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.
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.
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.
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?