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I made many mistakes in my oral qualifying exam, halfway through grad school. The first was probably that I wore a double-breasted blazer at least 5 years out of style, as a committee member noted at the beginning. More substantial was the fact that I stumbled over explaining my collaborator’s techniques to the committee, one of whom was a world expert in such techniques. I passed, but with the stern recommendation to learn more about those techniques.

People are tested often in scripture like I was in grad school, with similarly mixed results. Satan asked to sift the disciples as wheat (Luke 22:31), and when tested in Gethsemane, they scattered. God tested Israel and Israel tested God repeatedly in the Wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2). The dry place where Israel asked “Is God among us or not?” was literally named Massah, “testing” (Exodus 17:7). The word first occurs when God tested Abraham with a command to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1).

That test is difficult to read: Abraham, the father of our faith, silently travelled to Mount Moriah, bound Isaac and laid him on the altar, taking the knife in hand. Only then did the angel call out “Abraham! Abraham!” and Isaac was saved. This means Abraham passed the test and set the example for us to follow.

Or did he? J. Richard Middleton, in his book Abraham’s Silence, argues that Abraham did pass the test, but barely. We think Abraham got an A-plus when he got a C-minus, because we use the wrong answer key to grade his work. Middleton says we, like Abraham, misunderstand God’s purpose in this test.

Middleton compares this test to the other times God tested Abraham over the course of his life. According to the Mishnah, “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all.”1 The tests are not enumerated, so later writers made specific lists, always beginning with Abram’s call (Genesis 12:1) and ending with the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).2

A few lists include Genesis 18, when God both tested Abraham, and made him a prophet in two ways: First, God revealed that God had heard cries of pain from Sodom and would go down and see. Abraham knew the future, as a prophet would, that Sodom would not survive judgment.

Second, according to Middleton, Abraham acted as a prophet when he negotiated with God and pleaded for Sodom. Prophets from Amos to Ezekiel interceded with God, asking for mercy from predicted judgment.3 The greatest prophet, Moses, outright argued with God in Exodus 32 and Numbers 14. Middleton writes, “Moses, in other words, tells God that he is in the wrong and needs to change.”4 The text says God “repented,” “relented,” or “changed his mind,” depending on the translation.5

In Genesis 18, Abraham initiated the prophetic tradition of arguing with God.6 For ten verses, Abraham softened the deal, asking God not to destroy Sodom if fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, or ten righteous people were there. Each time God said yes.7

What if Abraham had asked for five, or two? What if he, like Moses, asked God to change His mind entirely?

Abraham began his intercessory prophecy with a poetic phrase, telling God, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). The only other person to use this phrase in Scripture is Job, who was also famously tested (Job 30:19; 42:6). Job’s parallels to Abraham have been noticed for a long time.8 Both are described as “God-fearers,” both intercede for others, and both speak with God directly.9

Moreover, Middleton proposes that Job got a better “grade” from his test than the Father of our Faith. Middleton retranslates and contextualizes Job 42:6, siding with a minority of scholars who interpret the verse as something other than an admission of guilt.10

In Middleton’s reading, Job does not “despise” himself, but “retracts” something, perhaps his charges against God. Job does not “repent” but “consoles” himself in the fact that he is dust and ashes. If so, then “dust and ashes” changes from an expression of powerlessness in Job 30:19 to an expression of amazement in Job 42:6, that the Creator of All would respond to this tiny human’s plea, face to face (or whirlwind to face).

I can’t judge Middleton’s translation, but his reading seems to fit in context with the following two verses, in which God tells Job’s friends, “you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has,” and calls Job his “servant” four times. Then Job’s losses are restored, in an over-the-top fashion, like punitive damages in a modern trial.11 All these vindicate Job, declaring him innocent of his friends’ charges, having resisted the specific temptation to curse God.

Middleton concludes that God is not on trial – Job is. In the end, Job gets what he wants, an audience with YHWH Himself. In that exchange, God also gets what God wants, a lively, even adversarial, partner in intense conversation. We readers get a book of beautiful (if long-winded) poetry and a window into what God is really like.

Middleton likewise reinterprets Genesis 22, concluding that God’s verdict on Abraham is ambiguous. All agree that God doesn’t want human sacrifice, and that God promises good things to Abraham. God says He will “bless” Abraham, “multiply your offspring,” who “shall possess the gate of their enemies.”12

But there are a few off notes in God’s post-test comments: Isaac is no longer the son “whom you love,” the blessing is focused on Abraham’s offspring but not Abraham himself, and God is the only one making the oath. When God says “now I know that you are a God-fearer” (22:12), Middleton interprets this in educational terms as, “Now I know you are a C student.”13 The C student hasn’t quite internalized the lessons of the test, but has shown enough to move on.

