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

The Heart of Torah: Jewish and Christian Voices on the Relationship of Biblical Exegesis to Theological Interpretation

The latest issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review (the journal of the Canadian-American Theological Association) has just been published. This is a theme issue, which collects the papers presented in a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature last year (November 2019) on Shai Held’s two-volume work, The Heart of Torah, (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). These papers were given by Jewish and and Christian biblical scholars.

Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).

While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.

This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).

An Introduction to Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics.

The Heart of Torah

Held’s latest publication, The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I then organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, November 24, 2019 and I collected the papers for publication in the Canadian-American Theological Review.

You can download my introduction to the theme issue of the journal here.

If you want to read the entire issue (consisting in my introduction, six papers on The Heart of Torah, Held’s response, and some excellent book reviews), you will need to log on to the website of the Canadian-American Theological Association. This requires an inexpensive one-year membership (which includes subscription to the journal).

Depending on your library’s subscription to online materials, you might be able to access the journal that way.

This the lineup of articles.

  • Marvin Sweeney, “Human Participation with G_d in Perfecting Creation”
  • Ellen Davis, “Moral Theology in an Exegetical Key”
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, “The Perfect Craft Cocktail on a Sweltering Day”
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Jewish Theology Rooted in Biblical Texts”
  • David Frankel, “A Critical Review of Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah
  • Dennis Olson, “A Place to Stand: Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah in Dialogue with Pentateuchal Scholars and Literary Theorists”
  • Shai Held, “A Response to My Respondents”