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Dunash ben Labrat

Ali Ahmad Said

Verbal System of Ancient Hebrew

The Bible as seen through the eyes of . . .

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(1) I think one fundamentally misjudges Judaism if one equate the Abrahamic promise to "justification by faith" (a term now fully associated with Luther's reading of Paul). Abraham was required by his faith to complete submit to God's will -- famously even to the point of committing the Akedah (Genesis 22). (The absolute terror of this event forms the basis of many works, including Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and Caravaggio's painting The Binding of Isaac. Kierkegaard claims that meditation on the Akedah caused to Kierkegaard to be "virtually annihilated". Further evidence of the power of the story of the Akedah is that it forms the motif of the Jesus sacrifice story.) In the classic Jewish view, Abraham's faith to God was equivalent to his total submission to God's law. Consider, in contrast, the punishment of David and Moses for their failure to totally submit to God's will.

(2) Incidentally, the story of the mountain over Israel's heads is not at all original to Heschel but rather a famous exegesis of Exodus 19:17 -- see, for example, BT Shabbos 88a. However, as that same amud observes, Esther 9:27 gives evidence the Jews did in fact renew the covenant in the post-Biblical (perhaps Gentiles would prefer the terminology "post-Mosaic") period:

“And they stood under the mountain.” (Exodus 19:17) Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One Blessed Be He, overturned the mountain on them as [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah all is well, but if not, then there will be your grave.’ Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov said, ‘This furnishes a strong protest against [observance of] the Torah.’ Raba said, ‘Be that as it may, they accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh, for it is written, “the Jews observed and accepted” (Esther 9:27) - they observed what they had already accepted.

David Ker

I feel like I've discovered a hidden candy drawer of delights. But richer and scarier than that. Thanks for talking about the terror and the frightening thought for goyim that this bloody and smoke-filled ceremony is not a relic but a living covenant to this day.

A number of commentators describe this as a unilateral alliance since God symbolically is the only one who passes among the animals. But you describe it as bilateral. Care to expand on that?

@Theophrastus, you mention the Akedah in art and literature. Where does this berith show up?

J. K. Gayle

When posting on Gen 15, David, you say: "Translation choices lead to interpretive decisions." John, You're right to bring this conversation back to the Hebrew. But, Theophrastus, you bring the whole thing back to translation again when mentioning Martin Luther.

Protestant Christians do need to know Luther here. We all especially need reminders of how he chose to translate, and the anti-Semitic ways, therefore, he interpreted. He interpreted thusly: "allein durch den Glauben ge - rechtfertigt." And, accordingly, he translated Genesis 15:6 as "Abram glaubte dem HERRN, und das rechnete er ihm zur Gerechtigkeit." Paul sounds German to Luther through his Greek, which he calls a great mercy: "Denn ob es wohl eine große Gnade, daß durch die 70 Juden die Bibel in die griechische Sprache, welcher Translation die Apostel [Paul] selbst gebrau- chet und nachmals von St. Hieronymus und Andern in die lateinische Sprache gebracht...." It is important to keep this in German, at least it was for Luther. He on more than one occasion wrote things like this: "Denn die hebräische Sprache liegt leider zu gar darnieder, daß auch die Juden selbst wenig genug davon wissen."

Basically, he's saying Jews don't know their Hebrew; and elsewhere he brags about how much clearer his German translation of the Bible is. And he cautioned other Germans on their translation of the Hebrew:

"Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style... [O]nce he understands the Hebrew author... has the German words to serve the purpose, let him drop the Hebrew words, and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows…. to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew."

J. K. Gayle

This erasure of the Jewishness of Moses and Paul (and even Jesus) is what translators such as Willis Barnstone and David Rosenberg have had to work against.

Barnstone, in his Restored New Testament, translates as follows:

"Shaul/Saul/Paul" - quoting LXX Genesis 15:6 if not translating the Hebrew -

What shall we say that our forefather Avram
Discovered by way of the flesh? If Avram
Was justified by his works, he has something
To boast about, but not before God. Genesis
Says Avram believed God. For his belief
He was accounted with justice.

