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.

J. Richard Middleton (Northeastern Seminary): 30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow

Here is a blog interview that New Testament Professor Nijay Gupta did with me last year for part of a series he was posting on Old Testament scholars.

NOVEMBER 9, 2020 BY NIJAY GUPTA

Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?

I find the Old Testament to be rich, complex, and textured—in its literature, its theology, and its earthy spirituality. The literature is so varied (from creation texts to prayers of lament, from wisdom treatises to narratives about the ancestors of Israel and the rise and fall of the monarchy), it’s impossible to get bored with it. One of the great challenges for those who teach the Old Testament is that it is impossible to “master” it. You develop various areas of expertise, but there is always so much more that you have to learn.

The earthiness of the Old Testament is also a great antidote to some of the otherworldly spirituality that has become embedded in the history of the church. Since the Old Testament was the Scripture of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, it was the story and symbolic world in terms of which they mapped their lives and God’s plan of redemption for the ages. This means that it is essential for us to understand the worldview of the Old Testament, since it shapes the New Testament in a fundamental way. So my study of the Old Testament has led me to become a better reader of the New Testament.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I think I have two big ideas, or at least two emphases, that I hope I have been able to communicate in my teaching and writing. When I started teaching at Northeastern Seminary, the Dean suggested I take the title Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, since these were my twin emphases.

The first emphasis that I want to communicate is the big picture, the story of the Bible from creation to eschaton, which is the story that ought to make sense of our lives (the trouble is that many in the church have “lost the plot”). So the big picture can help reorient the church to its vocation (the missio Dei), how it is called to contribute to the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world God loves. For me, this has meant a focus (initially, at least) on creation texts, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, Job, or the prophetic literature. Creation is the founding moment of the biblical story and studying these texts helps us see God’s original intentions for humanity and the world, which have something to say about the telos or goal of salvation.

The other big idea that I want to communicate (and model) is that careful reading of the biblical text yields wonderful theological and ethical results. I’ve tried to show precisely that in exegesis courses that I teach on Genesis, Samuel, Job, and the Psalms. This means reading with an inquiring mind, wondering why the text says what it does, and why it says it in the way that it does. It means bringing the entirety of who we are to the study of the Bible, including our hopes, our doubts, our assumptions, our questions, and being willing to challenge the text—so long as we are willing to be challenged in response. The Bible is not a safe book; it can radically change us.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My first academic hero is Walter Brueggemann. Although I haven’t always agreed with Brueggemann (I’ve written an article critical of his creation theology, and he graciously accepted my critiques), his attempt to bridge the gap from the ancient biblical text to the contemporary world has inspired me to try and do the same. He particularly opened up to me the riches of the prophetic literature and the Psalms.

What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?

When I was an undergraduate theological student, I was profoundly affected by George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth. In that book Ladd tried to sketch the Synoptic pattern, the Johannine pattern, the Pauline pattern, and also to address the Old Testament pattern that undergirded the New Testament. Whether or not I would fully agree with his analysis of the New Testament today, his attempt to show both diversity and coherence in the New Testament text was very helpful. But most helpful of all was Ladd’s chapter called “The Background of the Pattern: Greek or Hebrew?” where he did detailed textual study of Plato, Philo, and the Old Testament to address whether the Old Testament pattern was human ascent from the world to God or God’s descent from heaven to earthly existence.

When I was a graduate theological student, it was Brueggemann’s books that deeply impacted me—first The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, then The Prophetic Imagination. I still assign them in courses.

Read Middleton’s Work

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology

If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?

I would probably talk about music—especially reggae (both from my home country and “world reggae”) and the music of Bruce Cockburn and Leonard Cohen.

What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

I am now finishing the final chapter of a book on the Aqedah (Genesis 22) for Baker Academic. It’s called: Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. It’s a theology of prayer for a time of suffering, developed through interaction with biblical texts (the only way I know how to do theology).

Update: Abraham’s Silence is now complete (published November 2021). For information, see the Baker website.

For those interested, there is a recent review of Abraham’s Silence, called “Revisiting the Sacrifice of Isaac.”

Four Views on “Heaven” (Zondervan, 2022)

Sometime in January 2022, Zondervan will be releasing their newest book in the “Counterpoints: Bible and Theology” Series. The book is entitled Four Views on Heaven. I am one of the four authors, each of whom was invited to write our chapter as a position statement on eschatology; each chapter is followed by responses from the other authors.

