Tag Archives: Biblical Theology & Doctrine

Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 2: Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation of Genesis 15:5 and Related Texts

This is Part 2 of a series of guest pots by David Burnett. Part 1 is located here. – MSH


 

PART 2 – Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation of Genesis 15:5 and Related Texts

Philo of Alexandria and the Saying “So Shall Your Seed Be”

In commenting on Genesis 15:5 in Who Is the Heir? 86-87, Philo states:

“When the Lord led him outside He said “Look up into heaven and count the stars, if thou canst count their sum. So shall be thy seed.” Well does the text say “so (οὕτως ἔσται)” not “so many (τοσοῦτον)” that is, “of equal number to the stars.” For He wishes to suggest not number merely, but a multitude of other things, such as tend to happiness perfect and complete. The “seed shall be (οὕτως οὖν ἔσται)”, He says, as the ethereal sight spread out before him, celestial as that is, full of light unshadowed and pure as that is, for night is banished from heaven and darkness from ether. It shall be the very likeness of the stars.”1

Here Philo argues from the grammar of the LXX of Gen 15:5 that the adverb οὕτως should be understood not merely quantitatively but qualitatively as well, suggesting that the promise to become as the very likeness of the stars was the original intention of the scribe. The promise of Gen 15:5 for Philo entails being transformed into beings full of light, being in the “very likeness of the stars,” and participating in their celestial life.2

In Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo similarly comments on the patriarchal promise of star-like seed as it was retold to Isaac in Gen 26:4a:

“What is the meaning of the words, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven?” Two things are indicated, in which the nature of all things in general consists, (namely) quantity and quality – quantity in “I will multiply,” and quality in “as the stars.” So may (thy descendants) be pure and far-shining and always be ranged in order and obey their leader and may they behave like the luciform (stars) which everywhere with the splendour of ethereal brightness also illumine all other things.” (QG 4.181)

Philo here again sees implicit within the language “so may thy descendants be” the promise of the ethereal life of the stars. In Gen 26:5, Abraham’s seed will be multiplied as the stars of heaven and be given all these lands “because Abraham obeyed my voice.” For Philo, Abraham acts as the stars act who are always “ranged in order and obey their leader.” In both of these texts Philo seems to axiomatically employ the phrase “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” as if it were to be taken as a kind of adage that was intended to denote celestial immortality.

 

Sirach, Exaltation as the Stars, and the Linking of the Abrahamic and Davidic Promises

In a paraphrase of the Abrahamic promise as reiterated in Gen 22:17, the Greek text of Sirach 44:21 states: “For this reason, God promised him with an oath to bless the nations through his seed, to make him numerous as the grains of dust, and exalt (ἀνυψῶσαι) his seed as the stars, giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”3 The Greek text of Sirach limits the numeric aspect of the promise to the dust, while becoming as the stars is seen as referring to exaltation (ἀνυψῶσαι). Surprisingly, commentators on Romans 4 universally cite this text as a source for the expansion of the land promise in early Judaism in attempting to determine what it might mean for Paul to “inherit the cosmos,” yet without any reference to or discussion of the significance of the exaltation as the stars as it relates to the inheritance of the earth.4 This exaltation in Sirach 44:21 results in “giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea,” linking the qualitative interpretation of the Abrahamic promise with the language of the Davidic royal inheritance of Psalm 72:8 (71:8 LXX), “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”5 Later in Sirach 47:11, the link is strengthened all the more with the employment of the language of exaltation, this time speaking of David: “The Lord took away his sins and exalted (ἀνύψωσεν) his power forever; he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel.”6

It is important to note that we may find something similar in Rom 4:6-8. In the middle of an argument framed by Genesis 15, Paul introduces David saying that he “also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Paul portrays David as if he were, like Abraham, being “credited righteousness,” quoting from Ps 32:1-2, which speaks of the forgiveness of David’s sins. In a relationship similar, and quite possibly parallel, to that of Sirach 47:11, David’s forgiveness is connected to his receiving the promise of exaltation, almost interchangeably with that of Abraham.7

A similar tradition linking the Abrahamic and Davidic promises in astral terms can be found in Jeremiah 33:19-22, which shares its rhetorical and theological shape with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:

“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me.”8

The language of day and night coming at their appointed time is more than likely a reference to the greater and lesser lights (sun and moon) and the stars from Gen 1:14-18, where the celestial bodies were “set in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from darkness.” The constancy of the ruling order in heaven kept by the celestial bodies is likened here to the everlasting rule of the Davidic monarch. It is important to note here that instead of the term for “stars” normally used as the referent for the multiplicity of seed in the Abrahamic covenant formula, the author chooses to employ the term “hosts of heaven,” assuming their interchangeability.9

The source of this particular literary pattern of linking the rule of the celestial bodies to the rule of David (or his seed) is more than likely found in Balaam’s prophecy referring to David, and later in early Judaism to the coming Messiah: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Num 24:17).10 Here in Num 24:4 and 16 and Gen 15:1, the Davidic oracle and the Abrahamic promise are both described as a vision (מחזה), both speaking of their seed in astral terms, and both narrating the coming dominion over the land.11

 

Apocalypse of Abraham, the Power of the Stars, and the Rule of Nations

The late first century to mid second century CE text, the Apocalypse of Abraham, re-narrates Abraham’s counting of the stars from Gen 15:5 in the context of an ascent to heaven where he is welcomed above the stars.12 In Apoc. Abr. 20.3-5 the Eternal Mighty One addresses Abraham:

“‘Look from on high at the stars which are beneath you and count them for me and tell me their number!’ And I [Abraham] said, ‘When can I, for I am a man.’ And he said to me ‘As the number of the stars and their power so shall I place for your seed the nations and men, set apart for me in my lot with Azazel’.”13

Here Abraham’s seed is promised not merely the number of the stars, but their power, which is understood in terms of the rule over nations and men, which seem to have been allotted to the Eternal Mighty One or to Azazel and his company.

Taking into account the textual evidence cited above from early Hellenistic as well as Palestinian Jewish sources, I believe it is clear that there existed a tradition within Early Judaism of reading Gen 15:5 (and 22:17 and 26:4) qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Considering the wide diffusion of this particular tradition, it would be fair to assume Paul was not only aware of it, but may have also used it himself in his expounding of the Abrahamic promise in his corpus, and more particularly in Romans 4.

A commonly recurring feature in the qualitative interpretations of the Abrahamic promise is an apparent relationship between becoming as the stars and the rule of the nations.14 Sirach connects exaltation as the stars to the Davidic promise of the inheritance of the nations (44:21). Similarly, in the Apocalypse of Abraham, receiving the power of the stars is connected with being placed over the nations (20:5). At this point in the study it is necessary to pose the following question: How are we to understand the apparent relationship between becoming as the stars of heaven and inheriting the rule of the nations?

