Justification by Faith: Galatians 3:6ff; Romans 4:3ff

Justification by Faith (Genesis 15:6)

This is the second study dealing with the Reformation doctrine “Justification by Faith”. Previously, we looked at Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17; today we will examine his treatment of Genesis 15:6. Paul cites and expounds this verse on two different occasions in his letters—in Galatians 3 and Romans 4. I will deal with the Galatians passage first. This Reformation-oriented series is intended to demonstrate some of the ways in which Biblical criticism relates to theology (and the history of doctrine). The Reformers were heavily indebted to Paul’s rigorous treatment of the subject of faith and “justification”, as presented in Romans and Galatians, examining the words and phrases, the line of argument, very carefully, including a study of the text in Greek. At the same time, Paul himself was working from the Old Testament Scriptures, studying and interpreting those texts with at least as much care. For most Christians—and for committed Protestant believers, in particular—theology and doctrine cannot be separated from a (critical) examination of Scripture.

Galatians 3:6ff

The fact that Paul draws on the example of Abraham, and the declaration in Gen 15:6, on two different occasions, shows how important this tradition was for him. Abraham, of course, was a central figure in Jewish thought, a paragon of faith and obedience, for Israelites and Jews in every age. The deutero-canonical book of Sirach (44:19-21) provides a good (early) summary of this belief; see also the book of Jubilees 23:10. Gen 15:6 is part of a complex of ancient Abraham traditions given distinct narrative shape in chapters 14 and 15ff of Genesis, and which were highly influential in shaping this belief. Chapter 15 is the great covenant-vision scene set around the divine promise of an heir (male child) for Abraham, in spite of his old age and the barrenness of his wife Sarah. In vv. 4-5, God announces to Abraham that, not only will he indeed have a child of his own, but that his descendants will come to be a vast multitude of people, like the stars in the sky. Here it is said of Abraham in verse 6:

“And he had firm (trust) in YHWH, and He reckoned (it) for him (as) ƒ®d¹qâ.”

The Hebrew word ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) has a relatively wide range of meaning. It is usually translated “righteousness”, but may also denote “truthfulness”, “loyalty”, as well as the legal sense of “justice”. The fundamental meaning of the ƒqd root appears to be something like “straight”, or perhaps “clear”. Abraham’s trust in God shows him to be a true and faithful friend (or vassal in the context of the covenant), and so God considers him to be a right follower. Paul, in citing Gen 15:6, generally follows the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, which is also a reasonably accurate rendering of the Hebrew:

“Abraham trusted in God, and (this) was counted for him unto dikaiosýn¢” (Gal 3:6)

As noted in the previous study, the verb dikaióœ (dikaio/w) means “make right”, and the noun dikaiosýn¢ (dikaiosu/nh) something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, usually rendered in English as either “righteousness” or “justice”, both of which can be rather misleading in modern English. The dik– word-group is notoriously difficult to translate, especially as used repeatedly by Paul in his letters. It is clear, however, that Paul is using dikaiosýn¢ here is a somewhat different sense than the Hebrew ƒ®d¹qâ of the original Hebrew. For Paul, the word relates to a person’s standing before God—as one who needs to be “made right”. This legal sense, I would argue, is rather different from the covenant-language in Genesis 15 (on this see above, and also the earlier Saturday Series study on the covenant scene of Gen 15). And yet, Paul certainly has the context of covenant in mind, as can be seen from the remainder of chapter 3.

Paul is attempting to reconcile two basic truths, which relate to the new religious identity he sought to define for believers in Christ:

    • Truth #1: Salvation comes through trusting in Jesus—this is the essential Gospel message, which was accepted by at least as many non-Jews as Jews
    • Truth #2: Israelites (i.e. the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob) represent the people of God

These can only be reconciled by positing that those who trust in Jesus and the descendants of Abraham, are, somehow, one and the same. The declaration in Gen 15:6 provided a solution. It allowed one to identify faith/trust in God with Abraham and his descendants. That this association was immediately (and primarily) in Paul’s mind is clear from the interpretation he gives in Gal 3:7:

“Then you must know that the (one)s (born) out of trust—these are the sons of Abraham”

This results in a powerful reinterpretation of Israelite religious identity, now being applied to believers: those who trust in Jesus are the true descendants of Abraham. The line of argument which follows in vv. 8-14 (and on through the rest of chapters 3 and 4) is quite complex, and is meant to address the fundamental message of Galatians: that it is not necessary for (Gentile) believers to observe the regulations and commands of the Torah. I discuss this at length in the series of articles on Galatians in “Paul’s View of the Law” (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). The main issue involved circumcision—in many ways the central command related to Israelite/Jewish religious identity. But, as Paul makes clear, circumcision was instituted for Abraham (and his descendants) prior to the Torah, being the sign of an earlier covenant established between God and Abraham. This covenant was not based on anything Abraham did, but was God’s own initiative, being predicated upon Abraham’s demonstration of trust. This is the significance of Gen 15:6 (and its context) for Paul. Believers—Gentile believers, in particular—are saved and “made right” before God through faith in Jesus; as a result, they are shown to be Abraham’s very descendants (his true, spiritual descendants). One is not saved through the observance of the Torah (much less circumcision itself), but through trust in Jesus. Paul affirms and argues this over and over again throughout Galatians (and again in Romans, as we shall see).

Romans 4:3ff

In Romans 4, Paul repeats the argument from Galatians, using the same example of Abraham (along with Gen 15:6), but accompanied by a more thorough exposition. The polemical tone of Galatians has been replaced by a carefully structured theological treatment of the theme, in which Jewish and Gentile believers are shown to be united, related to one another as true equals in Christ. Several times Paul asks, essentially, “what does the Jewish (believer) have over and above the Gentile?” The line of argument throughout chapters 2-11 of Romans is especially complex. In various ways, Paul seeks to retain the position of the covenant God established with his people Israel (i.e. Abraham, in chap. 4), once again reinterpreting it so that believers in Christ become the true (and complete) fulfillment of the covenant—Jewish and Gentile believers both as the people of God. The increasingly larger percentage of non-Jewish believers created a difficulty for Paul in this regard, and he addresses it particularly in chaps. 9-11. The illustration of Abraham is made to apply more generally to the Gentile believer by the repeated emphasis that righteousness (or right-ness) is something given by God (as a favor), rather than something earned by the person’s own work (vv. 4-5). This would come to be the emphasis that dominated the Reformers’ thought (see below).

Paul deals with the (Greek) text of Gen 15:6 in more detail here than he does in Galatians, especially the phrase “and it was counted for him unto justice/righteousness” (kai elogisth¢ autœ eis diakosyn¢). The verb logízomai (logi/zomai) is related to the noun lógos (“account”), and refers to giving an accounting (of something), used essentially as a bookkeeping term. The passive sense (“it was counted…”) here is an example of the so-called “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor. Quite literally, God records something in the ledger (the book, or account) on behalf of the person. This draws upon the traditional image of the (heavenly) book in which a person’s deeds are recorded, and which will be opened on the great day of Judgment. A similar idea is the “book/roll of life”, on which the names of the elect (i.e. citizens of heaven) are recorded. The corresponding verb in the Hebrew (µ¹ša»), has a rather different sense, and is also in active form (“he considered”). Fundamentally, it refers to the work of the mind (thought, thinking), sometimes in the specific sense of creative/artistic work, imagination, planning, and so forth. In Gen 15:6 it is best rendered as “consider”, or somewhat more forcefully, “reckon”—God considered Abraham to be a true and faithful friend.

Protestant commentators tended to emphasize the legal, forensic aspect of the Greek verb logízomai even more than Paul did, though he points in that direction himself in vv. 5-8. There, in good Rabbinic fashion, Paul finds a Scripture with similar wording to Gen 15:6 [LXX], bringing in the point of similarity as a way of explaining the earlier passage. He turns to the Greek of Psalm 32:1-2:

“Happy (are the one)s for whom the (deed)s without law [i.e. lawless deeds] were released, and for whom the sins were covered over! Happy the man for whom the Lord does not make an accounting of sin!” (vv. 7-8)

The “accounting unto righteousness” is parallel with “no accounting of sin”. In other words, God leaves the reference(s) to sins out of the ledger completely, ignoring them or “covering them over”. The idea of a forensic “declaration” or “imputation” of righteousness was certainly influenced by this line of thought in Romans. For Paul, however, it was the idea of the last Judgment that was largely in mind with this sort of language. Believers will escape the coming anger of God (1:18ff) and will be able to stand before God in the Judgment, because of the sacrificial work of Jesus on our behalf, and the trust/faith we have in him. All of this is given freely to us by God, as a favor (cháris, xa/ri$). Paul states this clearly in verse 4, and it is given an even more succinct, axiomatic formulation in Eph 2:8. Yet, it is insufficient to view this “righteousness” (dikaiosýn¢) simply in the negative sense of the absence/covering of any record of sin. We must keep in mind the foundational statement in 1:17 (see the previous study), in which the positive aspect is emphasized—the righteousness of God Himself, which brings life to us, through our trust in Jesus.