It seems strange to me to have a new book published so soon after my last, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which was released less than two months ago (by Baker Academic).

Abraham’s Silence was a major project, six years in the making (research and writing). My contribution to Four Views on Heaven was a lot less intense.

I first learned that something was in the works about the “Heaven” book when the editor, Mike Wittmer, sent me a message on Twitter in 2017.

The tweet was followed up by an email, in which Mike outlined the project, namely to have four position statements on the nature of the final destiny for the redeemed, with responses from each author.

A little over a year later I signed a contract with Zondervan and delivered my chapter and my responses to the other authors in summer 2020.

This is how the Zondervan website describes the book:

Discover and understand the different Christian views of what heaven will be like.

Christians from a variety of denominations and traditions are in middle of an important conversation about the final destiny of the saved. Scholars such as N. T. Wright and J. Richard Middleton have pushed back against the traditional view of heaven, and now some Christians are pushing back against them for fear that talk about the earthiness of our final hope distracts our attention from Jesus.

In the familiar Counterpoints format, Four Views on Heaven brings together a well-rounded discussion and highlights similarities and differences of the current views on heaven. Each author presents their strongest biblical case for their position, followed by responses and a rejoinder that model a respectful tone.

Positions and contributors include:

  • Traditional Heaven – our destiny is to leave earth and live forever in heaven where we will rest, worship, and serve God (John S. Feinberg)

  • Restored Earth – emphasizes that the saved will live forever with Jesus on this restored planet, enjoying ordinary human activities in our redeemed state. (J. Richard Middleton)

  • Heavenly Earth – a balanced view that seeks to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of the heavenly and earthly views (Michael Allen).

  • Roman Catholic Beatific Vision – stresses the intellectual component of salvation, though it encompasses the whole of human experience of joy, happiness coming from seeing God finally face-to-face (Peter Kreeft).

There are two clarifications needed about both the title of the book and the above description.

Two Clarifications

First, the term “Heaven” in the book title should be understood as shorthand for the eschaton, which in my case is the new earth or renewed cosmos (the “new heavens and new earth”), with a focus on the redemption of creation.

Second, despite the description of the four views (which predates the writing of the book), all authors actually affirm that there will be a new heaven and new earth (the editor could not find a reputable theologian or biblical scholar who thought that salvation consisted in “going to heaven” forever). However, there is still a lot of disagreement on other issues along the way.

For example, the “Traditional Heaven” view is really on Dispensationalism, while the “Heavenly Earth” view claims that all we will do on the redeemed earth is worship God (an earthly “beatific vision”).

I have to say that while I disagreed with much of Peter Kreeft’s chapter on the “Roman Catholic” view, it is very wittily written (you will laugh out loud at some of the turns of phrase there). And Kreeft and I agree on some things that may be surprising.

Respect for Scripture and Each Other

The website description of the “Counterpoints” series stresses that each viewpoint seeks to respect Scripture:

The Counterpoints series presents a comparison and critique of scholarly views on topics important to Christians that are both fair-minded and respectful of the biblical text. Each volume is a one-stop reference that allows readers to evaluate the different positions on a specific issue and form their own, educated opinion.

One of the distinctive features of all the chapters in the Four Views on Heaven book is that every author is charitable to all the others, with no ad hominin attacks or denigration of someone for having a contrary opinion. The respect that accompanies the very real disagreements is salutary and I am delighted to be part of this conversation.

Focus on the Cosmic Temple Theme

Although I have previously written an entire book on eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth), my chapter in Four Views on Heaven isn’t simply a repeat or summary of what I’ve written before. Besides addressing some specific questions that the book’s editor put to each contributor, I greatly expanded the theme (already present in my eschatology book) of the world as God’s temple, with God’s desire for his presence to fill all of creation in the eschaton.

This focus was evident in my provisional title for the chapter: “The New Earth: Cosmic Redemption and the Coming of the Shekinah.” Shekinah is the post-biblical Jewish term for the divine Presence, derived from the Hebrew shakan, “to dwell,” with mishkan or “dwelling place” designating the tabernacle in the Old Testament. However, the editor (perhaps) wisely changed the title of my chapter to “A New Earth Perspective,” which is simpler.

You can purchase the book at a good discount from the Zondervan website, as well as other books in the “Counterpoints” series, which typically have four or five views of important topics. One that I have found particularly helpful is Five Views on the Exodus: Historicity, Chronology, and Theological Implications (2021).