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Monday, September 9, 2019

Revisiting Abraham's "faith reckoned as righteousness" - Part 2 (This is yuge.)

I am pleased to present a post that I am very proud of and think you will greatly enjoy. It's about 5 pages long but I think reads fast and is worth it. I don't know how it all came together, but perhaps it was inspiration from above, even the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I will never read Romans 4 the same way again, and hopefully you won't either.

It was almost a year ago when I began to start rethinking what exactly Paul was arguing in Romans 4 (and Galatians 3), and I wrote a post about it (HERE). The simplistic, surface-level "faith not works" is just not a convincing reading when you consider the actual words of Paul and other key details. One thing to realize is that when Paul first made his claim, it had to be a convincing claim to both Jews and Christians who heard it. Otherwise, Paul would have discredited himself if his argument wasn't based on good logic and good exegesis (e.g. see Paul's actual argument in Romans 9 HERE). 

Paul could not simply say "I'm an apostle, so I'm right," since the Jews would have just laughed at him. With that in mind, simply quoting Genesis 15:6 doesn't prove anything. The Jew would respond "so what?" Believing and having that faith reckoned as righteousness doesn't in itself tell us anything about conversion (especially since Abraham wasn't converting here), it tells us nothing about the Gospel, nothing about forgiveness, etc. So Paul's argument had to be something more substantial than just quoting Genesis 15:6. And I think I've figured out what makes Paul's argument so solid, and it appears a few verses after verse 6:
5 And God brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. 7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 
9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 
18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
Notice that right after Abraham believed, the narrative immediately begins speaking of a (mysterious) Sacrificial Liturgical Rite for the ratification of a Covenant. I really would love to study this passage in more depth, as it seems very important in Salvation History. Sadly, it seems that we routinely skip over everything past verse 6 just as we routinely skip over the verses past Romans 4:8. 

The establishment of a Covenant with God is no small matter in Salvation History, and from what I can see the only time prior to this that a Covenant was established was in Genesis 9 with Noah where God promises not to flood the world ever again. So when God establishes a Covenant in Genesis 15, especially relating to Abraham's descendants, this has got to be significant, especially for the Jew-Gentile tension. Some might object and say that the Covenant being established in Genesis 15:7-21 is distinct from God's promise in Genesis 15:1-6, but this seems unlikely for a few reasons. 

It seems that the whole narrative of Genesis 15 is focused on the Covenant ratification Sacrifice. Of course, this sounds a lot like believing being tied to the Sacrifice of Jesus, so that shouldn't be downplayed either. Though it seems that the focus shifts to the Promise Land rather than Offspring, it seems that the two ideas go together and are inseparable. Land requires people and people require land. In fact, the very words of God here speak of Abraham's descendants being in Egypt for 400 years (and at least half that time in slavery). So Offspring isn't enough, they need to live in freedom on their own land. 

Also, as I noted in Part 1 of Revisiting, the language of "righteousness" used in 15:6 strongly suggests some covenant by which to measure that righteousness, so this strongly suggests 15:6 ties with the rest of the chapter as well. It is highly unlikely that 15:6 stands on its own and has no relation to the rest of the chapter. 

What this means is that Genesis 15 is very significant for Paul to focus on, but it had nothing to do with Abraham's conversion from lost sinner to spiritually alive believer. That conversion experience for Abraham took place as early as Genesis 12 and isn't the point of Romans 4 or Genesis 15. Or if it is the point, then I suppose Abraham's story is similar to that of Cornelius in Acts 10, where Cornelius was a believer and obeying God long before coming fully into the Covenant later in life (I posted about this HERE).