Throughout Galatians and Romans, Paul is dealing primarily with the question of religious identity, which, for Israelites and Jews, involved circumcision and the observance of the Torah (as the terms of the covenant). Paul fully realized that this could no longer serve as the basis for the identity of believers in Christ, and he argued repeatedly that faith in Jesus took place entirely apart from (chœris) observing the regulations of the Torah. He states this in no uncertain terms in vv. 13ff, and even more absolutely in the famous declaration of 10:4: “For (the) Anointed One [i.e. Christ] is the completion [télos] of the Law, unto justice/righteousness [dikaiosýn¢] for every one trusting (in him)”.

Protestants, however, tended to turn this into a more general religious principle. Instead of referring specifically to Torah observance, “works” (érga) meant any sort of human effort or work in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul himself introduced this generalization at a number of points, such as here in verse 4:

“for the (one) working, the wage is not counted according to favor, but (rather) according to what (is) owed

This sort of illustration supplies the basis for the sweeping idea that salvation/justification comes by “grace and faith” alone, not from any human effort (Eph 2:8). Protestants were well aware of the religious tendency to emphasize the importance of certain actions—both ethical and ritual—and to rely on these for one’s identity. At the time of the Reformation, Roman Catholic tradition was filled many authoritative laws, customs, and so forth, considered to be binding upon believers. The Reformers and early Protestants fought against the bulk of this tradition, symbolized most vividly by Luther in his public burning of the corpus of Canon (Church) Law. The doctrine of sola fide—salvation by faith alone—was a most radical solution to the religious problem. At a single stroke, it effectively eliminated vast swaths of Christian tradition—and Christianity in the West has been grappling with the impact of this ever since.

Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (3:21-5:21, Part 1)

Romans 3:21-5:21

This is the second of the four main sections of the probatio in Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39, cf. the Introduction). The first, on Rom 1:18-3:20 (cf. the previous article), I have summarized as the Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment on humankind, according to the Law (of God). The second, on Rom 3:21-5:21, I describe (and outline) as:

  • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    3:21-31: A description of God’s justice and on being made/declared just
    4:1-25: Argument from Scripture: The blessing/promise to Abraham (by trust/faith)
    5:1-11: The effect/result of being made/declared just: salvation from the coming judgment
    5:12-21: Argument/Illustration from Scripture: Sin and Salvation (Adam/Christ)

Two discussions on the twin theme of Justice/Justification (3:21-31; 5:1-11) alternate with expository arguments (or illustrations) from Scripture (4:1-25; 5:12-21). I will be dividing this article into two parts, according to these section-pairs, the first being on Rom 3:21-31 and the argument from Scripture in chapter 4.

Romans 3:21-31

This section can be further divided into two sections, vv. 21-26 and 27-30, followed by a concluding declaration in v. 31.

Verses 21-26 form one long, complex sentence, beginning with an announcement similar to that in Rom 1:18 (cf. also the propositio in 1:17):

“But now, separate from (the) Law, (the) justice/righteousness of God has been made manifest [lit. made to shine forth], being witnessed under [i.e. by] the Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]…”

In Rom 1:18, the verb used was a)pokalu/ptw (“uncover”, lit. “remove the cover from”); here, it is fanero/w, “(make) shine forth” (note the use of the related adjective fanero/$, “shining” in 1:19). These two verbs represent twin aspects of revelation—(a) uncovering that which was hidden, and (b) making it known, apparent, as of light “shining forth”. Note the ironic wordplay here: that the righteousness which is separate/apart (xw/ri$) from the Law, is witnessed by the Law—the first use of no/mo$ (“Law”) should be understood specifically of the Torah commands, the second, of Scripture (the Pentateuch, which embodies the Torah). The preposition xw/ri$ implies a separation, in terms of space between two objects (i.e., they are not connected); note the use of the related verb xwri/zw, in an opposite sense, in Rom 8:35ff. The remainder of vv. 22-26 is a tapestry of Pauline phrases and concepts which build upon the opening declaration (italicized words and phrases glossed with the Greek):

V. 22: “and (the) justice/righteousness of God [dikaiosu/nh qeou=] (is) through (the) trust [dia\ pi/stew$] of (the) Anointed Yeshua unto all [pa/nta$] the (one)s trusting [pisteu/onta$]—for there is no setting through [diastolh/ i.e. setting apart, distinction]—”

V. 23: “for all [pa/nte$] (have) sinned and are last of [i.e. behind, lacking] the esteem [i.e. glory] of God”

V. 24:being made right [dikaiou/menoi or, declared just] freely [dwrea\n, without charge] by His favor [xa/riti], through the loosing from (bondage) [a)polutrw/sew$] th(at takes place) in (the) Anointed [e)n Xristw=|] Yeshua”

V. 25: “whom God set before (Himself as) a conciliatory gift [i(lasth/rion], through [the] trust in his blood, unto the showing forth of [i.e. to show forth] His justice/righteousness [dikaiosu/nh] through the sending along [i.e. passing over, remission] of the sins th(at) had come to be before, in God’s holding up [i.e. that God put up with]”

V. 26: “toward the showing forth of His justice/righteousness [dikaiosu/nh] in th(is) time now, unto His being just/right [di/kaio$, i.e. that He might be just] and (the One) making just/right [dikaiou=nta] the (one who is) out of trust [e)k pi/stew$] of Yeshua [i.e. the one who trusts in Jesus]”

The density and complexity of the sentence should be abundantly clear from the extremely literal (glossed) rendering above; in conventional English, and to be readable, vv. 21-26 would be broken up into a number of shorter sentences. Even in Greek, however, the syntax is quite convoluted. Yet, this is one of those classic long sentences in Paul’s letters which deserves to be read and studied carefully, with close attention to the flow of ideas and phrases; they are not strung together randomly, but do form an inspired concatenation, a network of relationships expressing the truth of the Gospel in powerful and unmistakable terms. I offer a possible outline diagram of vv. 21-26 in a separate note, along with a brief discussion of the key phrase in this passage—”the justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh qeou=).

Verses 27-30—If verses 21-26 represent the principal declaration regarding the justice/righteousness of God apart from the Law, in verses 27-30 there is a reaffirmation of two basic points Paul has made previously: (1) that human beings are made (or declared) just/right, i.e. “justified” by trust (pi/sti$) in Christ, and not by performing/observing the commands of the Law, and (2) that this applies equally to Jews and Gentiles. These verses can be divided into four shorter statements, according to the following pattern:

    • V. 27—No boasting (for the Jew)—it is the Law of faith/trust, not the written Law
      • V. 28—Statement of “justification by faith”, without works of Law
    • V. 29—Equality of Jew and Gentile before God
      • V. 29—Declaration that Jews and Gentiles are “justified” through faith

Verse 27—All human “boasting” (kau/xhsi$) is excluded (“closed/shut out”); this relates to all natural, “fleshly” aspects of one’s religious-cultural identity—status, attitude (pride, etc), knowledge, pious practice, devotion in ritual or ethical matters, etc.—all of which are bound “under the Law” and the “elements of the world”. The contrast is familiar from Galatians—”works” (e&rga) of the Law vs. faith/trust (pi/sti$); however, here Paul frames the matter differently, referring to the “law of works” (no/mo$ tw=n e&rgwn) as opposed to the “law of faith/trust” (no/mo$ tou= pi/stew$). The “Law” (no/mo$) has been generalized, and the contrast is specifically between “works” (i.e. deeds) and “trust” (in God and Christ). It is the fact that “justification” comes through trust (dia\ pi/stew$) that “boasting” is excluded—i.e., it is not the result of doing anything. There is an attractive vibrancy and buoyancy to the rhetorical question Paul uses to express this point.

