There are so many stories in the Bible that make us ask, “how could God do that?” I am fascinated when I find someone who, while being faithful to the text, comes up with another way for us to look at these stories.
The author of Abraham’s Silence, Richard Middleton, takes a troubling passage of scripture…possibly the most troubling, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and suggests that we may be looking at it the wrong way.
Middleton argues rather than a test of obedience; God was testing Abraham to see what he understood about the character of God. And by that standard, Abraham failed.
I am inclined to think that Abraham did not pass the test in Genesis 22. His silent obedience indicated that he did not discern God’s merciful character (until the angel called off the sacrifice); and he did not show love for his son by interceding on his behalf.Chapter 7
Before this story, we read of another encounter where God informs Abraham of Sodom’s impending destruction. In that encounter, Abraham actively interceded and received a commitment that the city would be spared if ten righteous people were found within it.
Why Stop at Ten?
Abraham had requested the city be spared for 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally, 10. But why stop at 10? There is no indication in the text that God is impatient or angry with Abraham’s requests. Or that upon asking for four (the size of Lot’s family), God would have said, “no!”
But the fact remains that Abraham confronted God regarding Sodom and convinced him to take a different tact. Yet, when he is told to sacrifice his son, Abraham is silent. He does not intercede. He does not protest. He does not lament. He is silent.
Middleton writes this in chapter 5:
My second reason for reconsidering the traditional positive interpretation of Abraham in Genesis 22 is that there is significant biblical precedent not to acquiesce voicelessly in a situation that seems wrong or unjust. This precedent includes the lament prayers in the Psalter, the intercession of Moses after the golden calf episode, the prophetic tradition of intercession on behalf of Israel, and the vocal complaints of Job.Chapter 5
The story we see in scripture is not one of mindless automatons obeying regardless of the situation. Instead, it is of people confronting and questioning the only one they believe can bring healing and hope to a hopeless situation.
Middleton notes that after this event, we see no interaction between Abraham and Sarah. We read of no contact between Isaac and Abraham until Abraham’s funeral. (Although, to be fair, they didn’t interact much before, either). In fact, they lived in different areas from this point forward. And this is also the last time we have a record of God speaking with Abraham.
But What About?
If you know the story, you probably have some questions. “But what about what the angel says? He seems to be commending Abraham.” Middleton addresses that, as well as other objections to his thesis. But you’ll need to check out the book to learn more.
This book got my brain spinning (in a good way), and I wanted to share some of what I learned. A day later, I’m still thinking about it.
Is Middleton’s the correct way to view the passage? I don’t think that’s the point. But does it challenge us to look at a passage of scripture we are often too familiar with through a new set of lenses? Without a doubt. It is well worth a read.
Let me close with one more quote:
Lament prayer, whether in the Psalter or elsewhere in the Bible, contains an implicit theological claim namely, that God welcomes honesty in the divine-human relationship. To put it another way, the God of the Bible desires a dialogue partner with chutzpah.Conclusion