- Romans 4:1-3

He didn't flag in his belief in God's promise.
Indeed, he was strengthened in his belief,
Giving glory to God, fully persuaded
That what God promised he could fulfill.
So his faith counted as goodness in him.

- Romans 4:20-22

As Avraham had faith in God, and he
Was singled out for justice,.

- Galatians 3:6

"Yaakov (James)" - quoting LXX Genesis 15:6 if not translating the Hebrew –

And so the scripture was fulfilled that said:
…And Avraham believed God and he was counted
…Among the good.
And he was called a friend of God.

- James 2:23

(James, of course, was for Luther, that “strawy epistle”)

Rosenberg, in his Abraham: The First Historical Biography , translates Genesis 15:6 as follows:

He trusted Yahweh, and it was accounted to him as strength.

Likewise, Robert Alter, whose Genesis translation Barnstone praises and follows with respect to translation practice, renders Genesis 15:6 as follows:

And he trusted in the LORD, and He reckoned it to his merit.

Similarly, Everett Fox, whose English translation typically conveys the Hebrew wordplay, renders Genesis 15:6 as follows:

Now he trusted in YHWH,
and he deemed it as righteous-merit on his part.

Perhaps a “classic Jewish” translation is the JPS Englishing of Genesis 15:6 –

And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

Theophrastus, Do you think any of these translations gets at what you said? You wrote:

“In the classic Jewish view, Abraham's faith to God was equivalent to his total submission to God's law.”

Does Rosenberg’s translation (noted above) match the classic Jewish view? And does a later statement he makes (in An Educated Man) convey that view? He says:

“Everyone has a definition for such terms as ‘Old Testament’ and ‘Covenant’ in their heads, in most cases superficial or even unconsciously patronizing…. ‘Commandment’ is probably not the most accurate translation of the Hebrew. In terms of covenant between two parties, human and God, these are the Creator’s ‘requirements’ of human beings.”


Hi Theophrastus,

Excellent points. It is the case that Judaism (excuse the generalization, to be taken with a large pinch of salt) embraces the principle of justification by faith and nonetheless puts an even greater emphasis on sanctification. [I'm using language with strong biblical antecedents that is understandable, I believe, in a Jewish context, even if the technical terms of preference are different.)

In that sense, Judaism and Calvinism are relatively close; Judaism and Lutheranism, at least as the latter is sometimes configured (but see Luther's Catechisms!), less so.

With respect to divine determinism and free human response, my sense is that Judaism affirms both, as does Christianity, though, given the latter's struggles with what is called Pelagianism (which would be a "heresy" in a Jewish context as well), it has often found it difficult to celebrate the free human response component.

Hi David,

I call the covenant bilateral because it is presented as a recompense for Abraham's response of faith. It is also bilateral in the sense that, though the covenant cannot and will not be abolished in the case of human disobedience - the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, as Paul puts it - the gift of the promise is understood to call forth and create a faithful response in the one who receives it.

It is a bloody ritual that founds the covenant. It only gets worse with the Akedah even if the sacrifice of Isaac in a limited sense is avoided in extremis.

The trajectory has an absolutely poignant conclusion, for a Christian (quite apart from Mel Gibson's interpretation; what the gospels offer is cruel enough), in the cross of the one who is thought of true man, true Israel, and true God all at the same time.


Hi Kurk,

Thanks for citing alternative translations of the verse in question. Yet I am at a loss, if Rosenberg's translation is set to one side, to see a fundamental difference between the following translations of the Hebrew of Gen 15:6:

LXX, Luther, Barnstone, Alter, and Fox.

What substantive differences would you have us note?

Most translations of Gen 15:6 are basically on the same page. A really palpable divergent interpretation is however proposed by Lloyd Gaston (see link provided).

