S2E8 — What Really Made Abraham Righteous?

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y18NdyIiHpU

Welcome to another episode of Almost Ordained. I am your host David, the guy who graduated seminary but never got ordained.

This is actually a continuation of a short episode, “My Number One Tip about Faith.” I believe the best way to think about faith is trust before belief. What does that mean? We’ll look at Abraham as an example. Even though God doesn’t appear to you in as dramatic a fashion as Abraham, I think you’ll see there are some good and surprising lessons we can take from his example. The story is found in Genesis 15, and in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he quotes this verse.

And he [Abraham] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:6 NRSV)

This is a very important verse for Paul. Abraham, Paul says elsewhere, was the first person in the Bible that God counted “righteous” because of his faith. Because of this, he became the spiritual ancestor of those who would be made righteous through faith, not by works of the Law. “Faith” describes Abraham’s response to God’s promise that he would have a son of his own issue, and from that small beginning his descendants would become more numerous than the stars in heaven.

But what kind of faith did Abraham show here, belief or trust? We’ll look at what Paul said first, then compare it with Abraham’s encounter with God that gave us this crucial verse. In Romans 4:19–22, this is how Paul interprets Abraham’s faith in response to the promise of a son.

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:19–22 NRSV)

That is where he quotes Genesis 15:6. And again, I’m asking when it says his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, does “faith” here mean belief or trust? Most people seem to think it means belief. If you believe all the right things, you’re good with God, i.e., righteous. That was how Abraham was made righteous to God. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body … or the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No doubt, no unbelief. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God. The way the King James Version says it is even more pointed.

He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; (Rom 4:20 KJV)

So what if it’s now impossible for Abraham to have any children, because he’s almost 100 years old? So what if Sarah has passed menopause, and had been barren even when she was young? So what if they weren’t even having sex anymore? It didn’t matter that anyone with a brain would know what God promised was impossible. God said it. He believed it. That settled it. And that’s the kind of faith we need to have.

That’s how Paul appears to be presenting it, and that’s how I’ve heard most people present it. But here is really how Abraham reacted.

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?” (Gen 17:17 NRS)

He laughed, like anyone with a brain would have. Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? Does that sound like someone who staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief? Maybe Paul thought so, but I have to disagree with him. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say Paul got this wrong.

That’s an audacious statement, and you won’t hear me say it very often. I have immense respect for Paul and the work he did to lay the foundation of the Christian faith. I have learned a lot from him, as have all Christians in every generation since he began his mission to teach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Today, for some people, Paul is controversial. There are a number of things he said where people want to say he was wrong. In the vast majority of those cases, I don’t believe he was wrong but rather misunderstood, because they don’t read him in context.

Paul’s contributions to the New Testament come in the form of letters he wrote to specific churches to address specific issues that they asked him about. But instead of looking at the context, i.e., what specific situations was he addressing, and why did he respond the way he did to those specific situations, they read everything as if he were writing universal messages to all Christians everywhere, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. That has created a LOT of misinterpretation.

But when he says Abraham “staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief,” he flat out got that wrong. Abraham did stagger at the promise of God through unbelief. I already showed you. He laughed, because it was ridiculous.

Whatever it was about Abraham’s faith that God counted as righteousness, it had nothing to do with Abraham believing instantly and totally with no doubt. So then what does that phrase, “his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness” really mean? You’ll see it as we go back to the original story of how God gave Abraham and Sarah a son after they were “too old” for it to happen. And along with that, we’ll try to understand how Paul got mixed up in his version of the story. It’s gonna be a little long, so I’ll put some time stamps on it, if you want to skip ahead to the conclusion. But if you love in depth Bible study, that is what I’m going to be doing, and I’m just going to let my Bible-geek-ness out and give it full rein.

