a story about responsibility, and thus about subjectivity and decision, which, as I argue, it is in Derrida’s reading. In another reading, a religious-theological reading, the situation is radically different in that a point can be made of Abraham knowing that God was only putting him to a test. Accordingly, Abraham would also know that no sacrifice would be too heavy to bear, if God demanded it, but he would also have faith in a counter-order that would have to come, so to speak. [50]

38 Obviously, such ‘knowing’ must be qualified. Knowledge in this context cannot be about ‘scientific knowing’ of ‘facts’ but must be something else. I suggest that it is ‘know’ as being convinced or having a particular feeling, which is grounded in some promise. In this sense, Abraham would have acted out of faith, a steady faith, a strong conviction that God was not going to take Isaac away from him. [51] To have faith and believe in God also means to Abraham that everything is possible, in spite of everything. Even when lifting his arm and getting prepared with his knife, Abraham has faith that God will come up with a ‘solution.’ [52]

39 Therefore, one reading of the Abraham story is that it is one of having faith in God; Abraham gives himself away, but he puts trust in what will happen, being confident that everything will be for the best—if only he has confidence, if only he trusts and if only he has faith in God, the Absolute; only God can guarantee that the outcome will be good, but what is required is that Abraham trusts in God.

40 The reading of the narrative as being about God and faith may be seen as indications that Abraham actually trusts that the sacrifice will not take place. For instance, Abraham’s answer to Isaac in 22,7-8 would then be made out of trust. Moreover, when Abraham tells the servants that ‘we’ will come back (in 22,5), he would do so because of his trust in God. Søren Kierkegaard appears to read Abraham in this way, as does the analysis by the Old Testament scholar Timo Veijola. [53]

41 Hence, there is perhaps a significant difference between stressing responsibility on the one hand, and faith on the other hand. The significant difference should be that faith implies a type of safety net. Certainly, also if the narrative about Abraham and God is about faith, there is a real test. Abraham could have failed the test. It is also true that if there is faith everything will be fine. If the story is about a relationship, uniqueness in the relationship, and a test of whether Abraham can take the responsibility that is required, there seems to be no release. There is no promise, and there is no knowing that God will eventually intervene, although perhaps in an unpredictable way.

42 The story about the Abraham-God relationship may be read as one about a unique relationship in which Abraham is challenged to take on his responsibility by renouncing his reliance on a codex, a law, a norm or an ethical standard in his judgement; he stands up and follows God’s command without consulting anybody else, and in particular without following the prescribed moral code. There are strong indications that Derrida is more interested in the structure of a relationship and its implications of responsibility and subjectivity, than in theological questions about God and human obedience. He states clearly that God in this context is a name for the absolute other, the absolute singularity of the other, [54] and that God is everywhere where the wholly other is. What is said in the relation between God and Abraham is also said in my relation with the wholly other as the wholly other (tout autre comme tout autre). [55]

43 The biblical narrative in Genesis 22,1-14 is read here as a story about the prominent place attributed to the singular subject, a subject who is responsible in a way, in a concrete situation and regarding something in particular. It is a story about a responsibility that no one else can take. Such reading does not oppose, contradict or reduce a reading centred on faith in God. Subjectivity and faith are two potential dimensions of the text that lead to two different discourses.

Returning to the Call

44 To my understanding, Derrida suggests that Genesis 22,1-14 is a narrative about Abraham being tested with regard to his capacity to keep a secret. That is to say, a story about whether Abraham is capable of living with an unconditional secret, a singular relationship with God. Hence, it is a story about whether Abraham is capable of taking the responsibility as a responsible subject, not hiding behind some authority. If one follows this line of thought, then there are indeed unresolved questions regarding the initial call in this narrative. For instance, the role and implications of the call.