Verse 28—”for we count a man to be made right [or, declared just] by trust, separate/apart from works of (the) Law“. Here we have one of Paul’s clearest statement of “justification by faith”. Note each of the underlined expressions above:

    • logizo/meqa (“we count”, i.e. reckon, say/claim)—this is the same verb used in the citation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below): “…it was counted [e)logi/sqh] to him [i.e. Abraham] unto justice/righteousness”.
    • dikaiou=sqai (“to be made right”, “to be declared just/right”)—i.e., a person is made/declared just/right (by God)
    • pi/stei (“by trust”)—i.e., in (God and) Christ; there is no preposition in the Greek, it has to be filled in.
    • xwri/$ (“separate/apart [from]”)—implying a clear separation (i.e., space between)
    • e&rgwn no/mou (“works of [the] Law”)—i.e., deeds, performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah, but also including the wider “Law of God”)

Verse 29—”or is (He) the God of Yehudeans {Jews} only? is (He) not also (God) of (the) nations? yes, also of (the) nations!” The equality of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) before God is an important, and fundamental, principle for Paul (cf. Gal 3:28; Rom 2:9-11, 12ff; 3:9ff, etc). Here it is stated by way of a rhetorical (and real) question, parallel to that in verse 27.

Verse 30—”if indeed (there) is one God [or, God is one], who will make right [or, declare just] circumcision out of trust, and (having) a foreskin through the (same) trust“. As in verse 28, we have here a clear and decisive statement regarding “justification by faith“—that it applies equally to Jews and Gentiles. Paul defines the distinction between Jew and Gentile, again, according to circumcision (cf. 2:25-29), using the terms “circumcision” (peritomh/, lit. “cut around”) and “foreskin” (a)krobusti/a, “closing [over] the extremity”) as a shorthand (and stereotypical) description. Note the underlined words and expressions:

    • ei&per (“if so, if indeed”)—though this is a conditional particle, by implication, it indicates that a proposition or supposition is assumed to be true; in English, this may be expressed according to result (“because, since…”), and, certainly Paul accepts as true both the declaration in v. 29b and that “God is one”.
    • ei!$ o( qeo/$ (“one [is] the God”, or “God is one”)—a fundamental tenet of Israelite/Jewish (and Christian) monotheism (Deut 6:4, etc); however, for Paul, it also is a declaration of unity, i.e. the same God for both Jew and Gentile. Paul frequently emphasized that there is only one—one Gospel, one faith, one Spirit, one body, et al; of many references, see Gal 1:6-9; 3:16, 20, 28; 5:14; Rom 5:12-21; 12:4ff; 1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:8ff; 6:16-17; 8:6; 10:17ff; 12:11, 12ff; 2 Cor 11:2-6; Phil 1:27; 2:2; Col 3:15; Eph 2:11-22; 4:1-7.
    • dikaiw/sei (“he will make right” or, “will declare just”)—Paul typically uses the verb dikaio/w in the passive, as a “divine passive”, with God as the implied agent; here, it is used actively of God (“He will…”).
    • e)k pi/stew$ (“out of trust”)—Paul frequently uses this expression (with e)k, “out of”, i.e. “of, from”) to indicate either: (a) faith/trust as the means by which people are saved/justified, or (b) as the source by which one comes to believe, and to which the believer belongs. The first sense is generally synonymous with the expression dia\ pi/stew$ (“through trust”).
    • dia\ th=$ pi/stew$ (“through the [same] trust”)—almost certainly, there is no real difference of meaning between the use of the prepositions e)k and dia/, as indicated above; the definite article likely implies “the same” faith/trust (in Christ), again emphasizing the unity (and equality) of Jews and Gentiles before God.

Verse 31—In this concluding verse, Paul asks a pointed (and most interesting) rhetorical question:

“Do we then make the Law useless/inactive through th(is) trust? May it not come to be (so)!—but (rather) we make the Law stand!”

All through chapters 2 and 3 of Romans, Paul has been arguing that faith in Christ and acceptance by God is completely separate and apart from the Law (esp. the Old Testament/Jewish Law [Torah]). Jews, including many Jewish Christians, doubtless would object to this line of reasoning, and might well claim that Paul was undermining and destroying the Law by his teaching. Paul anticipates such an objection, much as he does in Gal 3:21 (cf. also Gal 2:17, and earlier in Rom 3:3-5). His response says a good deal about his view and understanding of the Law; because of its importance in this regard, this verse will be discussed in a little more detail in a separate daily note.

Romans 4:1-25—Argument from Scripture (Abraham)

This passage is an expansion of the argument in Galatians 3:6-18, centered on the example of Abraham. Here it will be most important to examine the significant differences and points of development, compared with Gal 3:6ff (for a discussion of the verses in Galatians, see my earlier article in this series). The basic outline is:

Rom 4:1-3—The example of Abraham [Gal 3:6]

Paul begins with a (rhetorical) question regarding Abraham: “what then shall we declare Abraham to have found…?”—whom he qualifies with the phrase “…our forefather according to (the) flesh?” Here he uses the expression kata\ sa/rka (“according to [the] flesh”) in the normal physical/material sense; kata\ sa/rka presumably is to be taken with “our forefather” (to\n propa/tora au)tw=n), rather than with the verb eu(rhke/nai, i.e. “to have found according to the flesh”, though possibly there is a bit of wordplay involved. In verse 2, Paul emphasizes the point that Abraham was not considered by God to be right/just (e)dikaiw/qh, “made right/just”) by his works (e)c e&rgwn)—in contrast to the discussion in James 2:21ff. In verse 3, just as in Gal 3:6, there is a citation from Genesis 15:6 [LXX]:

“Abraham trusted [e)pis/teusen] God and it was counted [e)logi/sqh] to/for him unto justice/righteousness [ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn]”
The construction e)logi/sqhei)$ in typical English has to be rendered something like “counted…as“, with the preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) indicating the intended or effective result.

This clearly was a seminal verse in Paul’s thought, through which he was able to grapple with the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious identity.

Rom 4:4-12—The blessing to (and through) Abraham [Gal 3:7-14]

In Galatians, Paul emphasizes the blessing that comes, through Abraham, to the nations (Gentiles), that it is through trust in God (the same trust demonstrated by Abraham); this is contrasted with the Law (and its curse), which Christ fulfills. In Romans, the emphasis is rather on the nature of the blessing (or blessedness), which is described through a series of explanatory and illustrative statements:

  • Vv. 4-5—it is not a wage [misqo/$] earned by (or, properly, owed to) the one who works [o( e)rgazo/meno$]; instead it is a favor [xa/ri$], or “gift” (i.e. “grace”).
  • Vv. 6-8—it is understood in terms of forgiveness of sins, i.e. of sinful acts [ai( a(marti/ai] and acts of “lawlessness” [ai( a)nomi/ai] or violations of the law, in the general sense of wickedness. This is stated by way of citation of Psalm 31:1-2 in vv. 7-8, and brings out three different aspects of “forgiveness”—sins are:
    • “released” (a)fe/qhsan)—the related noun a&fesi$ is the word usually translated “forgiveness” in English
    • “covered up/over” (e)pekalu/fqhsan)—i.e., a covering is laid over/upon them
    • “not counted” (mh\ logi/shtai)—the double negative ou) mh\ adds emphasis, “not at all, certainly not, by no means,” etc
  • Vv. 9-11a—it was pronounced prior to circumcision (and the Law/Torah); Paul makes the same point in Gal 3:15-18. Even more important in the context of Romans is the equality of Jew and Gentile—this blessedness (justification) comes upon those with “circumcision” (peritomh/) and “a foreskin” (a)krobusti/a) equally (v. 10).
  • Vv. 11b-12—it is for all who trust, apart from circumcision and the Law. The upshot of Paul’s argument is that Abraham trusted God, and was counted as just/righteous, while he was still uncircumcised; by way of application, Gentiles who walk in line (stoixou=sin), following in the tracks (toi=$ i&xnesin) of Abraham (v. 12), i.e. in the same faith and trust, will, like him, be “counted as just/righteous” by God (11b).
Rom 4:13-25—The promise to Abraham (his seed–descendants) [Gal 3:15-18]

As indicated above, the argument in Gal 3:15-18 is effectively repeated by Paul in vv. 9-11; here in vv. 13ff he takes a different approach, which deals more directly with the Abraham narrative in Genesis. The principal statement is in verses 13-15:

