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Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 6: Origen’s Commentary on Romans 4 and the Reception of the Qualitative Interpretation

This is the final installment of David Burnett’s guest series.


 

This reading of Genesis 15:5 may appear novel yet it has an ancient antecedent in one of the earliest commentaries on Romans. Origen believed that in Romans 4, Paul did in fact understand the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 15:5 to become as the stars qualitatively. In his Commentary on Romans 4.6.4, he states: “Thus Abraham ‘against hope believed in hope that he would become the father of many nations,’ (Rom 4:18) which in the future would be like the stars of heaven, not only in terms of the greatness of number but also in splendor.”1 Here Origen reads the quotation of Gen 15:5 in Rom 4:18 explicitly as qualitative. In 4.6.7, he speaks further on the nature of the Abrahamic promise, as he understands Paul’s recounting of it. Discussing the content of Abraham and Sarah’s hope, he states:

 

“On the contrary when they hear of a such a hope of posterity and that the glory of their own offspring would be equal to heaven and its stars, when they hear these things, they do not think about their own goods, about the grace of continence, about the mortification of their members, but instead they regard all these things which contributed to their own gain as loss in order that they might gain Christ.” (Orig. Comm Rom, 4.6.7)

 

Origen assumes that the promise to Abraham and Sarah of an offspring would be “equal to heaven and its stars” in their “glory” is actually understood as the promise to “gain Christ,” drawing on the language of Phil 3:8. Significant here is the immediate context of Phil 3:8 in which Paul is discussing becoming like Christ (3:10) and attaining the resurrection from the dead (3:11).2 Fee rightly points out that Paul’s language regarding them, “children (τέκνα) of God without blemish, though you live in a crooked and perverse generation (γενεᾶς σκολιᾶς καὶ διεστραμμένης)” echoes Deut 32:5 (ἡμάρτοσαν οὐκ αὐτῷ τέκνα μωμητά, γενεὰ σκολιὰ καὶ διεστραμμένη), unsurprisingly where the immediately following verses (Deut 32:6-9) narrate Israel’s election in terms of the Deuteronomic vision as described above. Paul then turns to the language of Dan 12:1-4 to describe the children of God as those who “shine as lights (φωστῆρες, cf. Dan 12:3) in the world (κόσμῳ, cf. note 28),” reflecting the eschatological hope in Daniel as they are “holding on to the word of life (λόγον ζωῆς ἐπέχοντες, Phil 2:16),” echoing the language of Dan 12:3, “those who hold strong to my words (καὶ οἱ κατισχύοντες τοὺς λόγους μου),” as they approach the seemingly immanent eschaton and the full realization of their hope.3 Again, in the context of discussing the fruit of the spirit and dying to lust and vices Origen states: “Your seed and your works can ascend to heaven and become works of light and be compared to the splendor and brilliance of the stars, so that when the day of resurrection arrives, you will stand out in brightness as one star differs from another star” (4.6.9). Origen here relates the Abrahamic promise of star-like seed in Romans 4 to the discussion of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15, also echoing the language of Daniel 12:3. It seems apparent that Origen takes for granted in his Commentary on Romans that Paul understands the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5 qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is necessary to restate the initial problem this paper sought to answer. Esler noticed the deficiency in the quantitative only interpretation of Paul’s use of Genesis 15:5, seeming far too unlikely that having numerous descendants would somehow be the equivalent of inheriting of the cosmos, becoming the father of nations, and the expectation of being resurrected from the dead. This paper proposes a possible answer to this problem. Reading Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in light of early Jewish deification traditions stemming from a qualitative as well as quantitative interpretation of the Abrahamic Promise provides fruitful results. This proposal is supported by widely attested interpretive traditions from Paul’s early Jewish historical context, whether Palestinian or Hellenistic (or diasporic), and is further received into the Patristic tradition, as seen in Origen, through Paul.

