Chapter Twenty-Six: Part Seven
Does Genesis 15:6 Support Paul’s Dispensing With Repentance?
When Paul in Romans 4:5 makes such a radical departure from Jesus’ doctrine of “justification” by repentance from sin,52 Paul must have the very best support. Otherwise, we must reject any doctrine, even from Paul, which subtracts from the words of the Lord Jesus. (Deut. 4:2.)
Paul claims he has clear support in Genesis 15:6, citing it in Romans 4:3 to rationalize Romans 4:5.
Yet, Paul relied upon a mistranslation of Genesis 15:6 in the Greek Septuagint of 247 B.C.
Twice, Paul quotes from the Septuagint version of Genesis 15:6 — saying “it [faith] was accounted to him for righteousness....” (Romans 4:3; Gal.3:6.) However, it does not say that in the original Hebrew! This verse was one of the very many translations errors in the Septuagint.
In 247 B.C., the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. It is known as the Septuagint Bible. Jewish scholars acknowledge “the Septuagint was translated by very bad translators” and “very often the [Septuagint] translators did not even know what they were reading and created nonsensical sentences by translating word for word.”53 Jerome in the Fourth Century shared Gordon’s harsh view of the unreliability of the Septuagint translation, providing numerous proofs of its fallibility in his correspondence with Augustine.54 Scholars likewise note: “Often...the words of the Septuagint do not faithfully reproduce the meanings of the Hebrew Scriptures.” (Nicolson, God’s Secretaries (2004) at 82.)
Then what does the Hebrew say in Genesis 15:6? It is translated more-or-less correctly in the King James:
And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Gen 15:6 KJV.)
Well, there is one little license that the King James took. There is no second he in the verse. That is an interpolated he, as Professor Hamilton will explain in a moment. (There is also no semicolon.) It really reads:
And he believed in the LORD and counted it to him for righteousness. (Gen 15:6.)
Who then is the subject of the verb counted? Abraham. He is the one counting or reckoning the promise of a child in old-age in Genesis 15:5 as a righteous deed of God. English syntax is the same as Hebrew syntax. The subject of the second clause is the subject of the first clause: here Abraham. Thus, this verse never had anything to do with justification by God of Abraham. God is not the one doing any of the reckoning in the Hebrew version of Genesis 15:6. Rather, this verse is how Abraham viewed God’s promise as righteousness — as a faithful act of God.
The Septuagint changed the subject of count to “it,” making it unclear who was counting what to whom.
Professor Hamilton, an evangelical scholar of impeccable credentials, concedes Paul relied upon a verse which in the original Hebrew can be read that Abraham is the one doing the reckoning, which but for Paul’s understanding, would have been the correct understanding of the verse.
In Professor Victor P. Hamilton’s New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans 1990), we read in Vol. I at 425:
The second part of this verse records Yahweh’s response to Abram’s exercise of faith: ‘he credited it to him as righteousness.’ But even here there is a degree of ambiguity. Who credited whom? Of course, one may say that the NT settles the issue, for Paul expressly identifies the subject as God and the indirect object as Abram (Rom. 4:3). If we follow normal Hebrew syntax, in which the subject of the first clause is presumed to continue into the next clause if the subject is unexpressed, then the verse’s meaning is changed... Does he, therefore, continue as the logical subject of the second clause? The Hebrew of the verse certainly permits this interpretation, especially when one recalls thatsedaqa means both ‘righteousness’ (a theological meaning) and ‘justice’ (a juridical meaning). The whole verse could then be translated: “Abram put his faith in Yahweh, and he [Abram] considered it [the promise of seed(s)] justice.”