  • V. 13—this is the main declaration, which is framed, in familiar fashion, by Paul: “not through (the) Law… but through (the) justice/righteousness of trust”, contrasting the Law with trust (in Christ). In between these contrasting terms, he sets the elements of the Abraham narrative:
    • h( e)paggeli/a (“the message upon”), esp. a declaration or announcement upon (someone or something), which can be taken in the sense of a promise to do something, etc., and so is often applied, as here, in relation to God—His declaration or promise that he will do such-and-such.
    • tw=|  )Abraa\m (“to Abraham”)—of a son (and heir) to Abraham, including the promise of many future descendants; cf. Gen 12:2-3, 7; 13:15-16; 15:1-6; 17:1-11; 22:16-19; 24:7.
    • h* tw=| spe/rmati au)tou= (“or [rather] to his seed”)—for Paul’s special emphasis on the “seed” [sg.] of Abraham, cf. Gal 3:16.
    • au)to\n ei@nai (“his being”, i.e. “that he would be”)—that Abraham’s child—ultimately, his descendants—would truly be (or become)… .
    • to\ klhrono/monkosmou= (“the [one] receiving the lot [i.e. heir]… of [the] world”)—this touches back on the idea of the blessing which would come to the nations (Gen 12:3), as well as the inheritance of the (promised) land in Canaan (Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:7, 18; 26:4; 28:13; 35:11-12; 48:16; Exod 32:13; Num 26:52-56, etc). This land (as “earth”) came to expanded, in subsequent Israelite/Jewish tradition, as “the (whole) world” (cf. Jub 19:21; 2 Baruch 14:13; 51:3, etc). The concept would be spiritualized in early Christianity, or related more properly to the idea of believers “inheriting the kingdom of God”.
  • Vv. 14-15—Paul expounds the statement regarding inheritance according to his familiar contrast between the Law and faith/trust (v. 14). Note the wordplay which characterizes his argument in these verses:
    • V. 14: if inheritance comes by way of the Law (e)k no/mou), then the promise is made inactive (kath/rghtai, kat¢¡rg¢tai)
    • V. 15: when, in fact, the Law actually works out (katerga/zetai, katergázetai), i.e. produces, accomplishes, the passion/anger (o)rgh/, “wrath”, associated with the judgment) of God against sin and wickedness.
      This is followed by the statement that “where there is not (any) Law, there is also no stepping over [i.e. violation/transgression]” (cf. Rom 3:20; Gal 3:19).

Verses 16-17a are transitional, with a point that is two-fold:

    1. That the promise is according to the favor of God (kata\ xa/rin), which qualifies the expression of faith/trust (e)k pi/stew$)
    2. That it is to all the offspring of Abraham (panti\ tw=| spe/rmati), by faith/trust (and not by the Law)

As a result, Abraham is the father of all who believe in Christ, Jews and Gentiles both (“who is the father of all of us“). In vv. 17b-25, Paul returns to the Genesis narrative, and to the specific example of Abraham—that is, of his trust in God. The summary exposition is in vv. 17b-21, culminating with the declaration that Abraham carried fully (plhroforhqei\$) the belief that God was powerful enough to do (poih=sai) that which He had promised (o^ e)ph/ggeltai). The narrative is further interpreted and applied in the concluding verses 22-25. In particular, Gen 15:16 (v. 22) is applied to believers (vv. 23-24a)—those who trust in what God has done in Christ, especially the resurrection (v. 24b, 25b, cf. Rom 10:9), but also his sacrificial death which took place through (dia/, or for/because of) our transgressions (paraptw/mata, “[moment]s of falling along [the way]”).

Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 6)

Section 6: Galatians 4:21-31

The final argument Paul presents takes the form of an allegory (a)llhgori/a, v. 24). It is one of the more familiar portions of the letter, but, as with Paul’s other statements regarding the Law in Galatians, the full force and significance of his argument are often ignored or softened by commentators. The section may be outlined thus:

    • V. 21—Opening question (challenge)
    • Vv. 22-23—Summary of the story from Scripture
    • Vv. 24-27—The (allegorical) interpretation: Two Covenants
      —Vv. 24-25: Jerusalem below—the earthly Jerusalem (Sinai)
      —Vv. 26-27: Jerusalem above—the heavenly Jerusalem
    • Vv. 28-31: Believers as children of the promise & freedom—conflict

Verse 21—Paul uses the interrogatio rhetorical method, as he questions his audience, prompting them and allowing them to bring forth a determination themselves. See Gal 3:2ff for a similar use of this technique. The question actually serves as a challenge to the Galatians:

“Relate to me [i.e. tell me], (you) the ones wishing to be under (the) Law [u(po\ no/mon], will you not hear the Law?”

The expression “under the Law” (u(po\ no/mon) has been used repeatedly (Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, also 5:18; Rom 6:14-15; 1 Cor 9:20), along with the parallel expressions “under (the) curse” (3:10), “under sin” (3:22), “under a paidagogos” (3:25, cf. also 4:2), “under the elements [stoicheia] of the world” (4:3). It refers, of course, to Jews (and Jewish Christians) who are (or who feel) obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah; but, as the parallel terms indicate, Paul uses it as a shorthand for the bondage human beings are under prior to faith in Christ. The expression “hear the Law” has a two-fold meaning: (1) to obey the Law, and (2) literally, to hear the words of the Law (i.e. of Scripture). The latter is what Paul means primarily here, but he may also be saying, “if you want to be under the Law, are you willing to obey the Law (i.e. the true Law of Christ)?”

Verses 22-23—In these two verses, Paul summarizes the Scriptural narrative found in Genesis 16:1-6; 21:8-14, citing Gen 16:15; 21:2-3, 9. That Hagar was a slave or “servant-girl” (paidi/skh) is indicated in the narrative (Gen 16:1ff; 21:10ff, also 25:12); the contrast of Sarah as a free woman can be inferred/implied naturally from the context. This sets the stage for the theme of freedom in Christ to follow in 4:31/5:1ff. The Hagar/Ishmael vs. Sarah/Isaac contrast is also expressed by the me\nde\ (“on the one hand…on the other…”) construction in verse 23 (cf. also vv. 8-9) [Note: some MSS (Ë46 B f vg) omit me\n]. As we shall see, the juxtaposition of these characters is ultimately meant to show the contrast/conflict between “promise” (e)paggeli/a) and “flesh” (sa/rc); and, of course, the promise is closely connected with the Spirit (Gal 3:14). The expression “according to (the) flesh” (kata\ sa/rka) is used elsewhere in Paul’s letters (Rom 1:3; 4:1; 8:4-5, 12-13; 9:3, 5; 1 Cor 1:26; 10:18; 2 Cor 1:17; 5:16; 10:2-3; 11:18), and a Spirit-Flesh dualism is an important aspect of Paul’s thought in both Galatians (Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17; 6:8) and Romans (Rom 8:1-17) [cf. also Phil 3:3].

Verses 24-27—Paul interprets the Genesis story as an “allegory” (a)llhgori/a), that is, a description of one thing under the image of another; the verb a)llhgore/w (in v. 24) in this context means to speak/interpret by way of allegory. Familiar from Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish literature and philosophy, it is also similar to the creative midrash interpretive tradition in Judaism; for other examples in Paul’s letters, cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13; 2 Cor 3:7-18. The contrast/conflict between Hagar/Ishmael and Sarah/Isaac in the narrative is coordinated and aligned together (sustoixe/w, v. 25) as follows:

Slave-girl vs. Free (woman) [v. 22b]

Flesh vs. Promise [v. 23]

(Old) Covenant vs. (New) Covenant [v. 24]

Jerusalem (on earth) vs. Jerusalem above [v. 25-26]

Hagar/Ishmael vs. Sarah/Isaac [v. 28-29]

As indicated in verse 24, Paul gives prominence and priority to the idea of two covenants—the Greek word rendered “covenant” (diaqh/kh) is literally something “set through (in order)”, often in the legal sense of a will or testament (as in Gal 3:15-17), but here corresponding to the Hebrew tyr!B= (“agreement”), that is, the agreement (covenant) established between God and his people (Israel). The two covenants—old and new—are contrasted syntactically by way of another me\nde\ formulation (see above):

    • me\n: one (the old) from mount Sinai into/unto slavery [ei)$ doulei/an]… (vv. 24-25)
    • de\: (the other), the Jerusalem above, (which) is free [e)leuqe/ra e)stin]… (vv. 26-27)

Paul establishes this line of association first by equating Sinai with the (current) earthly Jerusalem in verse 25; he does this by way of (allegorical) correspondence, even though he recognizes that Mt. Sinai is actually in “Arabia” (presumably the Sinai peninsula). This equation has the following interpretive relationship:

