This is the first in a series of blog posts where I’ll 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 this fall (October or November 2021).
The Problem of Genesis 22
Abraham’s Silence is focused on the specific issue of whether we should praise Abraham for silently trying to obey God’s instructions to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. It is traditional to view Abraham positively, in both Judaism and Christianity.
The most common understanding of Genesis 22 is that God tested Abraham to see if his commitment to God would take priority over his love for Isaac.
Since Abraham proved that he was willing to give up (actually, kill) his son to prove his faithfulness to God, he is to be praised.
I have problems with this view. To be honest, this view of Abraham (and the text of Genesis 22) has perplexed me for thirty years.
Here is how the Jewish scholar Leon Kass describes his sense of perplexity at Genesis 22:
“No story in Genesis is as terrible, as powerful, as mysterious, as elusive as this one. It defies easy and confident interpretations, and despite all that I shall have to say about it, it continues to baffle me.”
Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 333.
Another Jewish scholar, Isaac Kalimi, wrote this as part of his endorsement of my book:
“Generations of theologians, commentators, philosophers, writers, and artists—both Jews and Christians—struggled and are still struggling with the most puzzling and horrifying stories: the binding of Isaac (the Akedah), who is meant to be offered as a burnt offering by his father.”
Isaac Kalimi, member ordinarius, Academia Europaea: The Pan-European Academy of Sciences, Humanities & Letters
Among all the issues that Genesis 22 raises, my book focuses on the question of why Abraham did not intercede on behalf of his son or protest the command to sacrifice him. He could have, at least, questioned God about why this horrendous sacrifice was necessary.
Instead, Abraham’s silence resounds through the ages. And this silence generates my questioning of Abraham.
The Broader Topic of the Book—Putting Abraham in Context
Although Genesis 22 is the explicit focus of the book, I start by exploring, as a background to Abraham’s silence, the broader topic of God’s invitation to vigorous prayer in the Bible, which is preferable to circumspect silence.
The underlying question the book addresses is what we should do when life seems wrong, when circumstances seem to block our (or others’) flourishing—especially what we should do when we begin to doubt the goodness of God, who is supposed to be “in control.”
Is it possible to remain faithful to God, without piously denying the reality of suffering—in the world and in our own lives?
I suggest that it is indeed possible. And this possibility can be clearly seen by a study of Scripture.
So, prior to tackling Genesis 22 head on, the book examines God’s welcome of honest prayer in other parts of the Bible. This framing of the study shows that my questioning of Abraham’s silence is not simply my own idiosyncratic point of view. It is grounded in a coherent biblical theology of the nature of God.
In my next few blog posts, I’ll outline the biblical models for vigorous prayer that the book explores as a context for understanding Abraham’s silence.
The next post addresses The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22 .