The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job—Exploring Genesis 22 in Mirfield

This is the fourth installment about my journey through the UK.

After leaving Durham, I visited friends (David and Ruth Hanson) in Leeds overnight, then David drove me to the College of the Resurrection in nearby Mirfield to speak on the same topic I had presented on in Durham—Genesis 22.

The College of the Resurrection is an Anglo-Catholic seminary attached to a monastery in Mirfield. There I was hosted by Dorothea Bertschmann, tutorial fellow in New Testament at the College.

Those organizing the event decided to give my talk on Genesis 22 the same title as the book I am currently working on, “The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job,” even though most of the talk was focused on Abraham, with only a bit on Job at the end.

I met some great people at the College of the Resurrection. Besides Prof. Bertschmann, I had a good chat with Steffan Mathais, a senior student (who already had a PhD in Old Testament) currently studying for the pastoral ministry.

Below is Steffan’s account of my talk on Genesis 22 (written for the community’s newsletter). He starts with a Rabbinic quote about how to study Scripture, and why it is worth studying.


Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it. – Rabbi Bag Ben Bag, Pirke Avos, 5:22

One of the great ironies of biblical scholarship is that often those who have given their lives to study of the bible are at best bored, and at worst irritated, by the texts they spend their days with. By contrast there was an infectiousness of Prof J. Richard Middleton’s excitement and playfulness, in his lecture The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job, delivered to the college on the 27th April, in conjunction with SIIBS, the Mirfield Centre, and St Hild’s College.

Prof Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, New York State. The body of his lecture focused around the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. While central in the imagination of Judaism and Christianity – and Islam – Middleton initially explored some of the ethical ambiguities of the narrative, before pointing out some of the interesting quirks of the story, notably the breakdown of relationship between Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, who henceforth in Genesis are said to live in different parts of the land.

Middleton asked if, perhaps, the text is more complex than our traditional reading, that Abraham was tested to see if he was willing to kill his son to submit to God. Through a close reading of the Hebrew (and without giving any surprises away to those who wish to read his next book on the subject!) Middleton read the story as a test of a very different kind: that God required Abraham to argue back, to say no, to be so sure of the mercy of God that he could wrestle with him. And in the end Abraham failed the test, remaining silent where those such as Job could not, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant carried them through.

Middleton’s reading was surprisingly compelling for one so provocative, but even more compelling was a reading of an old text which brought it alive again; which rather than ironing over the difficulties understood the creative tensions at play – the gaps, the lacunae, the ambiguities – and saw the scriptures as something to be enjoyed, to be wrestled with and poured over, not to be compartmentalised and ‘solved.’ Through his reading Middleton – partly through his study of Jewish exegesis – embraced the advice of Rabbis of old to always make the scriptures always new: ‘turn it and turn it again, for all is in it.’

~Steffan Mathais


I shared three meals with faculty and students at the College of the Resurrection, as well as gathering for coffee, drinks, and conversation. I also participated in a eucharistic liturgy led by the principal of the College, Fr Peter Allan.

All in all, it was quite wonderful to share worship, meals, camaraderie, and theological reflection with the members of this unique community of ecclesial learning.

My next post recounts my time in Leeds, with the Thinking Faith Network.

A Visit with Walter Moberly and St. Cuthbert in Durham

This is part 3 of my journey through the UK.

Having left Aberdeen, I got on the train from Scotland to England, arriving in Durham around suppertime. I was welcomed at the station by Walter Moberly, professor of Old Testament at Durham University.

Walter Moberly is a brilliant scholar who cares immensely about reading Scripture theologically for the sake of the church. I have benefited greatly from his work over the years; indeed, my very first email contact with him (ten years ago), prodded me to significantly nuance my interpretation of a particular biblical text (Genesis 12:1-3).

Walter was also the doctoral supervisor of my colleague Josef Sykora, for which I am very grateful.

