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.

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.

Abraham’s Silence—A Book for Jews and Christians Who Take Genesis 22 Seriously

I received word yesterday that my book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), is ready to be sent to the printer. Copies will be available in time for the annual November meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio.

I signed the contract for the book in 2015 and have been working on in on and off until 2020. Then I began writing the final chapters in earnest. After moving house in mid-2020 and recovering from COVID in January of 2021, I wrote the conclusion and submitted the completed manuscript on February 21.

Since submitting the manuscript, I’ve been through two sustained rounds of edits—one round of proofreading the amazing copyediting done by the publisher and a round of my own proofreading of the final page proofs. I have to say that the editors at Baker Academic who worked on my book (led by Melisa Block) were absolutely fantastic. They caught lots of small errors, helped me improve my phrasing, and were invaluable in getting all my references (especially my citations of ancient Jewish midrash and commentaries) into the correct format.

Although I wrote the book as a Christian, I interacted with numerous Jewish sources, both ancient and modern, especially concerning the interpretation of Genesis 22. From the beginning I wanted the book to be accessible to interested persons of the Jewish faith.

Of the nine pre-publication endorsements the book received (all of which are posted on the Baker Publishing Group website), I am thankful that three are from Jewish scholars whom I respect greatly—Shai Held, Isaac Kalimi, and Irving (Yitz) Greenberg.

Irving (Yitz) Greenberg’s Endorsement of Abraham’s Silence

The very first endorsement I received was from Yitz Greenberg, a Jewish theologian I have respected for many years. It was also the longest endorsement and clearly could not fit on the back cover of the book (so the publisher is using a shorter excerpt from his endorsement).

Here is Greenberg’s full endorsement. I have to say that receiving this (in early July) encouraged me tremendously.

“This book is an extraordinary commentary on the meaning of the Aqedah (Genesis 22). I consider this to be a masterpiece, of once-in-a-generation quality. It is also a narrative of a personal theological journey to faith. This narrative can be read with great profit by anyone who seeks to find God in our time of Divine hiddenness and rampant doubt.

Abraham’s Silence manages to respectfully reverse millennia of traditions (Jewish and Christian) that praise Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to the instruction to sacrifice Isaac—while taking these sources with utmost seriousness and honoring them. The book manages to elevate the lesson of the Aqedah from a test of obedience to God to a challenge to better understanding of the nature of YHWH—the covenanting God who is the God of justice and morality who would have welcomed Abraham’s arguing and pleading for justice for an innocent son. This treatment gives us a new understanding of a chapter that has launched a thousand theological reflections and about which one could have sworn there was nothing new to be uncovered or said.

“There is so much more to say about this book. It develops remarkable parallels between the Book of Job and Abraham in the Aqedah. In the process it offers a fresh interpretation of Job’s arguments with God and of the differences between God’s two specific responses to Job. It brings forward the psalms of complaint and their central importance in the Book of Psalms. From these psalms it leads us to an understanding of walking through life with God. This includes periods of darkness, losing our way, even alienation from God yet culminating with a deeper faith and a more unbreakable connection to God.

“Finally, as a Jew, I deeply appreciate the theological humility with which the whole book is written. This includes reading and listening to the Jewish traditional commentaries with utmost respect. I appreciate the way in which Middleton resisted slipping into Christian apologetics or alleged ‘superiorities’ over Judaism at key turning points in the commentary. The result is a fair minded, three hundred and sixty degree scan of all the available wisdom on a theological conundrum that has challenged understanding and baffled the wise for centuries. Amazingly the book will be meaningful and inspiring to devout Jews and Christians as well as those who read for academic or scholarly insights.

“This book deserves to reach the widest possible audience of Bible readers of every stripe and motivation. Readers will universally find themselves challenged, enlightened, informed, and inspired.”

Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, President, J. J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life, Hadar Institute