45 The story commences with God making a call: “Abraham!” And Abraham answers: “Here I am!” (Gen 22,1). In this way, God chooses Abraham as a partner in a singular relationship, and tests him. The test designed by God is whether Abraham is apt for this relationship, and whether he is capable of keeping a secret. [56] Jacques Derrida employs the conditional mode in his analysis—la demande au secret commencerait à cet instant (the demand for secrecy would begin at this instant). Jacques Derrida identifies the following structure: God utters the name Abraham—je prononce ton nom (I pronounce your name). Abraham experiences the feeling of having a vocation, of being called—tu te sens appelé par moi (you feel you are being called by me), which makes him respond and say me voici (here I am). [57]

46 In his reading of this brief exchange, Derrida uncovers a web of relations. There is a call to start with. The French word for call (appel) stems from a verb that means ‘to give an impulsion’; one could say that there is an impulsion to answer, and to respond to the call. The verb to answer is formed by the two components ‘to swear’ [an oath] and ‘against’ [or ‘towards’], and the verb respond means ‘to make a promise in return.’ In his essays ‘Donner la mort’ and ‘La littérature au secret,’ Derrida captures this well. When God calls Abraham, an answer is solicited and thereby Abraham enters into a relationship of commitment. Moreover, Derrida points out that in the answering lies the idea of answering to the other, in front of the other, before the other; it is also answering for oneself. [58] Thus, in this relation between caller and called, Abraham is responsible to and before the other (here: God). It is to and before the other (here: God) that he answers. [59] Therefore, Derrida may claim that perhaps ‘Here I am’ is the most adequate response to the call made by the other. I am ready to answer; my response is that I am ready to respond. [60] The I steps forward as no one else can. The I is I exactly in the response in responding. This responsibility, this swearing an oath to and in front of the other, this making a promise in return, implies a commitment to be loyal to the other. By answering ‘Here I am!’ Abraham—and no one else—engages himself to respond to God only, to answer before God alone. [61] In this way, it may be the original moment of responsibility.

47 This structured reading, the unfolding of a kind of logic, may be supplemented by other observations. Perhaps, who calls out to whom is not innocent in this context. God, as the subject, is stressed in the call to Abraham; it is God who takes the initiative. And that determines the reading of the entire narrative. [62] God calls Abraham, which means that God knows Abraham’s name, and knowing the name is also having power over the bearer of the name, knowing the person. In this narrative, Abraham does not know God’s name. [63] On the other hand, when Isaac calls Abraham: ‘“My father!”’ (22,7), he does not have God’s authority to say ‘Abraham’ but can only address Abraham in the known function as father. This call requires an answer though—a promise in return: ‘And [Abraham] said, “Here am I, my son.”’ (22,7) Veijola shows that Abraham is ready to listen and to act in the same way towards his son Isaac, as he is to God. [64] Thus there is an intricate relationship among the three, Abraham, God and Isaac. Both God and Isaac call Abraham. In both cases, there is a call that demands a response. In both cases there would be a relationship implying an unconditional commitment. But not both commitments can be fulfilled. Abraham cannot be equally committed to both of them, so to speak. Perhaps the commitments should not be fulfilled in the same fashion. Perhaps, Isaac does not have the same authority as God has. Therefore the weight is not the same in his demand, as in God’s demand. Or perhaps it is indeed so that Abraham is in an exclusive relationship with God and with Isaac, which creates an unresolved dilemma; Abraham would have two loyalties, being committed to God and to Isaac. [65] In a fashion, this situation sharpens the test. Abraham must decide and choose not only singularity (versus mainstream, collective communality), but also one of two singular relationships. The call and the answer squeeze responsibility and subjectivity out of Abraham. It makes a responsible subject of him.

48 Now, the situation is perhaps even more complex, if seen from another perspective. This is said without replacing what has just been said. In his book Passions, Derrida points out that there is always the right not to respond. One should always be free not to answer to an appeal or to an invitation. [66] Hence, the response to a call would mean declaring oneself being capable of responding. It could mean declaring oneself being capable of keeping a secret, as Derrida seems to suggest in his reading of the interaction between God and Abraham. Whether such a response could include silence or rejection is an open issue. Some would perhaps say that non-response is the best response, that is to say a response and a sign of responsibility. A subject who on his/her own decides not to answer would manifest his/her subjectivity in the most outstanding manner. [67]

49 There are some serious structures at play here. The intimate relationship established when Abraham answers the call, confirmed by accepting the responsibility and not breaking the secret, should all be nullified if Abraham were acting on obligation, like a gesture of friendship or politeness would be neither very polite nor very friendly if it were only following some ritual. Jacques Derrida seems to say that one cannot be polite or friendly by an obligation that takes away the very character of politeness and friendship. It would certainly be impolite to accept an invitation seeing it as an obligation. [68] Similarly, if it is a true invitation, it cannot be about obliging someone to accept. On the other hand, an invitation must be insisting and not indifferent. The message cannot be: “come if you like, refrain if you like, it does not matter which.” That is not an invitation. [69]