 

 

  1. Translations of Origen here are taken from Thomas P. Scheck, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Books 1-5 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2001).
  2. See Phil 3:8-11. Also important to note here previously in Philippians in the context of a moral admonition in light of the coming “day of Christ (ἡμέραν Χριστοῦ), which Paul seems to articulate here as an eschatological conflation Deut 32:5-9 with Dan 12:1-3, he describes the holy ones as “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ)” who “shine as lights in the world (φαίνεσθε ὡς φωστῆρες ἐν κόσμῳ)” (Phil 2:15).
  3. See Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 244-48. In the eschatological expectation of Romans 8 the holy ones are also called “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ, 8:16-17, 21),” most likely part of the same complex of language, see above.

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Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 5: Resurrection and Astral Immortality in Early Judaism and Paul

This is Part 5 of David Burnett’s guest series.


 

In early Judaism it was widely accepted that in the resurrection or afterlife, the righteous were to in some sense become as the stars or angels.1 In Dan 12:2-3, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” John Collins points out that the stars in Dan 8:10 are the host of heaven, which in comparison to Dan 12:3 implies that those raised from the dead in vindication will be associated with the angels.2 A similar idea is found in regard to the destiny of the righteous in 1 Enoch 104:2-6: “But now you shall shine like the lights of heaven, and you shall be seen; and the windows of heaven will be open to you… and you are about to be making a great rejoicing like the angels of heaven.” In the Testament of Moses we also find the affirmation of the astral immortality of the faithful as it states in 10:9: “God will raise you to the heights. Yes, he will fix you firmly in the heaven of the stars.” In context of a discussion of the seven ordered eschatological rest promised for those who “keep the ways of the Most High,” 4 Ezra 7:97 states, “The sixth order, when it is shown to them how their face is to shine like the sun, and how they are to be made like the light of stars, being incorruptible from then on.”

 

4 Maccabees 17:5-6 re-narrates the martyrdom of the faithful mother and her seven sons from 2 Maccabees 7 in the following way:

 

“O mother, destroying the violence of the tyrant with your seven children, rendering his evil intentions void and demonstrating the nobility of faithfulness (πίστεως)! For like a roof set nobly upon the pillars of the children, you, unwavering, bore up under the earthquake brought on by torments. Be confident, therefore, O pious-souled mother, holding firm toward God the hope (ἐλπίδα) that comes from endurance! Not so much, not so much has the moon in heaven among the stars been made to stand as revered as you, who lit the path (φωταγωγήσασα) toward piety for the seven star-like children (ἰσαστέρους ἑπτὰ παῖδας), have been made to stand honored in God’s presence and firmly fixed with them in the heavens. For your child-bearing was from father Abraham.” (4 Macc 17:5-6)

 

Here the mother embodies faithfulness (πίστεως) and her seven sons demonstrate firm hope (ἐλπίδα) that God will vindicate them in their willing martyrdom. The faithful mother now stands more august among the stars than even the moon. Her faithful sons are deemed “star-like,” which seemingly identifies them as true children of Abraham.3

 

Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of the Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation

 

When considering Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in Rom 4:18 in light of this early Jewish qualitative interpretation, we find fruitful and interesting exegetical results. When the evidence above has been taken into account, we are provided with a kind of narrative framework, out of which we arrive with a reading proposal that may provide a cogent answer to the interpretive problem this study sought to address. This proposal would provide us with a reading which links all the constituent parts (the inheritance of the cosmos, becoming a father of many nations, and the resurrection of the dead) of the one promise Paul understands to be given to Abraham in Gen 15:5 when he is told “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου),” a reference to becoming as the stars.4

 

Psalm 82 as a Narrative Framework for the Reception of the Abrahamic Promise in Early Judaism

 