Furthermore, Paul's focus in Romans 4 is to argue that something important took place prior to Abraham being circumcised (Rom 4:10-11). So the point isn't works in general, since we know Abraham wasn't circumcised until Genesis 17, which was at least 15 years after Genesis 15. Why would Paul point to circumcision 15 years after the Covenant was established if Paul was concerned with everyday works Abraham was doing, including the Sacrificial Ritual which Abraham performed that same day? The fact Paul doesn't mention Abraham's Sacrifice that same day suggests that it wasn't a "work" in Paul's mind. I would venture to say that "Abraham believed in God and it was credited as righteousness" is a Hebrew idiomatic way of saying Abraham affirmed God's promise by offering the Covenant ratification Sacrificial Rite. 

With this in mind, we should take note that the next time the term "Covenant" appears in Scripture is in Genesis 17, the same chapter where Abraham gets circumcised. Realizing this, we can definitely think "covenant" is the real issue in mind in Romans 4. The background of Genesis 17 is that of Genesis 16, when Abraham's wife Sarah tells Abraham to take her maid Hagar as his concubine, in order to produce a son that would fulfill the promise of Genesis 15:4. Up to this point, it seems Abraham was dedicated to his wife and refused to engage in concubinage nor polygamy, but he followed Sarah's request, and Hagar gave them a son, Ishmael, as their heir. 

[Update: 9/14/19 - I had originally suggested the Hagar/Ishmael situation was semi-sinful, or at least due to doubting on Abraham's part, but today after hearing a priest discuss this passage, we must be very careful not to accuse Abraham of either sexual immorality or especially of doubting God in any way. Thus, I have edited out any scandalous/inaccurate comments I've made in this article. The truth is, concubinage was part of that culture and God did tolerate it for a time, so Abraham did not actually sexually sin here. And we cannot safely say Abraham doubted here, especially since Romans 4:18-22 and other texts, even the Genesis narrative, do not suggest at all the Abraham ever doubted. He was certainly uncertain about how things would be fulfilled, e.g., legitimately thinking maybe Hagar was the means, but he did not doubt that God would fulfill His promise. Thus, I have edited out any scandalous/inaccurate comments I've made in this article.]

Genesis 17 begins by saying that when Ishmael was about 13 years old, God appears again to Abraham, to again reaffirm the promises God keeps giving all these decades. God appears again to talk about Covenant, this time in reference to circumcision. This is obviously a major part of Salvation History, and one which we too often pay little attention to. But now that we know what to keep an eye out for, let's take a look at some of Genesis 17:
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram ["exalted father"], but your name shall be Abraham ["father of a multitude"], for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah ["princess"] shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
There is some very noteworthy information presented here in Genesis 17 that will help us understand Paul's point a bit better in Romans 4. For example, again here we see covenant mentioned, along with the promise to give the land. It does not seem like a second covenant is given here, but rather the same one as Genesis 15, but maybe with some additions onto it. Given this, it is understandable how there could be confusion over the centuries as to just how circumcision played into the Gospel when it came to Gentiles converting to Christianity. Perhaps this was progressive revelation, or perhaps it was in response to the Ishmael situation mentioned just prior.

Why did God give this command to circumcise? Some have suggested that since this circumcision event is presented right after the Ishmael event, that the two are related. In that view, they say Abraham was not being properly faithful to the Covenant of Genesis 15, and was trying to fulfill the covenant by human "ingenuity" (i.e. sexual relations with another woman, Hagar). And so God needed to appear here to get things back on track. They say that since Abraham sinned sexually, it was necessary for God to require a sexual punishment, i.e., circumcision. This kind of makes sense, given that Genesis 17 has to make it clear Abraham is still going to be the father of many nations, and that it will not be through Ishmael but rather some truly miraculous means, i.e., barren Sarah conceiving at age 90. But as per the Update above, I am now convinced this sexual sin and doubting motif is not safe to assume as correct, so I relegate it to a secondary and inferior view. Rather, it seems more safe to say that God appears in Genesis 17 to correct mistaken ideas of how the covenant would play out (i.e. not through Ishmael, as Abraham was then expecting), but not to punish Abraham for some alleged sin/doubt. The texts nowhere suggest Ishmael was a sin/doubt, and in fact it speaks highly of Ishmael and the blessings that would come to him, as well as God appearing twice to Hagar in her sadness to comfort her.
 
