Biblical Theology Articles

Abraham Re-assessed Theologically: The Abraham Narrative and the New Testament Understanding of Justification by Faith

T. Desmond Alexander


From a survey of the NT it is apparent that the Abraham narrative in Genesis 11:27-25:11 influenced significantly the thinking of the early church regarding its doctrine of soteriology and the nature of Jesus Christ’s mission to the world. This article examines firstly the Genesis account by focusing on the call of Abraham in 12:1-3, the covenants in chs 15 and 17 and the divine oath in 22:16-18. Attention is then given to the references to Abraham in the NT Epistles in order to see how the Genesis material is interpreted. This highlights a common understanding of the Abraham narrative, derived from a careful exegesis of the Genesis text.

I. Introduction

In the New Testament the patriarch Abraham is often presented as an example of one who exercised outstanding faith in God (cf. Rom. 4, Gal. 3-4, Heb. 11 and Jas. 2). This prominence is undoubtedly due to his unique status as the father of the nation of Israel. Yet, the way in which the New Testament writers exegete the biblical account of Abraham presents various problems. On the one hand, it is sometimes difficult to see how a particular exegesis may be sustained in the light of modern principles of interpretation. How, for example, do we explain Paul’s bold affirmation in Galatians 3:16 that the `seed of Abraham’ mentioned in Genesis refers to Jesus Christ? On the other hand, aspects of the NT interpretation of the Abraham narrative appear contradictory. This is most apparent in Paul’s use of Abraham to support the concept of justification by faith rather than by works of the law (cf. Rom. 4:1-5; Gal. 3:1-9), and James’ use of Abraham to conclude that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24). To address these particular problems, we shall examine firstly the Abraham account in Genesis before returning to the NT material.

Any attempt to understand the NT references to Abraham must clearly start with the text of Genesis. It must be recognised, however, that contemporary methods of studying the book of Genesis have been dominated by source and form criticism. While such approaches, used with appropriate care, may shed some light on the process by which the present text was formed, they can never explain fully the meaning of the text as it now stands. Indeed, there is the danger that our understanding of the final text is influenced either consciously or unconsciously by our perception of how the text was composed; what we read is not the text of Genesis as presently constituted, but rather the complex process by which we think it originated. This possibility must be appreciated especially when we come to consider how the NT writers understood the Abraham story. Oblivious to modern critical methods, their interest was in the account as it stood before them - an account which they viewed as a unity and not as the product of various sources. Thus, if we are to appreciate their perspective on Abraham, it is essential to adopt a pre-critical reading of the text.

II. Abraham in Genesis

In terms of the number of chapters given over to him, Abraham is clearly the most important of all the human characters in Genesis. Moreover, his life marks an important watershed in God’s relationship with human beings. Although there are in chapters 3-11 indications that divine mercy will triumph over the consequences of the fall, it is with Abraham that a clearer picture begins to emerge. The divine promises associated with his call (12:1-3) reveal that he is to play a central role in the restoration of humanity’s broken relationship with God.

1. Overview of the Abraham narrative

The Abraham narrative falls into two sections separated by a brief genealogy in 22:20-24; the main section consists of 11:27-22:19, with 23:1-25:11 forming an appendix. Running through the main section are three closely intertwined themes concerning seed, land and blessing. Not only are these themes significant within the Abraham narrative, but they may also be traced throughout the whole of Genesis.

Within the Abraham narrative the theme of seed centres on the divine assurance that Abraham will have many descendants. The initial promises that Abraham will become a `great nation’ (12:2) and that his `seed’ will possess the land of Canaan (12:7) are set against the background of Sarah’s inability to have children (11:30). Later, after the LORD assures Abraham that he will have a son of his own and many descendants (15:1-5), Sarah persuades him to have a child by her maidservant Hagar (16:1-4). By naming him, Abraham claims Ishmael as his own (16:15). Afterwards, however, God reveals on two separate occasions that Sarah will indeed have a son who will be Abraham’s true heir (17:15-21; 18:9-15). Eventually, Sarah gives birth to Isaac (21:1-7), and he is established as Abraham’s heir through the divinely approved departure of Hagar and Ishmael (21:8-21). Thus, Isaac’s birth marks the first step towards the fulfilment of the divine promise that Abraham will become a `great nation’ and have numerous descendants.

The second theme in the Abraham narrative concerns land. Initially, God commands Abraham to leave his own land and `go to the land I will show you’ (12:1). Although it is not mentioned specifically that Abraham will possess this land, the promise that he will become a `great nation’ (12:2) implies that his descendants will possess it; the Hebrew term goy `nation’ denotes people inhabiting a specific geographical location and forming a political unit. Thus, when Abraham first arrives in Canaan, the LORD promises, `To your offspring (seed) I will give this land’ (12:7). Later, following the separation of Lot from Abraham, God repeats this promise, emphasizing the extent of the land to be possessed by Abraham’s descendants (13:14-17). The topic of land reappears in 15:7-21 where the idea is introduced that Abraham’s descendants will only take possession of the land of Canaan after a period of four hundred years during which they will be slaves in another country (15:13-14). This revelation of a delay regarding the acquisition of the land probably explains why the promise of land, which is prominent in chapters 12-15, is mentioned less frequently in the remaining chapters of the Abraham narrative (cf. 17:8; 22:17). Although later episodes highlight Abraham’s acquisition of a well at Beersheba and a tomb at Hebron, these mark only the beginning of the process by which God will fulfil his promise to Abraham regarding land and nationhood.