Within the reception of the Deuteronomic vision in early Judaism we find a coherent narrative through which the promise of Abraham could be read. We find the setting up of the cosmic polis, where the celestial bodies (or angels of god) were “allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven (πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς ὑποκάτω τοῦ οὐρανοῦ)” (Deut 4:19; 32:8-9), while Israel was Yahweh’s inheritance (κληρονομία) (Deut 32:9). In early Jewish reception of this tradition, the cosmos was understood as the “greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη)” where the celestial bodies were appointed as rulers (ἄρχόντας) who were to mimic (μιμουμένους) the rule of the “Father of all (πάντων πατρός),” exercising their rule in law and justice (δίκην καὶ νόμον) (Spec. Laws 1.13-19). These celestial rulers (ἄρχοντα) were to “preside (or rule) (χρή) over his subjects (ὑπηκόων) as a father over his children (πατέρα παίδων) so that he himself may be honored in return as by true-born sons, and therefore good rulers may be truly called the parents of states and nations (ἐθνῶν) (Spec. Laws 4.184-188).” But as Philo states, “those who assume great power to destroy and injure their subjects should be called not rulers but enemies (πονηρότεροι) (Spec. Laws 4.185).” Psalm 82 (81 LXX) provides a narrative where the Father of all stands in judgment of the gods who were apportioned over the nations who have failed at precisely task that was set out for them saying “how long will you judge (or rule) unjustly (Ἕως πότε κρίνετε ἀδικίαν) (Ps 81:1 LXX)?” They were commanded to do justice or righteousness (δικαιώσατε) (Ps 81:3 LXX), but they failed, leading to the announcement of their judgment: the gods (Θεοί), or sons of the Most High (υἱοὶ ὑψίστου), will die like men (Ps 81:7 LXX). The hope of the psalmist is then stated: “Arise, O God and rule the earth (ἀνάστα, ὁ θεός, κρῖνον τὴν γῆν), for it is you who will obtain the inheritance of all the nations (ὅτι σὺ κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν) (Ps 81:8)!” This narrative provides us with a framework for how early Jewish interpreters of the Abrahamic promise could understand it qualitatively as well as quantitatively. In light of these traditions, the Abrahamic promise could be read afresh.

 

Paul’s Reception of the Qualitative Reading of the Promise to Abraham? A Proposal

 

The following proposed reading will be a rough attempt to understand Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 and his midrashic exposition of the promise in Romans 4 in light of the above tradition. Paul states in Rom 4:18 “In hope against hope (ἐλπίδα ἐπʼ ἐλπίδι) he believed (ἐπίστευσεν), so that he might become a father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν) according to that which had been spoken ‘so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)’.” When taken qualitatively, for Abraham’s seed to become as the stars of heaven meant to become as the gods or angels, the celestial bodies, the “fathers (πατέρας) of the nations (ἐθνῶν)” who had been allotted to rule the nations (Posterity, 89; Spec. Laws 1.13-19; 4.184-188; Sir 44:21; Apoc. Ab. 20:3-5). “In hope against hope (ἐλπίδα ἐπʼ ἐλπίδι) he believed (ἐπίστευσεν)” that he would attain the promise of astral glory (Rom 4:18; 4 Macc 17:5-6). For Paul, the faithful Abraham who had been credited righteousness was known now in astral glory as “the father of us all (πατὴρ πάντων ἡμῶν),” as it was written about him in Gen 17:5 (Rom 4:16-17). As was common in Jewish expectation in Paul’s day, he hoped in the god “who gives life to the dead,” who would raise his seed in celestial glory, replacing the powers (ἂρχοντας ἔχουσα), calling “into being that which did not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα),” or establishing a new cosmic polis (κόσμου); a new creation (Rom 4:17; Philo Spec. Laws 4.187; 2 Bar. 21:4; 48:8). This is what would be understood in Rom 4:13 when Paul states the promise to Abraham and his seed was to “inherit the cosmos (κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου).” As in Gen 22:17, for Abraham’s seed to become as the stars of heaven would result in “inheriting the cities of their enemies (κληρονομήσει τὸ σπέρμα σου τὰς πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων)” (see Ps 81:8 LXX; Philo Spec. Laws 4.185). This expectation is further delineated in Romans 8 where the “sons of God (υἱοὶ θεοῦ)” or “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ)” are “heirs (κληρονόμοι)” of creation as “the creation waits with eager longing for the apocalypse of the sons of God (τῆς κτίσεως τὴν ἀποκάλυψιν τῶν υἱῶν τοῦ θεοῦ ἀπεκδέχεται, 8:19).5

 

 