In context, Abraham’s actions lead to a family “in tatters:”14 Abraham went to Beersheba (21:31), but Sarah died in Hebron (23:2), and Abraham had to travel to bury her; Isaac was in Beer-lahai-roi, and father and son may have never met again; while Ishmael lived in Paran (21:20-21).15

In his novel Son of Laughter, Frederick Buechner’s interpretation of Isaac shows a personality in tatters, scarred by his experience on Moriah. Buechner’s Isaac is afraid, passive, and withdrawn — yet still loved by God and the conduit of blessing for the world, grandfather of a huge family. All this is consistent with Middleton’s reading and the silences of Genesis.

If Abraham’s actions were barely adequate, God remained fully adequate to fulfill his promises. In Genesis 18, God said he wanted Abraham “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). Perhaps, in Genesis 22, Abraham did not understand all of what “righteousness and justice” meant, that God wants mercy, not sacrifice.

Abraham kept silent when God wanted him to speak up. He put his head down and did what he thought God wanted, when God wanted Abraham not to perform human sacrifice, but to object to it. We take Abraham as the stoic, heroic, obedient ideal, but his example is exceeded and perfected by that of Jesus, weeping, carrying his cross, obedient to his own death.

Nevertheless, Abraham passed the test by listening to God’s call and lifting his eyes at the last moment. God’s conditional promises in Genesis 18 became unconditional in Genesis 22.16 If Abraham squeaked through the test by a margin as thin as a knife-blade, even so, God remained true, and we benefit.

If Abraham could mishear God, how much more could I? I’m comforted by the fact that God worked with Abraham despite all imperfections. When Abraham, Moses, and Job spoke to God, God answered. According to Middleton, God doesn’t want someone who grits his teeth and just follows orders. God wants “a vigorous debate partner.”17 God’s compassion “both grounds and welcomes our lament and is revealed through our participation in lament.”18

I made it through my qualifying exam by persisting, listening, and changing course. Abraham passed his test in the same way. God hears our laments and accommodates our limitations and flaws. In each test, though we be but dust and ashes, God is with us.

Footnotes

  1. Ethics of the Fathers 5:3. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2099/jewish/Chapter-Five.htm
  2. For Maimonides on Abraham’s 10 Tests, see https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1324268/jewish/What-Were-Abrahams-10-Tests.htm and for Genesis 18 on a list of tests, see https://bible.org/illustration/twelve-tests-abraham
  3. J. Richard Middleton. Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 57.
  4. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 47, commenting on Exodus 32:12b.
  5. See translations of Exodus 32:14 at https://biblehub.com/exodus/32-14.htm
  6. I originally wrote that Abraham bargained, but Middleton says this word is wrong: “Contrary to a traditional reading of the text, there is no bargaining (or bartering or haggling) going on here, since bargaining involves two people starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. … If this were a used car sale, I would think the seller wants to give the car away.” (Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 202.)
  7. I think of this passage when a student asks for yet another extension, remembering that God is much more patient than I.
  8. The earliest to notice may have been the author of the Book of Jubilees, about two thousand years ago. (Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 183.)
  9. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 183-188.
  10. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 123-126.
  11. As a chemist, I was delighted to read that one of Job’s new daughters is named after a rare ancient element: “Horn of Antimony.” (Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 127 ft.70.)
  12. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 168.
  13. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 197.
  14. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 209.
  15. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 208.
  16. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 217.
  17. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 190.
  18. Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 239.

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland, Professor of Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.

11 Comments

  • Stephen Dempster says:

    Thanks Ben. I appreciate your own experience. I have had many similar experiences. I haven’t read Middleton’s book but I have heard him speak on this text. Clearly it is interesting that Abraham is blessed beyond measure for his act of placing his all on the altar (“I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me ” 22:16-18) . This is the first time that God explicitly swears in the narrative and it is very positive for what Abraham has been willing to do. There is also so much that Middleton reads into the silence of scripture afterwards that fits in with his theory and he totally ignores the writer to the Hebrews view of the matter (11:17-19) and of course, James, who sees this as faith accompanied by works (James 2:20-24). Middleton might think Abraham is a C- student but the NT considers him an A+ student. And of course God gives Abraham a brief taste of the ultimate cost that He Himself will experience later in redemptive history when He and His own Son made the journey up Calvary’s mountain, and this time there is no sparing of the Son but He has been given up for us all (Rom 8:32). If this is the case, how will he not freely give us all things? Abraham isn’t perfect by any stretch but perhaps his silence in ch 22 has come with a deeply maturing faith. And it is interesting that that faith is probably seen in 22:8 when he mentions to his son, “God himself will provide a lamb for the sacrifice, my son.”
    Blessings!