    • The Sinai covenant (the Law/Torah) leads to slavery [doulei/a]
    • Jerusalem is currently serving as a slave [douleu/ei]

The last point could be taken either in a socio-political (i.e. under Roman occupation) or religious-spiritual (bondage under the Law and sin) sense, or both. This contrasts sharply with the traditional Jewish self-understanding of freedom related to the Torah and the covenant with God (cf. m. Abot 6:2, also e.g. John 8:33), which Paul reverses completely. Here is the associative logic as a whole:

    • The Old Covenant (the Law/Torah) given at Mt. Sinai
      • Sinai = earthly Jerusalem
        • The Jerusalem below | Slavery
        • The Jerusalem above | Freedom
      • Jerusalem (above) = believers in Christ
    • The New Covenant (the Spirit/promise) realized in Christ

Verses 26-27 describe the “Jerusalem above” (h( a&nw  )Ierousalh\m), which is clearly to be understood in a spiritual sense; for similar examples of Jewish identity being appropriated/fulfilled by believers at the spiritual level, cf. Rom 2:28-29, and previously in Gal 3:7-9, 14, etc. This idea of a heavenly Jerusalem came to be well-established in early Christian thought (cf. Hebrews 12:22; 13:14; Revelation 3:12; 21:2-22:5), and generally builds on the (eschatological) Old Testament and Jewish tradition of a “new Jerusalem”—e.g. Isa 54:10ff; 60-66; Ezek 40-48; Tobit 13:9-18; Jubilees 4:26; 2/4 Esdras 7:26; 10:40ff; 2 Baruch 4:2-7; 32:2-23; 1 Enoch 90:28f; 2 Enoch 55:2; for an interesting ‘Gnostic’ interpretation, along the same lines as Paul in Galatians, see in Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies 5.7.39, 8.37. Cf. Betz, Galatians, pp. 246-7.

Another familiar, and related, Jewish tradition was Jerusalem/Zion as a mother (v. 26). As such, this image is parallel to that of the Jewish concept of freedom associated with the Law and Covenant; and, again, Paul reverses this traditional association, by way of citing Isaiah 54:1 (LXX), a passage which came to be used in Judaism in the context of the rebuilding of Jerusalem (cf. the Targum; Pesiqta Rabbati 32:2). The context of Paul’s citation (v. 27) rather suggests a correlative juxtaposition between physical barrenness and spiritual life.

Verses 28-31—These verses begin and end with statements of Christian identity, related to the parallel concepts of promise and freedom:

V. 28: “But you {some MSS read “we”}, brothers, according to Isaac, are offspring of (the) promise
V. 31: “Therefore, brothers, we are not offspring of the (slave)-girl, but of the free (woman)”

Verses 29-30 stand in between, and are descriptive of conflict for believers:

V. 29: External—drawing upon Jewish tradition of conflict between Ishmael and Isaac (not indicated specifically in the Scripture narrative itself), cf. t. Sota 6:6; Genesis Rabbah 53 (34a), etc. This is interpreted by Paul according to two aspects:
(1) Jewish hostility and persecution toward early Christians, attested to amply by Paul in his letters and in the book of Acts.
(2) The dualism of kata\ sa/rka (“according to the flesh”) vs. kata\ pneu=ma (“according to the Spirit”). Here the conflict is still external—i.e. the issue being that regarding circumcision and actual observance of the Torah commands; for an internal expression of this dualism in the hearts/minds and lives of believers (before and after conversion), cf. Romans 7-8.

V. 30: Internal—quoting Gen 21:10 and applying it primarily in a religious-spiritual sense: believers are the heirs in Christ (Gal 3:29; 4:1, 7; cf. also Rom 4:13-14; 8:17), and should no longer wish to come under a yoke of slavery. That Paul may here be expressing the rejection of Jews is certainly possible (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16; Rom 9-11), but I do not believe that this is his emphasis—it rather relates more properly to his exhortation to the Gentile Galatians that they “cast away” the yoke of bondage (i.e. observance of the Torah) which they are considering placing upon themselves.

In summary, I would illustrate the thematic structure of these verses as follows:

    • V. 28—Believers are children of the promise
      • V. 29—Conflict for believers: Flesh vs. Spirit
      • V. 30—Action for believers: “Cast out” the son of the slave-girl (i.e. slavery)
    • V. 31—Believers are children of the free woman

There is an interesting (and moving) history associated with the interpretation of verse 29:

“Even as then the one coming to be (born) according to the flesh pursued [i.e. persecuted] the one (born) according to the Spirit, so also now.”

As indicated above, Paul is drawing upon historical Jewish tradition (related to Ishmael and Isaac) and applying it (primarily) in terms of Jewish persecution of the early Christians, but also, in a secondary sense, of the Jewish Christian opposition to Paul and his work. Later on in Church history, it also came to be applied definitely in this context of the persecution of Christians by other Christians. The supposed Christians doing the persecuting were thus acting “according to the flesh” (and not the Spirit). This was a popular verse among Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and other dissident (independent) believers during the Reformation period, who found themselves frequently under (often intense) persecution by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. It was also a key verse by those few who dared to speak out (and write) against the practice of persecuting and executing supposed heretics—most prominently, Sebastian Castellion, who wrote vehemently against Calvin and the Reformed of Geneva for their role in the execution of Michael Servetus.

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).

Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 3)

Section 3: Galatians 3:15-29

In Gal 3:7-14, Paul presented an initial argument from Scripture, based on the blessing of Abraham (to the nations); in this section, he offers a more extensive Scriptural argument from the wider context of the promise to Abraham. In so doing, Paul draws upon a range of passages in Genesis—principally Gen 12:2-3, 7; 13:15-16; 15:1-6; 17:1-11; 22:16-19; 24:7—summarizing them by a single concept: of God’s promise to Abraham regarding his offspring (“seed”, spe/rma in Greek), the blessing to the nations being just one benefit of the overall promise. The argument Paul develops in this section is framed by two main parts:

    • 3:15-18: An illustrative analogy based on the nature of a covenant/testament, by which the promise to Abraham is contrasted with the Law
    • 3:26-29: A declaration that the promise comes (to believers) through Christ

In between, there is a relatively extensive sub-section (3:19-25) which deals with the purpose of the Law. Since this represents one of Paul’s clearest statements regarding the Law (Torah), it will be discussed separately below. I will begin with the two framing portions, vv. 15-18 and 26-29.

Galatians 3:15-18—Each verse provides a distinct argument or point in the analogy:

Verse 15—Here Paul establishes the illustration based on the nature of a diaqh/kh, stating that he is relating this kata\ a&nqrwpon (“according to man”, i.e. a human way of speaking), that is, as an analogy from ordinary daily life. The word diaqh/kh in Greek literally means something “set through (in order)”, often in the technical sense of a will/testament; even in English idiom, someone planning for death might “set his/her affairs in order”, by preparing a last will, etc. It is in this sense that Paul uses the word here, along with three technical verbs: (1) kuro/w, “establish the authority (of something)”, i.e. “confirm, validate, ratify”; (2) a)qete/w, “unset, set aside”, i.e. “invalidate, (dis)annul”; and (3) e)pidiata/ssomai, “arrange/set in order upon (something)”, i.e. “appoint or establish in addition, as a supplement”. A testament which has been validated, cannot simply be set aside or have additions made to it without proper authority. In other words, a valid agreement or contract remains intact and binding. The word diaqh/kh can also mean an “agreement” in the more basic sense, and, as such is typically used to translate tyr!B= (“binding [agreement]”, i.e. “covenant”) in Hebrew.

Verse 16—Paul engages in a bit of clever (and seemingly superficial) wordplay, as the word indicating Abraham’s offspring/descendants (plural) is, in both Hebrew and Greek, singular (“seed”, Grk spe/rma). The argument appears to be facetious, for clearly “seed” is a collective, referring to Abraham’s future descendants together, and yet Paul takes it hyper-literally, in order to make a particular point:

“…he does not say ‘and to (your) seeds‘, as upon many, but (rather) as upon one, ‘and to your seed‘, which is (the) Anointed {Christ}”

This is Paul’s way of demonstrating that the promise comes to all people (believers) through Christ. At the spiritual level, it is certainly true as well, in the sense that, as believers, we are a single people—Abraham’s (spiritual) descendants together—in union with Christ (cf. the declaration in 3:26-29, below).