  1. All translations of Philo are taken from, Philo, trans. F.H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker et al., LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929-1987).
  2. For a tracing of the early Jewish tradition of transformation into light in the afterlife as astral symbolism, see Willem F. Smelik, “On Mystical Transformation of the Righteous into Light in Judaism,” JSJ 26.2 (1995): 122-44.
  3. Emphasis added. The reference to the stars is absent in Manuscript B from Qumran, and G and Syriac text also differs. See Patrick W. Skehan and Alexander A. Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira: A New Translation with Notes, AB 39 (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 504, n.21b-d.
  4. See for example Kenneth Bailey, “St. Paul’s Understanding of the Territorial Promise of God to Abraham,” TR 15.1 (1994), 61; James M. Scott, Paul and the Nations: The Old Testament and Jewish Background of Paul’s Mission to the Nations with Special Reference to the Destination of Galatians, WUNT 84 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995), 62, 64, 130; Byrne, Romans, 157; Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 239; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 212; Fitzmyer, Romans, 384; Jewett, Romans, 326; Käsemann, Romans, 120; Wright, Romans, 495-96; idem. Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 366, 815, 1005.
  5. See also Zech 9:10. Scott makes an important observation here that in order to demonstrate the absolute sovereignty of the king, Ps 71 (LXX) draws from a list of nations from the table of nations tradition in Genesis 10; see Scott, Paul and the Nations, 62.
  6. The term ἀνυψόω is used elsewhere in Sirach in unrelated contexts, but the term specifically applied in the context of linking the Abrahamic promise of exaltation as the stars, the Davidic promise of inheriting the lands, and David’s reception of the covenant of kingship is significant.
  7. While Talbert rightly recognizes Paul’s use of the rabbinic interpretative practice known as gezerah shawah in connecting the language of “reckon (ἐλογίσθη)” from Gen 15:6 with the use of “reckon (λογίσηται)” in Ps 32:2, that does not rule out the possibility of Paul having a wider framework in mind when linking the Abrahamic and Davidic promises in Romans 4, as well as the letter as a whole. See Charles H. Talbert, Romans, SHBC 24 (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 118. This is not to say however that Paul is intentionally echoing Sirach 44 and 47, or even has them in mind, but that he could be drawing from a pre-existing tradition of reading the promises together in a similar way. An example might be found in Wagner’s observation of a possible link between Abraham in Romans 4 and Christ in 15:8-9, see J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert in the Letter to the Romans, NovTSup 101 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 309 n 11.
  8. Emphasis added. While acknowledging that the authenticity of this doublet is in question (this section is not present in G), the interest in its citation here is merely to highlight early evidence of the astral connection of the Abrahamic and Davidic promise that appears in both parts of the doublet. Holladay places the addition in the post-exilic period and suggests it has a part to play in NT thinking; see William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26-52, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 228-231.
  9. It is commonplace in the Hebrew Bible to understand the stars as the host of heaven, angels, or even the gods. See e.g. Deut 4:19; 17:3; Judges 5:20; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3-5; 23:4-5; 2 Chron 33:3-5; Neh 9:6; Job 38:7; Ps 148:3; Is 14:12-13; 24:21-23; 40:26; 45:12; 48:13; Jer 7:18; 8:2; 19:13; 32:29; 33:22; Dan 8:10; Zeph 1:5.
  10. E.g. T. Levi 18:3; T. Jud. 24:1; 1QM 11:6-7; 4QTestim 9-13; CD 7:18-20. For the messianic use of Num 24:17 in early Judaism, see the discussion of John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed., ABRL (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
  11. The precedent for the literary links between the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 15 and the Davidic oracle of Numbers 24 is more than likely due to intentional composition or redaction. For the historical discussion regarding the formation of these texts in relation to one another see R. E. Clements, Abraham and David: Genesis 15 and its Meaning for Israelite Tradition (Naperville: A. R. Allenson, 1967); Bernard Gosse, “Abraham and David,” JSOT 34.1 (2009): 25-31; idem. David and Abraham: Persian Period Traditions (Pendé: Gabalda, 2010).
  12. Apoc. Abr. is presumed to be a Palestinian apocalypse with a Hebrew Vorlage. For the discussion on dating and provenance, see George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 285-288; Alexander Kulik, Retroverting Slavonic Pseudepigrapha: Toward the Original of the Apocalypse of Abraham, TCSt 3 (Atlanta: SBL, 2004).
  13. Emphasis added. Translation of the Apocalypse of Abraham is taken from R. Rubinkiewicz, “Apocalypse of Abraham,” OTP 1:681-711. It is important to note that here in Apoc. Ab. 20:5, the author presupposes the allotment of the nations to the heavenly host as in the Deuteronomic vision: “the nations and men, set apart for me in my lot with Azazel.” For the discussion on the “Deuteronomic vision” in the present study, see below.
  14. This is the case as well with the reiterations of the Abrahamic promise of Gen 15:5 in 22:17 and 26:4, as referenced above.

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Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 2: Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation of Genesis 15:5 and Related Texts

This is Part 2 of a series of guest pots by David Burnett. Part 1 is located here. – MSH


 

PART 2 – Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation of Genesis 15:5 and Related Texts

Philo of Alexandria and the Saying “So Shall Your Seed Be”

In commenting on Genesis 15:5 in Who Is the Heir? 86-87, Philo states:

“When the Lord led him outside He said “Look up into heaven and count the stars, if thou canst count their sum. So shall be thy seed.” Well does the text say “so (οὕτως ἔσται)” not “so many (τοσοῦτον)” that is, “of equal number to the stars.” For He wishes to suggest not number merely, but a multitude of other things, such as tend to happiness perfect and complete. The “seed shall be (οὕτως οὖν ἔσται)”, He says, as the ethereal sight spread out before him, celestial as that is, full of light unshadowed and pure as that is, for night is banished from heaven and darkness from ether. It shall be the very likeness of the stars.”1

Here Philo argues from the grammar of the LXX of Gen 15:5 that the adverb οὕτως should be understood not merely quantitatively but qualitatively as well, suggesting that the promise to become as the very likeness of the stars was the original intention of the scribe. The promise of Gen 15:5 for Philo entails being transformed into beings full of light, being in the “very likeness of the stars,” and participating in their celestial life.2

In Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo similarly comments on the patriarchal promise of star-like seed as it was retold to Isaac in Gen 26:4a:

“What is the meaning of the words, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven?” Two things are indicated, in which the nature of all things in general consists, (namely) quantity and quality – quantity in “I will multiply,” and quality in “as the stars.” So may (thy descendants) be pure and far-shining and always be ranged in order and obey their leader and may they behave like the luciform (stars) which everywhere with the splendour of ethereal brightness also illumine all other things.” (QG 4.181)

Philo here again sees implicit within the language “so may thy descendants be” the promise of the ethereal life of the stars. In Gen 26:5, Abraham’s seed will be multiplied as the stars of heaven and be given all these lands “because Abraham obeyed my voice.” For Philo, Abraham acts as the stars act who are always “ranged in order and obey their leader.” In both of these texts Philo seems to axiomatically employ the phrase “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” as if it were to be taken as a kind of adage that was intended to denote celestial immortality.

 

Sirach, Exaltation as the Stars, and the Linking of the Abrahamic and Davidic Promises

In a paraphrase of the Abrahamic promise as reiterated in Gen 22:17, the Greek text of Sirach 44:21 states: “For this reason, God promised him with an oath to bless the nations through his seed, to make him numerous as the grains of dust, and exalt (ἀνυψῶσαι) his seed as the stars, giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”3 The Greek text of Sirach limits the numeric aspect of the promise to the dust, while becoming as the stars is seen as referring to exaltation (ἀνυψῶσαι). Surprisingly, commentators on Romans 4 universally cite this text as a source for the expansion of the land promise in early Judaism in attempting to determine what it might mean for Paul to “inherit the cosmos,” yet without any reference to or discussion of the significance of the exaltation as the stars as it relates to the inheritance of the earth.4 This exaltation in Sirach 44:21 results in “giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea,” linking the qualitative interpretation of the Abrahamic promise with the language of the Davidic royal inheritance of Psalm 72:8 (71:8 LXX), “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”5 Later in Sirach 47:11, the link is strengthened all the more with the employment of the language of exaltation, this time speaking of David: “The Lord took away his sins and exalted (ἀνύψωσεν) his power forever; he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel.”6

It is important to note that we may find something similar in Rom 4:6-8. In the middle of an argument framed by Genesis 15, Paul introduces David saying that he “also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Paul portrays David as if he were, like Abraham, being “credited righteousness,” quoting from Ps 32:1-2, which speaks of the forgiveness of David’s sins. In a relationship similar, and quite possibly parallel, to that of Sirach 47:11, David’s forgiveness is connected to his receiving the promise of exaltation, almost interchangeably with that of Abraham.7

A similar tradition linking the Abrahamic and Davidic promises in astral terms can be found in Jeremiah 33:19-22, which shares its rhetorical and theological shape with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:

“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me.”8

The language of day and night coming at their appointed time is more than likely a reference to the greater and lesser lights (sun and moon) and the stars from Gen 1:14-18, where the celestial bodies were “set in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from darkness.” The constancy of the ruling order in heaven kept by the celestial bodies is likened here to the everlasting rule of the Davidic monarch. It is important to note here that instead of the term for “stars” normally used as the referent for the multiplicity of seed in the Abrahamic covenant formula, the author chooses to employ the term “hosts of heaven,” assuming their interchangeability.9

