When God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his instructions to the destination are clear: go to Moriah to perform the act. The whereabouts of the place he is called are more ambiguous – probably in the large swath of the land of Canaan, possibly in Beersheba, and measured in time distance as three days journey from Moriah. What isn’t mentioned is often equally of note as what is in the often-taciturn Biblical narrative. Imagination fosters within that gap, and launches grounds for interpretation and dispute. Kafka explores this uncertainty with positing another Abraham – one different from the one meant; one filthier, odder, and perhaps more faithful or stupid than the one supposed. He fills in the Biblical blanks with this possibility. As we speculate on the questions this potential other fellow raises, I’d like to look at the fuzziness surrounding the indefinite place where this Abraham stood when God called him.
By imagining another Abraham, I compare him to the first, right, original Abraham. He‘s other than the one God meant to call, so by being the alternate, incorrect receiver of the call, he‘s the wrong Abraham. And this wrong Abraham is somewhere near enough the time and place of the right Abraham to intercept this call. But where Abraham is called is unclear. When the Lord calls him, he answers “Here I am” but his ‘here’ is not a geographical location so much as a function of “moral position in respect to God, who has called to him-Here I am awaiting thy command. Where he is actually…does not interest the narrator” (Auerbach 8). The place is omitted and unnamed. There is a general mystery surrounding the story. God does not make his motivation to test Abraham explicit. It is written “Later, God tested Abraham’s faith“ and we’re left to wonder why. Because some time has passed since God felt close to Abraham and he could use a reminder that he’s not only a but the priority in Abraham‘s life? The nature of God as jealous, demanding, and fickle is a fair interpretation of many of his actions, especially as God rarely discloses his reasoning, or does so tersely to the point of being oblique, leaving it open for further interpretation. If God had offered further clarification the way the Supreme Court justices offer briefs and opinions, the interpretative canon on his nature would be markedly different. Getting back to Abraham, God provides clear instructions (take your son to Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering), but no explanation. Instead, the passage is clear in suggesting internal conflict (Abraham’s), fear (Isaac as he asks about the missing sacrifice as they journey to Moriah; Abraham’s consideration of what he will lose by sacrificing Isaac), and emotional turmoil in general. Auerbach comments on this scarcity of information:
…thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and w/ very little of suspense. On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background” (11-12)
I’d like to seize upon the bit quoted above about time and place being undefined to discuss a place in terms of the wrong Abraham. As a reminder, I use right and wrong because from within that other, alternate possibility of another Abraham is the intention of the recipient of God’s call (right) and the plausible unintended answerer (wrong). It’s relative to God, however. In relation to God’s purpose, design, and impulse is the Abraham who takes the call. His designation is based on some knowledge of God’s wishes. But his wishes are yet unknown. Whether Abraham is the right one or the wrong one is never called into question – God takes the answerer, and it’s unanswerable if he was the right one, or if it ever mattered. The call-taker seems to verge on being arbitrary, especially if the requirement for God is simply that someone named Abraham answers him. It’s the randomest of cruelties to be chosen for such a terrifying act based on name alone.
So, perhaps in God’s original intention, he wanted to call another Abraham, but whoever came forward was good enough for the job. He is in the right place at the right time for God’s needs, but maybe in the wrong place for his own. What is the right and wrong place in this passage? Focussing on non-geographical place, I primarily consider wrong and right relative to God’s desires: the wrong place is other than the one God wanted Abraham to be in, and perhaps an unreachable location from the call. However, the importance of God’s will is undermined with the priority placed on finding someone to commit the sacrificial act rather than caring who should specifically commit that act. Simply by suggesting a substitute to the subject of God’s call, Kafka has crippled the reasoning in God’s authority and paints a different portrait of God by hinting at a God who is imprecise – a God that doesn’t look at process, details or give much of a whit how a job might be completed – a God focussed on the bottom line.
This God is the position that right and wrong is measured from. In Miwon Kwan’s reflection on site-specificity in art, she discusses the idea of the wrong place in relation to a feeling apart from the familiarity of home, and the felt sense of displacement and surreal examination of where we belong when we’re elsewhere than where we were. On the determination of a right or wrong place, she writes:
I implied earlier that a place that instigates a sense of instability and uncertainty, lacking in comfort, a place unfamiliar and foreign, might be deemed “wrong.” And by extension, a place that feels like “home” might be deemed “right.” But this is wrong. The determination of right and wrong is never derived from an innate quality of the object in question, even if some moral absolutes might seem to preside over the object. Rather, right and wrong are qualities that an object has in relation to something outside itself. In the case of a place, it indicates a subject’s relation to it and does not indicate an autonomous, objective condition of the place itself (Kwon 38).
The subject‘s (Abraham’s) relation to the place is again based outside of himself – it is right or wrong depending on if he is the substitute or the original, and right or wrong depending on if it’s a location in which he can hear God’s call. Whoever the Abraham is that answers, we can assume he is in the right place relative to God’s desired end result – he heard the call, after all. He may be in the wrong place because he is the wrong Abraham, and destined to be wrong in one way or another based on God’s initial intention, but for God’s purposes, he’s in the right.