The third main strand in the Abraham narrative is the idea that Abraham and his `seed’ will be a source of divine blessing, or possibly cursing, for others. This is highlighted in both the initial call of Abraham (12:3) and the concluding oath in 22:16-18. Although various episodes reflect in part the divine blessing or cursing of others (e.g., the visit to Egypt [12:10-20], the abduction of Lot by the eastern kings [14:1-24], the rescue of Lot from Sodom [18:16-19:29], the abduction of Sarah by Abimelech [20:1-18] and the treaty between Abimelech and Abraham [21:22-34]), it is clear that, like the promise of nationhood, the promise of God’s blessing upon all the families of the earth will only be fulfilled in the future (cf. 22:18).

This brief survey of the themes of seed, land and blessing establishes their presence within Genesis 12-25. To explore further how they are developed within the Abraham narrative we shall examine in more detail the initial call of Abraham in 12:1-3, the covenants in chapters 15 and 17, and the divine oath in 22:16-18. This will enable us to have a clearer picture of how the overall narrative is structured.

2. The divine call of Abraham in 12:1-3

Within the context of the book of Genesis the divine speech in 12:1-3 is very important. It marks the beginning of a new stage in God’s relationship with humanity, and sets the agenda for the entire Abraham story, introducing those themes which will be developed in the subsequent narrative. The LORD says to Abraham,

Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you, so that I may make you into a great nation and bless you and make your name great. Be a blessing, so that I may bless those who bless you, and curse the one who disdains you, and so that all the families of the ground may be blessed through you (12:1-3; my translation).

Two features of this speech are noteworthy in the present context. First, the fulfilment of the divine promises is conditional upon Abraham’s obedience. By commanding him to leave his homeland and be a blessing, God places the onus on Abraham to obey in order that the promises concerning nationhood and the blessing of others may be fulfilled. Secondly, the climax of the speech comes in the statement that `through you all the families of the earth will find blessing’. The primary motive behind the call of Abraham is God’s desire to bring blessing, rather than cursing, upon the families of the earth. The promise that Abraham will become a great nation, implying both numerous seed and land, must be understood as being subservient to God’s principal desire to bless all the families of the earth.

Abraham’s positive response to God’s call is noted immediately, and his arrival in the land of Canaan is rewarded by the assurance that `to your descendants (seed) I will give this land’ (12:7). The subject of land dominates ch. 13 where, following the separation of Abraham and Lot, God confirms that Abraham’s many descendants will take possession of Canaan (cf. 13:14-17). The promise of land then comes to an important climax in ch. 15 with God covenanting to give Abraham’s descendants the land `from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’ (15:18).

3. The unconditional promissory covenant of chapter 15

Chapter 15 falls into two parts which have in common the subject of inheritance. Whereas verses 1-6 are concerned with Abraham’s immediate and future heirs, verses 7-21 focus on what shall be inherited. Abraham is reassured by God (a) that he will have a son of his own from whom shall come numerous descendants, and (b) that after several centuries these descendants will take possession of the land of Canaan. Interestingly, the two parts of the chapter parallel each other structurally. They both begin with a divine statement (15:1; 15:7) followed by a question from Abraham (15:2: 15:8). Next we have God’s response involving an appropriate sign (15:4-5; 15:9-17), and finally, a concluding comment by the narrator (15:6; 15:18-21).

Two elements in the chapter deserve special attention. First, verse 6 contains the observation that `Abram believed the LORD, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ The rarity in Genesis of such comments by the narrator makes them all the more important when they occur. Here Abraham is viewed as righteous in God’s sight because he believes unreservedly that the LORD will fulfil his promise regarding a son and numerous descendants. Thus, Abraham is reckoned righteous on account of his faith in God’s promise, rather than due to any deeds performed by him.

Secondly, the LORD makes a covenant with Abraham which affirms that his `seed’ will possess the land of Canaan. This marks the climax of the earlier divine promises regarding land and descendants found in 12:7 and 13:14-17. Several features of the covenant are worth noting. (a) It guarantees unconditionally what the LORD has stated to Abraham. Nowhere is it indicated that the fulfilment of the covenant is dependent upon the actions of either Abraham or his descendants; God covenants unreservedly to fulfil his promise that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land of Canaan. For this reason it may be designated an unconditional promissory covenant. (b) The structure of the chapter suggests that there is a link between the making of the promissory covenant in verses 7-21 and the comment about Abraham believing God in verse 6. Because of the righteousness imputed to Abraham, God blesses Abraham by guaranteeing that the divine promises regarding descendants and land will be fulfilled. (c) The terms of the covenant mention only descendants and possession of the land; there is no reference to blessing being mediated to others. This omission is significant and is one of the main ways in which the ch. 15 covenant differs from that outlined in ch. 17. The covenant in ch. 15 guarantees only some of the divine promises mentioned in 12:1-3. For the remainder we must look ahead to ch. 17.