    • Yeah, there’s one small note in Abraham’s Silence (might even be a footnote) about Hebrews 11, and that passage is one I’ve wrestled with in my own interpretation (no room for it in the essay). My thoughts on that is that the strong hope of resurrection in that passage gives a remarkable reason why Abraham may not have debated in Gen 22 when he did in Gen 18 — and that strong hope is a good thing, although it’s read into the OT text by the Author of Hebrews. As an OT scholar, Middleton doesn’t focus on that, but as a Christian, I do think that the idea of God as the God of the living could lead to this kind of resurrection hope and I find that a positive addition to Gen 22’s account (and does help to make Abraham’s obedience make more sense). The two passages are compatible if Abraham proceeded through a righteous expectation of resurrection, and that’s a good thing, but he still should have debated the need to deliberately take his son’s life, which should seem incompatible with a resurrecting God’s life-giving nature. Faith that is positive that God can give life after death is a good thing, but taking your own son’s life in mimicry of the surrounding nations still seems like a bad thing — Abraham should know more about the “ways of God’s righteousness” by that point than to accept human sacrifice as one of those ways. What Abraham did was good enough, and righteous enough — but what Jesus did was perfect obedience.

      James 2 is a passage I haven’t put in this light yet. Your comment made me aware of its specific argument (thanks), and I haven’t had time to put that together like I did with Hebrews 11, so I’ll say thanks for bringing it up. There is a positive component to Abraham’s obedience (“because you have not withheld your son” is right there in the text so there is something “right” about “not withholding”). But it’s more than that, James 2 does very clearly state that Abraham’s actions in offering his son were righteous, and I think that’s a passage I need to spend more time with. One other comment I’ll make is that Ari Lamm addressed this on Twitter and he mentioned the personal cost to Abraham and Isaac’s relationship, while praising Abraham for his obedience: https://twitter.com/AriLamm/status/1555174002515124225?s=20&t=CHm6UvHWVfGB2686nE55yw Did that cost separating father from son have to happen for Abraham to be righteous and obedient? I guess the point is that there was a test of obedience, and Abraham did pass it through his actions. That doesn’t exclude other actions from resulting in a better passing of the test; how much more could he have done? But this will have to be incomplete as I process James 2, my argument isn’t formed yet and maybe James 2 will change my mind on this.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Does God always want debate? When Moses gave reasons for not wanting to return to Egypt, God became exasperated and retorted, “Who has made man’s mouth?’. Moses was banned from entering the Promised Land for not following God’s instructions to “speak to the rock”. Those who opposed Moses leadership were harshly judged. Disciples called to “Follow Me” were condemned by Christ for bargaining (“First let me . . ..”).

    None of us were present when God tested Abraham. If the fear of the Lord is a good thing, then is it not a praise to be told, by Him, that you clearly “fear God”?

    • I’d say, not always. There’s a time. In Gethsemane, there was objection and maybe that could be called a dark and intense debate, but the answer was “Thy will be done.” Since you brought up the rock example, I am reminded of one of the best things to ever be posted on Twitter, which is a thread about why Moses was condemned for striking the rock, and I think this makes a great point that this isn’t an arbitrary judgment for a momentary loss of temper but a consistent judgment for a deep failure of Moses’s leadership: https://twitter.com/AriLamm/status/1489695665139683337?s=20&t=CHm6UvHWVfGB2686nE55yw

      Responding to “Follow me” would be like Abraham responding to God’s call to leave his country and father. That’s the beginning of the story of knowing God. The debate happens in the context of that commitment and following, even through the shock of the cross when all questioning seems to be cut off and meaningless.

      I would even say Jesus’s own debates with the Pharisees and scribes reflect the way God debates: God doesn’t always answer the question, doesn’t say yes, but does respond (and not on our timetable either). And in Middleton’s book, “fearing God” is indeed high praise. Apparently you can fear God and also bring your questions and requests to him.

      To me, Middleton’s book reminds me of the parables about continual, persistent prayer. That’s what Abraham did with Sodom, like the widow knocking on the door, and that’s the kind of prayer God wants. Thanks for your questions, they open up these ideas and I guess that’s the point of debate too.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Note that my debate is more with Middleton than with McFarland.