Verse 17—Here he returns to the illustration of the testament (diaqh/kh) from v. 15, applying it to God’s promise to Abraham, as contrasted with the Law; it may be paraphrased thus:

The Law (Torah) cannot invalidate the Promise, which God made 430 years prior, so as to make it cease working or be of no effect.

This argument, while historically correct, generally contradicts the understanding of Jewish tradition, whereby Abraham and his descendants were already observing the the Torah commands (i.e. they were already in force) before the Torah was revealed to Moses and recorded by him—as variously explained in Jubilees 21:10; Philo On Abraham §275; Mekilta on Exod 20:18; Genesis Rabbah 44 (27d), 61 (38f); cf. Strack-Billerbeck 3.204-26 and Betz, Galatians, p. 158-9. Paul, of course, emphasizes that Abraham’s righteousness was not the result of observing the Law, but was due to his faith in God (concerning the promise). There are three strands to Paul’s argument:

    • The promise of God (and Abraham’s trust/faith in it) occurred prior to the Law
    • The Law cannot invalidate the promise
    • The Law does not add anything to the promise

In other words, the promise is entirely separate from the Law.

Verse 18—Paul introduces here the idea of inheritance (klhronomi/a, spec. a “lot” which is partitioned out), tying it to the promise:

“For if the lot (one receives) is out of [i.e. from] (the) Law, it is no longer out of [i.e. from] a promise; but God granted (it) to Abraham as a favor through a promise.”

The separation between promise and Law extends to the very nature and character of a promise—it is given as a favor. The verb xari/zomai, used here, refers to giving/granting something as a favor, and is related to the noun xa/ri$ (“favor” or “gift, grace”). The theme of the grace of God is not as prominent in Galatians as in Romans (cf. Gal 1:6, 15; 2:9, 21; and esp. 5:4), but it is more or less implied in the idea of the blessing and promise given by God to Abraham. Inheritance is closely connected with sonship, and will be an important part of the arguments in chapter 4.

Galatians 3:26-29—This is Paul’s concluding declaration (to the Galatians) that the promise comes through Jesus Christ, and, in particular, through faith/trust in him. It can be divided as follows:

    • V. 26: Sonship through faith—”For you all are sons of God through trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”
      • V. 27-28: Religious identity in Christ (oneness/unity of believers)—Baptismal formula
    • V. 29: Inheritance through promise—”And if you (are) of (the) Anointed, then you are Abraham’s seed, (one)s receiving the lot [i.e. heirs] according to (the) promise”

In typical Pauline fashion, a Christological statement is central, embedded within the theological/doctrinal declaration, verses 27-28 referring to baptism, and probably reflecting an early baptismal formula (to be discussed in detail in a separate note; cf. 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11). The twin statements in vv. 26, 29 provide the conceptual framework:

Sonship–Faith–Jesus Christ (v. 26)
Inheritance–Promise–Seed of Abraham (v. 27)

In just a few short verses, Paul brings together all of the main strands of the arguments of chapter 3.

Galatians 3:19-25: The Purpose of the Law

In between the sections of 3:15-18 and 26-29, Paul includes a direct (and powerful) statement as to the purpose of the Law (“[For] what [purpose] then [is] the Law?…”, v. 19). Because these verses are among the clearest expressions of his view of the Law (the subject of these articles), and yet, at the same time, abound with interpretive difficulties, they will be treated more extensively in a series of separate (daily) notes. Here it will suffice to give a brief outline, along with some basic observations; this section can be divided into two (or three) components:

    • Vv. 19-20: Statement of two-fold purpose:
      (1) for “transgressions”, and
      (2) to serve as a “mediator”
    • Vv. 21-25: More detailed explanation:
      (1) to enclose all things “under sin” (vv. 21-22)
      (2) to function as a paidagogos (vv. 23-25)

The second of these purposes is closer to the role of the Torah in Jewish tradition—i.e., as a mediator and guide—though the ultimate declaration in vv. 24-25 represents a decisive break with Judaism, as will be discussed. It is the first purpose Paul ascribes to the Law in vv. 19a, 21-22 which is, by far, his most original (and difficult) contribution—namely, that the primary purpose of the Law was to bring about transgression and enclose/enslave all people under sin (ideas he also expounds in Romans). This, indeed, is a most remarkable teaching! I am not aware of anything quite like it in Judaism, and many Jews (and Jewish Christians) doubtless would have found the notion shocking. Even today, many Jewish (and non-Jewish) believers are troubled by the language Paul uses, and would like to interpret it in less offensive or striking terms.

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).

Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 2)

Section 2: Galatians 3:7-14

The second argument (Gal 3:7-14) of the probatio (chapters 3-4) builds on the first, the transition being the example of Abraham (citing Genesis 15:6) in 3:6—”Abraham trusted in God and it was counted for him unto justice/righteousness”. In verse 1-5 the emphasis is on the transformation/conversion which occurs for the believer through the work of God (giving the Spirit); here, the emphasis switches to the idea of justification, of a person being made (or declared) just by God. Sometimes this is understood as an initial stage in the process (or order) of salvation, but “justification” is more properly regarded as eschatological—the righteous person appears before the heavenly/divine tribunal at the end (or after death) and is admitted into the heavenly/eternal realm of God. In such a judicial process, a person is declared righteous, usually on the basis of his/her behavior and attitude, conforming, in a religious and ethical sense, to the justice/righteousness of God. For a good example of this in the New Testament, see the beatitudes and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7; Lk 6:20-49). An important aspect of early Christian thought—and one which was shared in part by the ancient mystery religions—is that this end-time justification is applied in the present for the believer (or initiate), with the blessing and holiness of God understood as active and real in the life and soul/spirit of the individual (and, by extension, to the religious community). This is often referred to under the specialized term “realized eschatology”, but it was actually a fundamental aspect of early Christian identity. This realized justification/salvation not only offered hope for the future, it served as a point of exhortation and encouragement for believers to live and act in a manner corresponding to their real condition (cf. Gal 5:16, 25).

In tandem with the idea of justification (Abraham being declared just/righteous), this section emphasizes the blessing which God gave to Abraham. The blessing was part of the promise to Abraham; however, the theme of promise is not developed by Paul until the next section (3:15-29). Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 record this promised blessing (cf. also Gen 18:18), and Paul refers to this specifically in Gal 3:8-9. However, Paul blends together Genesis 12:3/22:18 with 15:6 (Gal 3:6), so that the blessing which will come to “all nations” through Abraham is identified being “counted just/righteous” by God (as Abraham was)—and this justification comes by faith/trust (e)k pi/stew$). This is an extraordinary way of interpreting the blessing of Abraham to the nations, which traditionally would have been understood as a product of Israel’s faithfulness to God and obedience to the Torah, and by which various benefits (material, intellectual and religious-spiritual) would be spread, either directly or indirectly, to the Gentiles. Jewish tradition even held out the hope and expectation, based largely on the writings of the later Prophets (esp. so-called deutero/trito-Isaiah, Is 40-66), that at the end-time all nations would be drawn to Israel (to Judah and Jerusalem) and would come to know and serve faithfully the true God. This came to provide part of the background for the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. Paul has introduced an entirely different approach here by identifying this blessing directly with “justification by faith”—it effectively eliminates the mediating role of Israel and the Torah, making it depend entirely on a person’s trust in Christ. It is this thinking which underlies his shorthand declaration in Gal 3:7:

“Know, then, that the ones (who are) of trust/faith [e)k pi/stew$]—these are (the) sons of Abraham”

There is here a slightly different nuance to the preposition e)k (“out of”) in this expression than used earlier in the letter (2:16, also 3:2, 5). Previously, “out of” indicated “as a result of” or “through, because of”; here it means “from” in the more concrete sense “coming out of”, as according to the biological/genealogical metaphor—believers come “out of” Abraham as off-spring, but only to the extent that they specifically come out of his faith/trust (in this respect e)k can also denote “belonging to”). In other words, they are not physical/biological but spiritual descendants; Paul clarifies this further throughout the remainder of chapters 3 and 4.