8:20 Genesis 15: God’s promises to Abraham

So we’re reading again from Genesis chapter 15. Before this happened, God called Abraham to leave his home in Harran and go to a land “I will show you.” God made some pretty big promises then, at the beginning of Genesis chapter 12. Where does he stand now, when God reckoned his faith as righteousness? We’ll look at where he stands in chapter 15, starting with verses 1–3.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Gen 15:1–3 NRS)

At this point, he and his wife are Abram and Sarai. It’s not until chapter 17 that God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. Abram has already thought about who will be his heir. He has no offspring, so he made a trusted slave, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir. He thinks that is the best he can do. God has just promised him, “Your reward shall be very great,” yet he cannot believe it because he continues childless. Again, I ask, what happened to the man who “staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief”? You see he is asking questions. He can’t understand how God’s promise will come to pass, and he is not afraid to tell God what he really thinks.

It sounds like he expected God to give him children, and God hasn’t delivered. Let’s go back to chapter 12 when God first appeared to Abram.

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.”

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. (Gen 12:1–4 NRS)

God called Abram when he was seventy-five years old, which should give hope to some of us late-bloomers. God commanded him two things:

1. to leave his country, his father’s house, and his kindred

2. to go to a land God would show him (it turned out to be Canaan).

God promised Abram four things:

1. God will make him a great nation

2. God will bless him and make his name great, so that he will be a blessing

3. God bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him

4. In him, all families of the world will be blessed.

Those are some pretty big promises. But many of them appear to be contingent on his bearing a son. Perhaps he could build a great nation, but without descendants, how could it continue? How can his name be great if he has no sons to carry on his name after he dies? All families of the world will be blessed through him, but what about his own family? How can a man with no family of his own bless other families?

These are some of the questions that must have crossed Abram’s mind between the time he left his father’s house in the land of Harran and this scene in chapter 15. Lot was his nephew and apparently the only member of his family in Harran who went with him. He would have been the obvious choice to be Abram’s heir, since he was the closest living male relative. However, they had a falling out in Genesis 13 and split from each other.

So Abram figured the next best thing would be to make Eliezer his heir. Men who had no children or relatives to inherit their property would often make their most trusted slave an heir. People had slaves in Biblical times. It’s not something we like to talk about. It deserves further explanation than I can give here. But all I can say about it now is it was so much a part of their world I think most people never questioned it.

It seems Abram was expecting God to give him a son with his wife, Sarai. But just in case, he made a plan B. If there is no son, Eliezer would be his heir. Ooh, doubt again. If he really had faith, he wouldn’t have made a plan B. That was the impression I got from a lot of preachers and churches. The moment you start to think of a plan B means you don’t really believe in plan A. And in Abram’s case, that plan A came from God, so that means he didn’t believe God. Will God forsake Abram for daring to question his faithfulness? Continuing with verses 4–6.

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. (Gen 15:4–6 NRS)

There it is, the verse Paul quotes in Romans 4:22, which I read earlier. This is where Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. This is a very important verse to Paul. It is one of the key verses for his doctrine of salvation through faith, not by works of the Law (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6. For a different application, see Jam 2:23).

The LORD reckoned his belief/faith (translations vary) as righteousness. This happened long before the Law of Moses even existed and before the covenant of circumcision. Therefore, Paul contended, righteousness comes by faith, not by works of the Law or Jewish ancestry. Or circumcision. This is the scene we are told Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead.

So it appears if you want to be righteous before God, you should be like Abram. When God says something, just believe it. Do not weaken in faith; do not doubt; do not consider your circumstances. Abram believed the word of God. For us today, the Bible is the word of God. So if the Bible says it, just believe it. Don’t question, don’t doubt. Believe like Abram, and you will be righteous like Abram. But there are two problems with that way of reading.

First, Paul said Abram was almost 100 years old, and his own body was “as good as dead” (Rom 4:19). That’s not true in this episode. We’re not told how old Abram was at this point, but probably still seventy-five based on later developments in the story. That’s why I say Paul got this wrong. Abram is as not good as dead yet, as we see in chapter 16 when he has a son by Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar, because Sarai had been unable to give him a child. Does that sound like The Handmaid’s Tale? Oh, yeah. In fact, if you read Genesis 16, Sarai and Hagar sound just like Serena and Offred. But we’ll have to wait for another time to get into that.

