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

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.

Terry Fretheim and the Renewal of Creation Theology

One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Terence Fretheim, died yesterday (November 16, 2020).

Terry was both a wonderful person and a brilliant biblical scholar. He excelled both in detailed exegesis of the Old Testament and in his reflections on the theological and ethical meaning of of this ancient text.

The first book of his that I read was The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (1984), which was a short but profound study of how God is affected by us. Although the book focuses on the Old Testament, it helpfully lays the foundation for understanding the coherence of both Testaments, since the same God who allowed himself to be affected by humanity at the flood (God’s heart was grieved by human evil) and by Israel’s unfaithfulness (see the prophet Jeremiah), ultimately became incarnate and went to the cross for our sake.

I found some similarity between Fretheim’s interest in reading the Old testament theologically and the work of Walter Brueggemann. In Nijay Gupta’s recent interview with me, I cited Brueggemann as the first Old Testament scholar whose work deeply impacted me, especially on the relevance of the Old Testament for its claims on our lives today.

I read Terry Fretheim a bit later and he impacted me in a similar way. But what was distinctive about Fretheim was that he grounded his understanding of the Old Testament in a creation theology, a topic I was coming to see as crucial.

After The Suffering of God, I read numerous journal articles by Fretheim, many of which were spin-offs from his wonderful commentary on Exodus (1991) and were incorporated into his magnum opus, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005).

The latter book is so good that I view it as one of the best works of biblical theology I have ever read. On almost every page, as Fretheim works through Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature, there are reams of exegetical insights that could serve as a sourcebook for years of sermons on the Old Testament. And it is all exegetically rigorous and theologically thoughtful.

Fretheim was a Lutheran and the Lutheran tradition has been notoriously weak historically on the doctrine of creation (with a few exceptions, like Gustav Wingren). So I have often thought that Fretheim was addressing this lack in his own tradition by mining the Scriptures for their teaching about creation and the God-creation relationship.

An example of the difference between Brueggemann and Fretheim can be seen in their respective commentaries on Jeremiah. Brueggemann’s Jeremiah commentary (which is immensely helpful) focuses on the radical (almost Barthian-like) challenge the prophet brought to Israel back then and that he brings to us today. Fretheim’s commentary, however, focuses on God’s complex relationship to Israel and to the created order, showing much more of divine compassion in the midst of judgment. Indeed, Fretheim often takes Brueggemann to task (gently) in the commentary about his glossing over aspects of the text.

My own early interaction with Brueggemann took the form of a critique of his creation theology, first given at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992 and then published a couple of years later as “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann.”

Brueggemann graciously accepted my critique, both in his unplanned response to my paper (the person presenting after me was absent and the chair asked him if he had anything to say), then, after I published the paper, in a more formal print response.

Interestingly, although my first interaction with Fretheim was at the SBL (in 1995), it wasn’t a critique, but rather encouragement. I had just given a paper on a rhetorical reading Genesis 1, in a session on the ethical reading of Scripture, which was followed by a respondent who was somewhat negative towards my paper.

Just as the floor was opened for questions, Fretheim came up to me, introduced himself, and told me he had to leave for an appointment. But he wanted me to know that I was onto something important in my reading of the text and that I should not be fazed by the response I got. He handed me his business card and told me to be in touch.

So, when I published the paper in 2000, called “Creation Founded in Love,” I sent him a copy. I received a wonderful Christmas card from him, dated December 15, 2000, with this encouragement:

“Thanks for the offprint of your article—an important piece of work! Thanks, too, for your kind reference to my own work. We can hope with some confidence, I believe, that a more open understanding of creation, and the God of creation, will become more prominent in both church and academy.”

For his astute biblical scholarship and for his winsome personality, I will miss Terry Fretheim.

RIP until the resurrection!