50 Perhaps God’s call to Abraham is not a polite one. Not an invitation. What if Abraham has to respond, and it is an inherent part of the call? That would be more in line with the reading in this essay. Furthermore, the narrative in Genesis 22,1-14 seems not to be about an invitation; the story evolves around a command. Can the question be reversed, or turned up-side-down? Is the implication that a command must be pressing, but also that it must be possible to disobey it? It seems that it would be pure violence otherwise, and not at all a command. If violence is taken to its extreme, the violated vanishes. If there is no sign of agency in the violated—no acceptance, no resistance, no going along with, no going against—a consequence seems to be that the one who commands effectuates everything in a way; the violated is effaced. If there is no possibility of saying no to a command, the very character of the command is taken away, as the one who should obey the command is made superfluous.

51 ***

52 To me it seems inappropriate to say that the Abraham story is about this or that. It appears more adequate to say that different readings present themselves. Certainly, a variety of readings may co-exist on one level. It is also true, however, that they sometimes point in radically different directions. Therefore, at some stage, one must ask which reading one prefers and for what reasons. Is this story a story about God? Is it about having faith? Having blind faith in God? Is it about how Abraham constitutes the perfect example of someone who has faith? That appears to be Kierkegaard’s reading. Or is it about God calling Abraham as a particular and historical human being? In that case perhaps it is important that there is a call, which requires a response. Precisely the call-response relation is perhaps a vital part of the story. Abraham is called by the wholly other, which requires an answer that only Abraham can give, as a responsible subject. Abraham has to make a choice and decide. And he must do it alone. In silence. Secretly. This essay goes down this path, in that a crucial part of the story is that God tests Abraham’s capacity and capability to stand up and take a decision, to assume his responsibility. Abraham has to do this as a subject without taking refuge in an anonymous group, abstract principles, general rules, a common system or an all-embracing totality. Here, Abraham emerges as a subject. He is forced to assume his role as a responsible subject. This gives birth to numerous reflections. In the narrative it seems to be a contradiction. Abraham is a subject who has to take a standpoint on his own, and yet he cannot answer in any way he likes or chooses. The only permitted answer seems to be saying that he is prepared to do what God demands. But other questions linger on with regard to what remains unsaid in the text: Is he obliged to answer at all, for example? Is it even possible that there really is a prescription for how to answer? Or does the obligation reside in the confrontation with the appeal, regardless of the answer? Can there be a prescription, if the very point is a test of Abraham as a responsible subject? The subject must make an own decision and not fall back on some rule. On the other hand, is it possible that any answer is as good as another? Is any way of answering acceptable? What about silence? How could that be an answer? Perhaps Derrida here sees the necessary possibility of the impossible. His reading turns on the doubleness. A call that must be answered, but the answer is perhaps silent. The response to the call forges an autonomous subject that experiences an obligation to act not according its proper will but to an external demand: À cet instant, mais depuis ce seul instant, l’autonomie et l’hétéronomie ne font plus qu’Un, oui, plus qu’Un (At this instant, starting from this very instant, autonomy and heternomy make no longer One, yes, more than One). [70]