  1. See above conversation on 2 Baruch 51. For further treatment of resurrection and celestial immortality in Early Judaism, see Hans C. C. Cavallin, Life After Death: Paul’s Argument for the Resurrection of the Dead in 1 Cor 15, Part I, An Enquiry into the Jewish Background, CBNT 7.1 (Lund: Gleerup, 1974); Smelik, “On Mystical Transformation,” 122-44; N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), Wright disagrees that there is a tradition of astral immortality in the usual texts used to support that idea; Nickelsburg, Resurrection; Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: the Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven: Yale, 2006); Turid Karlsen Seim and Jorunn Økland, eds., Metamorphoses Resurrection, Body, and Transformative Practices in Early Christianity, Ekstasis 1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009); David Litwa, We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul’s Soteriology, BZNW 187 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 140-51: It is surprising that in an otherwise thoroughgoing discussion of celestial immortality in Greco-Roman and Jewish sources in relation to Paul, Litwa never mentions the texts that read Genesis 15:5 qualitatively as a promise of celestial immortality, especially in light of how important that text is for Paul to his argument in Romans. For other recent works on the topic of deification or theosis in Paul, see Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); idem, “Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis,” JTI 5.1 (2011): 13-34; Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria, WUNT 2.314 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Rabens, “Pneuma and the Beholding of God”; Michael J. Thate, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Constantine R. Campbell, eds., ‘In Christ’ in Paul: Explorations in Paul’s Theology of Union and Participation, WUNT 2.384 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
  2. John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress), 393-94.
  3. The tradition presented here in 4 Macc 17:5 of being exalted above the moon and the stars may reflect an eschatological expectation to shine as the sun, the greatest of the luminaries in the heavens. This tradition is reflected in Matt 13:43, in the context of the eschatological reaping where the Son of Man sends his angels to dispense of the devil and his people, Jesus says once this has been accomplished, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (οἱ δίκαιοι ἐκλάμψουσιν ὡς ὁ ἥλιος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῶν).”
  4. The following allusions or references to primary texts below do not denote citation or allusion for Paul in any way, but are used to simply construct the narrative framework which provides for an alternate reading using the qualitative interpretation to how Paul might understand the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5.
  5. See Rom 8:12-25. Pertinent here is the shared complex of language between Paul and Philo associated with inheriting or judging the cosmos, see footnote 7 in Part 3.

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Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 4: Becoming as the Stars and Inheritance of the Nations, Continued

This is Part 4 of David Burnett’s guest blogging series


 

Philo’s Spec. Law 4.187, 2 Baruch 21:4; 48:8, and Romans 4:17: Misconstrual and a Missing Link?

 

This passage is frequently cited by commentators on Rom 4:17, rightly recognizing the parallel language regarding God’s calling “the non-existent things into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι)” (Spec. Laws 4.187) and Paul’s recounting of the God of Abraham who “calls into existence the things that do not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα)” (Rom 4:17b). Most commentators on Rom 4:17 understand this particular passage in Spec. Laws 4.187 as a reference only to creatio ex nihilo while not taking into account the wider context of the citation as a reference to the establishment of God’s celestial government over the cosmos.1 In this particular context, Philo’s language of calling the non-existent into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι) has nothing to do with the creating of all things out of nothing, but with the creation (in the sense of establishing) of the order or government of the cosmos (κόσμου γένεσίς τε καὶ διοίκησις). This should be read and understood in light of what Philo has already stated earlier in Spec. Laws 1.13-19 (see above), that the κόσμος was created or established (γενητός) as the “greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη),” where the celestial bodies were appointed as the delegated rulers (ἄρχόντας), Philo sharing the Deuteronomic vision. Calling “the non-existent into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι)” is connected to “bringing order out of disorder;” for Philo these are part of a long list of acts of cosmic beneficence that are not works of God alone, but of “He and His beneficent powers (δυνάμεσι)” who in their governance of the κόσμος, “ever make it their business to transmute the faultiness of the worse wherever it exists and convert it to the better (Spec. Laws 4.187).”

