How Should We Interpret Biblical Genealogies? (BioLogos Interview and Blog Posts)

I was recently interviewed for an episode of the Language of God podcast. The topic was the genealogies in Scripture, particularly in Genesis and Matthew, about which I had just written a series of blog posts.

This is the description of the podcast that BioLogos posted:

At first glance, biblical genealogies appear to straightforward family trees, the kinds we see on ancestry.com that map out the precise relationships between parents and offspring, tracing back as far as we can go. But is that how the genealogies in the Bible are supposed to be read? It turns out there’s a lot more going on in the genealogies than just that straightforward accounting. Bible scholar, Richard Middleton, shares with us some of the historical context that helps us to see the genealogies as another part of the story of God’s creation.

May be an image of 1 person and text that says 'Even as far back as the 19th century, Christians who studied the genealogies realized when you compare them there are generations missing from genealogies...So we can't accept that they're literally "this one became the father of this one." VasIt's It's an ancestor of, and we're not sure how many generations are missing. LANGUAGE OF GOD FEATURING J.Richard bro Middleton'

You can access the podcast on the BioLogos podcast page.

Or on Apple podcasts. Or Spotify. Or Stitcher. Or Google.

The interview is based on blog posts that that BioLogos asked me to write on biblical genealogies (posted in July and August, 2021). They actually asked for one blog post, but I got so into it that wrote a four-part blog post addressing the genealogies in Genesis 4–11 (parts 1 and 2) and the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 (parts 3 and 4).

The series was entitled “How Should We Interpret Biblical Genealogies?”

You can access the four-part blog post at these links:

I learned a whole lot writing them (and had a lot of fun too). I hope you enjoy them.

You can join the conversation about these blog posts (or any other topic) on the BioLogos Forum.

Abraham’s Shift from Protest (Genesis 18) to Silence (Genesis 22)—What’s Going on?

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts where I outline the argument of my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which is scheduled to be published by Baker Academic in November 2021.

This is a follow-up to my third post called, The Contrast between Job and Abraham—From Vigorous Protest to Unquestioning Silence.

Over the years I’ve been struck by the vivid contrast, not just between Abraham and Job (discussed in the previous blog post), but also between Abraham vigorously protesting God’s judgment of the people of Sodom (and his interceding on their behalf) in Genesis 18 and yet silently obeying God’s instructions to sacrifice his own son in Genesis 22.

Why does Abraham shift from vigorous protest in Genesis 18 to silent obedience in Genesis 22?

The Striking Contrast between Genesis 18 and 22—Forensic versus Sacrificial?

One important explanation comes from Jon Levenson, who suggests that in Genesis 18 the issue is forensic and so the question of justice is foremost. Thus, Abraham argues the case on behalf of Sodom.

However, Levenson suggests that things are different in Genesis 22, since the issue there is sacrificial. In a sacrificial situation, we owe everything to God. Thus, if God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, Abraham has no recourse but to obey.

This is a fascinating explanation of the possible contrast between Genesis 18 and 22.

However, I think it is, ultimately, unsatisfactory.

Let us look more closely at Genesis 18 to see what is happening there.

Genesis 18 as a Teaching Moment—About God’s Character

In Genesis 18 God tells Abraham that the outcry of Sodom has come to him and he is going down to investigate.

But the narrative doesn’t have God telling Abraham outright. First God wonders if he should inform Abraham about his plans (Gen 18:17). Then he decides to tell him, because he chose Abraham for a particular purpose, namely, “that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19).

In other words, this is a teaching moment for Abraham. God informs Abraham about Sodom because he intends that Abraham should learn YHWH’s “way” of “righteousness and justice,” so that he might pass this on to his family and household.

After all, Abraham is coming to know YHWH, a God unlike the deities of the Mesopotamians (among whom Abraham used to live) and the Canaanites (among whom he currently lives). Since YHWH is starting a new people group from Abraham’s descendants, who are to model an alternative way of life among the nations, it is imperative that Abraham come to understand more fully the character of this God.

And what better way to teach this than by an interactive, dialogical session.

So, God informs Abraham of his plans.

Abraham’s Bold Intercession in Genesis 18—On Behalf of Sodom

Abraham immediately responds, objecting that it wouldn’t be right for God to destroy the city if there are fifty righteous (or innocent) people living there (the Hebrew word ṣadîq can mean either righteous or innocent).

Abraham’s motivation for interceding for the city is twofold.

It is based on the (unstated) fact that his nephew Lot, along with his family, is living in Sodom. This shows that Abraham has an implicit sense of justice and fairness.

However, his intercession is also based on a misreading of what God said.

God did not say that he was planning to destroy the city, only that he was going to investigate whether the situation required judgment (“if not, I will know”; Gen 18:21). That Abraham read this as meaning that the destruction of Sodom was a foregone conclusion is based on his misreading of YHWH’s character as a harsh judge.

But the point of the episode is precisely that Abraham would learn about YHWH’s version of justice. So Abraham has jumped the gun.

Here is how the teaching proceeds:

  • Abraham makes an opening offer of fifty; God says sure.
  • Then Abraham says, how about forty-five; God says fine.
  • Abraham proposes forty; God agrees.
  • Then Abraham drops the “price” by ten instead of five, and offers thirty; God says, let’s do it.
  • Abraham then offers twenty; God agrees.
  • Then Abraham says, I have one final offer—how about ten? God says, ten it is.

No Bargaining Here

Contrary to a traditional reading of the text, there is no bargaining (or bartering or haggling) going on here, since bargaining involves two people starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. The dialogue in Genesis 18 is different.