4. The eternal covenant of circumcision

The introduction of a second covenant in chapter 17 is somewhat surprising. Why should God make another covenant with Abraham? To answer this, it is necessary to observe that the covenant in chapter 17 differs in a number of important ways from that given in ch. 15. First, it is a conditional covenant. Whereas the promissory covenant of chapter 15 is unconditional, the establishment or ratification of the covenant of circumcision is dependent upon Abraham’s continuing obedience to God. This is highlighted in the introduction to the covenant. After identifying himself as El Shaddai (God Almighty), the LORD says to Abraham, `Walk before me and be blameless so that I may establish my covenant between me and you and increase you greatly’ (17:1-2; my translation). Unfortunately, many English translations fail to appreciate the distinctive syntax of the Hebrew original and so miss the important link which exists between the initial imperatives, `Walk before me and be blameless’, and the fact that these must be obeyed before the covenant will be established. The covenant will be ratified by the LORD only if Abraham walks before God and is blameless. Significantly, for the actual establishment of the covenant we must look to the divine oath which concludes the account of the testing of Abraham in ch. 22.

Secondly, the covenant of circumcision differs from the promissory covenant of chapter 15 in that it is an eternal covenant. Whereas the covenant of chapter 15 is a divine guarantee to Abraham that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan, the covenant of circumcision entails a continuing special relationship between God and Abraham’s `seed’. Although the covenant may embrace those who are not Abraham’s natural children - others within his household, including foreigners, may be circumcised (17:12) - God makes it clear that this covenant is intimately linked to the chosen family line; it will be established with the promised `seed’ Isaac and not Ishmael (17:19-21).

Thirdly, whereas the emphasis in chapter 15 is solely upon descendants and land, the covenant in chapter 17 focuses primarily on Abraham as the father of many nations. God states,

As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you’ (17:4-6).

These words are echoed briefly regarding Sarah: `I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her’ (17:16). The mention of nations coming from Abraham and Sarah presents a problem if this is interpreted as referring only to those nations which are directly descended from both of them; strictly speaking, only the Israelites and Edomites come within this category. However, it is likely that the concept of `father’ is not restricted here to actual physical descendants. Rather Abraham is the `father’ of all who are circumcised. Thus, God instructs Abraham to circumcise not merely his own family members but every male `including those born in your household or bought with your money from a foreigner - those who are not your offspring (seed). Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised’ (17:12-13).

By changing Abram’s name to Abraham, God underlines the importance of the fact that he will be the father of many nations. This occurs not because these nations are Abraham’s natural descendants but because he is for them the channel of divine blessing. This understanding of `father’ is probably reflected in the unusual comment that Joseph `was father to Pharaoh’ (45:8). Furthermore, when God blesses Jacob in 35:11, echoing an earlier blessing by Isaac upon Jacob (28:3), a distinction is drawn between `a nation’ and `a community of nations’ coming from him. The implication would seem to be that whereas many nations will be closely associated with him, only one nation will be directly descended from him.

In the light of the divine promises given in 12:1-3 it is clear that the covenants in chs. 15 and 17 complement each other. Whereas ch. 15 focuses on descendants and land, the emphasis in ch. 17 is upon Abraham as the one who imparts God’s blessing to others; in this capacity he is the father of many nations. This understanding of the covenant of circumcision is later reflected in the divine oath of ch. 22 which establishes the covenant with Abraham.

5. The divine oath in 22:16-18

The divine speech in 22:16-18 forms a frame or inclusio with Abraham’s call in 12:1-3 and so brings to a conclusion the main section of the Abraham narrative. All that was promised conditionally in 12:1-3 is now guaranteed by divine oath:

I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants (seed) as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants (seed) will take possession of the cities (gate) of their (his) enemies, and through your offspring (seed) all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me (22:16-18).

This oath not only signals the end of the main section of the Abraham narrative, but also establishes the covenant of circumcision promised in ch. 17. By demonstrating his obedience to God, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only son, Abraham fulfils the conditions laid down in 17:1; he shows beyond doubt his willingness to walk before God and be blameless.

Evidence supporting the idea that ch. 22 should be linked to the covenant of circumcision in ch. 17 may be deduced by considering the account of the covenant with Noah in chapters 6-9. An analysis of this earlier covenant reveals that it has the following structure:

(a) The promise of a covenant (6:18)
(b) The obligations of the covenant (6:14-16, 19-21; 7:1-3)
(c) The fulfilment of the obligations (6:22; 7:5)
(d) The sacrifice of a burnt-offering (8:20)
(e) The establishment of the covenant (9:9-17)

Remarkably, the same structure emerges if chapters 17 and 22 are taken together. Chapter 17 records the promise of a covenant with Abraham, accompanied by certain obligations: Abraham is to walk before God and be blameless. While these are more general than those given to Noah, God later tests Abraham’s obedience in a specific way; he demands that Abraham should offer up his only son Isaac as a burnt-offering (22:2). In spite of the terrible consequences of killing his heir, Abraham displays his willingness to fulfil even the most testing of divine commands. After God’s intervention and the deliverance of Isaac, Abraham offers up as a burnt-offering a ram which has been unexpectedly provided. Finally, God establishes the covenant with Abraham by swearing an oath (22:16-18).