J. K. Gayle

I'm really interested in Theophrastus's assertion about the "classic Jewish view." How, in light of Luther's appropriations of "translation" and of "language" (i.e., for him "deutsche Sprache"), does the classic Jewish response to such anti-Semiticisms look? The difference in the translation, for Luther at least, lies in the German, in his protesting protestant anti-Roman, anti-Semitic theology. Alter, Barnstone, and Fox, it seems to me, are restoring rather than (like Luther) reforming; that is, the word level of their translations acknowledge ambiguities and pluralities of traditions with the language of the Bible. But the anchor is always and primarily Hebrew, knowable Hebrew, as part and parcel of what Jewishness is. So, where does that leave David Ker, who argues that translation does make a difference and also that the NT (mainly "the Gospel") is The Lens for the OT? I'm asking questions more than seeing answers just yet.

But for the LXX, I think Sylvie Honigman is on to something as she researches the legend of Aristeas, saying that the translators followed the "Homeric paradigm." Likewise, I believe Naomi Seidman has an awfully intriguing thesis that the “Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legends” in which the LXX is viewed as "a trickster text: the [Jewish] translator is a trickster, who in folklore ‘represents the weak, whose wit can at times achieve ambiguous victories against the powers of the strong.’ Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes the passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a ‘hidden transcript,’ the private discourse of a minority culture.”

The Greek words of Genesis 15:6 are tricky indeed in the context of the formulations and debates over Greek rhetoric. I'm talking about all three classes of rhetoric that Aristotle names: (1) political (aka deliberative), (2) judicial (aka, forensic), and (3) epideictic (or showy, the display of ceremonial oratory). Given these three, the LXX translators' word choice is fascinating.

Given all the Greek ink spilled and utterances spoken around words like πίστεις, θεός, ἄνθρωπος, λογ-ικη, λόγος, λογισμός, Δίκη (the goddess), and δίκη (the legal notions of justice) - the Hebraic Hellene Genesis 15:6 really is tricky. Note that the translators' word choices were made in Alexandria, Egypt (a city of two oppressive and anti-Semitic empires).

Here are those words:

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν
Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ
καὶ ἐλογίσθη
αὐτῷ εἰς



With respect to Paul and Luther, it's important to make careful distinctions. Both developed a teaching about the nomos of Jewish tradition that allowed for chunks of it to be treated as inapplicable to non-Jewish adherents of the selfsame faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the process, Paul and in another sense Luther radically re-defined the meaning of "proselyte." Not the whole nomos: the Ten Commandments for example are foundational to Luther's Catechism.

Such redefinition amounted to dynamite in both Paul's and Luther's setting. I view the universalization and possibilities of enculturation of the gospel they set in motion as positives. If you do not, you might explain why.

None of the redefinition mentioned however is properly termed anti-Judaic; even less so, anti-Semitic.

Paul, Augustine, and Luther were anti-Sadducean, since, like the Pharisees, eschatology and the resurrection of the flesh were foundational to their self-understanding.

They were also anti-Pharisaic, not in the sense that they took Jesus to be the Messiah - in and of itself, such a belief did not put you beyond the pale, just as Akiva did not become persona non grata when he, like plenty of other Jews, took Bar-Kochba seriously - but in a series of interlocking differences in emphasis.

Finally, Luther became anti-Semitic in his decrepitude. His decrepitude / increasing mental illness is no excuse for such, but there it is. In the same way, people who whale on others today, because someone has hurt them in the past, or because they suffer from mental illness, are not thereby excused.

But my point was another. You apparently agree, because you didn't contest it. Aside from Rosenberg and Gaston, translations of Gen 15:6 are in general agreement, however differently the same basic translation might have been received in different contexts.

In fact, Luther, despite his general principles, calqued the Hebrew of Gen 15:6 in his translation. Nonetheless, the translation has enormous Lutheran resonance because the words of the verse were key words in his system.

I find your proposals about the resonance of Gen 15:6 in Alexandria highly speculative, but I am in agreement that we need to have an ear for such resonances.

Paul took a number of words in the LXX and made them cornerstones of his system. As such, they resonate in new ways. No need to speculate about those resonances; they are developed at length in the extant Pauline correspondence.

