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 College.
Prof Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeasten 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 ethic 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 Isaac 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 pored 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.’