Heirs of the World – Romans 4:13-17

Stars AbrahamAbraham’s faith was demonstrated before the law was given by many hundreds of years, thus he was not saved by the law. Chronologically this seems obvious, but the Second Temple period texts cited above indicate at least some Jews looked to Abraham as a proto-Jew or “first proselyte.” Kruse cites Mekhilta Ex. 22:20 (101a), “Abraham called himself a proselyte (ger), for it is written, I am a stranger (ger) and a sojourner with you (Gen. 23:4) (Romans, 210).

Paul says Abraham was promised his offspring would become “heirs of the world,” although Genesis defines the land promise narrowly. But by the first century, there were several Second Temple texts that expanded that land promise to include the whole world (Sirach 44:21; Jub. 32:19; 1 Enoch 5:7, 4 Ezra 6:55-59). Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5), very similar to 1 Enoch 5:7.

Sirach 44:21 (NRSV) Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.

1 Enoch 5:7 But to the elect there shall be light, joy, and peace, and they shall inherit the earth. To you, wicked ones, on the contrary, there will be a curse.

Jubilees 32:19 And I shall give to your seed all of the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired. And after this all of the earth will be gathered together and they will inherit it forever.”

All of these texts are based on the Hebrew Bible Isaiah 2, for example, describes Zion as the exalted mountain to which all the nations will stream. From Zion the Lord himself will reign and the nations will come to Zion to “learn the ways of the Lord.” In Daniel 7:14 the Ancient of Days gives a “son of man” authority to rule over all of the nations in an “everlasting dominion that will never end.” Even a text like Psalm 2 indicates the Lord’s anointed king could potentially receive the nations as an inheritance.

Paul certainly looks forward to a future kingdom (1 Cor 15:20-28, Phil 2:5-11), but in this text the descendants of Abraham are those who are being justified by faith in Jesus. Paul has a Jewish, apocalyptic view of what God will do in the future. But here in Romans 4 he connects the “offspring of Abraham” with those who have faith in Jesus, the “in Christ” people. The nations are the Gentiles who are being justified by faith and not works of the Law.

Imagine how this would sound to Roman Christians who were used to hearing that Rome controlled the world (Jewett, Romans, 325). It is unimaginable that an extremely small group of followers of Jesus would somehow challenge the Roman Empire. From the perspective of the mid-first century, Christianity had no impact on the culture of the Empire. But it was not long at all before Christianity began to challenge the thinking of the Roman world.

By Faith not Circumcision – Romans 4:9-12

Abraham’s saving faith was demonstrated before he was given the sign of circumcision. It was not the physical act of circumcision that saved, but his faith before the act. In Genesis 17 God gives Abraham a sign of his covenant: each male born in his household be circumcised on the eighth day. But Paul has cited Genesis 15:6 to show Abraham believed God, and that faith was “credited to him as righteousness.” This is after the second time God spoke to Abraham and conformed his covenant.

romans-4The three repetitions of the covenant are important since the progressively narrow the promised child from Abraham’s heir (Gen 12) to an heir coming from his own body (Gen 15) and then specifically Sarah’s child (Gen 17). At first, Abraham’s heir was an adopted child, Eliezer of Damascus, or perhaps Lot. After the second announcement, Abraham and Hagar have a child, Ishmael. After the third God specifically says the promised heir will be from Sarah and adds circumcision on the eighth day. Ishmael is circumcised (Gen 17:23), but he is thirteen at the time (Gen 16:16, Abraham is 86 when he is born, and Gen 17:1, he is 99 when the covenant is repeated a third time).

Circumcision was a “seal” of the righteous status Abraham had already received (Jewett, 317). Paul’s point is that Abraham was obedient to the sign of the covenant, but it was after his faith had been credited to him as righteousness. “Paul contends that circumcision served as a “seal” (σφραγίς) that confirms the validity of a reality already present, that is, righteousness through faith” (Jewett, 319).

Paul says God gave the sign when he did so that Abraham could be the father of all who believe, both the Jews and Gentiles. It was always possible Gentiles could become part of the people of God, although it was necessary for them to convert to Judaism. By the first century there was some debate whether Gentiles converting to Judaism were required to be circumcised (Galatians, for example, but also the Izates story in Josephus).

Paul’s point here is a radical re-reading of Abraham’s story since he argues Abraham can be the father of faithful Gentiles in their uncircumcision since Abraham himself was declared righteous before he was given the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was a key boundary marker in Second Temple Judaism, for Paul to suggest all Gentiles could be declared righteous like Abraham was without submitting to the sign of the covenant is radical indeed! (See, for example, my comments on Galatians 2 several years ago).

This means Abraham is not first the father of the Jews, but the father of Gentiles who are now being declared righteous by faith in Jesus (Barrett, Romans, 90-91).

In the same way, not ritual can impart any saving grace to a person, only through belief can a person be justified. Christian rituals such as baptism or communion are not intended to make a person right with God.

