How to Talk Back to God (Interview on Scot McKnight’s “Kingdom Roots” Podcast)

About two weeks ago New Testament scholar Scot McKnight interviewed me about my recent book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021).

In the book I suggest that we have misunderstood the nature of the test God gave Abraham in Genesis 22 and that Abraham failed (or barely passed) the real test. I argue that the test was not whether Abraham would obey God, but whether he could discern that God’s character as merciful (that is, God wanted Abraham to realize that he didn’t really require child sacrifice).

The way Abraham would have shown that would have been by protesting the command God gave him to sacrifice his son; he should have interceded on behalf of Isaac. And God would have granted his request.

Of course, this goes against much traditional interpretation of Genesis 22. So if you want to understand why I read Genesis 22 differently, you might be interested in the podcast.

The podcast is now available on a variety of platforms, including Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbeam, etc.

It was one of the more enjoyable podcast interviews I’ve done.

This is the description Scot has of the interview on the “Kingdom Roots” website:

It is traditional to think we should praise Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son as proof of his love for God. But have we misread the point of the story? Is it possible that a careful reading of Genesis 22 could reveal that God was not pleased with Abraham’s silent obedience?

Richard Middleton provides a fresh interpretation of Genesis 22 and reinforces the church’s resurgent interest in lament as an appropriate response to God. Belief in God doesn’t mean you’re forced to say what you think God wants you to say. God can and wants to hear your raw and honest requests.

Scot previously wrote a blog post about the book (and the upcoming podcast), called, “Was Abraham a Good Example?” I reposted it on my own blog site.

If you listened to the podcast, I would be interested in comments.

Was Abraham a Good Example? (Scot McKnight’s Blog Post on Abraham’s Silence)

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight wrote a blog post on my book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021). The post doesn’t cover the entire argument of the book; it focuses on the concluding section that addresses the Aqedah or Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). The blog was posted this morning.

Scot also interviewed me about Abraham’s Silence for his Kingdom Roots podcast; we covered a bit more of the book in the interview, including my motivation for writing it and why lament or protest prayer is important in the Bible and the Christian life. I’ll post a notification when the podcast is available.

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“Was Abraham a Good Example?”

Scot McKnight — February 3, 2022

Gen. 22:1   After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

The challenge is for the reader and can be asked in a question:

Why the silence? (In those italicized words.)

 Why no protest?

 Protesting and lamenting sin and injustice are thoroughly biblical. Why the silence?

Picture Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_of_Isaac#/media/File:Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi).jpg

So many gaps in Genesis 22. So many questions. Our imaginations are stimulated to the highest levels in reading this chapter. Intentionally so.

Long ago I learned from reading Meir Sternberg and Robert Alter to ask about the textual gaps in such texts, and J. Richard Middleton explores all the gaps in Abraham’s Silence.

The details are so many that only a sketch can be given here. What I want to do is give you the big ideas of what Middleton thinks of the silence of Abraham.

In this text it is “God” (Elohim) not YHWH who tested Abraham. This is unusual, and could be a distancing expression. A messenger of YHWH, however, stops the sacrificial act (cf. Gen 22:1, 11). Why the change?

Isaac’s relationship to Abraham, or vice versa, is plumbed at length in this book: in essence, he thinks their relationship is dysfunctional as measured by the textual details. They do not talk on the way there; and Isaac all but disappears after this event; he does not come down the mountain and does not accompany Abraham back. Isaac’s not given a separable story in Genesis that we do find with Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Middleton suggests Abraham favored Ishmael over Isaac; he thinks Isaac picks up the idea that God is the One to be feared (all this comes from his careful reading of the text). And “whom you love” he thinks could be translated “You love him, don’t you?”

Perhaps most provocatively, Middleton thinks God is testing Abraham about whether he loves this special son Isaac.

Is Abraham’s silence exemplary?

Abraham’s narrative arc in Genesis: What view of God did Abraham have? In Genesis 18 Abraham whittles it down to 10 survivors but Middleton thinks he does this in a way that does not plumb the depth of God’s mercy, love, and grace.

Middleton sees problems in the traditional reading: (1) How is this a model for commitment? (2) Why did Abraham need to happen? There is no clear evidence of a special relationship of Abraham and Isaac.

Middleton thinks Abraham is being given an opportunity to prove his love for his son. He could have spoken up but he is silent. Then Isaac all but disappears. Even more, Abraham is being tested about his perception of God’s own character. Isaac ups the ante from Lot to Abraham’s own son. Abraham is silent.

Isaac learns not that God is a God of grace and mercy but one to be feared. Notice “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (31:42).  Isaac is distanced from his father from this point on; Sarah, too, is never close to Abraham – perhaps not even living with him – from this point on.  It is a “broken family.” It was not Abraham who stopped the knife but an angel sent by the covenant God.

