The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God
- ISBN: 9780801098017
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: November 2021
Silence, desperation, hope, and voice are thoroughly explored in Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, The Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, J. Richard Middleton’s theological and pastoral deep dive into how we talk to God in the midst of challenge and suffering. Middleton candidly describes in the introduction that although this is a work rooted in exegesis, its goal is “ultimately to help people of faith recover the value of lament prayer as a way to process our pain (and the pain of the world) with the God of heaven and earth—for the healing both of ourselves and of the world” (9).
Abraham’s Silence is a resource for navigating existential themes, including questions of omnipotence and omniscience. However the main theme pushes past the central question of God’s sovereignty and instead directs the reader to explore how they relate to God in the midst of suffering or hurt. Middleton speaks to both praise and anger in the biblical context, asking us to contemplate (as one section title puts it) “When Praise Is Inappropriate” (19).
As a spiritual care leader who work in hospitals, I found this train of thought to be compelling, especially when we consider examples like the following: “Imagine barely surviving a car crash, perhaps being the only survivor, badly injured and lying in a hospital bed; then your pastor or rabbi comes to visit you and reads Psalm 150. Praise the Lord!” (19). Middleton reminds people of faith that “the suffering of the world is multifaceted” (18) and it is appropriate to struggle with this both personally and professionally.
Although Middleton indicates that the book is for all “people of faith,” it is written in an academic style that will appeal to pastors, chaplains, and faith leaders who are drawn to exegetical work. That being said, Middleton also uses contemporary nonacademic sources in a compelling way; he draws upon musical sources multiple times, such as in footnote 29, where he cites the contemporary worship song “Blessed Be Your Name” (80).
If it is not abundantly clear from the title, the book focuses on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament stories of Abraham and Job. It is well-suited to Christian and Jewish students and theologians (armchair or otherwise). It is dense in its exegetical foundation, but the central focus on “how to talk back to God” is of interest to anyone who has ever asked, “Why would God let this happen?” or thought to themselves, “I feel so mad at God right now.”
Chapter 3, “The Question of Appropriate Speech” (67-97), explores the Book of Job and resonated especially deeply with me. As a healthcare chaplain, I spend a significant amount of time with people who, in their suffering, grief, and distress, often struggle with how to express their feelings with or towards God. Middleton delves into the nuances of Job’s words and speech, articulated both verbally and nonverbally.
In chapter 4, Middleton identifies seven “speech options” (79) that are used by Job and his friends as they attempt to make sense of his relationship and interactions with God. The seven modes of expression—“blessing God,” “cursing God,” “passive acceptance of suffering,” “nonverbal mourning, followed by silence,” “protest/complaint about suffering,” “defend God and explain suffering,” and “direct protest/complaint to God”—demonstrate the range of possible responses to God.
Middleton powerfully illustrates the ways in which Job expresses his emotions and himself to God; he also touches on the role of witnesses to grief. When discussing “nonverbal mourning,” Middleton focuses on the actions of Job’s friends, who come to him and weep, expressing a type of “vocal, yet nonverbal, mourning” (81). He writes that “such weeping out of sorrow for someone’s suffering is an appropriate response, as is sitting with them” (81).
Abraham’s Silence is a great resource for biblical scholars and students of religion. I would also argue that it is a valuable tool for those engaged in pastoral care work—for those hoping to expand the ways we think about God in the midst of hard or unfair circumstances. It reminds us that suffering matters, and even more importantly, that our anger, suffering, and grief matters to God.
Rev. Hannah D. Olson is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and works as a healthcare chaplain in Minnesota.Hannah OlsonDate Of Review:April 26, 2023