The point is, though, Abram is not as good as dead. It may be late for him to conceive his own child, but it’s not impossible. So if Paul was trying to say Abram staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, even though what God promised was impossible, that’s not the case. It was still possible at that time.

Why did Paul say Abraham was almost 100 years old and as good as dead when he was really a “young man” of 75, ready, willing, and able to conceive a son of his own issue? That brings us to the second problem. Genesis 17 occurs about 24 years after that episode, when Abram was 99. God appears to Abram again and re-iterates the promise that he will have a son of his own issue. Here is how Abraham reacted at 99 years old.

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?” (Gen 17:17 NRS)

In the Bible, when someone falls on their face before God, the usual formula is “he fell on his face and worshipped.” Abraham fell on his face … and laughed! Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? (laugh). God, I didn’t know you had such a good sense of humor. Again, I ask, does that sound like someone who staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief?

He staggered all right. So much so he was ROTFL-ing. Do you see there were two stories about God promising a son to Abraham, one in Genesis 15 and one in Genesis 17? Paul conflated the two stories to make it look like God promised something impossible, and Abraham believed because “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” That’s how a lot of people want to portray the story, and I guess Paul was no exception.

Of course, it could have been an honest mistake. Today, many pastors and evangelists carry their bible with them wherever they go. But back then there were not any Bibles you could carry around with you. When Paul wrote this, he might not have had a Torah scroll where he could check to be sure. “Now is this the same story where Abraham was 100 years old and as good as dead?” It appears he was relying on his own memory, which for anyone can be unreliable, so maybe I should cut him a little slack for getting the two stories mixed up.

But my point is, if you want an example of believing God’s word with no doubt, even when it’s impossible, because “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” you’ll have to find someone other than Abraham. And as we go further into chapter 15 of Genesis, we’ll see that even at that moment when Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness, he still “staggered at the promise of God.”

22:35 Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

So why did God count Abraham’s faith as righteousness? What kind of faith are we talking about? Most translations say Abraham believed God. But if we look at God’s interaction with Abraham, believing is not so black and white as we think. We say that in Chapter 15, Abraham believed the promise he would have a son of his own to inherit his property, his covenant with God, and his name. But it’s not impossible, so believing is not the great leap of faith Paul makes it out to be. Furthermore, look at what happens just in the next verses.

Then [God] said to him, “I am [Yahweh] who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”

But [Abram] said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Gen 15:7–8 NRS)

How am I to know that I shall possess it? Again, I ask, does that sound like someone who did not weaken in faith or did not stagger at the promise of God through unbelief? And yet, God still counted his faith as righteousness. To review, so far God promised Abram:

1. He will have an heir of his own issue. In other words, his heir will be his son biologically, not by adoption. He won’t have to resort to making a slave his heir. Abram believed that.

2. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abram believed that. God reckoned his belief/faith as righteousness.

3. He would possess the land of Canaan. Abram asked God for proof.

Is that good enough? Was Meatloaf right when he said, “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad”? No, with God, it’s all or nothing. You believe everything, or you’re not righteous in God’s eyes. Except God already counted Abram righteous after believing the first two promises. Maybe God should have waited to see if Abram would continue to believe after the third promise. What happens now that Abram is staggering a little bit? I guess Abram will receive the promises he believed: the promise of an heir of his issue and many, many descendants. But as for possessing the land of Canaan, he just lost that promise, because he did not believe. You know I’m kidding, right?

No, God’s plans are not derailed because Abram showed a moment of doubt. If you’re trying to make Abram a paragon of belief that never wavers, never weakens, never questions, and never doubts, you are not reading the Bible. That is probably what annoys me most about a lot of Biblical fiction. They think they have to portray “the heroes of the Bible” like Abraham as always believing, always honest, always faithful, and in doing so, they rob them of their humanity. How are we supposed to connect with them if they were too perfect to be human? Thankfully, the Bible does not do that.