A big challenge to Middleton’s view are the words of the angel that seem to confirm Abraham as exemplary (not to ignore the positive view of Abraham’s Aqedah in much of Judaism and the NT). He probes how to see these words.

“By myself I have sworn”: God steps in because Abraham’s response was not as complete as it could have been. He thinks the ram was behind Abraham and, quite provocatively, he is not convinced Abraham had embraced the idea of God providing a ram instead of his son.

A sketch, for sure, without all the details, but you can get the big ideas from the above.

Middleton thinks Abraham did not in fact pass the test of Genesis 22. He could have protested for his son and his love for his son; he could have interceded; he could have had a more robust faith in God’s provision; he thinks he “just barely passed the test” of God’s character.

https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/was-abraham-a-good-example

A Trip to the Holy Land Is Coming (December 2022)

I visited the Holy Land for the first time in 2018. It was a transformative experience.

By the second day (at Caesarea Maritima [see picture below]), I was convinced I would be back.

The trip was sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS), and our teacher was Monte Luker (current Academic Dean of JCBS).

Even before the trip was over, Monte and I began discussing the possibility of co-leading a trip for Northeastern Seminary (where I am a faculty member). After returning to the USA, we began planning in earnest.

The itinerary was set by the end of 2019 and we had a PDF brochure with all the details finalized early in 2020, ready to do the trip after Christmas of that year.

But then COVID hit. So the trip had to be canceled.

New Trip to the Holy Land

Well, a new trip is in the works. It’s going to happen right after Christmas 2022.

Our dates will most likely be December 29, 2022 through January 11, 2023. Those dates are not set in stone yet (they may shift by a day or two), but it will be a fourteen-day trip (eleven days in Israel with three days for travel on both ends).

We will arrive in Tel Aviv (on the Mediterranean coast) and head north to Galilee to begin our tour through the Holy Land. We’ll visit sites like Caesarea Philippi (where Peter confessed that Jesus was Messiah), Jeroboam’s temple at Dan (where he built the golden calf statues), and work our way down south to Masada (with a free day at the En Gedi resort at the Dead Sea) and Beersheba in the Negev (where Abraham lived). We’ll spend our last days in Jerusalem before flying home.

Along the way, we will learn about the importance of the various archeological and pilgrimage sites, reflect on their relation to events in the Bible, and have time to think about the significance of what we are seeing and learning for our own lives.

You will also have the opportunity to take communion on the Mount of Beatitudes and to renew your baptismal vows at the Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus.

Approximate Cost of the Holy Land Trip

The exact cost of the trip is still being worked out, but is expected to be $4,500-$5,000 per person. This covers airfare from Rochester, NY, all transportation within Israel, entrance fees to all sites we visit, and all hotel stays and meals (except for lunch, which we purchase on the road).

Anyone traveling from a different city will have a slightly different cost. But it will be comparable.

All the logistics (including air travel) will be organized by Educational Opportunities, a group that has a great deal of experience in planning such trips.

Here is a short video from Educational Opportunities about visiting the Holy Land: https://vimeo.com/543713454?ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR2672EIrHK6QomJcZO5dI8Usxoue9mqKPLA-ZfVRoh03g7EaQj4FK2PMIQ

The Trip Leaders

Because Monte Luker was already booked for another Holy Land trip after Christmas 2022, our teacher from the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies will be Bobby Morris, a Lutheran pastor and adjunct professor in Hebrew and Old Testament, who has led numerous such trips. Bobby will be the official teacher for the trip and I will be the host and co-teacher.

Current Interest in the Trip

Once the itinerary is set, a PDF brochure will be produced and online registration will be available. It’s a first-come, first-served situation. The absolute maximum is fifty participants, including Bobby Morris and myself (since that is what the tour bus can hold). However, we will probably cap registration before that, since having fifty on a tour of a site in the Holy Land slows everything down considerably. (If the demand requires it, and it looks like it might, we will probably have another trip the following year.)

Registration will be open to Northeastern Seminary students, along with alums and friends of the Seminary and of Roberts Wesleyan College (we are interpreting “friends” quite broadly to include anyone with a connection of any sort to the two schools or to faculty or staff of the schools).

Sixty-five people have already indicated some degree of interest in the trip.

Whether or not you have previously contacted me about the Holy Land trip, I am asking anyone interested to email me to confirm (or let me know of) your interest. That way, you will receive updates on the trip, including the PDF brochure when it is ready, notification about when registration begins (probably February or March 2022), and the online registration link (plus lots more information about what to expect on the trip).

If you don’t have my email address, just use the contact function on this website.

Topics on Location (BIB 735)

There will be an option for Seminary students to take a 3-credit Northeastern Seminary course in conjunction with the trip. Anyone interested in taking this course should contact me and I will fill you in on the details.