When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…. God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” –Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 NRSV
The following text is excerpted from my book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaacs Press, 2010).
Why should anyone today care about Abraham, a 4,000-year-old figure of mythical proportions whose existence is known to us solely through the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Hebrew Scriptures?
He matters because what Genesis has to say about him plays such a central, pivotal role for Paul. Yet like so much else about Paul’s thinking, there are multiple ways to understand Abraham: as a role model and example for Christian believers, as “first recipient” of covenants establishing God’s “chosen people” and promising blessings on all humanity, and as a unique way to understand Paul’s apostolic mission to the Gentiles.
Traditionally, Abraham is held up as the great example of faith for Gentiles and Jews. According to this line of reasoning, Abraham developed a faith that was considered excellent in God’s eyes. In comparison, Jesus’ faith was not just excellent but perfect—-after all, Christians’ believe, he was God’s own Son.
In Galatians 3:27 and 29, Paul lays out the importance of the relationship between Abraham and Jesus Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring [seed], heirs according to the promise.”
Abraham’s first “test of faith” came when he responded to God’s call to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldees to travel to an unknown country. God told Abraham that because he responded with complete, trusting faith to head out on a journey without knowing where he was being sent, not only would he and his household be blessed but his descendents would be as numerous as the nighttime stars, his descendants would become a great nation, and, ultimately, all the world would be blessed through his “seed” (heirs). Because Abraham trusted and believed, he went. Because God was faithful, the world will be redeemed.
The Genesis account relates how Abraham’s faith later on was tested when God asked him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. While this story is hardly a primer on raising a family (and offensive if not downright abhorent to modern readers), its presence in the biblical narrative highlights Abraham’s extraordinary faith. He obeyed God, who at the last minute substituted a ram to be sacrificed and prevented Abraham from slaying Isaac.
Abraham’s life was one experience after another of trusting in and faithfully obeying God. Because he was faithful to the call of God in his life, Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness (meaning, God brought him into a right relationship despite Abraham’s human failings and weaknesses). He serves, then, as a great model and example for those who faithfully follow divine commands.
There are multiple covenants involved in the story of Abraham, and it’s important to keep them straight. This is the first:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” —Genesis 12:1–3
Abram responded with faithful obedience (the word used in the Septuagint, the Greek-language “Bible” Paul used, is pistis; it has roughly the same meaning as the Hebrew word hesed). Later God promised a natural-born heir to Abram, who had pointed out to God that he had no natural offspring (his wife Sarai was childless; they were both very old):
And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. —Genesis 15:3–6
It was some time after this that God established yet another covenant with Abram (whose name was changed to Abraham) to be his God as well as the God of his descendants through his son, Isaac. Those descendants would be given the entire land of Canaan for an “everlasting possession.” As a sign or marker of this covenant, God instituted the practice of circumcision:
God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised…. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. —Genesis 17:9–10, 13–14
Still later God made another promise, this time to Abraham and Sarah (whose name was changed from Sarai) who, although ninety years old, had borne a son for 100-year-old Abraham, named Isaac:
“I [God] will establish my covenant with him [Isaac] as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael [Abraham’s son born to Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar], I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year. —Genesis 17:19–21
So which promise does Paul refer to in Romans 4? It is the promise that predates circumcision and the selection of a chosen people (Isaac’s descendants, to be known as Israel). It is the promise that “all the families of the world” would be blessed. This group would include both circumcised and uncircumcised (Jews and Gentiles) who trace their lineage back through Isaac, Ishmael, and all the other sons of Abraham (see Genesis 25 for that list). According to biblical literary style, this means everybody in the world.
Who are the “heirs of Abraham”? Keep in mind that ancient practice dictated that an heir need not necessarily be a blood relative. Typically, it meant a first-born son, but it could be anyone designated to be such.
In this case, Paul indicates, the one true heir of Abraham is Jesus Christ. Although Jesus was biologically a descendant of Abraham (as were all the Jews, of course), he was Abraham’s true “spiritual heir” because he was perfectly obedient to the call of God. Jesus Christ would bring blessings to all the world, just as God had promised Abram centuries before. Those who take on the name of Christ, through baptism, become “joint heirs” of the promise, as well.
It is in Jesus Christ that God shows faithfulness to the promise to Abraham. Just as Abraham’s obedient faith is counted or reckoned to him as righteousness (the ancient Hebrew way of describing what the followers of Christ would refer to as justification), so now it is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in fulfilling God’s promise that brings blessing to all of humankind. As Paul described it to the Galatian church:
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. —Galatians 3:6–9
[From the 2012 ForeWords archive]