27:00 Let’s Cut a Covenant, Abram

Before we continue with the story, I have to prepare you a little. In order to understand what happens next, you have to know something about blood covenants. In Abram’s world, people used covenant ceremonies to seal an agreement between two parties. They almost always involved shedding blood in some fashion. In some cultures, they might cut themselves to use their own blood to seal the agreement. More often, the blood would come from an animal sacrifice. At this point, maybe I should warn you that if you are sensitive about the slaughter of animals, the rest of this passage is going to be rough.

One type of ceremony involved lining up a few animals and splitting them in half. Each party in turn would walk between the halves of the animals, their feet bathing in the blood, and speak their promises in the agreement. This sounds brutal to us today, but Abram was familiar with this practice. In their world, it was probably the most solemn oath you could make. Because whatever you promise in that agreement, the symbolism says, “If I ever violate the terms of this covenant, may I be split in two like these unfortunate animals.”

The point is when you hear what God tells Abram to do, don’t think in modern terms. Abram was already familiar with this type of ceremony. He knew whatever followed was serious business. Picking up the story from verses 9–11.

He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. (Gen 15:9–11 NRS)

You see God told Abram to bring the animals, but God did not have to tell Abram what to do with them, because Abram knew what the animals were for. I wonder how he went about doing this. What kind of blade did they have in the Middle Bronze Age capable of splitting all those animals in two? I’d think you would need steel the quality of a Samurai sword, which obviously was not available then. But since it was a common practice, they must have figured out a way to do it. Of course when you have three dead animals and two dead birds all lined up, that’s going to attract some buzzards, so Abram had to drive them away. Now verse 12.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. (Gen 15:12 NRS)

I love that phrase, a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. It really creates a mood. Perhaps it foreshadows the night of Passover, when darkness covered the land of Egypt. Abram’s mind must have been conjuring all kinds of creepy thoughts of what might happen next. Continuing with verses 13–14.

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. (Gen 15:13–14 NRS)

This is definitely foreshadowing his descendants’ bondage in Egypt and the deliverance called Passover. Of course, ancient Israelites listening to this story would know what this was referring to.

God then told Abram he would die in peace and in old age (he lived to be 175 years old). Then in verse 16, God tells him,

“And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:16 NRS)

Abram’s descendants will be slaves of another nation. God will bring judgment on that nation, they will escape with great possessions, and they shall come back here (to the land God is promising to his descendants). Why doesn’t God just give him the land now, and then they won’t have to go through slavery and oppression? God says the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

The reason God says he will give this land to Abram’s descendants is because of the iniquity of the current inhabitants, here the Amorites. When Moses writes down the Law for the Israelites, he warns them not to engage in the same iniquities as the Amorites (and a bunch of other nations), or God will drive them out of the land as well (see Lev 18:24; 1 Ki 21:26; 2 Ki 21:11).

What iniquity is God talking about? After reading the prophets, I have to say it is injustice and unrighteousness, along with corruption in religion and government. The natives of the land are all living according to what is right in their own eyes rather than loving their neighbors as themselves. That is what the prophets complained about the most. Verse 16 means if trends keep going as they are, the Amorites will reach a point where they are totally irredeemable. God will give the land to Abraham’s descendants in order to establish a people who live by righteousness and justice (see Gen 18:19).

I’m not sure what God meant by the fourth generation. God just said they will be there for 400 years. A generation is normally considered 40 years, so it would take 10 generations for them to come back here. That requires further study. But for now, we’ll continue the story, verse 17.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. (Gen 15:17 NRS).

This is an example of a theophany. A theophany is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a visible manifestation of a deity.” It means God is appearing in person in a visible form. For example, during the wandering in the Wilderness, God appeared to the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As you can imagine, a theophany is rare.

So far, Abram has only heard God speaking but hasn’t seen God take on any visible form. That changes in this verse. The theophany here is a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The text doesn’t specify how Abram heard God’s voice up until now, but this time the voice will come out of the theophany. Picking up from verse 18.

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Gen 15:18–21 NRS)

And that’s where the chapter ends.