Albert Baumgarten

I will not comment on the accumulated comments posted thus far as they deal with issues that do not concern me.
I am pleased that someone found some light for his personal quest as a gentile in my work on Bickerman. However, I am afraid that the main point I believe Bickerman and Heschel intended to make was missed in the post. It concerns the context in which Bickerman and Heschel wrote.
They both were working in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of the Jews in WWII. Heschel was explicit. This was the mountain of history that hung over the head of the Jews, and the question of continued loyalty to the covenant after that experience was the burning issue that Heschel believed Jews were required to address.
Bickerman's answer to Heschel's question, written not by accident in 1951, just after the war, was that despite whatever might have happened in the war (which Bickerman himself was lucky to survive), the covenant between God and the Jews was eternally binding on both sides.
Omitting the WWII context for Bickerman and Heschel, as in the original post, robs their work of its deepest meaning for Jews.
Al Baumgarten


Thank you, Professor Baumgarten, for the clarification.

I could have been explicit on the point you make. It is excellent that you comment as you have done.

It seemed obvious to me that if Bickerman was responding to the Heschel's question in an article entitled "The Meaning of This War," and he did so in 1950 or so, the historical context of the war and the Shoah would have been determinative.

On the other hand, I don't think of Bickerman as a "catastrophe Jew" - if you are familiar with this term. As you show, Bickerman's Judaism had sources that run deep and wide.

Thank you for writing such an excellent book. I studied and worked in Italy for a long time. I came to Bickerman largely through reading Momigliano in Italian.

Seth Sanders

Thanks for mentioning the Bickerman article, John, which was brought to my attention over a decade ago by Jonas Greenfield when I wondered out loud about the semantics of words for "cut" in Semitic, which so often extend to "decide." He said Bickerman had shown long ago that this semantic range extended across the Mediterranean, and I now know that the phenomenon is already manifest in Sumerian expressions like di.kud "judgment." It's also excellent to see the name of Sylvie Honigman, another terrific Israeli scholar.


John, I can see you reasons for calling this covenant bilateral. Do you have a good term that distinguishes between covenants like this and the Sinai and Deuteronomic covenants which clearly have a very different (and what I would call bilateral) nature?



I would distinguish between bilateral covenants which predict consequences in the event of breach from one side, and those which don't.

The covenant in Gen 15 does not explicitly predict consequences in the event that Abraham ceases to put his faith in Ha-Shem, but it would be wrong to suggest that the passage implies that there will not be any.

I think the move made by some exegetes to play off covenants of grant and covenants of an overlord and a vassal in which the overlord stipulates concrete terms the vassal is to adhere to, sometimes obscures rather than clarifies.

In all the cases the covenants are bilateral; in all cases there is a superior and an inferior party; in all cases the initiative lies with the superior party; in all cases one must assume there will be consequences in case of a change in attitude on the part of the inferior party.

The senses in which God maintains faith in the teeth of human unfaithfulness are explored at length in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Adrian Schenker argued at length that there are different takes on the question in LXX Jeremiah versus MT Jeremiah. See his 2006 volume entitled Das Neue am neuen Bund und das Alte am alten : Jer 31 in der hebräischen und griechischen Bibel, von der Textgeschichte zu Theologie, Synagoge und Kirche.


Can you please explain how Genesis 15 implicitly predicts consequences if Abraham ceases his faith? I'm looking hard but I can't see anything.

Your definition of bilateral seems to amount to little more than God is God and we are not. Of course there are great similarities between covenants of grant and overlord/vassal, but there are still substantial differences, and the Biblical covenants frequently correspond to secular covenants in these ways.

For there to be consequences resulting from a change of attitude of the inferior party is to completely mischaracterise these covenants of grant, especially when the patron is the unchanging God.

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

Dear John,

I cannot see that there is a bilateral agreement in this passage. Abram was asleep; God was the person who walked between the animals. It is God who is actually guaranteeing the covenant. It reminds of II Timothy 2 in which God cannot deny Himself even when man is unfaithful. Furthermore, Romans 11:29 is quite clear, "For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." If God revokes the covenant made with Abraham (Gen 12 & 15), then even our own salvation in Christ can be revoked. This covenant made with Abraham is unconditional and is gauranteed by God Himself. There is nothing or no person greater than He.