Abraham’s Response to God in Genesis 22

I came to Durham, at Walter’s invitation, to give a paper in the Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. My topic was “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”

My interpretation of this famous story (known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or the binding of Isaac) deviated significantly Walter’s (he has written extensively on the topic). Whereas I was critical of Abraham’s silent response to God in Genesis 22, Walter has defended Abraham in numerous articles and thinks the story was meant to teach about the true attitude of the heart when Israel offers sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.

I don’t doubt that the story came to have that use, but I wanted to understand what it could mean in the narrative world of the Abraham story itself.

Despite our disagreement, and the questions that he raised in the wake of my presentation, Walter was extremely gracious to me throughout my visit to Durham.

The Hospitality of Walter Moberly

He was, in fact, a wonderful host. I stayed with Walter and Jenny Moberly in their house near the university, the very house that Charles Kingsley Barrett (the famous New Testament scholar) used to live in.

Having lived and taught in Durham since 1989, Walter Moberly has become very knowledgeable about the history of the university and the cathedral (which are both on the same grounds).

He gave me a fascinating walking tour of Durham cathedral, which dates back almost to the Norman conquest (which took place in 1066). Construction began in the late eleventh century and was completed in the early twelfth century—which makes the cathedral about a thousand years old (that’s pretty impressive to someone from the New World).

St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Among the historical details I learned was that St. Cuthbert (634–687), the monk who became bishop of Lindisfarne and who died there, was buried in Durham cathedral.

When it became evident that the island of Lindisfarne (off the east coast of Northumbria) would no longer be safe from invasion by enemies, the monks moved their order (along with the body of Cuthbert) to Durham and he was re-interred there. This was before the Cathedral was built.

Legend has it that when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened (first to move him to Durham, then to rebury him in the cathedral once it was built) his body was incorrupt. This magnified the fame of Cuthbert, who was a saint in his own right independently of this phenomenon.

Even when emissaries from Oliver Cromwell (the staunch Puritan) opened Cuthbert’s tomb in the seventeenth century, they were awed by the incorruption of his body, and re-buried him, despite Cromwell’s distaste for the veneration of saints.

I had the amazing experience of sitting where this picture was taken, looking at Cuthbert’s tomb (the dark rectangle set in the floor), overwhelmed by the depths of time (a twenty-first century man contemplating a seventh century monk buried in a twelfth century cathedral).

I prayed silently, offering thanks for the faithfulness of God from the beginning of creation, through all the ages of the world, including his revelation through Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, up through medieval England, and into all the lands of the world, right up to the present day—and on into the consummation of all things.

Thanks be to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and redeemer of all times—including this brief epoch we call human history.

My next post takes us to the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

Reflections on the Ending of a Sabbatical—and on the Year Ahead

I’ve been on sabbatical from Northeastern Seminary throughout the Fall semester of 2016. It’s been a well-needed break from teaching, so I could work on a research and writing project I’ve wanted to dig into for a while.

My teaching for the Spring 2016 semester ended in early May. That meant I was able to get started on my planned research at the start of summer 2016.

With the sabbatical now over, I’m getting into gear to begin teaching again this week. I’ve just realized that it will be my twenty-second year of full-time teaching (I started at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in January 1996, having done quite a bit of adjunct teaching in the previous eight years).

It is also coming up on my third anniversary of blogging (my first post was February 15, 2014).

Plus, yesterday was my birthday.

So this seems like be a good time to reflect:

  • on my sabbatical
  • on blogging
  • on getting older.

It turns out these three are all connected.

My Sabbatical

The first thing to say is that there wasn’t much “Sabbath” (that is, rest) in my sabbatical; I worked very hard almost the entire time (I only took a break leading up to Christmas). But then a sabbatical these days is meant to be for academic work (usually for research and writing). Indeed, I had to put in a proposal over a year in advance to justify my sabbatical (which comes after, not in, the seventh year).

This was only my third ever sabbatical.