  • Brian Leebrick says:

    I’ll have to read it sometime.

    I have an unpopular view on Abraham and Isaac– I think Abraham would have been an A+ student if he would have politely told God to kiss off when He told him to sacrifice Isaac– perhaps point out to Him that human sacrifices isn’t A Thing We Do and that a few hundred years from now He will tell Moses that murder is a Bad Thing.

    The OT God frankly needed to repent more than He did– committing genocide, killing a heck of a lot of babies, ordering filicide. These and many other actions can’t be defended, they can only be acknowledged and accepted as actions by God, the Creator and Almighty. And what God doesn’t have to do is to answer for his decisions,

    That’s what Job 42:6 is about– Job isn’t admitting guilt, he is simply acknowledging that the God who allowed all of Job’s children to be killed for the sport of it may sometimes be a horrible, capricious God, but he is still God, and Job isn’t. God never defends His actions in the Job narrative. He is stilling Job that he may not like what God does, but Job still has to get in line. He is God.

    It is a hard lesson to learn but an important one– God may do things that are indefensible by the standards he sets for humans, but God doesn’t have to defend himself– that’s one of the cool things about being God. We aren’t God-fearers because God always makes the right decisions. We are God-fearers because God is God.

  • Don Holsinger says:

    Ben,
    Thanks for this food for thought. I recommend Carol Delaney’s ABRAHAM ON TRIAL for an important feminist take on Abraham and the sacrifice story.
    What follows are some selections from the book along with my comments in brackets.
    Don Holsinger
    Professor Emeritus of History
    Seattle Pacific University

    MYTHS OF CREATION, PROCREATION, & PATRIARCHY

    Scriptural Roots of Patriarchy—The Abrahamic Faiths

    Old Testament (Torah)—Genesis 3:16 “To the woman he [God] said, . . . Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

    New Testament—Colossians 3:18 “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”

    Qur’an—Sura 2:223 “Your wives are as tilth unto you. So approach your tilth when or how you will.” [tilth: land or soil ready for planting]

    Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical
    Myth. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1998

    p. 22 A far more important question is never, or rarely asked: Is Isaac his to sacrifice? What gives Abraham the right to take Isaac [or Ishmael according to Muslim tradition]? To sacrifice him without consulting Sarah? (Or, in the Muslim version, Hagar?) Why is she excluded from this most important communication from God? One must ask either (a) why would God have asked only Abraham, or (b) what were the assumptions of the biblical writers about paternal rights that allowed them to portray the story this way, that allowed them to ignore the mother?
    p. 23 If the child was thought to belong to Abraham in a way that he did not belong to Sarah or Hagar, then we need to know the reason. Those who pass off the question as reflecting patriarchy imply that patriarchy is self-explanatory. . . The word patriarchy includes a notion of father and so, too, does Abraham’s name. That fathers are exalted is not a bad description of patriarchy, but we need to go further and ask why.
    We need to ask why fatherhood [as opposed to motherhood or parenthood] is so important. Much of Abraham’s story is taken up with his desire to have a son; only a son will fulfill God’s promise that he would be a “father of nations.” But why a son rather than a daughter? And why is the father exalted above the mother? . . . the terms relate to and derive from the way procreation is understood, that is, to a specific theory of procreation . . . what theory of procreation is embedded in the Abraham story, and what were the culturally perceived roles of male and female in the process[?]

    p. 184 Procreation is not just about biology and the natural, since the male’s contribution (seed) has been imagined as the conduit for the divine; his is the creative
    role that bestows life and identity. Only women’s role as providing the nurturant material has been imagined as within the realm of the natural. Creation and procreation are not separate, but are deeply interconnected.
    A different way of conceptualizing procreation, therefore, demands a different
    way of conceptualizing both the spiritual world and the natural world—in short, a different cosmology or world view. In the monotheistic cosmology, there is only one principle of creation, symbolically masculine, and it is manifest on both human and divine planes. Monotheism and monogenesis constitute one integrated and mutually reinforcing system. And in this system, the story of Abraham is central.

