What Abraham Might Have Said: An Alternative to Abraham’s Silence in Genesis 22

My book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021) was published just over a year ago.

I am grateful for the many people—scholars, clergy, and lay people—who have engaged my argument that Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac should not be viewed as positive. As many reviewers have noted, my argument isn’t meant to be iconoclastic or trendy. Rather, I tried to show on biblical grounds (both from the overall context of Scripture and from detailed attention to Genesis 22) why we should question whether Abraham’s response to God was appropriate.

Not everyone has been convinced by my argument. But I have been deeply honored by how many people have taken the book seriously and interacted with it, whether in blog posts, journal reviews, or Facebook messages and emails. And I am gratified that even when readers haven’t been convinced of my interpretation of Genesis 22, most have found my overall argument about the biblical model of vigorous prayer (and especially my exposition of the book of Job in chapters 3 and 4) to be helpful.

This serious engagement (along with disagreement) was on display at the panel discussion of Abraham’s Silence at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Denver, on November 21, 2022.

I am extremely thankful 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 biblical scholars on the panel—Shai Held, Rachel Adelman, Marv Sweeney, Carmen Imes, Rebekah Eklund, and Brittany Kim. Since Brittany came down with COVID during the conference, Megan Roberts kindly read her paper.

We made sure to have a wide variety of panelists, Jewish and Christian; male and female; established, mid-career, and relatively new scholars.

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.

To that end I gave further evidence for Abraham’s lack of love for Isaac (which even Sarah recognized), 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).

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 (this is the most common question I receive from Christian readers about Abraham’s Silence).

Although my comments here were very brief, I pointed out that whatever we think of Hebrews 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, I plan to write an article that examines 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.

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).

In some ways, thinking of what Abraham might have said is the best argument against his silent attempt to sacrifice his son.

My thanks to Bill Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary, who inquired if I had written such a script. 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.

I have inserted biblical references within the script (below) where I have drawn on language from elsewhere in Scripture. Most of the references are to Moses’s bold prayer at the golden calf in Exodus 32.

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After these things, God tested Abraham. He said, “Abraham.”

His faithful servant answered, “Here I am.”

“Take your son,” said the Lord, “your only one—whom you love—Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.”

And Abraham was dumbfounded.

Was this God speaking? The God he had come to know?

Abraham knew there were many gods, as many as the peoples of all the lands he had traveled through—from Ur in Mesopotamia to Haran in Aram to the towns and cities of Canaan. And many of them required child sacrifice as a sign of devotion.

But could his God be asking this too? He thought he had been coming to know the character of the one called El Shaddai—that this One was different from the gods of the nations.

Could God really mean for him to kill his own son? Why? What would it prove? How could this be God’s will?

Abraham was shell shocked—and silent for a time.

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But then he plucked up his courage and with the chutzpah that would come to be recognized as emblematic of the later people descended from him, Abraham spoke up. At first his voice was quavering.

Ah, Lord God, he said. Are you really asking me to kill this young, innocent lad?

Do you really want me to live with the everlasting memory of his blood on my hands? Do you want to subject me to a lifetime of nightmares and flashbacks of me taking a knife to his young neck? Do you really want to do this to me?

Have mercy, Lord.

I know that I have not been close to this boy, not nearly as close as to my firstborn, Ishmael. That boy I loved, and you forced me to send him away.

Now you want me to kill the only son I have left.

Isaac was always Sarah’s favorite. Do you know what this will do to her? She will die too—if not physically, then she will die inside.

She and I already have problems between us, because of Hagar and Ishmael. I know it was her idea; but it backfired. Sarah is already distant from me. Do you want to drive us further apart?

But if you don’t have pity on me or my wife, Lord, have pity on the boy! He has done nothing to deserve this. Why should his life be cut short just to show my dedication to you?

Do you want his last memory to be of me, his father, tying him down like a sheep for slaughter and then taking a butcher knife to his neck? You can’t want that, Lord!

Are you angry with me? Why does your wrath burn hot against me, the one you brought out of Ur of the Chaldees and out of Haran, to this land? [Exodus 32:11] What have I done to so offend you, Master of the Universe?

Plus, you made a promise to me and to Sarah, that through this boy our descendants would become a great nation. What will become of your promise then?

No—I am going to hold you to your word, Lord. I have told many of the peoples of this land, whom I have met, of what you pledged to do through the line of Isaac.