 

So then for Philo, the language of God’s calling “the non-existent things into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι)” in Spec. Laws 4.187 should be understood more in terms of the ancient near eastern archetypical idea of creation as bringing order to the chaos, withstanding the idea of the act of bringing things that do not exist into existence. The thrust of the reference to creation here is an establishing of the cosmic government, seeing the κόσμος as “the greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη),” in which the celestial bodies, or powers (δυνάμεσι), are delegated to the nations of the earth as rulers (ἄρχόντας) who are to rule as a father over his children (πατέρα παίδων), imitating (μιμεισθαι) the rule of the Father of all (πάντων πατρός). It is through the mimicking (μιμεισθαι) of this rule that the earthly ruler (of any kind) may be “assimilated to God (ἐξομοιώσεωσ της πρὸς θεόν),” becoming like the celestial “fathers (πατέρας)” or even the “Father of all (πάντων πατρός).”2

 

The same argument as above can be made with regard to the commentators’ use of 2 Baruch 21:4 and 48:8 as examples of creatio ex nihilo in relation to Romans 4:17.3 2 Bar. 21:4 reads: “O, you who have made the earth, hear me, who has (fi)xed the (fi)rmament by the word, and have set the height of heaven in place by the Spirit, which has called from the beginning of the world things which did not previously exist, and they obey you.”4 Here, in context, the calling into being of “things which did not exist” speaks of the fixing of the “firmament” and “the heights of heaven” which are actually personified saying, “they obey you.” Reading a bit further into the context may make clear what is being discussed here. Immediately following in 2 Bar. 21:5-6, “You have commanded the air by your nod, and have seen the things which are to come as those which have occurred (already). You who rule the hosts that stand before you with great reckoning and who rules with indignation the countless holy beings which you created from the beginning with (fl)ame and (fi)re which stand around your throne.” In context, the language of the personified “heights of heaven” that “obey you” that “previously did not exist” (2 Bar. 21:4), are referring to the celestial bodies or the heavenly host; the countless holy beings that “he created from the beginning.”

 

Again, when 2 Bar. 48:8 is read in context, the “bringing to life of that which did not exist” takes on a new dimension. 2 Bar. 48:8-10 reads:

 

“With signs and fear and indignation you command the (fl)ames, and they change into spirits. And with a word you bring to life that which does not exist, and with mighty power you hold that which has not yet come. You instruct created things in your understanding, and you make wise the spheres so as to minister in their orders. Armies without number stand before you and minister in their orders quietly at your sign.” (2 Bar. 48:8-10)

 

What is brought to life that has not existed before in this text, like above, are the celestial bodies and their role in the ordering of the cosmic government. Once he has brought them into existence, he “makes wise the spheres so as to minister in their orders.” Both of the texts from 2 Baruch refer not merely to creatio ex nihilo, but to the establishment of the order of the cosmos, giving the celestial bodies wisdom to “minister in their orders.”

 

It is important to keep in mind this interpretation when considering how 2 Baruch later discusses the vindication of the righteous. After the dead are raised in 2 Bar. 50:1-4, the destiny of those that were righteous is discussed in 2 Bar. 51:

 

“their splendor will be glori(fi)ed in changes, and the appearance of their face will be turned into the light of their beauty, so that they may be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is promised to them (51:3) … When, therefore, they [speaking of the unrighteous] see that those over whom they are now exalted, who will then be exalted and glori(fi)ed more than they, they will be transformed: the latter into the splendor of angels (51:5) … and time will no longer age them (51:9). For they will dwell in the heights of that world, and they will be made like the angels. And they will be made equal to the stars … and from light into the splendor of glory (51:10) … and there will then be excellence in the righteous surpassing that in angels (51:12).”

 

Here in 2 Baruch, the angelic transformation of the righteous is spoken of in terms of “being made equal to the stars” (51:10). Baruch’s reason for this is so that “they may be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is promised to them” (51:3).

 

So in 2 Baruch 21:4 and 48:8, the language of being “called from the beginning of the world things which did not previously exist” referred to the establishment of the cosmic order and the celestial bodies who obey him, similar to that of Philo’s Spec. Laws 4.187. Later in 2 Baruch 51, the righteous after the resurrection must be changed into the likeness of the stars or angels so that they might be exalted and “be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is promised to them” (51:3). In both Philo Spec. Laws 4.187 and 2 Bar. 21.5 and 48:8, the bringing into being of that which did not exist referred not merely to creatio ex nihilo in a general sense, but more specifically of the establishment of the celestial bodies and their orders, akin to that of the Deuteronomic vision. It is also important to note that in both texts there was the hope of deification (or angelomorphism), whether in terms of assimilation to God or to become like the stars or angels. This reading of Spec. Laws 4.187 and 2 Bar. 21.5 and 48:8 may provide a missing link with Rom 4:17b and the constellation of language and concepts found there.