By linking chapters 17 and 22, new light may be shed on a number of issues. First, it is possible to account for the divine testing of Abraham. Through his obedience in ch. 22 Abraham demonstrates his willingness to keep the conditions of the covenant laid out in 17:1. Secondly, the fact that the events of ch. 22 are part of a conditional covenant explains why Abraham is considered in 22:16-18 and 26:2-5 to have merited by his obedience the divine guarantee of the promises concerning seed, land and the blessing of others. Thirdly, the oath in 22:16-18 forms a most fitting conclusion to the main section of the Abraham narrative. Although many scholars view verses 15-18 as a later addition to the original account of the testing of Abraham, the structure of the covenant requires the sacrifice of a burnt-offering before God could confirm with an oath the earlier promises. Verses 15-18 are not only an integral and essential part of ch. 22 but of the entire Abraham narrative.

The divine oath in 22:16-18 not only embraces the contents of the earlier promissory covenant regarding many descendants and land but also includes the additional aspect that all nations will be blessed through Abraham’s `seed’. The mention of `seed’ is significant. Unfortunately, the identify of this `seed’ is not easy to determine. While the first mention of `seed’ denotes `descendants’ in the plural, the remaining references are ambiguous; they could refer either to many descendants or to a single descendant. This latter possibility deserves special consideration for three reasons. First, the book of Genesis as a whole devotes considerable attention to tracing a line of `seed’ which, beginning with Adam and ending with Judah, forms the early ancestary of the David dynasty. Unfortunately, the importance of this single line of descendants is generally overlooked by scholars. Secondly, the Jacob and Joseph stories give prominence to the blessing which the patriarchs, as members of this family line, may bestow on others. Although Esau and Jacob are both the `seed’ of Isaac, it is clear that the brother who receives the father’s blessing will be favoured more than the other. Thus it is Jacob who experiences God’s blessing and is able to mediate it to others. Similarly, Joseph is undoubtedly favoured by his father Jacob who eventually imparts the blessing of the firstborn to Joseph’s son Ephraim (48:1-22). Significantly, Genesis focuses on the blessing which others receive through Jacob and Joseph. They alone are presented as the ones who may impart blessing to others. Although other `seed’ exist, the Genesis narrative associates the power to bless with those who receive the first-born blessing. Thirdly, in announcing the covenant of circumcision to Abraham, God emphasizes the unique role of Isaac; it is with Isaac that the covenant will be established and not with Ishmael (17:19,21). Given the limited interest which Genesis displays in the descendants of Ishmael, it seems logical to conclude that the `seed’ of Abraham mentioned in 22:18 does not include Ishmael and his descendants. For these reasons, the possibility exists that the final reference to `seed’ in 22:18 denotes a single descendant.

Clearly, the covenants in chapters 15 and 17 differ markedly. Whereas chapter 15 records an unconditional promissory covenant which does not necessarily entail an ongoing relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham, the covenant of circumcision is both conditional and eternal. Furthermore, while it is implied in chapter 15 that Abraham’s faith, credited as righteousness, is the catalyst for the making of the promissory covenant, the establishment of the covenant of circumcision rests on Abraham’s obedience to God. As reflected in 26:2-5, Abraham’s obedience is an important factor in the establishment of this eternal covenant.

Viewed as a whole, the Abraham narrative provides an interesting picture of the interplay between divine word and human faith and obedience. Initially, the LORD makes a series of promises, the fulfilment of which is conditional upon Abraham’s obedience (12:1-3). As Abraham in faith obeys and journeys to Canaan, God declares that he shall have both land and descendants (12:7; 13:14-17). In time these statements are confirmed in a promissory covenant (15:18-21) which is linked to Abraham being credited as righteous on account of his faith (15:6). The narrative, however, does not conclude here, but goes on to highlight Abraham’s continuing faith in and obedience to God, as revealed in the establishment of the eternal covenant of circumcision (17:1-27; 22:1-19), a covenant which focuses on the divine blessing that will come through Abraham and his `seed’ to all nations. Thus, from beginning to end, faith, expressed in obedience, is the hallmark of Abraham’s relationship with the LORD.

Abraham’s faith, however, is all the more remarkable when the following factors are also taken into account. Firstly, it is clear that the divine promises concerning nationhood (i.e., seed and land) and the blessing of all the families of the earth will never be fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime; at the very most Abraham will only experience the firstfruits of their fulfilment. Secondly, circumstances exist or develop which mitigate against the fulfilment of these promises. Sarah’s barrenness is a major obstacle for much of the narrative, and even when all seems assured with the birth of Isaac, God himself places the future fulfilment of the promises in jeopardy by demanding that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. Yet, in spite of these factors Abraham displays a faith in God which in the book of Genesis is matched only by that of Noah.

III. Abraham in the New Testament Epistles

There is little doubt that within the New Testament Epistles the most noteworthy aspect of Abraham’s life is his faith. We see this very clearly in Hebrews 11 which provides a detailed list of those `ancients’ who were commended for having faith. Significantly, approximately one-third of the chapter is devoted to Abraham (Heb. 11:8-19), making him by far the most important person listed. Fittingly, the author of Hebrews highlights Abraham’s faith as an example of `being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Heb. 11:1).