But if they hear of this, that you have commanded his death—for whatever reason—do you know how that will look?  It will reflect badly on you.

The Philistines and the Egyptians (whose kings I deceived that Sarah was my sister) will hear of it and they will think that it was with evil intent that you gave me this boy—only to kill him on the mountains and to consume him from the face of the earth. [Exodus 32:12a]

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And then Abraham was silent, wondering if he had overstepped his bounds.

He remembered that when he had pled for Sodom, he modulated his boldness, admitting that he was just dust and ashes. [Genesis 18:27] And he twice asked God not to be angry with him for interceding for that evil people. [Genesis 18:30, 32a]

His boldness came from his concern for Lot and his family, living in Sodom. What would become of them if God destroyed that evil city?

He had asked God to save the city if there could be found fifty innocent people there. God agreed. So he asked for forty-five, then forty; then thirty, then twenty. [Genesis 18:24–31] But he stopped at ten. [Genesis 18:32] He didn’t have the courage to ask God to save the city for less than that.

But Lot and his family were eight at the most. At the time he didn’t think he could push God quite that far. It seemed like asking for too much.

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But now, what did he have to lose?

So Abraham dug deep and found his courage and his voice again. He cried out:

I know I am far from innocent. Lord, take me instead of my son. But, whatever you do, do not kill this innocent boy.

Will you really sweep away the innocent with the wicked? [Genesis 18:23]

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the innocent with the wicked, so that the innocent fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? [Genesis 18:25]

No Lord. I plead with you: change your mind. Turn from your fierce wrath and do not bring this evil upon your chosen one! [Exodus 32:12b]

And the Lord changed his mind about the evil he was about to bring on Isaac. [Exodus 32:14]

And God spoke from heaven, saying:

Well done, good and faithful servant. [Matthew 25:23]

You have understood that I am, indeed, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, showing love to thousands. [Exodus 34:6-7a]

Indeed, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. [Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13]

But what good would it do to just tell you that? What would those mere words mean to you?

But by your bold intercession for your son you have attained true knowledge of the God you serve.

Indeed, you dared to call on me to be faithful to my promise. That demonstrated your trust in me. And trust is better than blind submission.

So, yes, Abraham, I have granted your request. Isaac is redeemed by your prayer.

Go in peace and enjoy life with your wife, Sarah, and your son, whom you are beginning to love.

And then God departed from his servant Abraham.

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It wasn’t clear before Abraham’s intercession that he had much love for Isaac.

But now, having stood up for him, defending him against God’s seeming desire to slay him, a few sparks of love began to flow between father and son.

And Abraham began to nurture that love and fan the sparks into a fire—with the hope that his family might be healed.

And Abraham’s taught his children and his household the way of the Lord. [Genesis 18:19] His descendants were known from then on for their surpassing mercy and generosity to all the families of the earth. Indeed, they were a blessing to all nations. [Genesis 12:3]

You can download the full script here.

My Amazing Faculty Colleagues Presenting at the Society of Biblical Literature 2020

I am privileged to teach at a Seminary that is associated with a liberal arts college. I have wonderful faculty colleagues at both institutions.

Northeastern Seminary is on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College (in Rochester, NY) and while they are formally separate institutions, there is much practical overlap and collaboration between both the institutions and the faculty.

Of late, there have been joint meetings of the Seminary faculty with the faculty of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the College. And, although faculty members find their home primarily in either the Seminary or the College, some of us teach in both institutions.

Here I want to highlight some of my faculty colleagues (in both institutions) who are presenting papers at the 2020 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, which is being held virtually this year (the first time in this format since I began attending in 1991).

Fredrick David Carr Presents on December 8

My colleague in New Testament, Fredrick David Carr, will present his paper on December 8 in a session on Healthcare and Disability in the Ancient World.

David’s paper, called “Experiencing Changes and Changing Experiences: Pauline Transformation and Altered Sensory Capacities,” addresses the apostle Paul’s account in Philippians 3:1–11 of how his sense of identity changed after he was confronted by Christ (which moved him from being a persecutor of the church to the status of apostle).

In his paper, David examines the changes experienced by those who receive cochlear implants, including new relationships and a different sense of selfhood, to “shed light onto the experiential and subjective dimensions of the transformations that Paul describes in Philippians 3,” including his sense that what he previously viewed as “gain” is now counted as “loss.”