  • [1]
    I am very grateful for comments and suggestions from colleagues when I presented an earlier draft in the Philosophy of Religion Seminar at Lund University in December 2013. I would also like to express my special thanks to Fredrik Lindström, Catharina Stenqvist (†), and Paul Touati for commenting on previous drafts and for their most valuable assistance on various matters. The comments made by the two anonymous reviewers have been extremely helpful. The Crafoord Foundation is thanked for a generous grant, which made this study possible.
  • [2]
    Jacques Derrida, “La littérature au secret. Une filiation impossible” in Jacques Derrida (ed.), Donner la mort, Paris, Galilée, 1999, p. 172.
  • [3]
    Ibid., pp. 163-164.
  • [4]
    Ibid., p. 165.
  • [5]
  • [6]
    Jacques Derrida, Passions, Paris, Galilée, 1993, pp. 56-58; See also Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 1: La volonté de savoir, Paris, Gallimard, 1978. Emmanuel Levinas seems to talk about “secret” in yet other terms, i.e. in terms of an inner core of the subject that remains impossible to express, see Emmanuel Levinas, Noms propres, Saint-Clément, Fata Morgana, pp. 102-103, 110, 117.
  • [7]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, p. 165.
  • [8]
    Ibid., pp. 166-167.
  • [9]
    Derrida, Passions, pp. 58-59.
  • [10]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, pp. 203-204.
  • [11]
    Derrida, Passions, p. 58.
  • [12]
    In my reading, secrecy plays a significant role. In some respects other texts could be more illuminating. I am here thinking of for example the novel Den vita stenen by Gunnel Linde (Stockholm, Bonniers juniorförlag, 1984 [1964]), in which the relationship is more symmetric and the role of the secret that holds together Farornas Konung and Fideli is stronger. From another point of view, precisely the asymmetric relationship between Abraham and God is of vital importance, as I claim the story to be about le tout Autre, the wholly Other (see below).
  • [13]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, pp. 171-172.
  • [14]
    Ibid., p. 167.
  • [15]
    Jacques Derrida, Donner la mort, Paris, Galilée, 1999, p. 86; Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, pp. 163, 171-172.
  • [16]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, pp. 17-18.
  • [17]
    Ibid., p. 77.
  • [18]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, p. 172.
  • [19]
    Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie, Paris, Éditions de minuit, 1967, p. 227.
  • [20]
    See Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, Paris, Galilée, 1990, p. 270.
  • [21]
    Cf. Levinas who argues that ethics could or even should be understood otherwise, viz. as being aware of the responsibility both to and of the Other, which would prevent all forms of unconditional obedience, see Levinas, Noms propres, pp. 112, 117.
  • [22]
    Jacques Derrida and Richard Kearney, “Deconstruction and the Other” in Richard Kearney (ed.), Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers. The Phenomenological Heritage, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 119.
  • [23]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, p. 172.
  • [24]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, p. 87.
  • [25]
    Ibid., p. 20.
  • [26]
    Ibid., pp. 43, 109; See also Patrik Fridlund, Mobile Performances. Linguistic Undecidability as Possibility and Problem in the Theology of Religions, Leuven, Peeters, 2011, pp. 133-134, 138, and Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou Au-delà de l’essence, Paris, LGF, 1990, pp. 214-219.
  • [27]
    Jacques Derrida, Force de loi. Le “Fondement mystique de l’autorité”, Paris, Galilée, 1994, pp. 51-54.
  • [28]
    Jean-François Lyotard, Au juste. Conversations avec Jean-Loup Thébaud, Paris, Bourgois, 1979, pp. 101-102, 182-184. See also Jacques Derrida, “Préjugés devant la loi” in Jean-François Lyotard (ed.), La faculté de juger. Colloque de Cerisy juillet-août 1982, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1985, and Fridlund, Mobile Performances, pp. 125-128.
  • [29]
    Derrida, Force de loi, pp. 46, 51.
  • [30]
    Perhaps, in this reading of the Abraham story in Genesis 22 one would think of Levinas who brings up Abraham as a preferred figure against Ulysses. The latter would make a journey that simply brings him home with a collection of impressions. Abraham, on the contrary, leaves his land behind for ever, moving to a new and unknown territory (Emmanuel Levinas, “La trace de l’autre” in Emmanuel Levinas [ed.], En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger. Édition suivie d’essais nouveaux, Paris, Vrin, 1967, pp. 187-202). Jacques Derrida points out that perhaps the difference between Abraham and Ulysses in this respect is not so big as Levinas maintains (Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1979, p. 228, footnote 1). In Grace Jantzen’s reading of Levinas there are also other traits; Abraham would be ready to leave everything behind, prepared to question himself, and being open to the other, as opposed to the destructive, violent, cold and ultimately death-bringing rationality of Ulysses (Grace M. Jantzen, Death and the Displacement of Beauty I: Foundations of Violence, London, Routledge, 2004, p. 97). In the present essay, the theme is not about leaving home, contrasting rationality, or being open to the Other. My reading turns on secrecy and its relation to the call and the call to subjectivity with responsibility to say “yes” or “no”, that is to say decide, at the same time as the call is so strong and compelling that a response cannot be but “yes”, as it were.