Thus, in the Hebrew original version of this verse, it had nothing to do with justification of Abraham by God based upon faith. It was Abraham counting the promise of God in Genesis 15:5 as righteousness (justice) by God. Professor Hamilton was being honest despite how a true translation would upset Hamilton’s own Protestant theology.55
Jewish Scholars Concur On Genesis 15:6
Several Jewish scholars concur that in Genesis 15:6b, it is Abraham reckoning God’s promise as righteous. It is not God reckoning Abraham as righteous. These scholars were not writing anti-Christian diatribes. Rather, these comments were spoken in ordinary Jewish commentary and lessons.
First, let’s examine the analysis of Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270 A.D.) His explanation appears in what is known as Rabbinic Bible (Mikraoth Gedoloth).56
Ramban says reading God as the reckoner of righteousness to Abraham makes no sense in the context. For this would require we find a great faith which God sees as worthy to impute justification. Yet, Ramban asks: “How should [Abraham] not believe in the good tidings?” In other words, no great faith is involved in accepting a beneficial promise. As the Protestant Pastor and Professor, Gaston, comments: “There is certainly no merit in accepting good news.” Thus, the more normal reading of the text, clearly indicated by Hebrew syntax, is to see Abraham as the subject who reckons it (the promise) as God’s righteous deed. The opposing view is counter-indicated because there is no momentous struggle for Abraham to believe a promise which he was already wishing to be true.
Ramban says for these reasons he favors the reading put forth above. He explains: “What would be correct in my judgment is that it is said (or, is to be interpreted as follows): ‘that he believed in the LORD and thought [i.e., counted] that [it represents] the righteousness of the Holy One.’” 57
This view is shared by the famous Talmudic-era commentary on Exodus known as Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 4 (ed. Jacob Lauterbach)(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1933) Vol. I at 220. This dates back to the fourth or fifth century A.D.
The Mekilta explains Genesis 15:6 in a series of questions and answers by various rabbis. Shemaiah has God explain why He parted the Red Sea: “The faith with which their father Abraham believed in Me is deserving that I should divide the sea for them,” for it is said, “And he believed in the Lord [Gen 15:6a] and “he counted it unto him for (doing) charity [with his offspring].”58 That is, the Mekilta means the one who is counting is Abraham. He is counting the promise by God as charity (righteousness) toward his children.
Frequent Mention In Scripture Of the Righteousness Of God
Ramban’s and the Mekilta’s view of Genesis 15:6 fits well with the many passages where the psalmist gives a praise for God’s righteousness. That’s all Abraham was doing in Genesis 15:6. He was simply reckoning the promise from God as more proof of the righteousness of God.
One example is Psalm 7:17: “I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.” (See also Ps 5:7-8; 22:30-31; 31:1; 35: 28; 26:5-6,10; 40:11; 51:13-15; 69:27; 71:14-15a, 18b-19, 24; 88:12; 143:1,11).
Also, Ramban’s view matches how God speaks often of His own righteousness: “I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.” (Isaiah 41:10.)
Most important, Ramban’s reading fits both Micah’s and Nehemiah’s depiction of God’s “faithfulness” and “steadfast love” and “righteousness” toward Abraham. This then makes sense of Genesis 15:6 as merely Abraham praising God for the same trait which is prophetically recognized.
Thus, first we read in Micah: “Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression?... Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” (Micah 7:18-20.) God will show righteousness to the sons.
Lastly, we read in Nehemiah, this account of God’s dealing with Abraham:
Thou art Jehovah the God, who didst choose Abram, and... gavest him the name of Abraham, (8) and foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanite,...., to give it unto his seed, and hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous. (Neh 9:7-8 ASV.)
The pattern is identical between Genesis 15:6, Micah and Nehemiah: there is mention of the promise of seed to Abraham which is then followed by praise of God as “faithful,” having “steadfast love” and He is “righteous.” Thus, it makes perfect sense that Genesis 15:6 is saying Abraham believed God about the promise and then he (Abraham) reckoned it to Him (God) as righteousness.