It is not just that the (positive) mediating role of the Law (Torah) is removed from the equation, for Paul actually attributes to the Law an entirely different purpose—one which is decidedly negative, though ultimately it has a positive effect. His remarkable (and original) view of the Law is expounded rather clearly in vv. 19-25; here in vv. 10-13 he focuses on just one aspect—the Law as curse, in contrast to the blessing which comes by faith. He begins in verse 10 with the statement:

“For as (many) as are out of [i.e from, e)k] works of (the) Law, (these) are under a curse [kata/ra]…”

The expression e)c e&rgwn no/mou (“out of works of Law”) is precisely parallel to e)k pi/stew$ (“out of trust/faith”) in verse 9, and the preposition e)k has the same force. The roughness of Paul’s expression has caused translators to fill it out, glossing it as “those who depend/rely on works of Law”, and so forth. However, this is a highly interpretive rendering, and not necessarily accurate; it very much softens the expression, shifting the emphasis from the Law itself to a person’s attitude toward it. As I will argue throughout these notes, I believe that this is a basic (though well-intentioned) distortion of Paul’s meaning. It is important to maintain the juxtaposition of the literal expressions, while attempting to interpret them accordingly:

oi( e)k pi/stew$
“the ones out of trust/faith”
—those persons who come from, and belong to, trust/faith
oi( e)c e&rgwn no/mou
“the ones out of works of Law”
—those persons who come from, and belong to, works of Law

In other words, two groups of people are described—Christian believers (those “of faith”) and all others (those “of [works of] Law”). The expression “works of Law” might lead one to conclude that Paul limits this distinction to observant Jews, but it is clear that Paul would include all human beings (all non-believers) in this category, there being a similar legal-religious dynamic at work for pagan Gentiles, parallel to that of Israelites and Jews. It is, therefore, not so much a question of how one regards the Law (“relying” on it, i.e. for salvation), but of a more fundamental religious identity—whether one belongs to faith (in Christ) or to works of Law.

The people who are (or who remain) “of the Law” are under a curse (u(po\ kata/ran). The word kata/ra literally means a “wish (or prayer) against (someone/something)”, in other words, a “curse”, though the term imprecation is perhaps more appropriate. In modern society, the magical-dynamic force and significance of imprecatory language has been almost entirely lost, “cursing” having been reduced to empty profanity, so it can be difficult for us today to appreciate exactly what Paul is describing. He turns to the books of the Law (Pentateuch), and draws two examples of “curses”:

    • Deut 27:26: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) who does not remain in the (thing)s written in the book [lit. paper-scroll] of the Law, to do them”—this version Paul cites (in v. 10b) differs slightly from the LXX (“…who does not remain in all the words of this Law…”) which is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew.
    • Deut 21:23: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) hanging upon (a piece of) wood [i.e. a tree]”—Paul’s citation (v. 13b) is modified to match the formula in Deut 27:26.

Deuteronomy 27 records a ceremony in which the people of Israel publicly accept the agreement (covenant) YHWH has established with them, the statutes and commands of the Law (Torah) serving as the basic terms of the covenant which Israel agrees to follow. In verses 15-26 the people together announce a curse on all who violate the commands—vv. 15-25 specify specific kinds of violation, while v. 26 is a general declaration related to the Torah as a whole. The actual curses themselves are stated in 28:15-68, parallel to the (much shorter) statement of blessings (28:1-14). Deuteronomy 21:23 is not a curse as such, but rather a statement that a person executed by hanging is the “curse [hl*l*q=] of God”. The verb llq has the basic meaning “to make small, weak, of no account”, etc, and refers to the uttering of the curse (that is, the words). In the Deuteronomic injunction, the corpse of the hanged person must not be left on the tree (and unburied) through the night, or it will defile the land—i.e., the dead body serves as the curse-vehicle, the means by which the effect of the curse comes upon the land. “Cursed” in Deut 27 translates a different verb (rra), which, based on the cognate (arâru) in Akkadian, appears to have had an original meaning “to bind“—i.e., to bind a person by a magic formula, the words being efficacious to produce what they describe. In the context of Israelite monotheism, it is God who brings it about, according to the words of the curse-formula. A person cursed is thus bound—the punishments or detrimental consequences laid out in the curse-formula will surely come to pass upon him (or her).

Paul use of these two passages is interesting. First, the application of Deut 21:23 to Jesus’ death is relatively straightforward, especially since the punishment of crucifixion (being “put to the stake”) may be referred to as hanging “upon a tree” (cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39). His use of Deut 27:26 is more difficult. Gal 3:10 is often understood in the sense that no one is able to obey and fulfill the Law completely, the transgression of a single command or regulation being enough to violate the entire covenant. However, Paul never quite says this; it could, perhaps, be inferred from Gal 5:3, but otherwise has to be understood on the basis of statements regarding the general sinfulness of all human beings, etc. I will discuss this question in more detail in a separate note, but I would say that the immediate context of Galatians 3-4 is a better guide to what Paul intends here; and, in 3:19-25, he clearly states that a primary purpose of the Law was to bring about (and increase) transgression. By a profound paradox, which Paul never entirely explains (either here or in Romans), even the person who appears blameless according to the Law (cf. Phil 3:6) ultimately ends up violating the very thing that he/she wishes to uphold. The underlying argument is somewhat complex, but the line of reasoning here in Gal 3:10-13 would seem to be as follows:

    • The one who is (or feels) bound and obligated to the “works of Law” ends up violating the Law/Torah
      • and is thus under the curse of God (acc. to Deut 27:26)
        • Jesus frees (redeems) us from the curse (slavery metaphor)
      • becoming the curse of God by his death (acc. to Deut 21:23)
    • Jesus, in his own person (and by his death), fulfills/completes the Law (cf. Rom 10:4)

In a technical sense, one might find problems with Paul’s reasoning here, but it has a definite logic, and believers will recognize the theological (and Christological) truth of it. The logical framework relates primarily to verses 10 and 13, but in vv. 11-12 we find embedded a smaller core argument which likewise draws upon two Scripture passages:

    • “No one is made/declared just [dikaiou=tai] in [i.e. by] the Law alongside [i.e. before] God” (v. 11a)
      • The just (person) will live out of trust [e)k pi/stew$]” {Hab 2:4} (v. 11b)
    • “The Law is not of trust/faith [e)k pi/stew$]” (v. 12a)
      • The (one) doing [poih/sa$] them will live in [i.e. by] them” {Lev 18:5} (v. 12b)

The two Scripture references are set to confirm the pair of statements regarding the Law, which affirms that a person is declared just by God according to faith/trust (and not by observing the Law). Vv. 11-12 are intimately connected with the central proposition of vv. 10-13—that Jesus frees (redeems) us from the curse—and can be regarded as virtually synonymous with it.

The association with the Torah as a curse is striking, and certainly a very un-Jewish thing to say—it appears to be virtually unique and original to Paul. We ought also to understand precisely what this signifies: the “curse of the Law” refers primarily to the Torah as the vehicle or means by which the binding (enslaving) curse comes upon people. Paul realized that this could easily be misinterpreted, and attempts to clarify his meaning with the exposition in vv. 19-25 (to be discussed in the next section).

In verse 14, Paul concludes the section by:

    1. Re-iterating that the blessing of Abraham has indeed come to the Gentiles—by faith (in Christ), and
    2. Introducing the wider context of the promise to Abraham—identifying it with the (Holy) Spirit

This promise will be the theme of the next section.

Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29; cf. the articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

    • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
    • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
      (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
      (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

    • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
    • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
    • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action
James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

    • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
    • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.

Saturday Series: Genesis 17

Last week, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Our study illustrated the importance of historical criticism in analyzing passages such as many in the Pentateuch which record, or refer to, historical traditions coming from an ancient religious/cultural background that is quite foreign to most of us today. This is one aspect of what we call the grammatical-historical method. The fundamental principle involved is that, in studying a passage of Scripture, one must first (and primarily) examine how it would have been understood by the author(s) and original audience of the work. As far as we are able today, at this distance removed, to determine the meaning of the words and phrases in the language of the time, and to reconstruct the historical background of the passage—this is the foundation upon which reliable interpretation must begin. If we fail to consider the original context properly, it is likely that our interpretation will misguided or seriously flawed in important ways.

Today, I wish to examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed last week, the Hebrew word b§rî¾ (tyr!B=) refers to a binding agreement, usually between two parties. They may be parity agreements (i.e. between equal parties), or agreements (treaties, etc) made with a superior; there are many examples of the latter in the surviving ancient Near Eastern texts and inscriptions from the 2nd-1st millennium, usually referred to as suzerainty treaties—that is, between a suzerain (state or ruler) and his vassal(s). Rather unique in this regard is the way that this standard agreement-type was adapted in the ancient Israelite context, to establish the relationship between God (El-Yahweh) and the people of Israel. Such an agreement, by its very nature, follows the suzerainty-treaty pattern—of a superior ruler (God) and his faithful/loyal vassals.