My first came while I was teaching at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (they gave a full-year sabbatical every seven years or a semester sabbatical every three and a half years; I chose the latter). I used that sabbatical to work on my doctoral dissertation, though I took time in the summer before the sabbatical proper to be reinvigorated mentally and physically (I did a lot of bike riding in the country).

Since I left Colgate Rochester for Roberts Wesleyan College a year before I would have been eligible for my next sabbatical, I lost out on the time I had already put in. I had to teach for seven more years at Roberts before I became eligible for another sabbatical (so there was a ten year gap between the first and the second).

After waiting so long, I decided to make the most of my second sabbatical (Spring 2009). I committed myself in advance to writing and presenting a number of papers, teaching a three-week intensive course in Old Testament theology at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (in Jamaica), continuing to supervise a seminary student for his internship (even into my sabbatical), while trying to work on my eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth (I had signed the contract two years before).

I realized afterwards that I had over-extended myself for the short time I had available. I did get a lot of work done on multiple projects, but I had only begun the eschatology book by the time the sabbatical was over.

So as my third sabbatical drew near I decided to focus my efforts squarely on one research and writing project, a new book called The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job: Explorations in the Theology of Lament (for Baker Academic).

To that end during the summer I wrote one new paper and revised two papers I had previously written, with a view to these becoming the core of the three main parts of the book—on lament, on Abraham, and on Job.

I presented all three papers, one in Canada at the start of the summer, and two in Australia during the Fall. I received good feedback on all three and in the last month I revised them all for publication; two will be published in journals (Canadian-American Theological Review and St. Mark’s Review), one in a collection of essays (Lament Rekindled, possibly published by Continuum).

The papers are:

  • “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Mode of Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.”
  • “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”
  • “Does God Come to Praise Job or to Bury Him? The Function of YHWH’s Second Speech from the Whirlwind.”

So my sabbatical was successful in terms of my completing these pieces of my larger book project. And I have a pretty clear sense of what I need to do for the remaining chapters.

My Time in Australia

Since two of these papers were presented in Australia, with feedback from other biblical scholars, I’m grateful for the invitation to go Down Under for a month.

How it came about was that in March 2016 I received  an invitation to come to Australia for 4-6 weeks in the Fall as a visiting theologian; this would involve me presenting on my current research and it was to also give me time to dialogue with others about the material I was working on and to do further research.

Normally, I would have had to decline an offer like this because of teaching commitments, but the upcoming sabbatical enabled me to accept. I went for four weeks and had a wonderful time, first at St. Barnabas College in Adelaide, then at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra.

However, the trip exhausted me. First, there was the actual travel (a 36 hour trip each way).

Then, I didn’t get much time to catch up on sleep while I was there. And I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I need more (not less) sleep to function well.

I was originally scheduled to give six presentations in Australia, three at each theological school (St. Barnabas and St. Mark’s). But then I agreed to add just one more item (and then just one more, etc.), until I ended up giving a total of eleven presentations of various sorts (from the papers I had prepared over the summer, to a two-hour radio interview the day after I arrived, preaching in two church services, giving public lectures, speaking to theological students in various settings, and writing two response papers to other scholars’ presentations).

And this doesn’t count the one-on-one meetings I had or the group social events I attended (and I enjoyed all of this). Yet as an introvert I found myself perpetually tired and often running on adrenaline.

The upshot is that I worked very hard while I was in Australia. It was definitely a worthwhile experience and I got to know some amazing people (both inside and outside of academic settings). And I got to see some of the local fauna (kangaroos and such). But I didn’t get any significant research on my book done while I was Down Under.

And I came home sleep deprived.

I had to rest up for almost a week just to get the energy for my next assignments—three public lectures I was scheduled to give on the topic of my new book at a university in Canada and two academic papers at the Society of Biblical Literature (both of which involved traveling and being away from home for days at a time).

Lessons Learned

What I learned from the Australia segment of my sabbatical was that I too easily take on more than I should realistically accept, given the limitations of my time and energy.

