The Contrast between Job and Abraham—From Vigorous Protest to Unquestioning Silence

This is the third 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 (November 2021).

This is a follow-up to my second post called, The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22.

Making Sense of the Book of Job

Some years after discovering the lament psalms, with their validation of vigorous prayer to God, I began teaching a unit on the book of Job as part of a course on the Old Testament.

William Blake – Job rebuked by his friends

Job is usually understood as raising (but never quite answering) the problem of suffering. Since it is not clear that the book was intended to answer this problem, many different, even contradictory, interpretations have been proposed.

However, one thing most interpreters (whether in the church or in academia) agree on is that God’s answer to Job from the whirlwind was a slap in his face for daring to question divine providence.

But the more I studied Job, the more I began to realize that this interpretation is fundamentally wrongheaded.

God did, indeed, criticize Job’s faulty theology (his assumptions that God micromanaged the cosmos) in the first speech from the whirlwind.

After this speech, Job was reduced to silence. So if God wanted to shut Job up, why is there a second speech?

I suggest that the point of God’s second speech was actually to encourage Job, by affirming the validity of his lament. This is why Job is praised for having “spoken rightly” of God (Job 42:7). In fact, one of the details of Job 42:7 that is usually lost in translation is that the Hebrew says that Job has spoken rightly to God. His direct complaints to the Creator are here validated.

I first presented an academic paper on this topic in 2004, with various iterations over the years. I finally wrote it up into a journal article, “Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him? The Significance of YHWH’s Second Speech from the Whirlwind” (2017).

This article is the basis for an expanded chapter in Abraham’s Silence on God’s two speeches from the whirlwind, where I clarify the difference between the two speeches (something not usually explained in commentaries).

Abraham’s Silence has two chapters on Job, which together take the reader through the entire drama of the book—both the narrative frame and the poetic dialogues—with a focus on the sort of vigorous speech that God desires.

Abraham in Genesis 22

Then we come to Abraham.

Ever since I came to value the honesty of the lament psalms and discerned that God was validating Job’s bold complaints, Abraham has been a puzzle to me.

In fact, Abraham himself vigorously challenged God in Genesis 18 (and God accepted his challenge). So why did Abraham draw back from doing this in Genesis 22?

In my next blog post, I’ll examine this shift between Genesis 18 and Genesis 22.

The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

This is the second 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).

This is a follow-up to my post called, Abraham’s Silence–Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me.

Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible

Although my book Abraham’s Silence is explicitly focused on interpreting Genesis 22 (known as the Aqedah or the Binding of Isaac), the book begins by examining how the Bible views the realities of suffering and especially how it affirms the validity of our challenging God about suffering, in bold prayer.

After an introductory chapter (called “Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?”), Part 1 of the book addresses “Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible.”

This section includes two chapters, one on the existential power of the lament palms as Israel’s normative “protocol” for processing personal and communal pain in relationship with God (chap. 1: “Voices from the Ragged Edge”) and one on the intercession of Moses and the prophets on behalf of Israel, when God was about to bring judgment on his people (chap. 2: “God’s Loyal Opposition”).

Lament Psalms and the Processing of Pain

My problems with Abraham began when I discovered the lament psalms.

I starting studying and teaching the lament psalms many years ago, after having gone through a time of personal darkness. I lost my way in life and began to doubt God’s goodness.

As a result, I stopped praying; this wasn’t intentional on my part. But I now realize that it was a natural outcome of the fact that I was unsure whether God was trustworthy.

So I found it immensely encouraging to learn about the lament psalms. Fully a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments or complaints, prayers from the ragged edge of life that articulate pain honestly to God. These prayers not only complain to God, but they ask for redress.

Lament prayer revitalized my faith at a time when it was imperiled. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching the lament psalms as model modes of prayer for sustaining our relationship with God in difficult times.

Along the way, I wrote a short meditation on lament, called “Voices from the Ragged Edge: How the Psalms Can Help Us Process Pain” (1994). I expanded this meditation for the chapter on lament psalms as a resource for developing and sustaining a robust life of faith.

Moses’s Boldness before God at the Golden Calf

And then there’s Moses, who interceded for Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf—and thereby prevented God from annulling the covenant and destroying the people (Exodus 32–34).

This is how Psalm 106:23 remembers the incident:

Therefore [God] said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

Moses interceded again after the people refused to enter the Promised Land when the spies told them of the giants who lived there; once again God accepted Moses’s prayer and did not destroy them (Numbers 14–15).

After Moses, various prophets deliver a message of judgment to Israel, calling for repentance; they then turn to God and ask for mercy and postponed judgment, to give the people a chance to repent.

Jeremiah is so persistent that God has to tell him three times to stop interceding, since God can’t bring judgment if he keeps praying.

Later, God laments in Ezekiel 22:30 about the lack of prophetic intercession:

I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” 

My study of lament psalms and the intercession of Moses and the prophets (along with my own personal experience of lament prayer) has led me to believe that that the God of the Bible values vigorous dialogue partners. This God invites us to approach the divine throne room with courage, expressing our genuine needs, including our complaints.

So the resounding question of my book is, Why didn’t Abraham do this? Why didn’t he bring his lament to God over the command to sacrifice his son? Why didn’t he intercede for Isaac?

In my next blog post (The Contrast between Job and Abraham), I’ll explain how the book of Job figures into all of this.

Abraham’s Silence—Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me

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. KassThe 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 BookPutting 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 sufferingin 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 .