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.
- Ethics of the Fathers 5:3. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2099/jewish/Chapter-Five.htm
- 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
- 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.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 47, commenting on Exodus 32:12b.
- See translations of Exodus 32:14 at https://biblehub.com/exodus/32-14.htm
- 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.)
- I think of this passage when a student asks for yet another extension, remembering that God is much more patient than I.
- The earliest to notice may have been the author of the Book of Jubilees, about two thousand years ago. (Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 183.)
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 183-188.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 123-126.
- 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.)
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 168.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 197.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 209.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 208.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 217.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 190.
- Middleton. Abraham’s Silence, 239.