  • [31]
    Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité, Paris, LGF, 1992, pp. 214, 237.
  • [32]
    Emmanuel Levinas, Ethique et infini. Dialogues avec Philippe Nemo, Paris, Fayard/France culture, 1982, pp. 50-51, 80-81, 101; Levinas, Totalité et infini, p. 194.
  • [33]
    Levinas, Totalité et infini, pp. 111-126, 188, 214.
  • [34]
    Ibid., pp. 36-37.
  • [35]
    Ibid., pp. 188, 214; Levinas, Autrement qu’être, pp. 120, 228.
  • [36]
    Levinas, Totalité et infini, pp. 43, 83.
  • [37]
    Ibid., p. 88.
  • [38]
    Levinas, Ethique et infini, pp. 42-43, 91-92, 120-1.
  • [39]
    Gerhard von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments II: Die Theologie der prophetischen Überlieferungen Israels, München, Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1984, p. 80. Derrida’s reading is not an exegesis of the biblical text. Therefore, one should be particularly careful not to invoke Old Testament scholarship in the argument. Here, however, as in some other places, I find it illuminating.
  • [40]
    Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments II, p. 87.
  • [41]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, pp. 203-204.
  • [42]
    Ibid., pp. 168-169.
  • [43]
    Ibid., pp. 203-204.
  • [44]
    Ibid., pp. 204-205.
  • [45]
    Søren Kierkegaard, “Frygt og bæven” in Frygt og bæven; Sygdommen til døden; Taler, København/Valby, Det danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab/Borgen, 1989, p. 57.
  • [46]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, pp. 83-84.
  • [47]
    Levinas, Autrement qu’être, p. 245.
  • [48]
    Levinas, Totalité et infini, p. 234.
  • [49]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, p. 78.
  • [50]
    Kierkegaard, Frygt og bæven, p. 24.
  • [51]
    Ibid., p. 36.
  • [52]
    Ibid., p. 46.
  • [53]
    Timo Veijola, “Abrahams offer (Gen 22) — tid och budskap”, Svensk teologisk kvartalskrift, 54, 1989, pp. 243-244, and Timo Veijola, “Das Opfer des Abraham. Paradigma des Glaubens aus dem nachexilischen Zeitalter”, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, 85, 1988, pp. 160-161.
  • [54]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, p. 95. See also Louis Althusser’s more narrow account (Louis Althusser, “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État [Notes pour une recherche]”, La pensée. Revue du rationalisme moderne, 151, 1970, pp. 33-35).
  • [55]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, p. 110.
  • [56]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, pp. 163-164, 172.
  • [57]
    Ibid., p. 164.
  • [58]
    Derrida, Donner la mort, p. 46.
  • [59]
    Ibid., p. 97.
  • [60]
    Ibid., p. 102.
  • [61]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, p. 164. This goes along with Louis Althusser’s analysis, when he sees how the one who is called upon—“Hey, you there!”—turns around and in that very moment becomes a subject recognising that it is s/he whom was called upon (Althusser, “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État”’, p. 31). Louis Althusser’s text has particular Sitz-im-Leben however. It is on the ideological apparatus of the State, and of the reproduction of the conditions of production.
  • [62]
    Veijola, “Das Opfer des Abraham”, p. 139.
  • [63]
    This reading is reinforced by for instance Exodus 6,2-3.
  • [64]
    Veijola, “Das Opfer des Abraham”, p. 145.
  • [65]
    Ibid., pp. 135, 145.
  • [66]
    Derrida, Passions, p. 42. For a similar argument, see also Althusser, “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État”, pp. 33, 35.
  • [67]
    Derrida, Passions, pp. 46-47.
  • [68]
    Ibid., pp. 21-22.
  • [69]
    Ibid., p. 36.
  • [70]
    Derrida, “La littérature au secret”, p. 209.

Secrecy is a theme in Genesis 22, in Derrida’s reading of the story, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It is about keeping a secret, not secret as in hiding, but rather the secret of an exclusive relationship. This is embarrassing as it is excluding. Accepting this unique relationship by keeping the secret, Abraham demonstrates his willingness to enter into a relationship based on unconditional love. An essential part of this unconditionality and uniqueness is Abraham not referring to anybody or anything outside. He thus takes the responsibility entirely. This may be seen as being centred upon the individual as well as a question of taking responsibility, deciding, and taking a stand. Interestingly enough, Abraham must be capable of failing, or capable of deciding not to obey the command. The call is for a unique relationship, but there must be a possibility of not responding to the call. Or, must there?

Patrik Fridlund
Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University
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