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.

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