As regards Paul’s understanding of Abraham, in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 the emphasis is clearly on the fact that, according to Genesis 15:6, Abraham was justified or made righteous by his faith and not by being circumcised and keeping the law. For Paul, the sequence of events in the Abraham story is all important. Since Abraham is credited as righteous prior to being circumcised, circumcision is not necessary in order for an individual to be reckoned righteous in God’s eyes. He writes,

We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12).

Here Paul stresses that Abraham is the father of those who have faith, whether they are his natural descendants or not. Thus, he concludes that Jews and Gentiles can only be justified by faith.

A similar, but not identical, argument is advanced in Galatians 2:5-3:29 as Paul responds to those who emphasize the necessity of circumcision in order to be children of Abraham and hence recipients of the promises made to him. He writes,

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham (Gal. 3:6-7).

By stressing the importance of faith over against circumcision Paul concludes that it is not necessary for an individual to be circumcised in order to be a child of Abraham.

Paul, however, does not conclude his argument in Galatians at this point. He focuses on three further aspects of the Abraham narrative in order to drive home his case that the Gentiles are now the recipients of God’s blessing. First, he sees in the justification of the Gentiles the fulfilment of the divine promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him.

The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal. 3:9).

By highlighting the importance which the Genesis narrative places on all nations being blessed through Abraham, Paul challenges the view of his opponents that God’s blessing was only intended for the actual descendants of Abraham.

Secondly, Paul argues that the divine promises made to Abraham find their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus Christ. To arrive at this conclusion Paul focuses on the concept of `seed’. He argues that the promises were given to Abraham and to his `seed’, implying one person, and that this `seed’ is Jesus Christ. Some biblical scholars conclude that while Paul adopts here a form of rabbinic exegesis which might have been practised by his Jewish contemporaries, his approach is clearly not in keeping with modern critical methods of exegesis. Unfortunately, these scholars have perhaps too readily dismissed Paul’s interpretation without examining in detail how the term `seed’ in used in Genesis. The Hebrew word zera` `seed’ is clearly a keyword in Genesis and while it sometimes denotes a group it may also refer to a single individual (e.g., Gen. 4:25; 21:13). This latter possibility is significant, especially when we observe that the entire book of Genesis focuses on a particular line of seed which enjoyed a special relationship with God. This line, beginning with Adam and traced through his third son Seth, includes such famous individuals as Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Remarkably, Genesis devotes considerable attention, especially in the patriarchal stories, to identifying the seed of this special line. Furthermore, there are clear indications that this line of seed formed the early ancestry of the royal line of David. Apart from the reference to kings being descended from Abraham (17:6), Jacob’s blessing of Judah in 49:8-12 indicates that royalty will come from the line of Judah. If Genesis as a whole focuses on a royal line of seed through which God will fulfil his promises to Abraham, then Paul’s interpretation of the term zera` as referring to Jesus Christ is in keeping with the common NT understanding of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. Thus, Paul affirms that it is only through faith in Jesus Christ, the `seed’ of Abraham, that Jews and Gentiles may now receive the blessing given to Abraham and become God’s children.

Finally, Paul also argues in Galatians that the divine covenant made with Abraham takes precedence over the law given several centuries later at Mt. Sinai. Whereas his opponents were advocating that believers must keep the law in order to be righteous, Paul responds by noting that the law, given later to fulfil a temporary role until Christ came, could never make anyone righteous since it merely indicated the righteousness required by God, not the means of achieving such righteousness. As such it underlined the necessity of becoming righteous through faith.

Since Paul uses the Abraham narrative in four distinctive ways in Galatians to challenge the view of his opponents that Gentile believers must be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in order to know God’s salvation, it is apparent that his understanding of the Gospel was heavily influenced by his reading of Genesis 12-25.

Abraham’s faith is also discussed in James 2:20-24. Here, however, the context differs from that found in Romans and Galatians. Whereas Paul seeks to demonstrate the priority of faith over circumcision, James is concerned to clarify the nature of saving faith: `What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him’ (James 2:14)? At the heart of James’s discussion is the desire to show that true faith in God will exhibit itself in righteous actions. Thus, he focuses on Abraham and in particular the offering of Isaac on the altar.

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone (Jas. 2:21-24).

Here James reveals how faith in and obedience to God cannot be separated. While James accepts that Abraham was justified by faith, as stated in Genesis 15:6, he views the later actions of Abraham as visible expressions of this inner faith. Undoubtedly, he focuses on Genesis 22 because of the way in which Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. For James there can be no separation of faith and deeds. Thus, he views Abraham’s actions in chapter 22 as the fulfilment or `culmination’ of what was stated in Genesis 15:6.

Although James writes, `that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone’ (James 2:24), it is clear from the context that this does not actually contradict what Paul has to say in Romans and Galatians. Both men were addressing different situations and therefore highlighted different aspects of Abraham’s faith. On the one hand, Paul concentrated on Genesis 15:6 because he was responding either directly or indirectly to those who wished to emphasize the necessity of circumcision for salvation. On the other hand, James was concerned to show that Abraham’s faith, by which he was justified, produced righteous actions. Thus, he writes, `faith without deeds is dead’ (James 2:26). Undoubtedly, Paul and James would have agreed wholeheartedly with what the other had to say, given the different problems that confronted them.

The final New Testament passage to be considered briefly is Hebrews 6:13-18. It is included here not because it focuses on Abraham’s faith, but because it draws a distinction between the promise which God made to Abraham and the oath.