Hi Bryant,

But I never said that there are only two conceivable alternatives: (1) the covenant is unconditional; (2) the covenant is conditional in the sense that if man abrogates it, however abrogation is defined, God is helpless and cannot maintain the covenant from his side.

On the contrary, I think it is clear that the covenant in the sense of the divine promises, in all of its biblical variations, is always and everywhere the fruit of a bilateral relationship.

Furthermore, human lack of trust means something to God, but not in the sense that God is helpless in the face of it. To be sure, sometimes God stands at the door and knocks, and doesn't enter if we refuse to open the door.

But on other occasions, God knocks the door down and compels us to be his people. The Midrash Heschel took as his point of departure, the mountain of history of which he speaks, is real.



Thanks for the conversation. I'm sure many people think about the same questions we are addressing.

Let me try again. A covenant like that of Gen 15 is bilateral in more than one sense. To be sure, this understanding of the conversation of Gen 15:7-21 is only possible if it is read as a direct continuation of the conversation of Gen 15:1-6. Of course, that is exactly what it is.

Gen 15 describes God's promises of progeny and land as a reward: Abr(ah)am put his trust in the Lord, and He reckoned it to his merit.

If the promises are a reward for an attitude of trust and if the reward can be described as standing that Abraham merits before God on account of his trust in Him, the promises are the fruit of a bilateral relationship.

It stands to reason that, should Abraham put his trust in the Lord no longer, there would be consequences. The grounds on which the covenant promises were originally granted would no longer obtain.

Furthermore, it is a constant of biblical teaching that faith / non-faith in God's promises has positive/ negative consequences. Even when the negative consequences are not spelled out, as is the case in Gen 15, it would be foolish to assume there aren't any.

Such a foolish assumption is never made in the entire breadth of scripture.

It is not as if God is thought to have contradicted himself, making conditional promises in one breath - the promises made on Sinai or in the land of Moab, and unconditional promises in another breath, here and to David.

Divine promises are always made in a bilateral context. They are the expression of divine initiative but they are also the fruit of a relationship.

What you find is that scripture records an open-ended conversation about what the consequences of a lack of faith are. The finale of Leviticus gives one answer. Deuteronomy gives another. Hosea another still. Jeremiah 31-33 gives one or perhaps more than one discrete answer. Judges-2 Kings provide other answers.

As far as I can see, all biblical authors believed in an unchanging God and for that very reason could speak of God changing his mind in response to human responses to his initiatives.

God is unchanging in that sense. His objectives remain the same, but the means for achieving those objectives are subject to change, given God's (far from unlimited) respect for human freedom and human choices.

The real difficulty for many is that scripture - both in the Old and New Testaments - sometimes speaks of salvation and the realization of the promises as a reward for something someone has done, and sometimes speaks of salvation and the promises as sheer gifts no one could possibly merit.

I have to admit: as a parent I see this from God's side as reported in the Bible. My wife and I will insist that there is no relationship between the love we express and the investment we put in to our children, and the love they express in return and the return on our investment we expect to have.

My teenage children nonetheless reply: then why do you keep asking us to do stuff? Why should they have to do any chores?

At that point, I just want to wring their necks. I may even go from good cop to bad cop on them but so far, at least, I have repented often enough about how I handled something, but I have not repented of my love for them.


Thanks again John. I think I understand more clearly what you mean by bilateral. And I agree about the tough open-ended questions we have with this topic. I've wondered many times before if there's any logic to the choices God makes as to which descendants he'll exclude from the promises, but that's an issue for another day.

But a couple of comments now. Firstly there were no grounds to the granting of the promises, not in Genesis 12 when they were first given. There's no indication of any prior relationship between God and Abram - he may have even been a pagan. God may have at a later time codified some of those promises in a covenant, but I don't think any of the events surrounding that covenant could be said to be the grounds for the promises.

