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.

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 .