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged (Heb. 6:17-18).

The oath mentioned here clearly refers to Genesis 22:16-18. Although it is not possible to be completely certain, the promise may refer to the covenant in Genesis 15. If this is so, then the author of Hebrews brings together the two covenants mentioned in the Abraham narrative in order to highlight how they guaranteed beyond any doubt the fulfilment of the divine promises made to Abraham.


Although parts of the preceding discussion have of necessity been brief, it is apparent that all the references to Abraham in the NT epistles reflect a common, and distinctively Christian, interpretation of the Genesis narrative. The main elements of this interpretation are as follows: (i) Abraham’s faith in and obedience to God is exemplary; his inner faith demonstrated itself in on-going obedience to God. (ii) Abraham was reckoned righteous by God on account of his faith prior to being circumcised. (iii) All who exhibit similar faith are Abraham’s children and share in the divine promises made to Abraham. (iv) The divine promises to Abraham anticipate the coming of a royal descendant who will impart God’s blessing to all the families and nations of the earth. Although the Genesis narrative does not identify this future king, the NT writers share the belief that he is Jesus Christ, the son of David. Clearly, these basic ideas influenced significantly the thinking of the early church regarding the nature of Jesus Christ’s mission to the world and its doctrine of soteriology. Moreover, on the basis of our own study of the OT material in the first part of this essay, it is apparent that the NT understanding of the Abraham narrative is derived from a careful exegesis of the Genesis text.