Similarly, the Apocryphal book of Jubilees has a reference to Abraham as the recipient of God’s righteousness. It follows the normal Hebrew structure of Genesis 15:6 that Hamilton noted. However, this time, there is no room to argue. The text reads: “And Isaac blessed the God of his father Abraham, who had not withdrawn his mercy and his righteousness from the sons of his servant Isaac.” Pastor/Professor Gaston interprets this to mean “Abraham and his seed were the recipients of God’s righteousness.”59
All these commentaries and scriptural references simply repeat what the textual evidence and grammar dictates is the meaning of Genesis 15:6. Abraham was noting God’s righteousness. There was nothing more profound in the passage than that. Hence, it was never a passage having anything to do with God’s imputing any righteousness to Abraham.
The Offering Of Isaac Was A Condition Of God’s Promise
Furthermore, it is impossible that God imputed justification to Abraham in 15:5 in any completed irrevocable sense. For those who teach faith alone, unless justification is irrevocable, and disobedience cannot destroy it, there is no point anyway to fight for the reading they prefer of Genesis 15:6. Yet, in Genesis 22:16-18, God makes it abundantly clear that the promise and any justification were both revocable had there been disobedience. Since that is the case, as we shall prove in a moment, the strained reading to make 15:6 prove faith justifies without repentance or need to obey later is a quixotic venture not worthy of any more wasted effort.
For God later makes it clear the promise of Genesis 15:5 will only be fulfilled because Abraham passed the test of his obedience. This destroys any notion that faith alone merited the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, which has crucial implications on modern justification theory. God says:
By my self I have sworn, says YHWH, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless youand I will multiply your seed60… and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice. (Gen 22:16-18.)
If faith in the promise of a blessing and offspring given in Genesis 15:5 supposedly gave permanent justification for Abraham, as some read 15:6, then why did God tell Abraham that had he failed the test with Isaac the promise would have been revoked? In other words, if the belief in the promise made Abraham permanently justified, it must follow that the promise itself was permanent, and not conditional.
However, this cannot be true for God says He would have denied what supposedly was a permanently justified man the promise had he (Abraham) been later disobedient.
There can be no dispute about this conditionality in Genesis 22. There are two because’s in the quoted passage. “Because you have done this” and “because you have obeyed,” God will keep His promise of Genesis 15:5. “I will indeed bless you and I will multiply your seed....” The negative implication, and hence the message to us, is that had Abraham failed the test, he would have lost the promise. It also follows that a faith which remains alone would never justify. For if God takes back the promise for disobedience, He surely would take back the justification that went with it.
Now it makes perfect sense what James means when he teaches that Abraham was “justified by works” in offering up his son Isaac. Had Abraham failed the test over Isaac, Abraham would have no right to be called just. Hence, justification turns on obedience, and not faith alone, just as James explained.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? (22) Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect;... (24) Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-22,24.)
Conclusion On Genesis 15:6
Given all these facts, do we have any basis to reject that Jesus is correct that justification initiates by repentance from sin? That’s what the Lord Jesus taught in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.61 That’s what the Bible always taught in the ‘Original Testament.’62 That’s what James was explaining about Abraham. It is also self-evident when you examine Genesis chapter twenty-two. Or are we suppose to rely upon Paul merely because he relied upon a mistranslation of Genesis 15:6? Of course not.
Thus, we cannot permit Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6 to overturn the original Hebrew reading of Genesis 15:6, the Prophets, and most important of all, the words of Jesus.
Continue to Part 8.
FOOTNOTES TO PART SEVEN
52.See the discussion of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in “The Repentant Goes Home Justified & The Shallowly Righteous Does Not” on page 27 et seq. of JWOS.
53.Nehemiah Gordon, Hebrew Yeshua vs. Greek Jesus (Jerusalem: 2006) at 33-34. Gordon is a Jewish scholar who is sympathetic to Jesus.
