The Justification of Abraham

The story of Abraham is a foundational part of the Biblical narrative. As the forefather of Israel, his life foreshadows that of the people who would stem from him. One episode of particular interest is the covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 15, which is referred to several times in the new testament. My aim will be to give a brief overview of this significant chapter in the life of the patriarch.

The Promise of Offspring

Up to this point, the story of Abraham has been one of success (Genesis 12-14). Abraham has been called out of the idolatrous society of Ur. He has been blessed by God in many ways: receiving livestock and bondservants in Egypt, being granted victory in battle against various kings and receiving gifts of bread and wine from Melchizedek the righteous priest. What’s more, he has given honour and glory to God for his successes: building altars and making sacrifices to God in various places, paying a tithe to Melchizedek the priest and refusing to make a covenant with the wicked king of Sodom for material gain.

Yet despite all of this, Abraham is sorrowful. He has many servants, but he doesn’t have a son of his own. When God appears to Abraham at the start of Genesis 15 promising him a great reward, he laments: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless” (v1-3). In response, God makes a promise to Abraham that he will have a son. He then takes Abraham outside and says to him “Look towards heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” (v4-5)

At this point comes a statement which is often misunderstood by commentators. It reads as follows: “And he (Abraham) believed the Lord, and he (the Lord) counted it to him as righteousness” (v6). Many commentators take this to be a statement that Abraham trusted in God for the first time and received the righteousness of God[1]. This is based on the context in which the apostle Paul quotes the verse in Romans 4. But it’s not a natural way of understanding the verse in its original context since Genesis 15 doesn’t read like a conversion story. Not only that, but a natural reading of Genesis 12-14 would lead us to believe that Abraham was already a faithful believer.

A better way of understanding the verse would be to infer its meaning from the context. Abraham isn’t just trusting in God in a general sense, he is trusting in a specific promise that God would make his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. And he isn’t having a status of ‘righteousness’ applied to him, rather God is counting his faith in the promise as the sign that he is worthy to inherit the promise of offspring. Not that he is worthy in himself of course, but that God counts him as such purely out of his divine favour.

Passing through the Pieces

At this point in the narrative, God reminds Abraham of another promise that he made to him when calling him out of his homeland, the promise that he would inherit the land of Canaan. In response to this, Abraham asks for evidence: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (v8) Then follows a sacrificial rite confirming the promise.

Abraham is told to bring five sacrificial animals; a cow, a goat, a sheep, a dove and a pigeon. He kills them and cuts them in half (with the exception of the birds) and then lays the halves out. Abraham then falls into a “deep sleep” and “great darkness” sets upon him (v12). God makes promises to Abraham regarding the people of Israel, that they will become slaves but that he will bring them up out of slavery, that they will inherit the promised land when the times comes. Finally, God passes “a smoking firepot and a flaming torch” between the animal pieces.

What is the meaning of the rite? The key is to note the specific promises made by God. They focus on the Exodus event, in which God’s people are enslaved in a foreign land but then are set free by the power of God. Examined in this context, the “smoking firepot” and “flaming torch” which pass between the pieces point us forward to the “pillar of fire and of cloud” in which God led the Israelites through the parted waters of the red sea (Exodus 14:21-25).

Another relevant allusion is the reference to Abraham falling into a “deep sleep”. This takes us back to the story of the creation of Eve earlier in Genesis. In creating Eve, God sent Adam into a “deep sleep” and then formed her from his rib (Genesis 2:21-23). Likewise, God places Abraham into a deep sleep in order to form from his body not a woman, but a son and (by extension) a people.

Abraham in Romans

Let us now consider a key new testament passage which cites Genesis 15, namely Romans 4. What kind of argument is the apostle Paul trying to make? For starters, we should look at the question in verse 1 which frames Paul’s argument. I think Richard Hays’s translation of the question is correct, in that it should read “What then shall we say? Has Abraham become our forefather according to the flesh?”[2]

Understood this way, Paul’s opening line is a rhetorical question about how Abraham did not become our forefather according to “the flesh”[3], which is to say, in his own strength, but rather by the power of God. In verse 2, he re-iterates his argument using different terminology: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Substitute “justified by works” for “became worthy to inherit the promise by human effort” and you can see the flow of the argument. The financial analogy in verses 4-5 is consistent with this interpretation, provided we take Abraham to be the one spoken of. Of course, the gracious gift credited to Abraham is not salvation (construed in a narrow sense) but the promise of offspring.

The point that Paul is trying to hammer home is this: God’s representatives are not promised posterity and blessing through their own strength but by the power of God. This applies to us too, since the promise of posterity is fulfilled in us as we receive the promise of eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (v22-25). Just as Abraham was considered worthy to inherit the promise of offspring through faith alone apart from human effort, so too are we considered worthy to inherit new life in Christ through faith alone. And none of us can boast, since we are all saved by God’s power and grace alone.


[1] This ‘imputation’ reading doesn’t even fit with the wording, since the passage does not say “counted righteousness to him” but rather “counted it to him as righteousness”. So, it’s not a status of righteousness being transferred to Abraham, but the reckoning of his own faith (“it”) as righteousness.

[2] A key argument in favour of this ‘two questions’ reading is that in the other two uses of the expression “What then shall we say” in Romans it appears firstly as a stand-alone question (Romans 7:7) and secondly as a stand-alone question with only a couple of words added (Romans 8:31, “…to these things?”).

[3] The term “flesh” also has resonances with the ceremonial rite of circumcision.

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