But this was certainly not a problem limited to my time in Australia.

Before I went to Australia I had committed to writing two book reviews for a journal and a number of blog posts for BioLogos (all things I really wanted to do, and all due by the end of the year).

But then just before I left for Australia I received notification from a number of editors I had been working with that final edits on various of my essays were due ASAP in order to meet publication deadlines.

Needless to say, very little of this got done while I was in Australia, or even after I returned, even though I worked on editing and writing in most of my free time from September through mid-December (at which time I took a needed break, to prepare for Christmas).

The Past Year of Blogging

This brings us to blogging.

Since the beginning of 2016 (and for most of the year before that too), my schedule of teaching, combined with talks and writing and presenting papers, meant that I had little time to write very many blog posts for this website.

A sign of this is that I have published part 1 of some blog posts (like on my week of Jewish learning or my Australia trip), but have not yet got to part 2.

I have actually begun drafts of these continuation posts (and many others that I’ve wanted to write), but I simply lacked the time to bring them to completion (as I’ve blogged about before, I find I need to take time to write and edit anything well, including blog posts).

When I began blogging almost three years go, my idea was to publish one blog post per week; but I have often been lucky to get one post out per month of late.

I simply came up against my own limitations of time and energy. There is always limited time available to anyone; but in addition I’ve found that I need to manage my energy better as I grow older.

Another Birthday

That leads to the topic of my birthday; I turned 62 yesterday.

The paradox is that due to regular exercise (walking swimming, weights), I feel better than I did ten or even twenty years ago. Some of my commitment to exercise is due to a couple of injuries I sustained a few years back; I’ve come to realize that without this exercise I wouldn’t be able to function at the level I currently do.

Nevertheless, I need to be realistic about my limitations.

Sure, it feels great to be asked to edit papers I’ve given orally for publication or to write an essay from scratch for an anthology, or to be invited to give talks at churches, colleges, retreats, and conferences. And many of these projects address real needs.

As I face a new year, however, I’ve come to re-affirm the truth (which I already knew) that it is better to focus on what I know I am called to do than to scatter my energies on multiple projects that others want me to do, especially when there is limited time available.

I thought I had learned this lesson a while back.

I had already come to a similar conclusion over six years ago (in 2010), and had begun to divest myself of many commitments that I had agreed to only in order to please the person asking. I have also, since then, learned to say “No” much more often than I used to.

But I clearly need to do this better.

To that end, I recently (in the past few weeks) turned down new speaking engagements and I even pulled out of some writing assignments that I had previously committed myself to. It became clear to me that I couldn’t complete everything presently on my plate (at least, not well), given the start of the new semester.

A New Year’s Resolution?

As the new year begins I want to devote my energy to my teaching and mentoring of students and to complete the various oral and writing assignments that I’ve intentionally taken on for 2017.

If I focus just on these, I might even be able to get back to posting regularly on this website.

I’ve got drafts started on the conclusion to my posts about Jewish learning and Australia (I’ll probably do these first); then there are partially written posts on the topics of prayer, worship, suffering, evolution, Jamaican independence, and my six degrees of separation from Malcolm Gladwell (that one’s been sitting there for almost a year!).

As I start my sixty-third year, I am grateful to God for all good gifts. I would say a hearty Amen! to the post about gratitude I wrote on my birthday two years ago.

Although I don’t (usually) make new year’s resolutions, perhaps one is in order as we face 2017.

I’ll take my cue from the last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon ever to appear (which was published on December 31, 1995), the week before I began my first full-time teaching job). I hung a framed copy in my office when I started teaching in January 1996.

Calvin and his pet tiger are at the top of a snow-covered hill, in their toboggan. Looking down on the scene below, Calvin says: “it’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy.” Then he adds: “let’s go exploring!”

The new year lies before us.

I hope you will join me.

Image result for calvin and hobbes let's go sledding