Also note that all this time we have improperly been calling this man "Abraham," when in reality he did not receive this name until he was 99 years old! His whole life his actual name was "Abram," meaning "exalted father" (despite having no children). Now, God changes his name to "Abraham," meaning "father of many nations," despite the fact Abraham only had one son at this point. As we know with Simon being called Peter, that a name change in the Bible is often very significant, and that's just as true here.

Now turning to Romans 4, we start to see a lot more of this Genesis 17 language appear:
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” [Gen 17:4-5], in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead [cf Gen 17:17, Sarah's womb] and calls into existence the things that do not exist [cf Gen 17, Isaac's birth foretold; father of many nations foretold]. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” [Gen 15:5] 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old [Gen 17:17]), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
It is fascinating to note that Paul calls upon Genesis 17 heavily throughout Romans 4, almost as much as he calls upon Genesis 15. This, to me, further strengthens the connection between "covenant" in Genesis 15 and 17. The fact that Paul explicitly mentions "the law" here, which is clearly the Mosaic Law (I wrote about this recently HERE), indicates that Paul is really talking about the Israelites/Jews versus the Gentiles. The point isn't some generic law, some generic works, some generic circumcision, but rather these terms are all tied to the Jewish identity. 

One main problem with translating the Bible is how easily teachings can get lost in translation. For example, throughout Paul's Epistles we hear the term "Gentiles". But in reality, there is no such thing as a "Gentile". Rather, the term "Gentile" is the Latin term for "Nations," and in Greek and Hebrew it is also "Nations". This is tragic, because in English we read "Gentiles" and miss obvious play on words that Paul is doing. In Romans 4, Paul points out that Abraham means "father of many nations" and that Paul says this is how God fulfills his promise that Abraham would be the father of the "Nations" (Gentiles). In other words, Abraham's name literally means "father of the Gentiles," so Paul is saying this naturally suggests the Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. Rather, circumcision came later on, and this was only to mark out Abraham's special lineage through Isaac. Abraham could not have been "father of many nations" if only the Israelites were meant, for they were one nation, twelve tribes, and at their peak a few million people. And after the Babylonian Captivity, the Israelite "nation" was a fraction of what it once was by the time Jesus arrived. So Paul seems to be saying that if we truly believe God made Abraham a father of many nations, more numerous than the stars, and that this would be in some sense 'eternal' (lasting a long time), then this can only be fulfilled with the influx of Gentiles into the Church. And indeed, there have been nearly 2 billion Christians throughout history.

With all the above in mind, I am trying to re-read the first half of Romans 4 using Genesis 16-17 as the primary lens. I have recently began to question whether "justification," at least when used in places like Romans 4, really means "Salvation" as we have come to use the term. I am doubting that, and rather I think Paul is using "justify" a lot more narrowly here. In this case, how could Abraham have been "justified by works"? As I have noted in another post, "works" are strongly tied to biological lineage in Paul's mind (see HERE). If Genesis 16-17 is the real interpretive key to Romans 4, then perhaps Paul is speaking of Abraham being "justified by works" in reference to the Ishmael situation. That is, thinking the Covenant would be fulfilled by having a son through Hagar. In this way, Abraham was trying to be "justified by works". In doing so, Abraham could boast before men now that he had an heir (Ishmael), but not before God, because God had greater plans for Abraham than what human praise is based upon. This leads to Romans 4:4, "and when a man works, his wages are given as due." So when Abraham took Hagar, the wages were the natural consequence of normal human relations. This is not bad in and of itself, it's just that it's the merely natural way things happen, whereas God sometimes works on a super-natural level. As Paul says elsewhere: "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar" (Gal 4:22-24). It is not that Paul is saying Ishmael was a bad thing, but rather that Ishmael was to play a lesser role than the more miraculous son Isaac would play. Here there are allusions to Jesus being superior to Moses. I have written before how God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom 4:5) is best understood as God justifies the Gentiles (see HERE), and I think that still fits, but appreciated more when the covenant of Gen 15 is kept in mind. 