Abraham’s Faith and Works – Romans 4

Romans 4 offers an interesting application of the New Perspective on Paul. Paul seems to be making a contrast between his opponents who saw Abraham’s faith as meriting justification and his view that one cannot boast in salvation because it is wholly a work of God.

faith-of-abrahamThere does seem to be some evidence some streams of Second Temple Judaism considered Abraham’s faith so or faithful acts as something to boast in. For example, Sirach 44:19-22 claims Abraham “perfectly kept the Law.” In the Testament of Abraham, a young Abram rejects his father’s idols and mocks them as useless. In response to this, God gives the young Abram the promise of Genesis 12. In the Mishnah, Genesis 26:5 is interpreted as an indication Abraham kept the entire Torah before it was even given!

m.Qiddushin 4:14 “We find that the patriarch Abraham kept the entire Torah even before it was revealed, since it says, Since Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Gen. 26:5) (Neusner, The Mishnah, 499).

Another example is found in 1 Maccabees 2:51-52: Call to remembrance what acts our fathers did in their time; so shall ye receive great honour and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?”  In Special Laws 4.164 Philo boasts his summary of the Law is “my incomparable boast and glory (καύχημα καὶ κλέος ἀνανταγώνιστον), a sign of sovereignty that none can challenge, formed in the image of its archetype the kingship of God.” (cited by Jewett, Romans, 310).

I would suggest another aspect of boasting in one’s faith is the Greco-Roman practice of boasting in honor. If a wealthy Roman did something worthy of praise, they might pay to have that deed inscribed on a monument or dedicate some public work in order to boast in their honor. If Abraham did something to merit God’s declaration of righteousness, it would be natural for a Roman to boast about it.

In each of these cases, it appears Abraham is righteous because he keeps the Law, or at the very least, the key boundary marker of Judaism of the first century, circumcision. Paul’s point is the exact opposite of this, Abraham’s faith was expressed before he had been given the first of the boundary markers (circumcision) and well before the Jewish people were given any of the Law. Although Sabbath was a part of the creation story, there is no indication Abraham kept the Sabbath in Genesis, and there is no hint he would have kept the food laws which separated Jews and Gentiles. Joshua 24:2-3 says Abraham had worshiped “other gods” when he lived in Ur of the Chaldees, so he cannot even be considered a monotheist!

It is hard to imagine how Paul’s suggestion that Abraham did not merit God’s declaration of righteousness would have sounded to a Jewish person in the Second Temple Period. For some, they might agree with Paul and consider the boundary markers of the Law a proper response to salvation rather than a requirement. But it is also likely there were some who saw boundary markers as non-negotiable, so that they do function as “required.”

In the present age, after the cross, this de-coupling of works and salvation is more clear, yet there is a human tendency to fall back to good works. How can we use Romans 4 to avoid this?

 

 

Why Abraham? – Romans 4

In Romans 4 Paul illustrates his statement claim that God will justify all those who are in Christ Jesus by faith, no works. Like Galatians, he uses the well-known story of Abraham in order to show that the father of the Jewish people was himself made right with God without submitting to ritual (like circumcision) or keeping the Law.

Abraham was a prototype of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism. He perfectly kept the Law according to Sirach, a wisdom text written about 200 B.C.

Sirach 44:19–21 (NRSV) Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. 20 He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful. 21 Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.

Jubilees 23:10 For Abraham was perfect in all of his actions with the LORD and was pleasing through righteousness all of the days of his life. (OTP 2:100)

Another reason for using Abraham in both Galatians and Romans is Paul’s opponents may have used Abraham as an example for the Gentiles. Abraham was a Gentile who was righteous before God. Why did God declare him righteous? They might answer because he obeyed God by not withholding his only son (Genesis 22) and because he submitted to the sign of the covenant, circumcision.

Abraham BelievedPaul’s main point in Romans 4 is simple. In Genesis 15:6 God declared Abraham righteous, before he was given the sign of the covenant (Gen 17) and long before the Law was given. For Paul, Gentiles are declared righteous just as Abraham was, by faith.

Are there other factors which may account for why Paul used Abraham as an analogy in Romans 4?

Galatians 3: Why Abraham?

That Abraham “believed in God and was declared righteous” is an important point for Paul. But it is critical to Paul’s point to know when Abraham believed. He trusted in God’s word before the sign of the Covenant was given, in Genesis 15 not 17. What is more, Abraham believed in God well before his great demonstration of faith in Genesis 22. The reader of Galatians needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to grasp the full impact of Paul’s point.

Paul also uses Abraham as an example in both Romans and Galatians. Why select Abraham as the model of faith? It is possible the agitators themselves have been using Abraham in their teaching, since Abraham was a Gentile who believed God and that belief was “credited to him as righteousness.” Paul’s opponents in Galatia may have argued the Gentiles now coming to Christ are in the same category as Abraham, and Abraham was circumcised as a sign of his covenant with God.

Gen 22God credited this belief to Abraham. The verb חשׁב refers to considering an internal thought which “reckons” or considers something. It is an evaluation or something-“to reckon” not in the sense of counting numerically but of evaluative assessment” (TLOT, 480).

Righteousness is a key theological term in both the Old and New Testament. Christians tend to hear “righteousness” as personal holiness. Although this is certainly part of what the term can mean, modern reductions to “sinlessness” miss the rich use of this word to cover all sorts of activities from honesty to justice.