And place does matter, even if there is scant mention of the specifics. There are hints of geography and placement (e.g., a region with multiple mounts, a thicket) where an interested party could map a proposed radius from whence Abraham and Isaac possibly journeyed to Moriah. The importance of place is in Abraham’s answer to the Lord rather than his exact placement. From Auerbach, Abraham’s answer of “Here I am“ is meant to imply respect and willingness to do God’s bidding, not to indicate location. But, Abraham answers God twice this way, and it doesn’t seem off-base to suggest that God requires some situating and recognition; that when he calls “Abraham!“ it is implicit in the call that he wishes to locate him. Or, perhaps that he requires that Abraham orient himself – it may not matter to God where Abraham physically dwells, but it is of God’s supreme interest to know that Abraham is in a state of preparedness, a mental place, to accede to whatever God puts before him. That “here“ in Abraham’s answer is to mark that he’s in the right place and ready to commit.
Then, Abraham answers a second time on the mount before God calls off the act. He’s now in the physical place specified by God – God has been quite exact in his directions. His response of “Here I am“ answers many questions Abraham may have implied that God, in calling, would like answers to: Abraham affirms to God that he has followed his instructions, is precisely where God has directed, and is about to sacrifice Isaac, just as God requested. Abraham answers as a dutiful child to his inquisitive, controlling parent. His “Here“ here is full of answers.
However, the locative “here“ does manage to place Abraham somehow geographically, though relative to not much physically. If God were looking down or up from some hazy void, Abraham’s answer would help pinpoint him to God spatially in a Where-should-I-be-looking sort of way. From Abraham’s own perspective, his here is in relation to his corporeal situation in addition to his spiritual and mental readiness. With no mention of the physical placement of this old man’s body, I imagine him as placeless in the proper name sense of maps, but placed in relation to himself – that he, right or wrong, notes his own being. He considers himself relative to his (unnamed) surroundings, objects, and most importantly his center of gravity, self, whatever you call it – everything else is elsewhere, and orbits around this sense. In a collection of essays accompanying an exhibition on embodied experience, Foucault defined the source in the body:
My body, in fact, is always elsewhere. It is tied to all the elsewheres of the world. And to tell the truth, it is elsewhere than in the world, because it is around it that things are arranged. It is in relation to it - and in relation to it as if in relation to a sovereign - that there is a below, an above, a right, a left, a forward and a backward, a near and a far. The body is the zero point of the world. There, where paths and spaces come to meet the body is nowhere (233).
It is in relation to an object (vs. subject) that prepositions make sense. There are two things I’d like to highlight here in hopes of bringing a couple of strains together. First, the possibility of placing Abraham in light of something besides what is written, that is, relative to himself. The second is to consider the right or wrong Abraham and whether it mattered relative to God’s intention. Did Abraham ever consider that he was the wrong one? That he was potentially signing on to be the butt of a huge cosmic joke? That he was actually in the wrong place at the wrong time? When Kwon discusses this feeling of dis-ease and nomadism present in culture today, she mentions that the journey to someplace else and other than where we come from or were meant to be “is likely to expose the instability of the ‘right place‘ and by extension, the instability of the self “ (42). In Abraham’s case, it’s worth entertaining if there might be any plausible way he could have been exposed as the wrong individual for the job. Without divine intervention, and upon intercepting the call, he was at the mercy of the swinging jungle vine of circumstances and instructions. Because he answered the call, he undertook the role, its actions, inherant faith, and consequences. In any part of his journey, if he couldn’t sense the right or wrong of it, it is likely that the right place or right Abraham was non-identifiable and couldn’t be located to begin with. That is, neither right nor wrong could be sensed. It’s a postulate for an outsider to question God’s intentions in this passage, but not a verifiable determination for Abraham himself to make.
Abraham’s lack of grounding in space arose from a thinness of detail in the Biblical passage. Similarly, the possibility that another Abraham could exist stems from God’s opaque intentions in the same text. Abraham lacked even an internal compass for his place – in answering the call, his “Here I am“ was more a response to the questions implicit in the call of his name: Abraham, Are you prepared to prove yourself to me? I can only imagine his own orientation as a body within space that is following, hearing, and responding to God’s voice, and question if he could fathom an elsewhere from his situation that upon answering the call, his moves would be decided. His emotions over the requested sacrifice would be tacit and unwritten, while the instructions of the Lord were clear in request, but not in motivation. God obfuscated his intentions but not his aims – if any ol‘ Abraham would do, then the intended recipient of the call didn’t matter so much that God receive proof of fear and love by way of renouncing that which his human loved most. Then, with the knowledge that whichever Abraham is prepared to do this for his God, he flip flops, and declares this obedience enough, not caring who has done the obeying.
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Princeton University Press, 1953, 2003.
Bible, New Living Translation. Genesis 22:1-19.
Foucault, Michel. “Utopian Body.“ Sensorium, edited by Caroline A. Jones. MIT Press, 2006. pp. 229-234.
Kafka, Franz. Parables. “Abraham,“ Class handout.
Kwon, Miwon. “The Wrong Place.” Art Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1. (Spring, 2000). pp. 32-43.