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.

The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

This is the second in a series of blog posts where I’ll outline the argument of my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which is scheduled to be published by Baker Academic this fall (October or November 2021).

This is a follow-up to my post called, Abraham’s Silence–Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me.

Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible

Although my book Abraham’s Silence is explicitly focused on interpreting Genesis 22 (known as the Aqedah or the Binding of Isaac), the book begins by examining how the Bible views the realities of suffering and especially how it affirms the validity of our challenging God about suffering, in bold prayer.

After an introductory chapter (called “Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?”), Part 1 of the book addresses “Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible.”

This section includes two chapters, one on the existential power of the lament palms as Israel’s normative “protocol” for processing personal and communal pain in relationship with God (chap. 1: “Voices from the Ragged Edge”) and one on the intercession of Moses and the prophets on behalf of Israel, when God was about to bring judgment on his people (chap. 2: “God’s Loyal Opposition”).

Lament Psalms and the Processing of Pain

My problems with Abraham began when I discovered the lament psalms.

I starting studying and teaching the lament psalms many years ago, after having gone through a time of personal darkness. I lost my way in life and began to doubt God’s goodness.

As a result, I stopped praying; this wasn’t intentional on my part. But I now realize that it was a natural outcome of the fact that I was unsure whether God was trustworthy.

So I found it immensely encouraging to learn about the lament psalms. Fully a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments or complaints, prayers from the ragged edge of life that articulate pain honestly to God. These prayers not only complain to God, but they ask for redress.

Lament prayer revitalized my faith at a time when it was imperiled. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching the lament psalms as model modes of prayer for sustaining our relationship with God in difficult times.

Along the way, I wrote a short meditation on lament, called “Voices from the Ragged Edge: How the Psalms Can Help Us Process Pain” (1994). I expanded this meditation for the chapter on lament psalms as a resource for developing and sustaining a robust life of faith.

Moses’s Boldness before God at the Golden Calf

And then there’s Moses, who interceded for Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf—and thereby prevented God from annulling the covenant and destroying the people (Exodus 32–34).

This is how Psalm 106:23 remembers the incident:

Therefore [God] said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

Moses interceded again after the people refused to enter the Promised Land when the spies told them of the giants who lived there; once again God accepted Moses’s prayer and did not destroy them (Numbers 14–15).

After Moses, various prophets deliver a message of judgment to Israel, calling for repentance; they then turn to God and ask for mercy and postponed judgment, to give the people a chance to repent.

Jeremiah is so persistent that God has to tell him three times to stop interceding, since God can’t bring judgment if he keeps praying.

Later, God laments in Ezekiel 22:30 about the lack of prophetic intercession:

I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” 

My study of lament psalms and the intercession of Moses and the prophets (along with my own personal experience of lament prayer) has led me to believe that that the God of the Bible values vigorous dialogue partners. This God invites us to approach the divine throne room with courage, expressing our genuine needs, including our complaints.

So the resounding question of my book is, Why didn’t Abraham do this? Why didn’t he bring his lament to God over the command to sacrifice his son? Why didn’t he intercede for Isaac?

In my next blog post (The Contrast between Job and Abraham), I’ll explain how the book of Job figures into all of this.

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

This is the first in a series of blog posts where I’ll outline the argument of my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which is scheduled to be published by Baker Academic this fall (October or November 2021).

The Problem of Genesis 22

Abraham’s Silence is focused on the specific issue of whether we should praise Abraham for silently trying to obey God’s instructions to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. It is traditional to view Abraham positively, in both Judaism and Christianity.

The most common understanding of Genesis 22 is that God tested Abraham to see if his commitment to God would take priority over his love for Isaac.

Since Abraham proved that he was willing to give up (actually, kill) his son to prove his faithfulness to God, he is to be praised.

I have problems with this view. To be honest, this view of Abraham (and the text of Genesis 22) has perplexed me for thirty years.

Here is how the Jewish scholar Leon Kass describes his sense of perplexity at Genesis 22:

“No story in Genesis is as terrible, as powerful, as mysterious, as elusive as this one. It defies easy and confident interpretations, and despite all that I shall have to say about it, it continues to baffle me.”  

Leon R. KassThe Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 333.

Another Jewish scholar, Isaac Kalimi, wrote this as part of his endorsement of my book:

“Generations of theologians, commentators, philosophers, writers, and artists—both Jews and Christians—struggled and are still struggling with the most puzzling and horrifying stories: the binding of Isaac (the Akedah), who is meant to be offered as a burnt offering by his father.” 

Isaac Kalimi, member ordinarius, Academia Europaea: The Pan-European Academy of Sciences, Humanities & Letters

Among all the issues that Genesis 22 raises, my book focuses on the question of why Abraham did not intercede on behalf of his son or protest the command to sacrifice him. He could have, at least, questioned God about why this horrendous sacrifice was necessary.

Instead, Abraham’s silence resounds through the ages. And this silence generates my questioning of Abraham.

The Broader Topic of the BookPutting Abraham in Context

Although Genesis 22 is the explicit focus of the book, I start by exploring, as a background to Abraham’s silence, the broader topic of God’s invitation to vigorous prayer in the Bible, which is preferable to circumspect silence.

The underlying question the book addresses is what we should do when life seems wrong, when circumstances seem to block our (or others’) flourishing—especially what we should do when we begin to doubt the goodness of God, who is supposed to be “in control.”

Is it possible to remain faithful to God, without piously denying the reality of sufferingin the world and in our own lives?

I suggest that it is indeed possible. And this possibility can be clearly seen by a study of Scripture.

So, prior to tackling Genesis 22 head on, the book examines God’s welcome of honest prayer in other parts of the Bible. This framing of the study shows that my questioning of Abraham’s silence is not simply my own idiosyncratic point of view. It is grounded in a coherent biblical theology of the nature of God.

In my next few blog posts, I’ll outline the biblical models for vigorous prayer that the book explores as a context for understanding Abraham’s silence.

The next post addresses The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22 .