The source of this particular literary pattern of linking the rule of the celestial bodies to the rule of David (or his seed) is more than likely found in Balaam’s prophecy referring to David, and later in early Judaism to the coming Messiah: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Num 24:17).10 Here in Num 24:4 and 16 and Gen 15:1, the Davidic oracle and the Abrahamic promise are both described as a vision (מחזה), both speaking of their seed in astral terms, and both narrating the coming dominion over the land.11

 

Apocalypse of Abraham, the Power of the Stars, and the Rule of Nations

The late first century to mid second century CE text, the Apocalypse of Abraham, re-narrates Abraham’s counting of the stars from Gen 15:5 in the context of an ascent to heaven where he is welcomed above the stars.12 In Apoc. Abr. 20.3-5 the Eternal Mighty One addresses Abraham:

“‘Look from on high at the stars which are beneath you and count them for me and tell me their number!’ And I [Abraham] said, ‘When can I, for I am a man.’ And he said to me ‘As the number of the stars and their power so shall I place for your seed the nations and men, set apart for me in my lot with Azazel’.”13

Here Abraham’s seed is promised not merely the number of the stars, but their power, which is understood in terms of the rule over nations and men, which seem to have been allotted to the Eternal Mighty One or to Azazel and his company.

Taking into account the textual evidence cited above from early Hellenistic as well as Palestinian Jewish sources, I believe it is clear that there existed a tradition within Early Judaism of reading Gen 15:5 (and 22:17 and 26:4) qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Considering the wide diffusion of this particular tradition, it would be fair to assume Paul was not only aware of it, but may have also used it himself in his expounding of the Abrahamic promise in his corpus, and more particularly in Romans 4.

A commonly recurring feature in the qualitative interpretations of the Abrahamic promise is an apparent relationship between becoming as the stars and the rule of the nations.14 Sirach connects exaltation as the stars to the Davidic promise of the inheritance of the nations (44:21). Similarly, in the Apocalypse of Abraham, receiving the power of the stars is connected with being placed over the nations (20:5). At this point in the study it is necessary to pose the following question: How are we to understand the apparent relationship between becoming as the stars of heaven and inheriting the rule of the nations?

  1. All translations of Philo are taken from, Philo, trans. F.H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker et al., LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929-1987).
  2. For a tracing of the early Jewish tradition of transformation into light in the afterlife as astral symbolism, see Willem F. Smelik, “On Mystical Transformation of the Righteous into Light in Judaism,” JSJ 26.2 (1995): 122-44.
  3. Emphasis added. The reference to the stars is absent in Manuscript B from Qumran, and G and Syriac text also differs. See Patrick W. Skehan and Alexander A. Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira: A New Translation with Notes, AB 39 (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 504, n.21b-d.
  4. See for example Kenneth Bailey, “St. Paul’s Understanding of the Territorial Promise of God to Abraham,” TR 15.1 (1994), 61; James M. Scott, Paul and the Nations: The Old Testament and Jewish Background of Paul’s Mission to the Nations with Special Reference to the Destination of Galatians, WUNT 84 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995), 62, 64, 130; Byrne, Romans, 157; Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 239; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 212; Fitzmyer, Romans, 384; Jewett, Romans, 326; Käsemann, Romans, 120; Wright, Romans, 495-96; idem. Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 366, 815, 1005.
  5. See also Zech 9:10. Scott makes an important observation here that in order to demonstrate the absolute sovereignty of the king, Ps 71 (LXX) draws from a list of nations from the table of nations tradition in Genesis 10; see Scott, Paul and the Nations, 62.
  6. The term ἀνυψόω is used elsewhere in Sirach in unrelated contexts, but the term specifically applied in the context of linking the Abrahamic promise of exaltation as the stars, the Davidic promise of inheriting the lands, and David’s reception of the covenant of kingship is significant.
  7. While Talbert rightly recognizes Paul’s use of the rabbinic interpretative practice known as gezerah shawah in connecting the language of “reckon (ἐλογίσθη)” from Gen 15:6 with the use of “reckon (λογίσηται)” in Ps 32:2, that does not rule out the possibility of Paul having a wider framework in mind when linking the Abrahamic and Davidic promises in Romans 4, as well as the letter as a whole. See Charles H. Talbert, Romans, SHBC 24 (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 118. This is not to say however that Paul is intentionally echoing Sirach 44 and 47, or even has them in mind, but that he could be drawing from a pre-existing tradition of reading the promises together in a similar way. An example might be found in Wagner’s observation of a possible link between Abraham in Romans 4 and Christ in 15:8-9, see J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert in the Letter to the Romans, NovTSup 101 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 309 n 11.
  8. Emphasis added. While acknowledging that the authenticity of this doublet is in question (this section is not present in G), the interest in its citation here is merely to highlight early evidence of the astral connection of the Abrahamic and Davidic promise that appears in both parts of the doublet. Holladay places the addition in the post-exilic period and suggests it has a part to play in NT thinking; see William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26-52, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 228-231.
  9. It is commonplace in the Hebrew Bible to understand the stars as the host of heaven, angels, or even the gods. See e.g. Deut 4:19; 17:3; Judges 5:20; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3-5; 23:4-5; 2 Chron 33:3-5; Neh 9:6; Job 38:7; Ps 148:3; Is 14:12-13; 24:21-23; 40:26; 45:12; 48:13; Jer 7:18; 8:2; 19:13; 32:29; 33:22; Dan 8:10; Zeph 1:5.
  10. E.g. T. Levi 18:3; T. Jud. 24:1; 1QM 11:6-7; 4QTestim 9-13; CD 7:18-20. For the messianic use of Num 24:17 in early Judaism, see the discussion of John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed., ABRL (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
  11. The precedent for the literary links between the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 15 and the Davidic oracle of Numbers 24 is more than likely due to intentional composition or redaction. For the historical discussion regarding the formation of these texts in relation to one another see R. E. Clements, Abraham and David: Genesis 15 and its Meaning for Israelite Tradition (Naperville: A. R. Allenson, 1967); Bernard Gosse, “Abraham and David,” JSOT 34.1 (2009): 25-31; idem. David and Abraham: Persian Period Traditions (Pendé: Gabalda, 2010).
  12. Apoc. Abr. is presumed to be a Palestinian apocalypse with a Hebrew Vorlage. For the discussion on dating and provenance, see George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 285-288; Alexander Kulik, Retroverting Slavonic Pseudepigrapha: Toward the Original of the Apocalypse of Abraham, TCSt 3 (Atlanta: SBL, 2004).
  13. Emphasis added. Translation of the Apocalypse of Abraham is taken from R. Rubinkiewicz, “Apocalypse of Abraham,” OTP 1:681-711. It is important to note that here in Apoc. Ab. 20:5, the author presupposes the allotment of the nations to the heavenly host as in the Deuteronomic vision: “the nations and men, set apart for me in my lot with Azazel.” For the discussion on the “Deuteronomic vision” in the present study, see below.
  14. This is the case as well with the reiterations of the Abrahamic promise of Gen 15:5 in 22:17 and 26:4, as referenced above.

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Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 1: Introduction

This is the first of four installments on this topic, all written by David Burnett. This series is based on a paper David read at the Society of Biblical Literature. — MSH


Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions1

Abstract:

In Rom 4:18 Paul cites the “promise” to Abraham in the LXX of Gen 15:5 “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” in relation to what it means to “become the father of many nations” from Gen 17:5. Modern scholars have traditionally understood the relationship Paul sees between these two texts quantitatively, both promising a vast multitude of descendants made up of Jews and Gentiles. Conversely, some early Jewish interpreters of Gen 15:5 (and related texts like Gen 22:17; 26:4) such as Philo, Sirach, and the author(s) of the Apocalypse of Abraham understood the promise qualitatively: not merely speaking of multiplication, but also of transformation into the likeness of the stars and assumption of their power. Reading Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in light of this qualitative interpretation would place him within the context of already well-established deification or angelomorphic traditions in Early Judaism that see the destiny of the seed of Abraham as replacing the stars as the divine or angelic inheritors of the nations. This tradition may provide a more fitting explanation of the relationship Paul sees between Gen 17:5 and 15:5 in the wider context of the argument of Romans 4. This reading could illuminate the relationship between a complex nexus of ideas that Paul sees implicit in the one promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5. The promise of becoming as the stars of heaven would encompass the inheritance of the cosmos, becoming a father of many nations, and the resurrection from the dead.

