Reflections on the Panel Discussion of Abraham’s Silence at the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2022

In a previous blog post, I mentioned a panel discussion of Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021) that was coming up at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Denver, on November 21, 2022.

I am extremely grateful 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 scholars on the panel, both Jewish and Christian—Shai Held, Rachel Adelman, Marv Sweeney, Carmen Imes, Rebekah Ekland, and Brittany Kim. Unfortunately, Brittany Kim came down with COVID; so Megan Roberts kindly read her paper.

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.

I first addressed the importance of various contexts in interpreting the Aqedah. The contexts that I found helpful were the role of vigorous prayer throughout the Bible, the book of Job, the Abraham story as a whole, my own experience of God, and the history of interpretation.

I gave further evidence for Abraham’s lack of love for Isaac, 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).

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). You can download the script here.

My thanks to Bill Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary, who inquired if I had written such a script; I hadn’t. 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.

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. Although my comments here were very brief, I pointed out that whatever we think of Hebrew 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 (the most common question I receive from Christian readers about Abraham’s Silence is “What about Hebrews 11?”), I plan to write an article that addresses 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.

“The Genesis Creation Accounts”—New Essay on Creation Theology

I have a new essay on the Bible’s creation theology, called “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” published in  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), 15–31.

What—not another essay on creation, Middleton! How much longer are you going to write on this topic? Do you really have anything new to say?

It’s true, I’ve been teaching and writing on creation theology for a very long time.

In a recent blog post I recounted how I got interested in creation theology in the first place and how my teaching and writing on the topic developed.

This T&T Clark Companion contains essays surveying the history of Christian thought for how various thinkers and traditions have understood the relationship of theology to the sciences. There are also essays on contemporary issues in science, from various Christian perspectives.

You can take a look at the Table of Contents here.

John P. Slattery , the editor of the volume, is currently Senior Program Associate with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Washington, DC.

I met John Slattery at the the Society of Biblical Literature in 2018, where I gave a paper on New Testament eschatology grounded in creation. Based on that paper, John invited me to contribute an essay on New Testament cosmology. After I explained that my expertise was actually in Old Testament, he changed the invitation to that topic.

However, I suggested that the topic was big enough to warrant two essays and I nominated Bill Brown of Columbia Seminary to join me in the project. Bill wrote a beautiful essay on creation in the wisdom literature (“Wisdom’s Wonder and the Science of Awe”).

This allowed me to focus on Genesis 1–2. My essay, “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” addresses the ancient “world picture” (Weltbild) implicit in Genesis 1 and 2, in order to explore the “worldview” (Weltanschauung) or abiding theological vision of these chapters, which is relevant for our thinking about contemporary science.

Did I actually write something new on the subject of creation theology?

Yes and no.

The essay integrates new material from unpublished presentations I’ve given on Genesis 1 and 2 with some of my previous reflections on these chapters.

It’s a new synthesis,  articulating in one compact essay a contextual understanding of the symbolic world of the first two chapters of the Bible (as would have been understood by ancient readers).

The discussion of Genesis 1 addresses the relevance of the ancient biblical understanding of the world for contemporary readers who are aware of the immensity of the universe. The discussion of Genesis 2 focuses on parallels between ancient and contemporary understandings of our ecological embeddedness in the created order.

It is my hope that this synthesis will be helpful for pastors, students, and laypeople interested in thinking about the subject of creation in Genesis 1–2.

God’s Wisdom and the Wonder of Creation: The Conference is Only a Week Away!

The theology and science conference hosted by Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY) is now just a week away.

I previously posted on the conference here.

The conference title, God’s Wisdom and the Wonder of Creation: Exploring the Intersection of Scripture, Theology, and the Sciences, is based on the expertise of our keynote speaker, Prof. William Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary. For his lectures Brown will draw on his love of the Old Testament—especially creation texts and the wisdom literature—in making connections between theology, science, and faith.

Brown’s Lectures for the Barnes Symposium Earlier in the Week

Although the conference is Friday night and Saturday (October 25-26), Brown will be speaking in Rochester earlier in the week, in advance of the theology and science conference proper.

Brown will give three talks for the Barnes Symposium on Science and Faith held on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College.

The Barnes Symposium begins with Brown’s chapel talk at 11:00 am on Wednesday, October 23, entitled “Terra Sapiens and the Wonder of Creation.” This will be held in the auditorium of the Cultural Life Center.

That evening (October 23), Brown will give a public lecture at 7:00 pm  entitled “The Cosmic Temple: Science and Faith in Genesis 1.” This event will be held in the Lake Auditorium of the Smith Science Center.

Brown’s third talk for the Barnes Symposium is also the opening public lecture for the theology and science conference at Northeastern Seminary. This talk is entitled “From Ardi to Adam: The Garden and Human Origins.” It will be held in the Schewan Recital Hall of the Cultural Life Center.

God’s Wisdom and the Wonder of Creation

The theology and science conference proper will be held on Saturday (October 26) from 8:00 am through 5:00 pm. Attendance throughout the day requires registration.

After a light breakfast, a welcome, and an opening liturgy, Brown’s lecture on “Job, Astrobiology, and the Science of Awe” kicks off the conference.

Brown’s lecture will be followed by three sessions of concurrent conference papers (thirty papers in all).

I hadn’t planned to present a paper, but since J Gerald Janzen needed to pull out, I have stepped into his slot with a paper entitled “From World Picture to Worldview: Reading Genesis 1 in Ancient and Contemporary Contexts.”

Here is the latest schedule of papers.

This theology conference is one in a series co-sponsored by Northeastern Seminary and the Canadian-American Theological Association (CATA) over the last seven years.

Because of the topic of this year’s conference (on theology and science), we are delighted to have three other co-sponsoring organizations, all of which address the the science-faith dialogue in helpful ways—the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation,  the American Scientific Affiliation, and BioLogos.

These organizations will have information tables at the conference.