Secondly I don't think that God gave him a covenant because of his faith. No instead he gave him a covenant to reassure him despite his confusion and doubts. The reward for faith was righteousness. God initiates cutting a covenant in which he says "Know for certain..." after Abram asks "How can I know?"

I still disagree that it stands to reason that there would be negative consequences should Abraham go back on his faith. Can you show from the rest of Genesis, or the Bible, where that reasoning comes from?

On the contrary, I think Abraham's frequent displays of non-faith prove God's faithfulness to these unilateral promises, covenants and oaths.


I'm pleased to see the conversation continue, Dannii.

Here a few comments on your comments.

First of all, I think you use the term "unilateral" in a very odd way.

To return to the parenting analogy, when I as a parent decide to love my children even when they do not respond to that love appropriately, and within that context, I expect an appropriate response and I dole out consequences if said response is not forthcoming, on your understanding are my promises unilateral and my love unconditional?

If so, we are quibbling about words, not substance.

As I use the word, my attitude as a parent is "unilateral" only in the sense that I take it, not someone else. For the rest, its effectiveness depends on an appropriate response from the one in whose interest it is taken.

As a parent I walk the extra mile for my children, I suffer on their behalf and in their place, and I limit their freedom in a variety of ways for their own good.

But ultimately, at the appropriate time, I will not take away their freedom to walk away from my care and guidance. It is the case that it is ultimately within my children's power to separate themselves from my care and guidance.

In the Bible, it is the same with God and those who are elected by the Word they hear addressed to them. There are negative consequences whenever people break with what God has revealed to them: the entire Old and New Testaments are a witness to that. I fail to see how you can deny this.

If you need one passage to focus your thoughts, think of Luke 15:11-32. To be sure, that same passage not only underlines the damage a son does by misusing and squandering his inheritance. It also underlines the willingness of a father to restore a son to his former standing upon repentance.

Again, the context in which the father's initiative and redemptive love find expression is profoundly bilateral. That love would be absolutely meaningless if it were not a step-by-step response, however sovereign, to responses of the sons occurring in an ongoing web of relationships.

It's entirely proper to read Genesis 15 in light of Genesis 12 as you suggest. But it is also proper to read Genesis 12 in light of Genesis 4:26; 5:3; 9:26; and 11:10-32. Within the larger narrative, there are no grounds for thinking of Abram as a pagan. He belonged to that branch of the human race who called on the name of the LORD. The calling he receives from God in Gen 12 should be seen in that context.

However much we might want to emphasize the importance of God's initiative in the calling of Abram - I would refer to that initiative as *all-important* - Gen 12 read in light of that which precedes gives us reason aplenty for assuming that the LORD speaks to Abram in the context of an existing relationship.

There are several helpful conceptual frameworks by which to make sense out of the broader picture. I am tempted to describe the classic Jewish one because I think it has a lot to say for it but I will stick to the classical Christian one. It speaks of prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace.

How would that apply to Abraham?

By prevenient grace, God created and ordered a world in which humankind might flourish, limited the negative effects of human sin, made provision for human beings to call on his name in worship, and allowed Abram to be born into precisely that lineage in which such was the practice.

In saving grace, God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees and in faith Abram responded to that call. To be sure, Abram's faith was mixed with unfaithfulness all along the way. Nonetheless God chose to reward Abram's faith all the same, and did so by renewing repeatedly the promises of progeny and land. This is justifying and, as time goes on, sanctifying grace.

If you wish to point out that Abram's impure faith hardly justifies God's choice to make that faith a means of salvation - fine. That's why God's choice is everywhere spoken of as an act of benevolence.

Whenever God punishes unfaith and unfaithfulness in the Pentateuch with banishment, extinction, or destruction - even the Gentiles are held to covenants, those made with Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, and so forth - that is justice.

Whenever he doesn't mete out punishment he might have, that's mercy.

Some people are convinced that God should always show mercy, and never punish.