This ceremony was familiar to Abram, as I said before. Usually, both parties of the covenant passed between the halves in turn while declaring their part of the agreement. In this case, God passes through, but Abram does not. God makes promises, but Abram does not. You would expect if God gave so much to Abram, God would expect something in return. I think God did want something from Abram, but God does not say anything about it here. For now, though, Abram’s mind must be blown.

“So Abram, you asked how you would know your descendants would possess the land? God just appeared in a theophany of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passed between the pieces of the animals you slaughtered. You know that means there’s no chance of God backing out of whatever God promised. You heard from the theophany God would give the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the … all the rest of them, to your descendants, thereby sealing the promise in a blood covenant. Is that enough to convince you?”

Abram was like, “Okay, I believe. Yeah, uh, thank you?”

38:04 Was it belief or trust?

What does this tell us about belief and trust? We saw when God made the first two promises, Abram had no problem believing. Let’s say here’s trust (left hand) and here’s belief (right hand). Abram’s trust was here (left hand). God asked Abram to believe two promises that were here (right hand lower than left). “The slave will not be your heir. No one but a son of your issue will be your heir.” Abram’s like, “Okay, I believe.” (right hand touches left forearm). His trust is at a level where he can believe it, even though it’s not impossible but pretty unlikely. But he trusts God enough that he can believe it. God says, “Look to the stars in heaven. If you can number them, you’ll be able to number your descendants.” Abram’s trust was at a level where he was like, “Okay, I believe it.” (right hand touches left forearm).

Then God asked him to believe something that was beyond his level of trust at the moment. (move right hand above left hand). “To your descendants I will give all the land where you are now a stranger and an alien.” And Abram is like, “Okay, I need some proof. (left hand touches right forearm). How do I know you’re going to do it?” So his trust is not enough at this point to just believe it. (left hand touches right forearm).

But instead of rejecting Abram, God showed him something that took his trust from here to here (left hand moves from below to above right hand). “Okay, my descendants will inherit this land. I believe.” (right hand touches left forearm).

So my point in that is two things. One, if you want to have faith like Abram, remember Abram asked questions. When Abram wasn’t sure he could believe something, he was honest with God about it. He didn’t try to pretend or convince himself to believe it. He asked God for help. “I don’t know. That’s a great promise, God, but I don’t know. That’s just too much for me to take in.” And God showed him something that took his trust to a whole new level and made him able to believe it.

So the second point is, when you think about faith, belief is the first thing most people think of. But whether you are capable of believing anything depends on trust. Even apart from God or religion, if someone tells you something, you can believe it or not. Whether you believe, or how much you can believe, is directly related to how much you trust them. So I think the focus for faith should not be what you can believe or what you can’t believe, but what would it take for you to trust God a little more?

And in some ways, I think it was easier for Abram. He could see God in a theophany. He could hear God’s voice. I’ve tried my whole life to hear God’s voice, and I’ve been misled so many times, I just think, even if I heard it, I wouldn’t believe it. God would have to show me some proof. But I guess if it was important enough for me to believe it, God would show me and make it clear in a way that I just could not doubt.

But I still think Abram’s example of faith shows us that in faith, it’s okay to ask questions. If you have doubts, it’s okay to be honest about it. God already knows what you think anyway, so there’s no point in lying to God. It may sound like a small thing, but for me it was huge when I discovered it. I learned this from a professor in college. And I really wish churches did a better job of teaching this, to think of faith as trust before belief. Trust is something you build with time and experience. Sometimes along the way, you may be asked to believe things that your trust level is not there yet. And for me in those moments, I guess faith is about trusting God to take my trust to the level it needs to be.

So that’s what I think that story is about. And I think that’s what it means when it talks about faith that made Abram righteous. That’s the example I try to follow.

Closing: So if this has been helpful to you, please share it. Click the like button. That will help it show up in people’s search results, and SEO and all that. And if you want to be notified when new episodes become available, click the subscribe button. (Actually, ring the bell. That is how you tell YouTube you want to be notified). I hope you’ll come back again. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the Law and the Prophets.

Grace and peace to you.

David Anderson is a multi-passionate author of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store