54.On the issue of the Septuagint, Jerome had strong views of its rampant error. Thus, in the 4th Century, as he prepared the Vulgate Bible, Jerome told Augustine repeatedly that the Septuagint Greek Bible was rife with deletions (Messianic prophecies quoted by Matthew) and additions from the Hebrew original. He insisted upon using the Hebrew original. For example, Jerome wrote: “[T]he former translation is from the Septuagint; and wherever obelisks are placed, they are designed to indicate that the Seventy have said more than is found in the Hebrew.” See “Letters of Jerome (No. 112),” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Translated into English with Prolegomena and Explanatory Notes under the Editorial Supervision of Henry Wace and Philip Schaff. (Oxford: Parker; New York: Christian Literature Co., 1890-1900).
55. Victor P. Hamilton's background is formidable. He is Professor of Bible and Theology at Asbury College. He has a B.A. from Houghton College 1963, a B.D. from Asbury Theological Seminary 1966; a Th.M. Asbury Theological Seminary 1967, an M.A., Brandeis University 1969; and a Ph.D. Brandeis University 1971. Hamilton's commentary is based on his complete translation of Genesis itself.
56.The discussion here derives from an article by the Presbyterian Minister and later professor at various Christian collages, Lloyd Gaston. The article is entitled “Abraham and the Righteousness of God,” in the Horizons in Biblical Theology. An International Dialogue (1980) Vol. 2. It was revised and republished as Lloyd Gaston, Paul and Torah (UBC: 1987). An excerpt posted with permission of Mr. Gaston can be found at http://www.jcrelations.net/en/?id=752.
57. Gaston mentions that Calvin knew of Ramban’s reading but rejected it. Here is Calvin’s analysis: “They also, no less skillfully, corrupt the text, who say that Abram is here ascribing to God the glory of righteousness, seeing that he ventures to acquiesce surely in his promises, acknowledging Him to be faithful and true; for although Moses does not expressly mention the name of God, yet the accustomed method of speaking in the Scriptures removes all ambiguity.” (Calvin, Genesis (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965) at 406.) Pastor/Professor Gaston comments correctly: “Whether Calvin is apt to be more familiar with the ‘accustomed manner of speaking in the Scriptures’ than Ram-ban is to be doubted.” (Lloyd Gaston, “Abraham and the Righteousness of God,” Horizons in Biblical Theology. An International Dialogue (1980) Vol. 2.)
58.Lloyd Gaston, Paul and Torah (UBC: 1987) at 205, quoting from A. Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical literature (New York: KTAV, repr. 1968) at 37. Cfr. Maureen W. Yeung, Faith in Jesus and Paul (doctoral thesis, Aberdeen, University 1999) (Mohr Siebeck, 2002) at 259 (omits “he counted it unto him for (doing) char ity [with his offspring]”).
59.See Lloyd Gaston, Paul and Torah (UBC: 1987) at 205 n.45.
60.“And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.” (Gen 15:5 ASV.)
61.See page 27 et seq.
The Spanish version of the NIV has Genesis 15:6 with a deliberate insertion of "Lord" without identifying to the reader it is added. And it clearly changes the sense to match Paul's reading, but it is not the original Hebrew reading. The Spanish NIV reads:
Abram creyó al Señor, y el Señor lo reconoció a él como justo.
The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis admits ambiguity although favors unnamed subject of "reckoned":
|He reckoned it to his merit
God is the subject of the verb. Hebrew tzedakah, usually "righteousness," sometimes bears the sense of "merit." The idea is that Abram's act of faith made him worthy of God's reward, which is secured through a covenant. ... The alternative possibility that Abram regarded "it," -- that is, the promise of posterity -- as an expression of God's righteousness and grace seems less likely.
[the notes indicate]
10. So Targ. Onk., Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Sforno.
11. So in Deut. 9:4; 2 Sam. 19:29; Dan. 9:18. The alternate interpretation is given by Bekhor Shor, Ramban, Ralbag, Abravanel.
On Ramban's words, see "The Torah: With Ramban's commentary, translated, annotated, and elucidated" ISBN: 1-57819-425-3, starting on page 347.