    Because Islam is conceptualized as a return or recall to the one, true, original
    religion given in the beginning to Abraham, his story may be more actively present in Islam than in either Judaism or Christianity. That is especially true when, annually, a man sacrifices an animal in commemoration of the ram sacrificed in place of his son; but it is also true as pilgrims retrace his footsteps and reenact some of the dramas of his life that have become part of the rituals of the Hajj.
    In all three monotheisms, however, the story has been a primary structuring force and a powerful influence on human psychology and the dynamics of history. On the psychological level, it has figured in notions of faith and steadfastness, sacrifice and love, authority and obedience, gender and family relations. On the stage of history, it figures
    in conflicts over territory, cities, and shrines that continue to this day. These conflicts are as volatile and violent as they are (and can easily become more so) because they ultimately return to the question of who is the true seed of Abraham, who is the true heir and, therefore, who has the right to the patrimony. [Note the gender bias imbedded in this word.] It would be a great step toward peace if these “sons” could acknowledge their joint claims and agree to work out ways to share it. But it would be a much greater step if they could recognize the assumptions about gender and procreation without which the story and all its consequences could not make sense . . . [The theory is understandable in a pre-scientific agrarian-based era prior to an accurate understanding of genetic inheritance as a mutual DNA convergence from two progenitors. It is comparable to our geocentric understanding of the cosmos prior to Copernicus and Galileo. Theology has
    moved beyond Ptolemy when it comes to astronomy/cosmology, but much theology—
    Judaic, Christian, and Muslim—still finds itself in a “Ptolemaic age” when it comes to biology.]

    p. 234 [The sacrifice story] implies that to be faithful, fathers ought to be willing to sacrifice their sons if God, or some other transcendent authority, such as the State [the Nation, the Fatherland, the Homeland] demands. The story has been used to justify fathers sending their sons off to war—especially when the war can be imagined as “holy.” . . . The story also communicates something to sons: it is their duty to obey. Those who do not obey should be punished, for they threaten not just the authority of fathers but also the system that supports them. The model is thoroughly authoritarian. [Fear rather than Love as an expression of submission to God-Jesus and the Sufis sought to reverse this.]

    p. 235 Abraham is not the cause of these sacrifices, but what ties them together are the
    interrelated meanings of God, paternity, and authority that are given their first symbolic expression in that story.

    p. 22 [Are there other Biblical models, even in the Old Testament, that might challenge the patriarchal assumptions imbedded in the sacrifice story? Yes indeed. In 1 Kings
    3:16-28, two women claim the same child as their own. Wise King Solomon judges that the woman who loves her child the most will relinquish the child, rather than let it be divided in two as ordered by Solomon.] The primary value was the protection, not the possession, of the child. The sacrifice is the mother’s; she protects the child even as she lets him go. Although this story illustrates a model of love and sacrifice different from that in the Abraham story, it has not been used to challenge it. . . . it is not the foundational story. [It is up to us to make it the foundational story. We have the power to imagine an end to patriarchy and we can take steps toward turning that vision into a reality.]

    • Thanks, Don. Middleton does talk about how Abraham never speaks to Sarah or asks her, and in fact may have left early in the morning to avoid her — which goes right along with Delaney’s very good questions about why Abraham acts alone. The estrangement from Sarah afterwards (as well as Isaac) has been noted by many authors, especially with Abraham and Sarah living in different places .Middleton may have referenced this book, but I don’t recall if he did — it’s definitely possible it’s in the bibliography of Abraham’s Silence already.

      • Don Holsinger says:

        Thanks, Ben. I have not read Middleton. Your article has motivated me to do so.
        My visit to Hebron, Abraham’s burial site according to Genesis, in the summer of 2000 with a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation was an eye-opening experience. My final day in Hebron I followed the signs to “The Spring of Abraham” in the heart of one of the oldest continually-inhabited unwalled cities on the planet. Descending the stone steps, I peered into the adjacent arched chamber only to find the water of Abraham’s Spring to be polluted. How symbolic, I thought. The legacy of Abraham (friend of God, friend of humanity) is “polluted” by fear, hatred, and exclusive claims to his legacy. Time and effort can purify water. Perhaps they can also purify legacies.

  • Lima Jamir says:

    It’s really a blessing reading your article

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4)

    Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He *said to them, Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.
    (Matthew 4:18-20)

    Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)

    Does God, who created and possesses all souls (“Behold, all souls are Mine.”) not have authority to command as He wills, and are we not required to love and obey Him first and foremost? Yes. And we do not need the counsel of others to obey God when He has given clear direction. God’s relationship with Abraham was between Him and Abraham first and foremost. He had, by His authority, every right to test him, and to test each of us, if He so wills, and as God, does not need permission from people to give orders.

    The disciples did not ask their fathers for permission to follow Christ. Peter, at the very least, was married, and was eventually directed to become a pastor. Love and loyalty to God are to be supreme in our lives.

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