PART 1 – Introduction

The “One Promise” of Genesis 15

Romans 4 is rightly understood as a Pauline midrash on the narrative of the covenant promise made to Abraham in the LXX of Genesis 15, with particular focus on Abraham’s response of faith in the promise (ἐπαγγελία) which results in his being credited righteousness:

“Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir (κληρονομήσει); but one who will come forth from your own loins, he shall be your heir (κληρονομήσει).” And he took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And he said to him, “So shall your seed be (oὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου).” Then he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness (καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην). And he said to him “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit (κληρονομῆσαι) it” (Gen 15:4-7).2

For Paul, what was the actual content of “the promise” that is to be believed by Abraham and his seed? C. K. Barrett makes an important observation at this point when he states, “Abraham received a promise. Paul never quotes it exactly or in full, but it is important to have in mind (as doubtless Paul does) the whole of Genesis 22:17.3 Barrett goes on to quote the text of Genesis 22:17, as if to suggest that it is the text Paul is primarily drawing upon for his understanding of the promise given to Abraham in Romans 4, a text whose argument is framed by the narrative of Genesis 15. The critical point here is that much of the language used in Romans 4 is found in those reiterations of the promise in Genesis, showing that Paul more than likely read them together and sees them essentially as one promise rather than many. Of particular importance to the present study are the two that repeat the promise of star-like seed. Later reiterated to Abraham in the Aqedah, Gen 22:17 reads: “Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ) and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess (κληρονομήσει) the gates of their enemies (πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων).” Finally in the promise as retold to Isaac, Gen 26:4 reads: “I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), and will give your seed all these lands (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην); and in your seed all the nations of the earth (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς) shall be blessed.” For our purposes it is important to note what seems to be a close connection between being multiplied “as the stars of heaven (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας)” and the inheritance or “taking the possession of (κληρονομήσει)” the “cities (πόλεις)” of their enemies, or in other words, to inherit “all these lands (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην).” This will result in “all the nations of the earth (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς)” being blessed.

In reference to the meaning of the promise, Paul states in Rom 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and to his seed that he would be heir of the cosmos (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου) was not through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” What seemed to refer to the promise of land in Genesis 15 was somehow interpreted to include the cosmos. The promise here also pertains to becoming a “father of many nations” which Paul links to the resurrection from the dead as he states in 4:17, “as it is written ‘I have made you a father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν) (Gen 17:5)’ in the presence of the God whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα).” He later relates Abraham’s faith to the faith of the believers in the resurrection: “But the words ‘it was counted to him (ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ, Gen 15:6)’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (4:23-24). In keeping with the narrative framework of his argument, the ideas of becoming “heir of the cosmos (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου),” a “father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν),” and the hope of the resurrection are not separate promises, but are understood by Paul as constituent parts of (and having been subsumed under) the one promise made to Abraham in Gen 15:5 in becoming as the stars of heaven.4

 

Acknowledging an Overlooked Interpretative Problem in Romans 4:18

 The focus of the present study is here in Rom 4:18, regarding Paul’s quotation of the LXX of Gen 15:5 “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” in relation to what it means in its immediate context to “become the father of many nations” from Genesis 17:5. The scholarly consensus on the relationship Paul sees between these two texts has been understood quantitatively, both promising a vast multitude of descendants made up of Jews and Gentiles. Many scholars even insert the term “numerous” or a related term into their translations of “οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου (4:18)” so the construction reads, “so (numerous) shall your seed be” instead of the literal rendering of the Greek “so shall your seed be,” presupposing the quantitative reading as the only viable interpretive option for Paul.5 Philip Esler, taking for granted the quantitative only view, questions whether it actually accounts for the length to which Paul stretches the Abrahamic promise. He states,

“It is not impossible that having the world as one’s inheritance could be another way of saying that Abraham’s seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen 15:5), but this may be pushing the latter promise too far … [later in referring to the argument of 4:14] The reasoning here is not easy to follow. It would be straightforward if the promise referred to were simply that in Gen 15:5 (to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven), which could then be related directly to Abraham’s faith in Gen 15:6. The answer, however, is probably excluded given that a promise to ‘inherit the world’ goes way beyond Gen 15:5.”6

While being fully aware of the commonly held explanations for Paul’s alleged expansion of the promise, Esler still does not find in them a sufficient answer to this problem: the promise to “inherit the cosmos” seems to go far beyond the promise to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.

I agree with and wish to take seriously Esler’s contention that the promise to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven may collapse under the theological weight that Paul piles on it. I also agree that the answer to this problem is excluded if one is to read the promise of Gen 15:5 as merely quantitative. What this study will seek to demonstrate is that the answer to the problem isn’t excluded from Gen 15:5 per se. A possible answer to the problem, and perhaps a more viable interpretation, gone seemingly unnoticed or neglected by most modern commentators on Romans 4, can be found in a number of early Jewish interpreters of Gen 15:5 (and related promises in Gen 22:17; 26:4), who understood the patriarchal promise of being multiplied as the stars of heaven not merely quantitatively, but also qualitatively, that his seed would become star-like, assuming the life of the gods or angels.


 

  1. I would like to sincerely thank N. T. Wright, Pamela Eisenbaum, and Ward Blanton for their helpful and critical responses to the presentation of this study in the special joint session of the Pauline Epistles section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature on Sunday, November 23, 2014. I am also especially grateful to Matthew Thiessen, Michael Gorman and Edith Humphrey for their careful and constructive reading of this paper and their assistance in the editing process. Any problems or errors that remain are certainly my sole responsibility. A special thanks to Stanley Porter as well for affording me the time to make any final edits necessary after receiving feedback from my esteemed respondents at SBL.
  2. James D. G. Dunn (Romans 1-8; WBC 38a; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988, 197) says of the present text, “the exposition of Gen 15:6 of which chapter 4 consists is one of the finest examples of Jewish midrash available to us from this era”; N. T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013, 1 or 2:996) states that Romans 4 is a “sustained and quite detailed exposition of Genesis 15.”
  3. See C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, 2d ed. BNTC 6; Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1991), 88. He does note Gen 12:3; 18:18.
  4. “Paul regards the ‘Land’ promise as containing the whole complex of salvation.” See Brendan Byrne, Sons of God, Seed of Abraham: A Study of the Idea of the Sonship of God of All Christians in Paul against the Jewish Background, AnBib 83 (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1979), 160.
  5. Below is a selective, though representative, survey of major modern English commentators since 1932 that presuppose the quantitative view, many of whom insert a term like “numerous” or “many” into their translation. See e.g. C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, MNTC 6 (New York: Harper & Row, 1932), 89, 92; C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Vol. I, ICC; London: T & T Clark, 1979), 245; Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 118, 124; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 217; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 211; Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1989), 56; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 383; Peter Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 69, 74; Brendan Byrne, Romans, SP 6 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 143; Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 283; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 234; N. T. Wright, Romans, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 500; A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 50; Philip Francis Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 191-192, the only scholar here to acknowledge a problem with the quantitative reading, although seemingly without awareness of an alternative; Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 178, 209,  211, 215; Ben Witherington and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127; Leander E. Keck, Romans, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 129; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 336; Schliesser, Abraham’s Faith, 380; Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 743; Frank J. Matera, Romans, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 116; Mark Forman, Paul and the Politics of Inheritance, SNTSMS 148 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 72; Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 848, 850.
  6. Emphasis added. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, 191-92.

