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.

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”