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 .

God Makes the Outsider Central: Do We Have Ears to Hear or Eyes to See?

Yesterday’s sermon (June 13, 2021) at Community of the Savior, Rochester, NY, was phenomenal.

My colleague in Old Testament, Josef Sykora preached, combining God’s unusual choice of David (the youngest or smallest of the family) in 1 Samuel 16 with Jesus’s parables (riddles, he called them) of the seed sprouting overnight and the mustard seed in Mark 4; one happens without us, the other seems insignificant.

Josef aptly combined the motifs of the unexpected with the nature of riddles as making us think and drawing us in to be engaged. He wove these themes into a true story of how he tried to “trick” a congregation with a staged riddle and how God tricked him in return, with an outsider.

It was an amazing sermon and I was gripped from start to finish.

I hope you are intrigued, because that is all I’m going to tell you. You’ll have to listen for yourself.

Josef’s sermon can be found at this link between the 38:05 and 1:00:15 marks.

If you want to hear his short children’s meditation on riddles, it can be found at the 33:35 mark.

The two Scripture readings he drew on are at the 22:17 mark (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13) and the 31:54 mark (Mark 4:26-34).

And Josef’s very apt benediction to conclude the service can be found at the 1:26:45 mark.

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.