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Naked Bible Podcast Episode 153: Ezekiel 38-39, Part 2

This follow-up to Part 1 on these popular and controversial chapters focuses on the interpretation of the Gog-Magog invasion as a whole. Special attention is paid to how Rev 20:7-10 re-purposes Ezekiel 38-39 and how that re-purposing is consistent with a sound interpretation of those two chapters in their own context. They key to this consistency is recognizing the cosmic-supernatural outlook of elements in Ezekiel 38-39, particularly the description of participants and the burial of Gog and his hordes in the “Valley of the Travelers (Hebrew: ʿoberim)” in Ezek 39:11.

The episode is now live.

 

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The Cosmic Mountain and Trees In Old Testament Theology

In a couple of weeks I’ll be filming three courses for Faithlife (my employer; aka Logos Bible Software) that revolve around content threads in my book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the BibleThe idea is not to go through the book chapter-by-chapter, but to pick topics that run through both testaments. The first course will be about the motif of the cosmic mountain in biblical theology. That term may be new to many readers. It’s an academic term used to describe the place of God’s presence and his “council headquarters” — the place from which God makes decisions and they are carried out, whether by divine beings or human beings (or both).

The cosmic mountain idea begins in Eden. Yes, Eden is a garden, but it’s also referred to as a mountain in Ezek 28. There’s a reason for that. There are also reasons why Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Zion Temple, and the Church have specific touchpoints with Eden. They are all cosmic mountains. This is why, for instance, the Tabernacle and the Temple are decorated in ways that reminded people (and us) of Eden. I won’t rehearse all the arguments and data here — you can read the book. But I thought I’d post some new material here that I’ll be including in the course even though it isn’t specifically in The Unseen Realm. (This is “sequel” territory).

Have you ever wondered why there are so many spiritual encounters at trees in the Old Testament? Why tree locations are sacred space? Maybe you never noticed. But it’s true. Here are some passages to ponder in light of the Edenic/cosmic mountain idea.

Gen 12:6-7

6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Gen 18:1-4

And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.

Gen 21:33

33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

  • why plant a tree and then call on the Lord?

Joshua 24:25-26

25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD.

  • odd place to plant a tree — next to the sanctuary … or maybe not

Judges 6:11

11 Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.

1 Samuel 31:8, 12-13

8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa . . . 12 all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.

  • Why bury these men under “the” tamarisk (the definite article here [הָאֶ֖שֶׁל]  tells us it was a known, specific tree)? Because of the belief that it was a gateway to the afterlife presence of God.

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The Cosmic Mountain and Trees In Old Testament Theology

In a couple of weeks I’ll be filming three courses for Faithlife (my employer; aka Logos Bible Software) that revolve around content threads in my book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the BibleThe idea is not to go through the book chapter-by-chapter, but to pick topics that run through both testaments. The first course will be about the motif of the cosmic mountain in biblical theology. That term may be new to many readers. It’s an academic term used to describe the place of God’s presence and his “council headquarters” — the place from which God makes decisions and they are carried out, whether by divine beings or human beings (or both).

The cosmic mountain idea begins in Eden. Yes, Eden is a garden, but it’s also referred to as a mountain in Ezek 28. There’s a reason for that. There are also reasons why Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Zion Temple, and the Church have specific touchpoints with Eden. They are all cosmic mountains. This is why, for instance, the Tabernacle and the Temple are decorated in ways that reminded people (and us) of Eden. I won’t rehearse all the arguments and data here — you can read the book. But I thought I’d post some new material here that I’ll be including in the course even though it isn’t specifically in The Unseen Realm. (This is “sequel” territory).

Have you ever wondered why there are so many spiritual encounters at trees in the Old Testament? Why tree locations are sacred space? Maybe you never noticed. But it’s true. Here are some passages to ponder in light of the Edenic/cosmic mountain idea.

Gen 12:6-7

6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Gen 18:1-4

And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.

Gen 21:33

33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

  • why plant a tree and then call on the Lord?

Joshua 24:25-26

25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD.

  • odd place to plant a tree — next to the sanctuary … or maybe not

Judges 6:11

11 Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.

1 Samuel 31:8, 12-13

8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa . . . 12 all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.

  • Why bury these men under “the” tamarisk (the definite article here [הָאֶ֖שֶׁל]  tells us it was a known, specific tree)? Because of the belief that it was a gateway to the afterlife presence of God.

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Naked Bible Podcast Episode 151: Ezekiel 37

Apologies – I forgot to post this episode!

Ezekiel 37 is one of the most familiar in the entire book, but that familiarity really extends only to the first fourteen verses. The chapter actually contains two oracles which telegraph the same ideas and work in tandem. This episode discusses the vision of the dry bones, particularly the debate over whether it provides information on a theology of individual bodily resurrection, and the prophecy of the two sticks representing the rejoining of the two halves of Israel. Both parts of the chapter relate to the restoration of the entire nation and return to the land. The question of fulfillment for these prophecies is also taken up in this episode.

The episode is live.

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The (Pseudo) “Doctrine” of Fallen Angel Salvation: Research Sources

Just a brief follow-up on the subject of whether fallen angels can be redeemed.

One of the curious points to me in this matter has been how some refer to the idea of angelic salvation as a “doctrine.” That word conveys the impression (intentionally, I presume) that the idea that fallen angels can be saved is something that someone who mattered, somewhere in the early historic Church, taught the idea. That isn’t true. There is no “Christian doctrine” of angelic salvation. That said, the idea was indeed discussed in the early church — specifically in response to Gnosticism (and to be more particular here, Valentinian Gnosticism). These Gnostics tried to defend the idea using gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and the epistles of Paul by playing, in modern parlance, “word games” with the vocabulary — instead of doing exegesis, they gave new, esoteric meanings to certain terms and then ran with the result.

This, for me, has explanatory power. The teaching that angels can be redeemed comes right out of Gnosticism. No surprise. Gnosticism has infected the modern evangelical and Pentecostal church in several ways, most likely unbeknownst to the vast majority of people in those groups. Consequently, I don’t think that those who espouse this idea are “real” Gnostics (though they may be), the idea nevertheless has deep Gnostic roots and has always been outside the stream of orthodoxy.

There have, fortunately, been several dissertations written on the interaction between certain church fathers and the Gnostics where “angelic redemption” is mentioned. Valentinian Gnostics thought the idea important not only for “the redemption and the restoration [of angelic beings] to the Pleroma,” but also their own salvation. From the Kovacs dissertation listed below (pp. 86, 88):

[Baptism] in Jesus’ life is paralleled by a sacrament of redemption in the life of the Valentinians. This sacrament is called “angelic redemption” or “angelic baptism” (22.5) because it relates the pneumatics [the Valentinians] to their angelic syzygies, who have already been baptized in the same manner. Like the Marcosians in Against Heresies I 21.2, Theodotus claims that both Jesus (22.7) and the pneumatics (22.1*) need redemption in order to enter the pleroma. . . . Perfect salvation is reserved for the Valentinians; they alone receive gnosis and ascend to the heights of the pleroma. This salvation is mediated not through catholic baptism but through the Valentlnian ritual of redemption.”

If the concept of the Pleroma is new to you, see my video overview of Gnostic cosmology.

Story, in his dissertation (below) adds some explanatory thoughts (p. 78):

Each person is thought to have an angel who was already baptised in the beginning ( en arxe) therefore each person is baptised “in the same Name in which his angel had been baptised before him.” Even though the Valentinian can describe himself here as “deadened by this existence,” he is at the same time “the person who has received redemption” because of his relationship to the Pleroma through his angel.

I have added the following dissertations that touch on this subject to the divine council bibliography. I found them on a better source than the internet — the ProQuest dissertation database. They popped up in a search for “angelic redemption” (interestingly enough, “angelic salvation” yielded no dissertations that actually had to do with religious texts). One note – the dissertation by Ahuvia is (mostly) about how the rabbis objected to the idea, not any endorsement of it.