If this were a used car sale, where the buyer keeps on reducing his offer and the seller accepts every offer the buyer makes, I would think the seller wants to simply give the car away.

It is as if YHWH is looking for an excuse to save Sodom (and Lot).

What is God trying to teach Abraham about the “way of the YHWH” from this exchange? What sort of “righteousness and justice” is God displaying here? Certainly, one infused with mercy.

But the fact that Abraham (not God) stops at ten suggests that Abraham hasn’t learned what God wanted to teach him.

Yet God sends angels to save Lot and his family—even though that is not something Abraham explicitly asked for.

Abraham’s Lack of Intercession in Genesis 22—Even for His Own Son

So, God devises another teaching moment. But this time he ups the ante. He tells Abraham to offer up his son as a burnt offering at a place three days distant.

It is not his nephew, but his son, who will die. And God will not do the destroying; Abraham must do this himself.

But God gives him three days of travel to think about it.

What will Abraham do?

We already know the answer from Genesis 22.

The question is: What is the test of the Aqedah really about? Is it (as is commonly thought) about whether Abraham loves God more than his son?

Is Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son, without even interceding for him, meant to be a positive model for us?

Tune in for the next blog post on this subject, where I critically examine the nature of the test.

Holistic Eschatology and the Courage to Pray

The two primary topics I’ve been interviewed on for podcasts over the last few years are 1) humans made in God’s image (based on my book The Liberating Image) and 2) holistic eschatology (based on my book A New Heaven and a New Earth). These topics address creation and eschaton, that is, the origin of God’s good world and the consummation of that world as God brings it to its intended destiny.

An Earthy Spirituality

What both books have in common is a focus on God’s purposes for human flourishing in the context of earthly life. God deemed the world “very good” in the beginning (God doesn’t make junk) and God desires to redeem this world the corruption and distortions of sin (God doesn’t junk what he makes).

This holistic focus seems to have touched a nerve with many Christians, who are tired of the church’s traditional limitation of spirituality to the interior life and an ethereal heaven hereafter.

This doesn’t mean that we should play off concern for this world against spirituality. Rather, what we need in an earthy spirituality, where we live in God’s presence in the midst of the complexities of life in the real world, rather than seeking escape from this world.

Holistic Eschatology and an Open Future

This earthy spirituality was the topic of a podcast interview that I did for the God Is Open website. The website title alludes to what has come to be called Open Theism, the view that the future is genuinely open and not predetermined by God, “because God is alive, eternally free, and inexhaustibly creative.”

Here is my interview on holistic eschatology posted on the God is Open website.

The interview can also be found on YouTube.

The Courage to Pray

Because Open Theism is interested in the reality of prayer, by which we are able to impact God to act differently in a genuinely open future, the God Is Open website posted the audio of a sermon that I preached in 2017 on Moses’s intercession on behalf of Israel in Exodus 32 (“The Courage to Pray—Learning from the Boldness of Moses in Exodus 32”).

Exodus 32 recounts Israel’s idolatry of the Golden Calf and God’s decision to destroy them in judgment. But when Moses interceded for the people, God changed his mind and forgive them.

I preached this sermon in my home church, Community of the Savior, which uses the Revised Common Lectionary. I wove together aspects of the four lectionary Scriptures:

I began the sermon with a reference to the speechless person in Matthew 22 and ended up contrasting this with Moses’s bold prayer to God. I ended with Philippians 4:6. Along the way, I reflected on our own assumptions about God that often get in the way of honest prayer.

You can listen to the sermon on the “God Is Open” website

Or you can listen to the sermon on the Community of the Savior website.

If you want to read the sermon, you can download a PDF here.

The Boldness of Moses and Abraham’s Silence

The topic of Moses interceding for Israel at the Golden Calf episode is the starting point for a chapter called “God’s Loyal Opposition” in my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

Here is the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?
Part 1: Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible
1. Voices from the Ragged Edge
2. God’s Loyal Opposition
Part 2: Making Sense of the Book of Job
3. The Question of Appropriate Speech
4. Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him?
Part 3: Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straitjacket of Tradition
5. Is It Permissible to Criticize Abraham or God?
6. Reading Rhetorical Signals in the Aqedah and Job
7. Did Abraham Pass the Test?
Conclusion: The Gritty Spirituality of Lament

I recently wrote a short blog post in which I contrasted Moses and Abraham, as part of a series on the argument of the book.

Society of Biblical Literature Session on Moses and God in Conflict

I will be giving a paper on Moses’s intercession at the Golden Calf incident at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio on November 22, 2021. I was invited to give this paper last year, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic it was postponed to this year. There will be four papers in a session on “Characterization of YHWH and Moses in Conflict (Crisis) in the Pentateuch,” which is jointly sponsored by two SBL program units: the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is the abstract of my paper, entitled “How and Why Does God Change? Exploring the Logic of the Divine Shift after the Golden Calf.

Practical Implications of Biblical Themes

Topics like the image of God, holistic eschatology, and boldness in prayer are vitally important for Christian living with honesty and hope in this fractured and broken world. In everything I’ve written on these (and other) subjects, I’ve tried to tease out various practical implications for life.

For those interested in following up on the implications of Open Theism for issues of Christian living (including prayer), see The Openness of God A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), chapter 5: “Practical Implications.” The book (which was voted one of Christianity Today’s 1995 Books of the Year) has five authors, each of whom wrote a separate chapter. Chapter 5 was written by David Basinger, my colleague at Roberts Wesleyan College.