But in the Old Testament, righteousness is usually associated with one’s actions with respect to a standard, such as the Law. If one keeps the Law, then one is “righteous,” which implies a moral standard. But “sin” in the Old Testament is far more than moral offenses against God, physical uncleanliness separates one from God, so a woman (for example) who has given birth is “unclean” and needs to make a sin offering. Giving birth is not a moral problem, but a change of physical status.

In Galatians 3:7-9, Paul is creating a biblical argument, focusing on the phrase “credited as righteousness” in Genesis 15. In this story, Abraham believed in the word of God as revealed to him and God considered him “right with God” as a result. At this point in history, Abraham should be considered a Gentile, at least by the rules imposed by the agitators in the Galatian churches. He was uncircumcised and the food and Sabbath laws have not yet been given. Since he believes in the God who called him out of his father’s land, he a “converted pagan,” just like the Galatian believers.

This is in contrast to other views of Abraham in Judaism of the Second Temple Period. For example, in the apocryphal book Sirach, Abraham is described as having kept the “law of the Most High,” so God entered into a covenant with him and “certified the covenant in his flesh” (Sirach 44:19-21). Paul does not rewrite Scripture like so much of the literature of the Second Temple Period did. He considers Abraham as a Gentile who was made right with God by faith in what God told him, not by works (either circumcision or the Law).

Abraham is therefore the perfect model for Paul to use since he was justified before the Law: he was justified by faith not by the act of circumcision.

 

Book Review: Joseph Blenkinsopp, Abraham: The Story of a Life

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Abraham: The Story of a Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 256 pp. Pb; $29.   Link to Eerdmans

In this book, Joseph Blenkinsopp offers what he calls a “discursive commentary” on Genesis 12-22, the life of Abraham. In the preface he states his in this book goal is to write an exposition of the text which is “basically historical-critical” but also sensitive to the general theological and human interest found in the biblical text itself (xi).

Blenkinsopp, AbrahamThe introduction to the book surveys the character of Abraham in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. In this book, Blenkinsopp assumes the stories reached a final form fairly late, in a “time of uncertainty” as a response to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (21). The promise of land repeated throughout these stories would have been important to the struggling post-exilic community as would Abraham’s tenuous hold on the Promised Land. That God remained faithful to Abraham during his struggle to live in a land promised to him would have encouraged the post-exilic community.

The life of Abraham is divided into ten chapters, extending to the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. There are few technical details in the text, the few times he references the Hebrew text words appear only in transliteration, and interaction with literature on Genesis appears in the footnotes. This makes for a readable text without too much distraction from technical details.

Occasionally he deals with theological readings of the text. For example, he discusses the sacrifice of Isaac (the Aqedah) foreshadowing the death of Jesus (155-8). Although the New Testament does not specifically connect the story in Genesis 22 to the crucifixion, “it was practically inevitable” the story would be seen as prefiguring Jesus’ death. That Paul would call Jesus “our paschal lamb” (1 Cor 5:7) may be the New Testament connection to the Aqedah. The Second Temple book of Jubliees associates the sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. According to that book, the story begins on the twelfth of Nisan. Since the journey to Moriah took three days, he arrives at Moriah on the fifteenth of the month, the day Passover will begin later in history. Every year after the events on Moriah, Abraham celebrated a seven day “feast of the Lord.” Although there is no explicit New Testament connection between Genesis 22 and the death of Jesus, Romans 8:32 says “God did not withhold his own son” (cf. Gen 22:16). Blenkinsopp suggests the Isaianic Servant is also dependent on the Aqedah.

At the end of each chapter is a short reflection entitled “Filling in the Gaps.” These sections draw on the post-biblical legends about Abraham found in Second Temple sources such as Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Philo. He often summarizes the Genesis Rabbah or other later Jewish traditions which interrogate the biblical narrative “probing fractures and fissures” (25). He omits these legends in the commentary on the text since is goal is accurate exposition of the story of Abraham, yet these “illuminations of the text” provide insight into the way later faithful readers of the text understood the story of Abraham. As he points out at the very end of the book, most of these retellings of the Abraham story developed in a time when there were no Christians or Muslims, although they are the paradigm for both Christian and Muslim expansions of the text (210).

A welcome addition to the story of Abraham is a chapter on Abraham’s “other beloved son” Ishmael. Despite the brevity of this chapter, Blenkinsopp deals with some of the historical problems associated with the Ishmael stories, but also the theological problem of “setting aside the firstborn.” Although not considered the firstborn of Abraham, Ishmael “is still recipient of blessing and inheritor of the promise made to Abraham” (167), as is demonstrated by the genealogy of the twelve Arab tribes in Genesis 25. He briefly traces the history of these tribes into the Second Temple period and beyond into the legends included in Qur’an.

Conclusion. As Blenkinsopp states in his introduction, book is a theological exposition rather than a detailed exegetical commentary. Blenkinsopp achieves the goal of presenting the story of Abraham in a way that is both faithful to the text and theologically insightful.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.