Kristin Helms Presents on December 10

My colleague in Old Testament, Kristin Helms, will present her paper on December 10 in a session on the Literature and History of the Persian Period.

Kristin’s paper, called “The Roaming Eyes of Yahweh in Zech 4:10b and the Context of Persian Religions,” examines the background of the strange image in Zechariah’s fifth vision of a lampstand, which is identified with the “eyes of YHWH” roaming through the earth.

In her paper, Kristin examines competing suggestions for where Zechariah got his image, and ends up suggesting that it is drawn not only from the network of persons in ancient Persia known as “the eyes and ears of the king” (suggested by some scholars), but also from the portrayal of Mithra in Persian religion, who is “associated with fire, light, and eyes that roam throughout the earth for the sake of seeking out injustice.” She apples this background to Zechariah 4:10b, suggesting that the text uses this imagery “to encourage the people that YHWH, the Emperor of the cosmos and maintainer of justice, is at work to bring about a hopeful, purified future.”

Josef Sykora Presented on December 2

My colleague in Old Testament, Josef Sykora, presented his paper on December 2 in a session on Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible.

Josef’s paper, called “A Different Kind of Crusade: Jesus’s Commissioning of His Disciples in Luke 10:1–24 as Reworking the Rules for Warfare in Deuteronomy 20:10–14,” examines the parallels and divergences between the texts in Deuteronomy 20 and Luke 10, to see if it is plausible that Jesus is intentionally drawing on the ancient rules of warfare.

He insightfully demonstrates that both Deuteronomy and Luke give similar instructions to those who are sent out, including an offer of peace to those they encounter and two possible outcomes depending on the responses of those they meet. Yet while Luke’s Gospel presents a battle with the powers of evil and the disciples are parallel to Israel’s soldiers, the texts diverge in that in Luke it is God and not the disciples who bring judgment.

My Own Paper Presented on December 1

Although I was scheduled to give a paper at SBL in a session on the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the organizers decided to postpone the session until next year, when (hopefully) the SBL will meet in person (in San Antonio, TX).

However, I did present in the Institute for Biblical Research (an affiliated organization, which meets under the umbrella of the SBL), in a session on The Relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament.

My paper, initially called “Herod as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar: A ‘Political’ Reading of the Prophets in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative,” examined the way that Matthew’s Gospel cited Old Testament texts from the Prophetic books to address the political situation at the time of Jesus’s birth. The actual paper I gave had a slightly different title from what was listed in the program, since I adapted it to the timeframe I had for presentation.

The paper I presented was called “Herod as Pharaoh? Jesus as David? Matthew’s ‘Political’ Reading of the Prophets in the Infancy Narratives” (click here for the paper). I suggested that when we read Matthew 1–2 as a “feel good” story for the Christmas season, we miss the astute sociopolitical critique of the Jerusalem power structure that Matthew intended by his use of quotations from Hosea 11:1 and Micah 5:2 (with a line from 2 Samuel 5:2 spliced in). There is nothing sentimental about Matthew’s portrayal of the newly born king of the Jews, who would be a very different sort of leader not only from Herod, but also from David of old.

My Upcoming Presentation on December 7

I also have a short presentation coming up on December 7 (tomorrow) in a session on Science, Technology, and Religion at the American Academy of Religion (which meets in conjunction with the SBL).

This session is devoted to a recently published book, called The T&T Clark Companion of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery, Bloomsbury Companions (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020).

Everyone who contributed a chapter in this book was invited to give a brief presentation on their chapter. Of the many who contributed chapters, eight of us, along with the editor, agreed.

As part of this session, I will give a short explanation of my chapter, called “The Genesis Creation Accounts.”

I recently wrote a blog post (here) on the book and my article.

If you are registered for the AAR-SBL annual meeting, you are invited to attend any of these session that interest you.

Congratulations, Dr. Esau McCaulley!

Esau McCaulley, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, successfully defended his PhD thesis on Monday, April 3, at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (his supervisor was N. T. Wright, pictured below with Esau, after the defense).

The full title of Dr. McCaulley’s dissertation is: Sharing in the Son’s Inheritance: Davidic Messianism and Paul’s Worldwide Interpretation of the Abrahamic Land Promise in Galatians.”

Northeastern Seminary is proud of you, Esau, and we are delighted that you are part of our faculty. Congratulations!

For more on Northeastern Seminary, see my earlier blog post, “Northeastern Seminary—A Hidden Gem.