  • Geoffrey Story, “The Valentinian (Gnostic) Use of the Letters of Paul,” Northwestern University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1968.
  • Eunice Villaneda, “The Valentinian dynamic of holiness: Re-imagining Valentinian perceptions of the ‘spiritual’, ‘psychic’, and ‘material’ bodies.” California State University, Long Beach, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2014
  • Mika Ahuvia, “Israel among the angels: A study of angels in Jewish texts from the fourth to eighth century CE,” Princeton University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2o14
  • Judith Lee Kovacs, “Clement of Alexandria and the Valentinian Gnostics,” Columbia University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1978
  • David Robert Ruppe, “God, spirit, and human being: The reconfiguration of PNEUMA’s semantic field in the exchange between Irenaeus of Lyons and the Valentinian Gnosis,” Columbia University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1988
  • Patrick Theodore Hall,  “Jesus of Nazareth in Second Century Gnosticism,” The University of Chicago, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1969
    • NOTE: The above work has now been superseded by the published book by Majella Franzmann, Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings, though I haven’t searched her book to see if she comments on angel baptism or angel salvation.
  • Michael D. Harris, “Christological name theology in three second century communities,” Marquette University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2013
  • Arkadi Choufrine, “Gnosis, theophany, theosis: Studies in Clement of Alexandria’s appropriation of his background,”  Princeton Theological Seminary, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2001
  • Everett Lee Proctor, “The influence of Basilides, Valentinus, and their followers on Clement of Alexandria,” University of California, Santa Barbara, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1992.

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The Unseen Realm and the Mission of the Cross (the Church): A Common but Significant Question

This may be controversial in terms of the illustration I’ll use to, but I find the illustration has explanatory power. I think our real problem isn’t how darkness has adapted, but how believers have changed (i.e., their thinking). I’ll try and explain. I just posted this over on the Faithlife Group for Lexham Press. It’s off-the-cuff in many respects since it’s forum material, but it seemed worth posting here as well.


 

I was asked a few weeks ago in Arkansas how the material of the Unseen Realm helps us with our mission as Christians. I’ve been asked that many times. I told the lady who asked about this that I didn’t see ANY institution being the answer to the world’s problems — not government, not the institutional church, nor institutional Christian ministries. The answer is CHRISTIANS. If we honestly had a vision for who we are, by God’s providential design (imager-members of God’s family-council, participating with him and his unseen imagers in advancing the kingdom (releasing the lost from the lies their spiritual overlords have told them — human and non-human), the world we change. It’s winning hearts and minds through sacrifice — like the apostles did. It’s really BELIEVING that this world isn’t our home and then acting like it. It’s taking risks and letting providence guide us, believing that what we do is part of an intelligent plan that we cannot see, but that God is rolling out — person to person.

My controversial illustration was ISIS. Every member of ISIS is single-minded. They are the Borg, for Star Trek fans. Their first thought every day is advancing their agenda. Their last thought every night is what they’ll do tomorrow to advance their agenda. Their vision of what they want the world to be never goes away, never changes, is always the center. Any individual interest is secondary.

How many Christians really think and live like that when it comes to the kingdom of God?  Not enough.

THAT mindset, motivated by the love of Christ, belief in the reality of our hereafter destiny, and confidence that God will use any service of ours to further his end, is, in my view, how spiritual warfare ought to get done, and how it was done in the first century or so. The vision was CONSUMING. Our vision of the kingdom (at least in the West it seems) is peripheral. We don’t see the vision, and so we can’t believe in it, and so we lack power — we fail to assert the power that is already there over darkness, to convince people by our words and actions and sacrificial sharing of our resources and time that the lord of the dead (Satan) is powerless over those in Christ (so let’s act like this life isn’t our real life), that the gospel can heal the self-destructive things we do (something “accelerated” by the Watchers / fallen sons of God in Jewish and earliest church theology), and that the authority of the gods of the nations, put in place by Yahweh as a punishment at Babel has been revoked — and the nations (Gentiles) are now being called back (commanded to return) to the family of God through the seed (Christ) of Yahweh’s inheritance – Israel (cf. Deut 32:8-9; Gen 12:1-3; Paul in Acts 17, and the range of passages where Paul — for some reason! — links the resurrection to the defeat of those fallen gods). Believers in the first century BELIEVED these things, and those things changed the way we live. We don’t believe we have cosmic role to play because we don’t believe in the cosmic arena in which the game is being played. We have lots of sincere Christians who are, basically, believing skeptics. And that affects how they think about their own lives, which in turn affects their vision.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. It’s about vision and abandonment to that vision. Doing what you do every day, no matter how small, to move the mission toward its goal, one person at a time, and believing God incorporates such obedience into his end game. 13 men had that in the first century, and they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). We have the same truth and the same Spirit, but we lack the person-to-person, day-to-day obsession with being salt and light in the way that ISIS wants what it wants (and I for one believe they aren’t acting alone — they are part of what is ultimately a spiritual war).

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Can Fallen Angels be Redeemed?

As I mentioned in the recent episode of the Naked Bible Podcast, the subject of angelic redemption seems to be percolating on the internet. I’m not sure of the reason. I am sure, as we discussed on that podcast episode, that the idea has led to disastrous spiritual calamity for some. Consequently, it seemed time to address the topic.

Before getting into the topic, I should note that some online think my “arguments” against angelic redemption are weak. This is curious, since I’ve never written anything on the subject. I don’t address the topic in The Unseen Realm. I know I’ve mentioned it here and there, noting that it is indeed a topic some folks have an interest in, or to say that I didn’t find the idea persuasive, as it has real coherence problems. It hasn’t interested me to this point, but in the wake of the podcast episode, it seems the right time to jump in. So this will be my first actual pass through the topic. I’m going to stick with English translation for the most part, trying to avoid a more technical discussion. I think this initial “simple” pass is sufficient to make my points.

The Basic Argument for Angelic Redemption

The notion that fallen angels[1] can be redeemed is basically defended along two lines: (1) God must offer them redemption out of fairness, and (2) the language of Revelation 1-3, where Christ speaks “to the angels” of the churches, apparently includes certain statements that sound like an offer of repentance. I’m not concerned with the first, as it’s a subject that has been beaten to death in discussions of election for millennia with little evidence that the Creator’s decision to have an unredeemed category is unfair. Romans 9-11 comes to mind right away.

It’s far more necessary to focus on the textual issue—the second line of defense. By way of illustration, here’s Rev 2:1-5 (note the underlining):

1To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

The argument goes like this. Jesus speaks to the angel, then describes that angel’s moral / spiritual failures, then offers the chance of redemption to the angel. The logic of course presumes that the angel of Rev 2:1 (and elsewhere in Rev 1-3) is not a human and must be understood literally as a spiritual being—and angel. Further, if these angels are offered redemption, then it seems reasonable to assert that other angels who fell previously can be offered redemption as well.

The argument seems easy and effective. But it’s impressive only to those who don’t read the text closely and who don’t factor in other statements in the New Testament about the relationship of angels to God’s offer of redemption.

A Closer Look

We’ll start with Revelation 1-3. Scholars have of course commented on the angelic terminology of the letters to the churches. There are basically four views of how to understand “angel” (ἄγγελος; angelos; plural = angeloi).[2]

  • The term angelos refers to a heavenly, non-human being. Their function would be analogous to the fallen angels (sons of God) over the nations. The angels “guard” the churches.
  • The angelos is actually a human being, likely the pastor/leader of the church. The term simply means “messenger” and is used elsewhere in the New Testament of human beings (Luke 7:24; Luke 9:52; James 2:25).
  • The angels are human beings, but not specific leaders of the individual churches.
  • The angels are emblematic of the churches, and so the communication to the “angel” is meant for the churches as a group. When Jesus tells John to write to the “angel,” he’s really telling him to write to the church. In a symbolic sense, the “angel” is that church.