But good parents know that the trick is to show mercy in the act of doling out punishment, and to include punishment in the act of showing mercy.

I realize the parenting analogy is an insufficient prism of understanding for the subject matter at hand. But I think it is helpful to the extent I used it above.


Abraham is central to the doctrine of justification in the NT. Romans, Galatians, and James draw lessons from the life of Abraham to illustrate justification by faith. Hebrews also calls Abraham as a witness to its message.

Romans 4 points the reader to Abraham as the prototypical justified man. Since Paul states that there was no law until Moses, one might [should] say that Abraham experienced justification apart from the law.

Paul uses Abraham in Romans 4 to illustrate the point he is making in Romans 3, that the law, which refers to the OT in its entirety, properly understood, was always about faith rather than works. That's why he says that faith upholds the law.

His question in the end of Romans 3 regarding the nature of the law as one of faith or works is clearly answered by the experience of Abraham explained in Romans 4

Luther in his Commentary on Genesis 15:6 leans heavily upon Romans 4 to explain the significance of Abraham's justification. This particular passage is a great example of Luther's reliance upon the NT to clearly explain the OT


Hi John, a few quick comments here, though I'm also working on a response at my blog.

I have friends who decided to make the promise to their children that once a week they will go out for icecream, and that there is nothing that can change that (a concrete lesson about God's grace for their children.) This is Genesis 12. God says it and God does it and the only thing Abram can do to stop it happening is to die. I believe it is the same with Genesis 15.

Genesis 17 though is different. In the parenting analogy it might be that the teenager who shouts hate at their parents will be grounded and not allowed to attend the special family dinner. God puts a very basic condition on his blessings, that his people not decide to not be his people any longer. Now there are hard questions to ask as to how it relates to and is compatible with Genesis 12, but we come to ask that question acknowledging that it is a distinct event, though closely related. You seem to me to take Genesis 17 and apply its conditionality to Genesis 12 as if God said them on the same night. He didn't. (Some commentators I've read had even said that God made two distinct covenants with Abram, Genesis 15 and 17. I think there's weight to that suggestion.)

With the Sinai/Deuteronomic covenants we have another situation again. I can't think of a good parenting analogy, but those covenants are extremely "bilateral". God promises both blessings and curses dependent on his people's behaviour. There are two very different modes there, but God's promises to Abraham are never broken through the provision of the "remnant". (Again there are tricky questions as to how exactly a small remnant can be considered a valid fulfilling of God's earlier promises, rather than him blessing all of Abraham's descendants. But such tricky questions shouldn't stop us from having a basic conception of the covenant.)

"He belonged to that branch of the human race who called on the name of the LORD." -> I don't think we can say anything much about his branch of the human race. We're told precious little about his ancestors other than that the world rebelled against God at Babel. Before that, remember that no one but Noah had God's favour. Enoch was a long long time before. Though please do prove me wrong with specific textual features which show an existing relationship between God and Abram! But without specific reference to the text I'm sorry that I can only take your comments on this issue as speculation.

I feel that overall your comments lack specificity, and that's what I intend to take up in my blog response. Textual specificity matters as it's our way to understand historical specificity, and that does matter! If God didn't say specific things to specific people at specific times then we can have no hope at ever determining with precision his motives behind it all.

There is a need for a helpful model where we can refer to God's promises to Abraham as a unit. But such a model should not be used to distort the individual events of revelation such that God reveals and promises the same in each one. The model I use (for basic teaching/understanding/discussion) for Abraham is that of a unilateral covenant of grant, unconditioned on Abraham's faithfulness. While this does sideline Genesis 17 I feel that in most cases it is an acceptable compromise as the incidents of violation would be both rare and holistically rebellious. This is in contrast to the Sinai covenant where the incidents of violation are both more frequent and would not necessarily indicate that the violator has completely forsaken the covenant. To characterise Abraham's covenant as we would the Sinai covenant would be to completely mischaracterise it, and I would want to teach at a basic level God's promises to Abraham as being essentially unconditional. The extreme edge case found in Genesis 17 does not determine the "vibe" of the whole. But in a detailed scholarly work to ignore it would also be a mistake.