Genesis 17

In many ways, the covenant episode in chapter 17 parallels that in chap. 15 (discussed last week), to the point that many critical scholars view them as variant (traditional) versions of the same essential historical episode, emphasizing different aspects. According to the standard “Documentary Hypothesis” analysis, accepted by many commentators, Genesis 15 is part of the “J” (J/Yahwist) source, using the divine name YHWH (Yawheh) throughout. By contrast, chapter 17 is usually attributed to the so-called “Priestly” (“P”) strand, viewed both as a distinct source, as well as an editorial layer which incorporated earlier traditional material (from “J”, etc). The divine ‘name’ used in chap. 17 (except for the initial references in verse 1), is the plural °§lœhîm (“Mighty Ones”, i.e. “Mightiest”[?]), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. In this regard, historical criticism often blends into source criticism, which is an especially difficult (and often highly speculative) area of Biblical Criticism. Traditional-conservative commentators (along with a few critical scholars) are less willing to accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” source analysis, at least not without serious qualification. Indeed, if we read the texts here at face value, it would seem that chapters 15 and 17 occur at very different points in Abraham’s life. In Gen 17:1, it is stated that Abraham was 99 years old, whereas in Gen 15, presumably, he would have been somewhat closer to the 75 years indicated in 12:4. And, if we accept the essential historicity of the narratives, and the traditions recorded therein, then we would have to posit two distinct historical episodes.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that the nature of the agreement (or covenant) recorded in chapter 17 differs in several important ways from that in chap. 15.

First, there is different language used. Of course, this could be due to a difference in the source of the tradition itself. One need not accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” entirely in order to realize that the consistent use of “Yawheh” vs. “Elohim” suggests a different source for the tradition. This would seem to be confirmed by the use of the divine name (or epithet) Šadday (yD^v^). This is an ancient title, the meaning of which may well have been lost for later Hebrew-speakers, much as it is still uncertain for scholars today. The name occurs in the Old Testament independently (preserved in poetry, Gen 49:25; Psalm 68:14; 91:1; 30 times in the book of Job, etc), and also attached to the divine name °E~l (la@), as here (and 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod 6:3). The original meaning may have been something like “the mountainous One”, “the One of the Mountain”, etc. Deities in the ancient world were often associated, in various ways, with mountains, symbol of the numinous and as a meeting point between heaven and earth. Even before the revelation at Sinai, the Creator God El-Yahweh would have been connected with important mountains and high places. The mountain is also symbolic of height, greatness, exaltedness, etc., and this connotation was likely understood in the name. For Abraham, and the earliest Israelites, the one true God would have been called °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”; see my earlier discussion on this name). According to Exod 6:3, when El-Yahweh appeared to the Patriarchs, it was not by the name YHWH, but as El-Shaddai.

If we were to posit a tentative source-reconstruction of chapter 17, it might be as follows:

    • An ancient tradition, passed down from the time of the Patriarchs, which speaks of God (El [Shaddai]) appearing to Abraham and establishing an agreement with him
    • An editing layer (Mosaic/or post-Mosaic) which identifies the God of the Patriarchs as Yahweh (verse 1).
    • A layer of traditional editing, including normalized translation, etc, which uses the common name/title for God (Elohim) throughout, when El (not Yahweh) was used in the original tradition.

Apart from the use of divine name(s), there are other differences in language and terminology between chapters 15 and 17. For example, instead of the idiom “cut an agreement” (15:18), we have “give [i.e. make] an agreement” (17:2). There is also the repeated expression, b§rî¾ ±ôl¹m, “agreement of [i.e. lasting into] (the) distant (future)”, i.e. “eternal/everlasting agreement” (verses 7, 13, 19). The terminology describing the inheritance of the Promised Land, etc, is also distinct, compared with chapter 15.

Second, the character of the covenant agreement is not the same. While the principal themes are comparable (the promise of descendants for Abraham, the land they will inherit, etc), the form of the agreement itself differs. In Genesis 15, the agreement takes the form specifically of a grant of land to Abraham (and his descendants) as a reward for his faithful service. The binding obligation is entirely upon the superior party (God), and it is He who, symbolically, passes between the pieces, indicating that he his bound to fulfill the agreement. By contrast, in chapter 17, the agreement is binding on both parties—God and Abraham—and it is also a conditional agreement. This is summarized and stated simply in vv. 1b-2:

“Walk before me and be complete, and I will give [i.e. make] my binding-agreement between me and you…”

God’s part of the agreement, his obligation, is described in verses 4-8, entailing (1) giving descendants (a vast number) to Abraham, and (2) assigning the land which they will possess. The fundamental religious nature of this agreement is capped by the closing words, “and I will be God [Elohim] for them”.

Abraham’s part of the agreement, which is to continue on with his descendants, is narrated in vv. 9-14. It fundamentally consists of a promise to maintain the agreement, marked by the rite of circumcision.

Third, there is no sacrificial ritual associated with the covenant agreement in chapter 17. As I noted above, instead of the expression “cut an agreement” (indicating the cutting up of an animal), we have here “give/make and agreement”. However, there is still cutting involved, but of an entirely different sort. It is the rite of circumcision—to “cut off” (mûl) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (°ô¾) of the agreement, marked in the person’s flesh. However, the act of cutting does, in fact, still carry a connotation similar to the cutting up of an animal in the covenant ceremony. Recall that the underlying idea of the cutting symbolized the fate of the person who violated the agreement—i.e., “just as this animal is cut up, thus it will be for {so-and-so} if he/they were to break this agreement”. In this instance, Abraham and his descendants are to “cut off” the male foreskin, signifying their loyalty to the covenant; if they violate the covenant, they likewise will be “cut off” (verse 14).

An important observation to make here, as with many points in Old Testament tradition, is that both the covenant agreement forms, and the rite of circumcision itself, are not unique to Israel, nor were they invented and introduced in the time of Abraham. On the contrary, they follow customs and practices already established and widespread in the ancient Near East. Indeed, various forms of male circumcision are known from ancient and traditional cultures worldwide. This establishes the important principle that God, in the Scriptures, deals with his people in terms that they will understand, accommodating many of the ideas and practices established in the culture at large. In so doing, however, the traditional forms are given a new meaning and significance; and this is certainly the case with the rite of circumcision. At two key points, the Israelite ritual of circumcision may be said to be unique:

    • It is to be performed on the eighth day after birth. This differs from many traditional practices, where circumcision is related to puberty and/or pre-nuptial rites. The Israelite is marked as belonging to God, obliged to follow the covenant agreement he established, from the very time of birth. The eighth day may be connected with the traditional seven-day creation period, or, more generally, with the symbolic idea of seven as indicating completeness. Similarly, according to Exod 22:29, a first-born animal is dedicated on the eighth day after birth. This is likely tied to ancient concepts surrounding purity and sacrificial ritual (see Lev 22:27).
    • As a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham (and his descendants), circumcision fundamentally has a religious, rather than cultural, significance. Whereas in many cultures it marks rites of passage, i.e. into adulthood and one’s place within society, for Israelites, circumcision signifies their identity as a people belonging to God, i.e. God’s own people.

Thus we find two distinct covenant-models in Genesis 15 and 17, each with specific characteristics, as recorded in Scripture:

    1. The first is characterized by:
      (a) The superior party has the sole binding obligation
      (b) This takes the form of a land grant to his faithful ‘vassal’ (Abraham and his descendants)
      (c) It is accompanied by the ceremonial ritual involving the cutting-up of an animal (and passing between the pieces)
    2. The second is characterized by:
      (a) Both parties have binding obligations
      (b) It takes the form of a promise (of descendants for Abraham), and that the superior party (God) will continue to show favor, upon the condition that the vassal-party (Abraham and his descendants) fulfills its promise to uphold the covenant agreement
      (c) It is not accompanied by any ritual slaughter of animals, but involves the cutting of (human) flesh in the rite of circumcision

As you consider these different points of emphasis, turn to Exodus 24 and read the third key covenant episode recorded there. What are your thoughts regarding these distinctive covenant forms—how they are used by God, and how they are presented in the Scripture narrative? What does each episode tell you about the ancient covenant concept, and how such traditions developed within the unique matrix of Israelite religion? Think about these questions, read and study each passage (again) carefully…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Genesis 15

This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

    • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
    • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
    • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.