As we proceed it will become apparent which view I think is the most sensible and why (textually). First a background question – does the analogy of angelic “guardians” of churches to the sons of God over the nations (Deut 32:8-9; see Unseen Realm, chs. 14-15) make sense? I don’t think so. Why? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Since God punished the nations by allotting the nations to the sons of God (and vice versa), taking Israel to be his own (Deut 32:8-9; 4:19-20), why would he do this to his own family, the Church, the “Israel of God” so to speak? The original arrangement went horribly wrong (Psalm 82), so why would God imitate it with churches? I’d say God wouldn’t do that and didn’t.
  2. God did appoint Michael over his own people, Israel (Dan 10:13, 21; Dan 12:1). But the Church is now God’s people, apart from, but including believing Israelites/Jews. If the Deut 32 thing is the model for angels and churches, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the letters to the churches addressed to Michael? But of course it doesn’t say that (there are seven of them). I’d also add that anyone who wants to force this analogy with Deut 32 might want to think about how it affects their eschatology. They would have a very difficult time maintaining Israel as any sort of unique entity apart from the Church in light of this logic. That might be a big problem for someone’s end times views down the road.
  3. Scripture of course teaches that believers have what we refer to as “guardian angels,” and that angels are here to minister to human believers who “inherit salvation” (Heb 1:13-14). If this is true, what do churches need with guardian angels assigned to churches? I’d say they aren’t needed, and that this isn’t what Revelation 1-3 is describing. Angels already have their task according to Heb 1:13-14 and it isn’t corporate.

These basic background issues already show that the first view, that the angels of Rev 1-3 are heavenly beings, has some coherence problems. But the problems don’t end there.

Let’s start reading now. Back to Revelation 2. We’ll start with the first letter to the churches, the letter to the Ephesian church (Rev 2:1-7):

1To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

The underlining is important. Revelation 1 makes it clear that Jesus is speaking to John, instructing him to write to “the angel of the church in Ephesus.” Angelic redemption proponents want us to take notice of that. But in verse 7 we discover that what is being written is “to the churches.” So it’s simply not the case that the letter is written to an angel. It’s written to an angel and to the churches. All the rest of the letters follow suit. Yes, they are directed to an angelos (Smyrna, 2:8; Pergamum, 2:12; Thyatira, 2:18; Sardis, 3:1; Philadelphia, 3:7; Laodicea, 3:14), but are all also directed to the churches—i.e., to the people who make up these churches (Smyrna, 2:11; Pergamum, 2:17; Thyatira, 2:29; Sardis, Rev 3:6; Philadelphia, Rev 3:13; Laodicea, Rev 3:22). A phrase like “what the Spirit says to the churches” is in each of these references.

The point of this must not be missed: What is said in these letters isn’t addressed to only the “angel” or only the people of the church. It’s addressed to both. There is no indication that parts of what is written applies to the “angel,” and other parts to the people. The notions are overtly parallel:

Jesus speaks to John, instructing him to write to the angel of XYZ church.

What is written is later described as what the Spirit is saying to the churches.[3]

This issue of “who is Jesus really communicating to” gets even more telling when we look at the text in Greek, since Greek has both singular and plural second person pronouns and verb forms (i.e., singular vs. plural “you” in English cannot be distinguished by the form of the pronoun, but in Greek it can). In Greek the audience of the writing is clearly both the “angel” and the people in the churches. Here’s the point:  You cannot neatly distinguish one from the other, which (in my view) is deliberate and points to the need to identify the “angel” and the people with each other. That is the only reading that can make consistent, coherent sense of what is said in every respect.

But I need to illustrate that point. This brings us to our first interpretive question. As you read, ask yourself if what the letters say:

  1. Makes sense addressed to a specific non-human angel-guardian of that church (view # 1 above),

or

  1. Makes sense addressed to the church’s people collectively? (Or, if you prefer, to the human leader of the church who “stands for” the church collectively) — views #2,3,4 above.

I’m going to suggest that the first option, the option at the heart of the angelic redemption idea, is the least likely. That status will change to “just plain unworkable and wrong” when we leave Revelation 1-3 and factor in other passages to the discussion.

Back to Rev 2:1-7. Read closely what it says:

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

Some phrases to consider:

  • you cannot bear with those who are evil
  • (you) have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false
  • you have not grown weary

Do these three descriptors make more sense of people or angels? Do angels get tired? (I’d sure like a verse for that). I’d say they make more sense of people.

Now here’s the next church, Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11):

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “ ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

Consider these descriptive phrases:

  • I know your tribulation and your poverty
  • Do not fear what you are about to suffer
  • Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life
  • The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death

Do these descriptions really make sense of a heavenly angel? Do angels suffer poverty? Why would they need to fear? Does the devil really have the power to throw them into prison for ten days? Do angels die (“be faithful unto death”)? Who threatens them with death? Can Satan kill them? Why would God allow that? Where does Scripture say that Satan can take life like this? Just how do you kill an immortal being like an angel unless you hold the ultimate power of life and death, which only God has (Psa 82:6-7). Will Jesus really give an angel the crown of life? Not according to James 1:12 (“blessed is the man …”). And about the second death – those who are exempt from it are not angels, but people who are raised with Christ whose names are written in the book of life (Rev 20:6, 15).

It should be apparent that a heavenly angel reading here isn’t workable. Should anyone wonder if the “you” references in the above are grammatically plural, they are not. They are grammatically singular. And so you either have a heavenly angel being thrown into a prison in Smyrna, suffering poverty, under threat of physical death, and inheriting the crown of life … OR the “you” here is grammatically singular because the collective church at Smyrna is in view. The latter is quite sensible.  The alternative (that we’re talking about heavenly angels here) lacks coherence, and that (in turn again) makes the angelic redemption idea moot.

Now here’s the next church, Pergamum (Rev 2:13-17):

13 “ ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

Some phrases to consider:

  • I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is
  • Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you
  • I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam…
  • I will come to you soon and war against them

Archaeologists and New Testament scholars have established that “Satan’s throne” refers to places in Asia Minor where the Roman imperial cult flourished—in other words, a real place on earth in real first-century time. So, if that’s the case, is this passage really telling us that an angel lived on earth in Pergamum? If we’re going to literally understand “angel” here as a heavenly being, then we need to interpret the rest of the passage literally (or else we cheat). Continuing … Was that angel present at the murder of Antipas? Was he “on site” (as opposed to just watching behind the spiritual veil)? Do angels teach Christians things? Are they supposed to do that? (Chapter and verse, please, and duck when you come to Gal 1:8). Apparently this heavenly being (so we must assume) was lax in his responsibility to teach the church members not to follow Balaam. Will Jesus visit him literally, and literally make war against the humans following the teaching of Balaam? Would that visit literally be in Pergamum?

I hope you get the point. It’s much more coherent to opt for the non-heavenly being option when we read what’s actually said. The rest of the letters have the same sort of language in them—language that sounds silly or is contradicted at some other place in the New Testament if it’s applied to angels.

The letter to Thyatira contains an interesting juxtaposition in this regard (Rev 2:18-29):

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 “ ‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

The references to “you” in v. 20 are both singular, and so they refer to either the (alleged) heavenly angel (he’d be the guilty one) or to the people collectively. The passage tells us which makes more sense. “But to the rest of you” is key in that regard. Literally, this phrase is “but to the remainder,” with no Greek “you” pronoun in the text. That makes us ask, “The remainder of who or what?” If the letter had, to this point, been directed just to a heavenly angel, then the “remainder” would either be other angels, which is pretty odd (the angel is part of a whole). This strikes me as silly and, if one cares to be consistent with the text, can’t be the case, since only one (the angel of v. 18) is actually mentioned — i.e., we’d just have to invent the idea of a gang of angels attached to the church out of thin air.

Another option, that the “remainder” points to believers in Thyatira, makes good sense. The “remainder” who have been faithful are a remnant of the human group known as the church. They are part of that whole. Don’t miss that point, obvious as it seems. If the remainder = people, then the ones following Jezebel (“my servants”; v. 20) are also people. The “remainder” is part of that whole. But that in turn means that the guilty party = the church collectively (a group of human offenders), a remnant of which is remaining faithful. Why is that important? Think carefully: It means the “you” language of v. 19 (“I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first”), which are all grammatical singulars in Greek, would not be referring to a solitary figure — but in reality referring to the collective church at Thyatira—to its human members. This fact of the text, drawn from close reading, is significant for the whole discussion. It means the “angel” language actually represents the human, collective church.