Thanks again for the discussion.



It's great to see this conversation continue. I'm hoping too that you will provide a link to any relevant blog posts on your part.

The interpretation I offer involves connecting the dots in a certain way. I am certainly willing to examine alternative interpretations; it also necessary to work out the framework in which interpretation happens.

For example, are we going to read these passages "canonically," as if each passage makes its contribution to a great symphony the music of which is more profound than the sum of the parts?

If so, it's important to hear each specific contribution for what it is. I see you doing the opposite. It is as you are looking for ways to make Genesis 15 and Genesis 12 say the very same thing.

You want me to be more specific about my objections to your interpretation. I'll start with this. The "reward" or "recompense" of Abram of which Genesis 15 speaks. On your reading, what is the reward/recompense for and what does it consist of?

For your characterization of Gen 15 to hold up, I think you have to find a way to suggest that the reward is not really a reward, that it has nothing to do with the fact the Abram put his trust in God and his promises.

To put it in NT terms, it's as if you are correcting Jesus, who sometimes said, "Your faith has made you well." "No," you seem to be saying, "It was unconditional grace that made the person well."

This is a false either/or. Love can be freely given and undeserved and become effective nonetheless in a give-and-take in which acts of reception are rewarded. The parenting analogy is once again helpful.


No I definitely don't want to make Genesis 12 and 15 say the same thing, and I apologise if it appeared that way! Although I believe that in both chapters God unconditionally gives blessings to Abram, the specific blessings in each chapter are different. Also, only one chapter contains a covenant.

You're asking about the "reward" of verse 1? To be honest I haven't thought about that before. From Abraham's response it would appear to be the whole package, which is problematic as he has no son to leave it to. The Hebrew word is sakar, which often means "wages". Hmmmm... this one I'll have to think on more.

What I have issue with is not so much that God delivers what Abraham trusts him to do, but 1: your previous statement that the promises are a reward for his faith, and 2: that these promises and covenants in Genesis 12 and 15 contain negative consequences should Abraham or his descendants stop trusting God.

Just because God will deliver if Abraham does trust him does not imply that he won't if Abraham doesn't. We have the example of when Abram went to Egypt and God blesses him when he lacks faith. Perhaps there is the consequence of embarrassment before Pharaoh, but it'd be a long stretch to connect it to God's promises.

We are left with the possibility that God has to bless those who have to faith in him, but I think that is left essentially unresolved at this point. We do begin to have an answer in Genesis 17 where the concept of keeping/breaking a covenant first appears, but it's far from a complete answer. I think this is an area that needs more study (from me and from others): how is God just to exclude people from a covenant without exclusions? I'd very much welcome your thoughts on this issue. But I think it would be the wrong approach to say that God promised negative consequences in Genesis 12 and 15.

I come back to a question I asked before: can you please explain how Genesis 15 implicitly predicts consequences if Abraham ceases his faith? Does such an idea come from specifics in the text, or is it more from your framework of understanding?


Here are some additional German translations of Gen. 15:6 for anyone interested:

Moses Mendelssohn:
Awram glaubte dem Ewigen, und dies rechnete er ihm zur Tugend an.

Martin Buber/Franz Rosenzweig:
Er aber vertraute IHM;
das achtete er ihm als Bewährung.



Thanks for that. For those whose German is rusty, Mendelssohn I would guess is thinking of Glaube (fides qua and fides quae combined; a trust-relationship and cognitive assent) as a virtue, perhaps also a merit (zekhut). The Doctor (St. Thomas Aquinas) is smiling.

Buber/ Rosenzweig are putting the accent on faith as resilient trust, a form of "proving true" to God's Anspruch (ethical imperative) and Zuspruch (promise) both of which are received as mitzvah. This is closer to Luther, but also transcends Luther in the direction of Calvin.

Excuse the interfaith translation. I mean no harm by it. In my view, translating theology across systems has heuristic value.

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