I think the reason Paul brings up Genesis 15 in Romans 4 in connection with Genesis 16-17 is because the question of circumcision is not immediately obvious. Was it given as a punishment? I no longer think so. But it seems to be given as a corrective, so that Abraham and ourselves would not get confused as to how God was actually going to fulfill his Promise. I think Paul's point is that circumcision was a temporary later addition to the Genesis 15 Covenant so as to help us identify the chosen race of people, and would end when the Messiah arrived. Circumcision was not the essence of the Covenant of Genesis 15, which was actually about blessing the whole world through Abraham's seed, and if that seed is Jesus, then Jesus blesses the whole world be they Jew or Gentile.

5 comments:

Nick said...

I will add that Galatians 4 has some good insight here as well:

////21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;[e] she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

28 Now you,[f] brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.////

The passage is clearly highlighting the tragedy of Abraham sleeping with Hagar and all the heartache that resulted for everyone. The wording Paul uses is "according to the flesh" with regards to how Ishmael was born. This hearken to Rom 4:1 with Abraham as father "according to the flesh". Those who are his children only according to the flesh are inferior to his children born according to the Spirit. Ishmael is a clear example of this, allegorically for Christians but very real when compared to Isaac.

Nick said...

Interesting detail from Galatians 3:

//////17 The law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God.///////

So Paul explicitly uses the term "covenant" here in reference to Abraham. This is yuge because the only times "covenant" is mentioned is at the end of Genesis 15 and in Genesis 17. This strongly supports the idea that 15:6 is about the rest of the chapter including the covenant Sacrifice ritual, and not merely believing.

Anonymous said...

Nice observations. I would point you in the direction of John Bergsma's talk on the phrase "works of the law" in the context of the dead sea scrolls. There is only one place outside the NT where this phrase appears, and it is a Jewish sectarian writing that deals exclusively with ceremonial and ritual works, not with morality as such. (In fact, the phrase "reckoned unto you as righteousness" appears in this work also- which suggests it was a term that had general usage and was not merely a Pauline device.) At any rate, all of this further undermines the historically idiosyncratic assumption of the reformers that "works of the law" means "good works" of any and every time. These data points suggest that "works of the law" picks out the ceremonial law, and is not any kind of reference to some generic "covenant of works" of sort that Westminster postulates.

Nick said...

I have updated the main post to edit out any suggestion that Abraham sinned sexually or that he doubted and so slept with Hagar or that circumcision was a punishment. These could be true and could be implied by the way the Hebrews wrote - but I think charging Abraham with sexual sin with Hagar or that he doubted so he went to Hagar to try to fulfill things on his own, is simply more a projection by certain scholars today and I don't think it's safe to go along with. So I have re-written a few paragraphs above, and I don't think have lost the main lesson of the post about the Covenant being the heart of Genesis 15.

Nick said...

After more talk and reflection, it seems that we should not downplay the troubling circumstances of the Hagar situation. Abraham didn't seem to want Hagar but he took Hagar to appease Sarah. It isn't clear if Sarah was being faithless here or just trying to get things done on her own timeline. But it is clear that the Hagar situation led to lots of heartache and tears and broken family bonds. Abraham was grieved about the consequences and Sarah felt jealous and insulted by Ishmael.

The point is, that even with this, we must still affirm that Abraham did not doubt God, otherwise Paul could never have written Romans 4:18-22. Abraham would not have been a model of faith if he caved into doubt one chapter after Genesis 15:6. So the Hagar situation was not a situation of doubt. And even though it wasn't a mortal sin, there was some degree of unhealthy/venial sin about it, since Abraham loved Sarah too much to ever take a concubine.