This present essay is meant to complement an earlier study by D.J Wiseman, ‘Abraham reassessed’ in A.R. Millard and D.J. Wiseman (eds.) Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1980) 139-156, which examines the person of Abraham from an historical perspective.
For convenience the names Abraham and Sarah are used throughout this essay in spite of the fact that these are first introduced in 17:5 and 17:15 to replace the earlier designations Abram and Sarai respectively.
Although this present essay focuses on the Abraham story, it is important that the material in Genesis 12-25 should be interpreted within the context of the whole book of Genesis. Unfortunately, insufficient attention is generally given to the relationship of chs. 12-25 to their wider context.
Three main factors support this proposal. First, genealogies are frequently used in Genesis to separate narrative sections. Although 22:20-24 is short and does not follow the pattern of the main genealogies in Genesis, its contents are clearly genealogical in nature. Secondly, the divine speeches in 12:1-3 and 22:15-18 form an inclusio, framing chs. 12 to 22. While the speeches differ in their terminology, they are remarkably similar in substance, and, as we shall see below, the divine oath in 22:15-18 forms a very fitting conclusion to the process started by the call of Abraham in 12:1-3 (cf. R.W.L. Moberly, ‘The Earliest Commentary on the Akedah’, VT 38 (1988) 322-23 = idem, From Eden to Golgotha: Essays in Biblical Theology, South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, (Atlanta, Scholars Press 1992) 73. Thirdly, A. Abela The Themes of the Abraham Narrative: Thematic Coherence within the Abraham Literary Unit of Genesis 11,27-25:18 (Malta, Studia Editions 1989) 9, suggests that the material in 22:20-25:18 is a self-contained unit, forming a palistrophic pattern.
Among recent writers to consider the themes of the Abraham narrative Abela, ibid., 15-125, concludes that there are three main themes concerning blessing, son and land. L.A. Turner, Announcements of Plot in Genesis, JSOTSS 96, (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press 1990) 51-114, discusses the same basic themes under the headings of nationhood, land and blessing.
See J. McKeown, A Study of the Main Unifying Themes in the Hebrew Text of the Book of Genesis (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, The Queen’s University of Belfast 1991).
Cf. E.A. Speiser, ‘People and Nation of Israel’, JBL 79 (1960) 157-163; R.E. Clements, TDOT 2:426-33; A.R. Hulst, THWAT 2:290-325; T.D. Alexander, A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative in Genesis, (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, The Queen’s University of Belfast 1982) 306.
Although Abraham is mentioned as possessing the land, there is no suggestion that the present inhabitants of the land will be dispossessed during Abraham’s lifetime.
Cf. H. Gunkel, Genesis: übersetzt und erklärt (6th edn. Göttingen, Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht 19640 167; J. Muilenburg, ‘Abraham and the Nations: Blessing and World History’, Interpretation 19 (1965) 393; H.W. Wolff, ‘The Kerygma of the Yahwist’, Interpretation 20 (1966) 137; R.E. Clements, Abraham and David: Genesis XV and its Meaning for Israelite Tradition (London, SCM 1967) 15; G. von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (revised edn. Philadelphia, Westminster 1972) 165-67; C. Westermann, Promises to the Fathers: Studies on the Patriarchal Narratives (Philadelphia, Fortress 1980) 156; idem, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg 1985) 146; E.A. Martens, Plot and Purpose in the Old Testament (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1981) 26,32; J. Goldingay, ‘The Patriarchs in Scripture and History’, in A.R. Millard and D.J. Wiseman (eds.) Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1980) 3. However, it should also be noted that the agenda set in 12:1-3 extends far beyond the Abraham narrative itself (cf. J. Bright, Covenant and Promise (London, SCM 1977) 24; Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco, Word 19) 283; C.H.H. Scobie, ‘Israel and the Nations: An Essay in Biblical Theology’, TynB 43 (1992) 285-6.
Two aspects of the translation adopted here require clarification. Firstly, the imperative form wehyeh ‘be’ in 12:2d is maintained. This is also the conclusion reached by Turner, op. cit., 53-55, who reviews briefly other possibilities. Secondly, special consideration has been given to the fact that the imperatives ‘go’ and ‘be a blessing’ are both followed by cohortatives. In such contexts the cohortative normally expresses purpose or result (cf. S.R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew [10th edn. London, Methuen 1916] 64; P. Joüon Grammaire de l’hébreu biblique [2nd edn. Rome, Institut Biblique Pontifical 1947] 314-15; A.B. Davidson, An Introductory Hebrew Grammar [revised by J. Mauchline, 26th edn. Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark 1966] 197; T.O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew [London, Darton, Longman and Todd 1973] 119; E. Kautzsch [ed.], Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar [Oxford, Clarendon 1910] 320; M. Greenberg, Introduction to Hebrew [Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall 1965] 183-84). To highlight this syntatic arrangement, the imperatives ‘go’ and ‘be a blessing’ are followed by ‘so that’.
As it stands the divine speech to Abraham falls naturally into two halves, each introduced by an imperative. Whereas the first half focuses on the promise of nationhood, the second centres on the blessing of others. As we shall observe below, this two-fold division is reflected in the two covenants found in chs. 15 and 17.
There has been considerable debate regarding the correct translation of the verb nibreku. Three possibilities exist: it may be translated as (a) a passive (‘they will be blessed’); (b) a middle (‘they will find blessing’); or (c) a reflexive (‘they will bless themselves’). Since the earliest versions (LXX, Tg. Onk., Vg; cf. Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:8) reflect the passive sense, that is the translation adopted here (cf. O.T. Allis, ‘The Blessing of Abraham’, PTR 25 263-98). For a fuller discussion, see H.C. Chew, The Theme of ‘Blessing for the Nations’ in the Patriarchal Narratives of Genesis, (unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Sheffield, 1982) 5-10.
The importance of the theme of blessing is underlined by the five-fold repetition of the root brk ‘to bless’ in 12:2-3.
See Wenham, op. cit., 325-326.
The first sign, the stars in the heavens, conveys the vast number of Abraham’s descendants. The second sign is more complex. According to G. Wenham, ‘The Symbolism of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15: A Response to G.F. Hasel’, JSOT 22 (1982) 134-137, the sacrificial animals probably represent Abraham’s descendants, the birds of prey are the Egyptians and ‘the smoking brazier with a blazing torch’ indicates God’s presence. The sign thus looks forward to the release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the subsequent presence of the LORD in their midst. After the exodus God’s presence was indicated by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21; 19:18; 20:18).
R.W.L. Moberly, ‘Abraham’s Righteousness (Genesis xv 6)’ in J.A. Emerton (ed.), Studies in the Pentateuch, VTS 41, (Leiden, E.J. Brill 1990) 103-130 = idem, From Eden to Golgotha, 29-54, reviews helpfully recent studies on 15:6. He concludes, however, that the Genesis writer viewed the righteousness of Abraham in terms of the later Jewish concept of the ‘merit of the fathers’ (zekut ’abot); that is, Abraham’s faith was rewarded by God bestowing divine blessings upon his descendants. While the entire Genesis account clearly associates Abraham’s obedience with divine blessing for his descendants (and also for other nations), it is not immediately apparent that this thought is encapsulated in Gen. 15:6. To arrive at this conclusion Moberly relies entirely on the assumption that Gen. 15:6 parallels closely Ps. 106:31. Unfortunately, Moberly’s approach is methodologically weak because it rests on a circular argument, a possibility which he himself partially recognises (p. 115, n. 43).