With this observation in place, we go on to ask if the thought is consistent with other features of the text. Who, then, would be in view for “holding fast” and “conquering” and “keeping [the Lord’s works,” and “receiving authority over the nations, . .  ruling them with a rod of iron . . . receiving authority from the father . . . the morning star”? Why people of course. This means angelic redemption isn’t in view. All the fruits of repentance are directed toward people.

The descriptions of the churches in Revelation 3 follow this course. The singular “you” language that seems to refer to the “angel” really applies to people—the people in the churches, to whom the Spirit is speaking in every letter. This view has explanatory power because it offers interpretive consistency (across both testaments). Just look at what’s said about the “angel” in each case:

Sardis (Rev 3:1-6)

To the angel of the church in Sardis write…

  • You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead (an odd description for a heavenly angel on God’s side)
  • If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (interesting that this language is used elsewhere of human believers at the Lord’s return: 1 Thess 5)
  • I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels (This language found elsewhere in Scripture has only humans in view, so it’s no description of an angelic possibility: blotting out of the book: Exod 32:32; Deut 29:20; Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3; Rev 13:8; Rev 17:8; Rev 20:12, 15; Rev 21:27; Rev 22:19; confessing before the Father: Matt. 10:32; Luke 12:8).

Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13)

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write…

  • you have kept my word and have not denied my name (who bears the name of Christ in NT theology? People: 2 Tim 2:19; cp. Acts 11:26)
  • I will make [the synagogue of Satan] come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth (the last item is telling – the words are clearly directed to people, those who dwell on the earth—and yet the “you’s” preceding are singular, pointing back to the “angel”. The angel = the church, its people.
  • Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown (singular again, and wording that elsewhere clearly refers to human believers: James 1:12).

Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22)

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write…

  • For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Does this really describe a heavenly angel?)
  • If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Who gets to participate in divine feasting in both OT and NT theology? Who shares a meal with the Lord? Human believers: Exod 24:9-11; Rev 19:7-9)
  • The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne (With whom does Jesus share the throne? Human believers: 2 Tim. 2:12; 19:28)

To summarize all this, I’d say these points are salient:

1. It’s not possible to isolate some of what is said to “the angel” of the churches in such a way that certain things do not apply to the church.

2. It’s quite coherent to see what is said to the singular angel to also be directed to the corporate church and its human members.

3. Much of what is said to the churches is said specifically to the human redeemed.

4. In view of the preceding, it is incoherent to argue that the letters to the churches are good evidence of the offer of redemption to angels. There is simply no redemptive language in the letters that can only apply to the singular angel to make a case that the redemption language has more than humans in view.

5. Since the content of the letters is directed to BOTH the “angel” and the human members of the church, and since the content is elsewhere directed specifically to humans, it is best to identify the angel and the members of church with each other. This strategy leaves no interpretive outliers (i.e., it has high explanatory power for everything in them), is consistent with the use of angelos for humans elsewhere, and doesn’t invite a contrived idea into the text.

 

But wait … there’s more. And it’s really the most important stuff.

 

Angelic Redemption Denied

This post is getting lengthy (my apologies), but I didn’t want to break it up and have readers wait for installments. Most of my readers are used to it anyway!

Let’s look at Hebrews.

That the supremacy of Christ over angels is a central theme to the book of Hebrews is well known. Hebrews 1 establishes that point by comparing and contrasting Jesus to the angels. The chapter ends this way (Heb 1:13-14):

13 And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand

until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

In light of the discussion of the letters to the churches, it is interesting to note that v. 13, a quote from Psalm 110 about the messiah, is mimed closely by something Paul says about individual human believers:

Rom 16:20 – The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

The “your” here is plural—it is not a reference to the serpent / Satan being crushed by the heel of the messiah. It’s a reference to human believers placing their feet on the enemy (and all his, by extension) and crushing them. Victory formation, for you football fans.

But this isn’t why I referenced Heb 1:13-14. I want you to note the last verse. Ministering spirits are sent to serve those who will inherit salvation. Two questions are pertinent: Who might those inheritors be? Are angels possibly numbered among those inheritors? Hebrews 2 answers those questions, and those answers are plain as day. I’ve underlined the key phrases that are followed by brief comments:

Hebrews 2:5-18

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,

What is man, that you are mindful of him,

or the son of man, that you care for him?

         You made him for a little while lower than the angels;

you have crowned him with glory and honor,

         putting everything in subjection under his feet.” …

 

The world to come is the new earth described in Revelation 21-22. It is the global Eden I talked a lot about in The Unseen Realm. It is the goal of God’s plan. The climax of the eschaton. It is what the saved, the redeemed, the forgiven, inherit. And so, who is it for? Man. Humankind. We who were made lesser than the divine beings (Heb 2:6-7 quotes Psalm 8:4-, where it reads humanity was made a little lower than the elohim). Human believers, human members of God’s household (see the rest of Hebrews 2) are the ones crowned. It’s hard to miss that reference to the language of the letters to the seven churches (and again, James 1:12). Angels are conspicuously absent from end-times global Eden statement in Hebrews 2:5-8. We’ll find out why as we keep reading.

8 … Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Who is the “everyone” here? If we care about reading in context, it’s the human beings the writer referred to a few lines ago. There’s no other plural or collective noun that could be the grammatical antecedent. And Hebrews 2:5 specifically tells us angels aren’t in the picture and aren’t the referent.

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,

“I will tell of your name to my brothers;

in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again,

“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”

Are the angels Jesus’ brothers and sisters—his brethren? By definition they cannot be. They are created; he is uncreated. They might be described as “made of something”; he cannot be so described. He has attributes they do not possess. He is Yahweh incarnate; they are not. He was never made like them—never made at all. Jesus and the angels are not, as it were, of the same “stock.”

But, amazingly, Jesus and humans are of the same stock. How? God the Son became human. And so he is not ashamed to be called our brother. And if you read verse 10, it’s clear that WE are the object of the salvation he founded. Not the angels.

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

We, not angels, were the ones under the curse of death. This is why redemption has us in view, not the angels. And verse 16 makes it absolutely explicit:

For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.

Galatians 3 (esp. vv. 7-9, 26-29) make it clear that the “offspring of Abraham” are believers, Jew or Gentile (not angels):

7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. . . .

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

The “help” in context in Hebrews 2:16 = rescue from death (via resurrection) and, therefore, a home in the new Eden, the new earth. That’s the destination of the redeemed. The salvation of humanity is the goal of the plan of incarnation, substitutional death, and resurrection. The angels are not. “Therefore he [Jesus] he had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (even unto death). Jesus wasn’t made like the angels (Hebrews 1 denies this in many ways). He was made like us, so that we could be made like him at his coming (1 John 3:1-3).

I’m not sure why all this isn’t crystal clear to some. It’s difficult to imagine the writer of Hebrews being any clearer. It’s so clear in fact that, for me, Hebrews 1-2 is the place any defender of angelic redemption must start. But I’m not at all sure why anyone would invest time in making those chapters not say what they very obviously are saying. But I’ve seen people absorbed by stranger things.

 

NOTES

[1] As readers of Unseen Realm know, I’m using “fallen angels” because the phrase is familiar to a popular readership. The “fallen angels” that are normally the focus of this angelic redemption topic are the sons of God of Gen 6:1-4 (the Watchers in Enochian parlance). “Angel” in OT thought is a job description of a particular elohim, a term used to denote any member of the disembodied spiritual world, not an ontological label to be equated with a specific set of unique attributes (see Unseen Realm, chs. 3-4). In the Hellenistic period “angel” became more of a catch-all term, akin to Old Testament elohim or Greco-Roman daimon/daimonion. The semantic issues are more complex than this, but for purposes here, this is adequate.

[2] In Greek two gamma letters (γ) side-by-side are pronounced “ng”.

[3] For you Trinitarian deniers out there, take note of how Jesus and the Spirit fill the same slots here. Just a side observation of this non-coincidence.

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