Reflections on the Panel Discussion of Abraham’s Silence at the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2022

In a previous blog post, I mentioned a panel discussion of Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021) that was coming up at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Denver, on November 21, 2022.

I am extremely grateful for the six panelists, who graciously interacted with the book and raised important questions about many aspects of my argument.

The panel was jointly sponsored by two SBL program units: The Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and The National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Panelists for SBL Discussion of Abraham’s Silence.

We had six scholars on the panel, both Jewish and Christian—Shai Held, Rachel Adelman, Marv Sweeney, Carmen Imes, Rebekah Ekland, and Brittany Kim. Unfortunately, Brittany Kim came down with COVID; so Megan Roberts kindly read her paper.

My Response to the Panelists

Instead of responding to every question posed by the panelists (since they covered so much ground), I focused on clarifying even further (beyond what I said in the book) the rationale for my interpretation of the Aqedah, particularly the core of my argument that Abraham’s response was less than optimal.

I first addressed the importance of various contexts in interpreting the Aqedah. The contexts that I found helpful were the role of vigorous prayer throughout the Bible, the book of Job, the Abraham story as a whole, my own experience of God, and the history of interpretation.

I gave further evidence for Abraham’s lack of love for Isaac, such that it would make no sense to think that the test was whether he was more committed to God than to his son.

Middleton Giving Panel Response (photo curtesy of Jill Firth)

I emphasized (much more than I did in the book) that it is almost impossible to go beyond the constraints of the traditional reading of Genesis 22, given how powerfully the history of interpretation exerts pressure upon readers of the text.

It is almost impossible, but not quite. However, it does require readers to be self-aware of when they are actually doing exegesis and not simply falling into the default interpretation because it seems “obvious.”

I spent most of my response in giving a fuller explanation of why I thought that the angel speeches did not validate Abraham’s response, but rather articulated God’s gracious compensation for Abraham’s failure (or, to put it less harshly, his less than adequate response to the test).

What Abraham Might Have Said: The Aqedah in an Alternative Timeline

I concluded my response by reading a “script” that I wrote of what Abraham might have said to God in place of the silent obedience recorded in Genesis 22 (we could think of it as the Aqedah in an alternative timeline). You can download the script here.

My thanks to Bill Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary, who inquired if I had written such a script; I hadn’t. Back on October 5, he wrote:

What would it be like to rewrite Genesis 22 in the way that you would conceive it with Abraham passing the “test” with flying colors? Do you have a script for that? If not, you should have! (Wouldn’t that be fun to present at your panel review?)  

His request prodded me to write it that very afternoon and then send it to him. He used the script in one of his classes the following day. It is amazing how requests from others can often be writing prompts.

But Doesn’t the New Testament Exalt Abraham for His Response to God in Genesis 22?

In my response paper, I also touched on the question of why the New Testament (especially Hebrews 11 and James 2) views Abraham’s response to God positively. Although my comments here were very brief, I pointed out that whatever we think of Hebrew 11, other passages in Hebrews clearly affirm the validity of lament both in the life of Jesus and in the life of believers.

Hebrews 5 notes that: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). This is the sort of reverence or fear of God that is fully compatible with vigorous grappling.

And Hebrews 4 encourages the reader with these words: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). So however we take the affirmation of Abraham in Hebrews 11, this is clearly not an epistle that endorses silent submission to God.

Given the need to address the above issue (the most common question I receive from Christian readers about Abraham’s Silence is “What about Hebrews 11?”), I plan to write an article that addresses the explicit and implicit references to the Aqedah in the New Testament; this will be in the context of trying to understand how the New Testament typically appeals to the Old Testament.

Two New Books on the Imago Dei

Some years back I wrote The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). My purpose was to explore what the Bible meant when it described humans as created to be God’s image (Genesis 1:26–28).

I envisioned my primary audience as those involved in the discipline of theology—both scholars and students. The problem, as I perceived it, was that many theologians writing on the topic of the imago Dei had not engaged Scripture very much and seemed unacquainted with the excellent work done on the topic by biblical scholars. The theological books and articles on the imago Dei that I read tended to be too speculative; they engaged primarily with what other theologians (ancient and modern) had written and were not rooted in what the Bible actually says on the topic.

The Approach and Argument of The Liberating Image

Granted, the Bible doesn’t seem to say much on the topic of the imago Dei; explicit biblical texts seem few and far between. But by paying attention to context I attempted to show that the biblical writers had a specific understanding of being human in mind—namely, that humans are meant to be the representatives of God on earth, gifted with dignity and agency, and commissioned with the vocation of developing the world to the glory of God.

Among the various interpretations of the imago Dei, this view has been called the functional view (it highlights human action, not some faculties that make us human that we supposedly have in common with God); it has been called the royal interpretation (we represent the King of creation by our own “rule” of the earth); It has also been called the vocational view of the image (the focus is on the human vocation or calling in the world)—this is my preferred terminology.

To clarify this understanding of the image, I first addressed the history of interpretation of the imago Dei and laid out the assumptions I was working with—my methodology and hermeneutics. Then I engaged in a careful reading of Genesis 1:26–28 in the context of the creation account in Genesis 1:1–2:3, noting how this understanding of creation dovetailed with the rest of Scripture.