See G.F. Hasel ‘The Meaning of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15’, JSOT 19 (1981) 69. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 333, describes this covenant as a ‘promissory oath’.
T.D. Alexander, ‘Genesis 22 and the Covenant of Circumcision’, JSOT 25 (1983) 19; Turner, op. cit., 76.
According to N.M. Sarna, Genesis (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society 1989) 123, the expression ‘walking before God’ ‘seems originally to have been a technical term for absolute loyalty to a king.’
The Israelites and Edomites are descended from Jacob and Esau respectively. The Ishmaelites and Midianites are probably not to be included here because they are not descended from Sarah. Sarna, ibid., 124, observes that the phrase ‘father of many nations’ ‘has a more universal application in that a large segment of humanity looks upon Abraham as its spiritual father.’
Those who were circumcised enjoyed a special relationship with each other. We witness evidence of this in chapter 34 where the sons of Jacob promise Shechem and his father Hamor that if they are circumcised, ‘Then we will give you our daughters and take your daughters for ourselves. We’ll settle among you and become one people with you’ (34:16). Against this background the killing by Simeon and Levi of all those who have just been circumcised is exceptionally repulsive to their father Jacob (34:24-31).
The same idea may underlie Noah’s comments regarding the relationship between Japheth and Shem: ‘May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,...’ (9:27).
T.D. Alexander, ‘Genesis 22’, 17-22.
It is noteworthy that in the whole of Genesis it is only here and in 8:20 that the term `olah ‘burnt-offering’ is used to designate a sacrifice.
R.W.L. Moberly, ‘Earliest Commentary on the Akehah’, 302-23 = From Eden to Golgotha, 55-73, argues that 22:15-18, as a secondary addition to the story of 22:1-14,19, is ‘an interpretation, or commentary, on the preceding story’ (p. 313, = p. 65). Central to his argument is the observation that whereas the divine promises elsewhere in Genesis ‘always constitute a unilateral and unconditional offer on God’s part’ (p. 318, = p. 69), the promises in 22:15-18 are linked directly to Abraham’s obedience. However, as we have suggested above, the divine promises in 12:1-3 and 17:1-2 are conditional upon Abraham’s obedience (contra Moberly). Consequently, since the divine oath in 22:15-18 is not fundamentally different from the divine promises found earlier in the Abraham narrative, there is no compelling reason to view them as a later addition. Moberly’s basic understanding of 22:15-18 merely add weight to the proposal presented here that these verses are an important part of the Abraham narrative.
Cf. T.D. Alexander, ‘From Adam to Judah: the Significance of the Family Tree in Genesis", EvQ 61 (1989) 5-19. The concluding chapters of Genesis draw an important distinction between Joseph and Judah. Although Joseph is reckoned as the firstborn, according to Jacob’s blessing in 49:8-12, it is from the line of Judah that kings will descend.
This is not to say that the Genesis account portrays Abraham as perfect. Faults and weaknesses are revealed. The emphasis is, however, that in spite of the shortcomings he displays, Abraham’s faith secures his relationship with God.
Turner (op. cit., 113-14) arrives at a very negative assessment of Abraham’s obedience to the divine imperatives given in 12:1-2. He does so on the understanding that the divine promises, whose fulfilment was conditional upon Abraham’s obedience, were not fulfilled during his lifetime. Unfortunately, Turner fails to recognise that the fulfilment of the divine promises of necessity must occur in the distant future (e.g., Abraham’s descendants will only take possession of the land after four hundred years have elapsed; cf. 15:13-16). Abraham’s response to his divine call must be judged rather on the basis of those developments which occur in his relationship with God. As the recipient of the promissory covenant in ch. 15 and the divine oath in 22:16-18 he was clearly viewed by God as fulfilling the obligations which had been placed upon him.
It is not possible to review here all that has been written on the relevant NT passages. Our intention is merely to establish in general terms that the NT writers were influenced by a particular understanding of the Genesis account of Abraham.
Moses, who is next in importance, receives about half the space given to Abraham (cf. Heb. 11:23-28).
Genesis 15:6 is quoted in Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6.
F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Exeter, Paternoster 1982) 155, comments, ‘The Galatians were being urged to become children of Abraham by adoption (since they were not his children by natural birth), and this, they were told, involved circumcision, just as it did for proselytes from paganism to Judaism. Paul maintains that, having believed the gospel and received God’s gift of righteousness, they are Abraham’s children already, and in the only sense that matters in God’s sight. Abraham’s heritage is the heritage of faith, and those who share this heritage are thereby manifested as sons of Abraham.’
J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law (London, SPCK 1990) 251, concludes that Paul addresses in Galatians ‘a covenantal nomism understood in restrictively nationalistic terms - “works of the law” as maintaining Jewish identity, “the curse of the law” as falling on the lawless so as to exclude Gentiles as such from the covenant promise...’
zera` occurs 59 times in Genesis and 170 times in the rest of the OT. This latter statistic excludes the one occurrence of the Aramaic word zera` in Daniel 2:43. In Genesis zera` comes in 1:11(x2),12(x2),29(x2); 3:15(x2); 4:25; 7:3; 8:22; 9:9; 12:7; 13:15,16(x2); 15:3,5,13,18; 16:10; 17:7(x2),8,9,10,12,19; 19:32,34; 21:12,13; 22:17(x2),18; 24:7,60; 26:3,4(x3); 28:4,13,14(x2); 32:12; 35:12; 38:8,9(x2); 46:6,7; 47:19,23,24; 48:4,11,19.
The link between the ‘seed’ of Abraham and the ‘seed’ of David is explored more fully by M. Wilcox, ‘The Promise of the “Seed” in the New Testament and the Targumim’, JSNT 5 (1979) 2-20. See also, T.E. McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House 1985) 19-35.
For a much fuller treatment of the Galatian material, see G.W. Hansen, Abraham in Galatians: Epistolary and Rhetorical Contexts, JSNTSS 29, (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press 1989).
For a fuller discussion of James 2:20-24 which complements the present approach see D.J. Moo, The Letter of James (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1985) 107-116. Significantly, Moo argues that James’s use of dikaioo in vv. 21 and 24 differs from that of Paul. Whereas Paul views justification as a ‘sovereign, judicial act in which God apart from any human "work", declares the sinner to be innocent before him (Rom. 4:5)’ (p. 108), James applies ‘the word to God’s altimate declaration of a person’s righteousness’ (p. 109); that is, ‘James uses "justify" where Paul speaks of the judgment’ (p. 109).

This article first appeared in R. S. Hess, P. E. Sattherthwaite, G. J. Wenham (eds), He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50 (Grand Rapids and Carlisle, 1994) and is used here with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of the publisher and author.

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