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.

From Despair to Hope in Psalm 77

I will be presenting a paper on Psalm 77 this November at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in the Biblical Hebrew Poetry program unit. This lament psalm has come to have special meaning for me, since it has helped me in my own journey of faith.

The psalmist begins in despair, crying out to God, and reflects on the good old days, which simply makes him more despondent. The turning point occurs when the psalmist brings to mind the parting of the Sea when Israel was fleeing Egypt. It is a particularly vivid vision, where the Sea stands for the psalmist’s chaotic life. But the psalm is (intentionally) unfinished, allowing the reader to write the final line.

I recently wrote a meditation on the psalm for Light + Light magazine, in advance of the SBL session. This meditation is meant for a non-technical audience, but it isn’t dumbed down. I take the reader through the flow of the psalm, pointing out its structure and relevance for our lives. My starting point is the psalmist’s inability to sleep, possibly due to regrets overwhelming him.

The meditation on Psalm 77 was published online in two parts, Part 1 on September 30, 2022 and Part 2 on October 10, 2022. My own translation of the psalm was included with each part.

Memory Raises Troubling Questions: Nighttime Distress in Psalm 77:1–10

Your Way Was Through the Sea: The Shift from Despair to Hope in Psalm 77:11–20

If you would like to download PDFs of the meditation, Part 1 is available here and Part 2 is available here.

Spanish translations were also posted.

La memoria plantea preguntas inquietantes: Angustia nocturna en el Salmo 77:1–10

Tu camino fue a través del mar: El cambio de la desesperación a la esperanza en el Salmo 77:11–20

For those interested in the SBL session, it will be held on Sunday, November 20, 1:00–3:30 pm.