The next section of the book examined the ancient Near Eastern background to the idea of the image of God, focusing on the theology of cult images (idols) and the rationale for kings being called the image of their gods in Egypt and Babylonia/Assyria. I tried to show how the understanding of the imago Dei developed from attention to the biblical and cultural contexts of the term unifies the Primeval History (Genesis 1–11) as an account of human culture that was alternative to that found in the ancient Near East.

A final section of the book explored in more detail the ethics of the image, especially how the biblical imago Dei addressed the question of violence in our world. I attempted to show that we are meant to image God’s loving use of power, both as depicted in Genesis 1 and as modeled by Jesus. The book ended with these words: “In both creation and redemption, God so loved the world that he gave . . . .”

I’ve been very pleased by the reception The Liberating Image received, well beyond the community of theological readers. It has been read by theologians and by scholars in different fields (the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences), who have found it helpful for connecting their fields of study with biblical anthropology. The book has also been used by pastors and theological students, who have found it grounding for ministry in the contemporary world.

God’s Prism: My Popular Book on the Imago Dei

Almost from the very beginning, however, I began to receive suggestions from readers that I write a popular version of The Liberating Image, which would be more accessible to lay Christians.

That book is finally coming. I am working on a short book for Baker Academic, with the tentative title, God’s Prism: The Imago Dei in the Biblical Story (I’ve been using the idea of a prism to communicate the meaning of the imago Dei since a talk I gave at the University of Rochester in 1988).

Presenting on the Imago Dei at Upper House, University of Wisconsin-Madison (July 2022)

The new book will combine the ethical thrust of The Liberating Image (the use and abuse of power) with what I call a sacramental focus (this was a subtheme in The Liberating Image, but it wasn’t foregrounded).

I plan to highlight the theme of God’s desire to make creation a cosmic temple indwelt by God’s glory/presence, with humans called to manifest that glory/presence through the way we exercise power on earth. The book will trace this theme throughout the entire Bible, from creation to the eschaton, showing the Bible’s thematic coherence around the imago Dei.

Grounded in this theme, the book will address implications of this sacramental-ethical understanding of the image for a variety of contemporary issues, all relating to human dignity and the use of power in the world.

I have been teaching the imago Dei this way for the past decade or more, both in courses at Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan University and in public lectures I’ve been giving at churches and other groups of Christians in Canada, the USA, and elsewhere.

Whether or not the title God’s Prism sticks (publishers ultimately determine the title), I am hoping that this new book will be available in 2025, the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Liberating Image.

Being God’s Image: Carmen Imes on the Imago Dei

In the meantime, however, I can point readers to a wonderful new book by Carmen Imes, called Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters (IVP Academic), scheduled for publication in 2023.

This is a “prequel” to Carmen’s earlier book, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (IVP Academic, 2019), which is a popular version of her academic book, Bearing YHWH’s Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command in the Decalogue, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 19 (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018).

The academic book won the R. B. Y. Scott Award from the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (CSBS) for an outstanding book in Hebrew Bible and/or the ancient Near East. I was vice-president of CSBS that year (I became president the year after) and I personally presented Carmen with the award.

That was how I first met Carmen Imes.

Since then I have come to know Carmen as a wonderful Old Testament scholar, who cares passionately for the church. She writes (books, articles, blogs) and posts on YouTube with a view to teaching Christians more about the Bible’s vision for life, in the process empowering them to live for their Lord in all the ups and downs of life in this complex world.

I had the privilege of reading the pre-publication manuscript of Being God’s Image and writing the Foreword.

I can testify that this will be a most helpful book for laypeople in the church. You don’t need to be a theologian or a pastor to understand Carmen’s lucid writing. Yet she has sneakily woven serious biblical scholarship into what seems to be a breezy, conversational book addressed to ordinary readers.

When Being God’s Image is published, I invite you to delve into the book and allow your vision to be expanded. Carmen will help you to appreciate the tremendous love of God for all people and for all creation, a love that led the Creator to became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to bring healing and redemption to a broken world and a broken humanity. May this amazing biblical vision inspire and empower you to live toward your calling to be fully human in God’s marvelous world.

Panel Discussion of Abraham’s Silence at the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2022

My book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God was published by Baker Academic in November 2021.

There will be a panel discussion on the book at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Denver, on November 21, 2022. There will be six reviewers, three Jewish biblical scholars and three Christian biblical scholars.

The panel discussion in Denver is jointly sponsored by two SBL program units: The Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and The National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

I will give a response to the papers. As part of my response, I am considering sharing a “script” I have written of what Abraham might have said to God in place of the silent obedience recorded in Genesis 22 (we could think of it as the Aqedah in an alternative timeline).

If you will be in Denver, you are cordially invited to attend the session, 4:00–6:30 pm, Monday, November 21, 2022.

I have been pondering the topic of suffering, and appropriate prayer in the face of suffering, for a very long time, primarily through studying various biblical passages that address this issue. My focus has been on the lament psalms, the book of Job, and Abraham’s strange silence in Genesis 22.

I’ve given many talks and papers over the years on lament, Job, and Genesis 22, but I began working on integrating my reflections on these topics during my 2016 sabbatical in Australia. Everything came together in the last couple of years, resulting in the final form of the book.

You can access the Table of Contents and the Introduction of the book here (provided by the publisher).

An Earlier Panel Discussion on the Book

I was also privileged to be a respondent to a (virtual) panel discussion on Abraham’s Silence at the annual meeting of Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society in March 2022. There were four reviewers.

Reviews of Abraham’s Silence

The book has begun to be reviewed in journals and on the internet. Here is a link to some reviews.