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

An Amazing First Novel: “Though I Walk” by Dale Harris

A past student of mine, Canadian Dale Harris, has published his first, absolutely stunning, novel, called Though I Walk (Word Alive Press, 2021).

I was privileged to have Dale as a DMin student at Northeastern Seminary a few years ago. He wrote a wonderful paper for my course, which has subsequently been published in the Canadian-American Theological Review (2019).

Dale won the 2020 Braun Book Award for Fiction for his novel and received a publishing contract with Word Alive Press.

I was delighted to be asked to write an endorsement for the novel. This is what I said:

An exquisite tale of love, longing, and loss, set against the coastlines of Nova Scotia and the Aegean. Harris deftly intermingles Greek myth with the concreteness of love and the horrors of war. A stunning first novel.

Book Summary

The truths of the past are often the hardest to face.

When Grace Stewart’s fiancé Stephen leaves Halifax in 1937 to pursue his dream of becoming an archaeologist in Greece, neither of them expect that war will soon engulf the world, keeping them apart for nearly ten years. As Stephen gets caught up in the resistance movement on the island of Crete, Grace immerses herself in the war effort at home, held up by her faith and praying for his safe return.

Though her prayers are eventually answered and she and Stephen are finally reunited, he is never able to speak of the things he saw in Greece. After his sudden death in 1967, however, Grace discovers among his effects the journal he kept during that dark time… a journal which allows her to, at long last, piece together the unimaginable story of the man she thought she knew.

Amazon Review

Here is what a review on Amazon said about the novel:

5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding novel! Reviewed in Canada on April 13, 2021

I rarely read novels. But this one drew me in immediately and kept me coming back for more, in spite of my extremely short attention span.

It is a great story of love, loss, loyalty and longing. The characters feel very much like real people.

The author “shows” you the story. He doesn’t just tell you what happens. You feel as if you are there with the characters. The author’s attention to detail is magnificent! Halifax in the 30s and 40s and Greece during WWII come to life vividly in their parts of the story. The war scenes strike me as realistic, but they are not overdone in a sensationalized way.

Faith or spirituality of various sorts shows up at different points in the tale, but there is nothing preachy!
The book is so full of sensitivity to loss and grief, to unfulfilled longing and hope that many good things end up “sticking” to you while you journey with the winsome characters.

We have already given a copy to friends.

Get one and enjoy it.

The book is available in paperback or ebook format on Amazon.

Dale Harris Biography

Dale Harris is an author, songwriter, blogger, and pastor, though not necessarily in that order. He taught high school English in St. Paul, Alberta before being called into fulltime ministry, and has served as a Free Methodist pastor in the city of Oshawa, Ontario since 2009. He holds a Bachelor of Education from the University of Alberta (Edmonton, AB), a Master of Divinity from Briercrest Seminary (Caronport, SK), and a Doctor of Ministry from Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY).

Dale writes regularly about life, faith, and spirituality on his blog terra incognita, and he produces Three Minute Theology, a YouTube channel dedicated to communicating the deep truths of Christian theology through short, creative whiteboard videos. He is a prolific songwriter and publishes his music on Spotify and iTunes under the artist name D. Michael Harris. Through his writing Dale loves to explore the mysterious ways God is present to us in all aspects and every season of our lives.

Here is an article about the writing of the book on the Free Methodist Church website.

The Heart of Torah: Jewish and Christian Voices on the Relationship of Biblical Exegesis to Theological Interpretation

The latest issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review (the journal of the Canadian-American Theological Association) has just been published. This is a theme issue, which collects the papers presented in a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature last year (November 2019) on Shai Held’s two-volume work, The Heart of Torah, (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). These papers were given by Jewish and and Christian biblical scholars.

Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).

While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.

This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).

An Introduction to Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics.

The Heart of Torah

Held’s latest publication, The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I then organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, November 24, 2019 and I collected the papers for publication in the Canadian-American Theological Review.

You can download my introduction to the theme issue of the journal here.

If you want to read the entire issue (consisting in my introduction, six papers on The Heart of Torah, Held’s response, and some excellent book reviews), you will need to log on to the website of the Canadian-American Theological Association. This requires an inexpensive one-year membership (which includes subscription to the journal).

Depending on your library’s subscription to online materials, you might be able to access the journal that way.

This the lineup of articles.

  • Marvin Sweeney, “Human Participation with G_d in Perfecting Creation”
  • Ellen Davis, “Moral Theology in an Exegetical Key”
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, “The Perfect Craft Cocktail on a Sweltering Day”
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Jewish Theology Rooted in Biblical Texts”
  • David Frankel, “A Critical Review of Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah
  • Dennis Olson, “A Place to Stand: Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah in Dialogue with Pentateuchal Scholars and Literary Theorists”
  • Shai Held, “A Response to My Respondents”