Reconfiguring Abraham’s Test—What Is the Aqedah (Genesis 22) Really About?

In four previous blog posts, I summed up various aspects of the argument of my new book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God.

My Blog Posts on the Argument of Abraham’s Silence

1.  Abraham’s Silence—Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me

2. The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

3. The Contrast between Job and Abraham—From Vigorous Protest to Unquestioning Silence

4. Abraham’s Shift from Protest (Genesis 18) to Silence (Genesis 22)—What’s Going on?

This post is the fifth in that series.

Here I want to address—head on—the question of what the test in Genesis 22 is all about.

Does Abraham Love God More than His Son?

It is traditional to think that Abraham is being tested to see if he loves God more than Isaac, his son.

However, a careful reading of Genesis reveals that while Abraham loves Ishmael (his first son, born of Hagar), it is doubtful that he cares at all about Isaac (the covenant heir that God promises will be born to Sarah).

Evidence for this is that he passes Sarah off as his sister after God announced the coming birth of Isaac (while Sarah is likely pregnant with him). The result is that the Philistine king of Gerar takes Sarah into his harem (Genesis 20), so that God has to rescue her.

Abraham Is Being Tested for His Discernment of God’s Character

A better interpretation of what is going on in Genesis 22 is that God is testing Abraham for his discernment of God’s character. Is this the sort of deity who demands child sacrifice on the part of his faithful followers? Or is this a God of mercy? After all, Abraham is a man from a pagan culture (Mesopotamia) with no prior knowledge of this God.

This question of merciful character was also the point of the episode in Genesis 18, where God revealed his plans to Abraham about Sodom. The point was so that Abraham could learn about YHWH’s “way” of righteousness and justice, in order to be able to pass this on to his household and descendants (Genesis 18:17–19).

And God revelation to Abraham about the cry of Sodom did lead to Abraham’s passionate intercession on behalf of the city, because Lot (his nephew) was living there.

But (as I discussed in the previous blog post) Abraham stops his request for God to save Sodom too early. And so he never fully plumbs the depths of God’s mercy.

So God gives him another chance in Genesis 22. But this time it won’t be his nephew Lot (who lives in Sodom) who is in danger; it will be Isaac, his own son. And it won’t be God who will do the act; Abraham himself will do it.

If anything would cause Abraham to speak out, this would be it.

God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his own son ought to generate protest on Abraham’s part and intercession behalf of Isaac.

But he doesn’t speak out. Instead, he goes silently to obey.

God sends him on a three day journey to a distant place (Moriah) to perform the sacrifice, intentionally giving Abraham time to think about it and gather the courage to speak out. But Abraham never gets to that point.

God Might Also Be Testing Abraham’s Love for Isaac

It is possible that there is a second dimension to the test.

Perhaps God wants Abraham to positively develop a love for Isaac. After all,  when God describes Isaac as the one “whom you love” (Genesis 22:2), this isn’t necessarily a statement of fact. It could be an encouragement, as in, “you love him, don’t you?” Then show it, by your response. Testing can bring out what is only potential, if we rise to the occasion.

Three Chapters on the Aqedah

So far I have just given the barest outline of the position I develop through three chapters in Abraham’s Silence. There is a great deal in those chapters that I haven’t even touched on in the above sketch.

For example, I have one chapter specifically devoted to the question of whether it is right to question the traditional interpretation of the Aqedah and whether it is appropriate to question God (since my alternative reading of the Aqedah is that Abraham should have questioned God’s command to sacrifice his son). This is the burden of chapter 5: “Is It Permissible to Criticize Abraham or God?”

Then I have an entire chapter examining clues in the text of Genesis 22 that all is not right with Abraham or with Isaac in the story. And then I examine connections between the Aqedah and the book of Job, which suggest that Job leads to a critique of Abraham’s response to God in Genesis 22. This is chapter 6: “Reading Rhetorical Signals in the Aqedah and Job.” 

Chapter 7 is the climax of the argument, where I explicitly address the question: “Did Abraham Pass the Test?” Beyond looking at the earlier Abraham story as context for Genesis 22, I examine the effect of the test on Isaac (including evidence in Genesis of trauma he suffered).

In this chapter I also take a look at what most readers think is God’s affirmation of Abraham through the speeches of the angel from heaven (Genesis 22:11–18). By careful attention to what the angel says, I show that it is entirely possible that God is actually showing his displeasure with Abraham.

I’m aware that this claim will seem incredible to most readers of this blog post. But I won’t defend it here.

For that, you will need to read the book.

God and Guns Podcast Interview on God, Humanity, and Violence

I was interviewed in December 2020 on the topic of violence and the image of God for a podcast called “God and Guns,” sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence in the UK. This podcast addresses issues of religion and violence for the public beyond the church.

Helen Paynter, one of the interviewers, had recently read my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005). The other interviewer, Matthew Feldman, read a shorter version of chapter 6 of the book that was published as a journal article, “Created in the Image of a Violent God? The Ethical Problem of the Conquest of Chaos in Biblical Creation Texts,” Interpretation 58 (2004): 341–355.

This was one of the more interesting interviews I did and it was focused on how we should think about our creation in God’s image (and the God in whose image we are created) in relation to violence, whether in the Bible or in our world.

The questions were fantastic and drew me into addressing the violence of the gods in ancient Near Eastern creation stories and the role of humans in these stories as subservient to those in power. I got to talk about the very different vision of creation in the Bible, where a generous God shares power with both humans and the non-human world.

I also got to address how this view of power was modeled by Jesus (which is why the Bible regards Jesus as the image of God par excellence).

The interview, called “The Image of God and the Problem of Violence,” can be accessed here

Near the end Helen asked me if there was a particular passage in the Bible that I thought was important to bring to the attention of the listeners. I chose Genesis 22 (the Aqedah or the “binding” of Isaac). This got me to outline the core argument of my forthcoming book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, The Suffering of God, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

Based on my account of Genesis 22, I was invited to give a keynote lecture on this passage for the third annual symposium of the Centre for the Study of the Bible and Violence. The conference was held on May 24–28, 2021.

If you are interested, the video of my presentation can be found here.

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