 

Sirach’s Reception of the Deuteronomic Vision

 

Sirach also appears to share in the Deuteronomic vision. Sirach 17:17, speaking in context of Yahweh’s election of Israel, states: “He appointed a ruler for every nation (ἑκάστῳ ἔθνει κατέστησεν ἡγούμενον), but Israel is the Lord’s own portion (καὶ μερὶς κυρίου Ισραηλ ἐστίν).” Though the term ἡγούμενον is used frequently in the LXX of human rulers, there seems to be a clear echo of Deut 32:9 here in Sirach 17:17, “but Israel is the Lord’s own portion (καὶ μερὶς κυρίου Ισραηλ ἐστίν)” (see Deut 32:9, “καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ”).5 This is significant in light of Sirach’s understanding of the Abrahamic promise of Gen 22:17, as discussed above, that God would “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” (Sir 44:21). The reception of the Deuteronomic vision in Sirach makes clear how the author can read the promise God makes to Abraham in Gen 22:17, to “multiply your seed as the stars of heaven (πληθυνῶ τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ),” as “exaltation (ἀνυψῶσαι).” In Sirach 44:21, the connection made between the Abrahamic and Davidic promises is that the inheritance (κληρονομήσει) of the “governments of your enemies (πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων)” in Gen 22:17 is understood as receiving dominion (κατακυριεύσει) from “seas to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”6 In the Deuteronomic vision, the stars were understood as the “gods (θεοῖς)” or “angels of God (ἀγγέλων θεοῦ)” who had been “allotted (ἀπένειμεν)” to rule all the “nations under heaven (πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς ὑποκάτω τοῦ οὐρανοῦ),” but Israel was to be ruled over directly by Yahweh as his own inheritance (κληρονομίας) (Deut 4:19; 17:3; 29:6 [25]; 32:8-9). It can be argued then that Sirach 44:21 reads the Abrahamic promise of Gen 22:17 qualitatively through the lens of the Deuteronomic vision, seeing the promise of celestial glory as usurping the rule of the gods or angels of the nations and exalting (ἀνυψῶσαι) the seed of Abraham as the stars to receive the inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) of the all nations of the earth “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”7

 

Wisdom of Solomon’s Reception of the Deuteronomic Vision

 

The Wisdom of Solomon, a text scholars have mined for parallels to Romans, speaks of the vindication of righteous dead in 3:7-8: “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth (ἀναλάμψουσιν), and will run like sparks (σπινθῆρες) through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever (κρινοῦσιν ἔθνη καὶ κρατήσουσιν λαῶν, καὶ βασιλεύσει αὐτῶν κύριος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας).”8 Later in 5:5 the unrighteous who are amazed at the unexpected salvation of the righteous say, “Why have they been numbered among the sons of God (υἱοῖς θεοῦ), and their lot among the holy ones (ἁγίοις ὁ κλῆρος)?” In Wisdom, common to texts that share the Deuteronomic vision, the connection again is seen between heavenly shining (ἀναλάμψουσιν) in the afterlife and the rule of the nations (κρινοῦσιν ἔθνη) (Wis 3:7-8). The connection is only strengthened when it is recognizes that they are seen to be among the “sons of God (υἱοῖς θεοῦ)” and the “holy ones (ἁγίοις),” both commonly denotations for the angelic hosts of the heavenly court.9

 

 

  1. It will arguably result in an anachronistic reading of this text to use the language of later Christian doctrine such as creatio ex nihilo in attempting to articulate the thrust of the passage. For the common interpretation of the parallel language of Spec. Laws 4.187 and Rom 4:17b as referring only to creation ex nihilo, see e.g. Byrne, Romans, 159-60; Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 245; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 218; Jewett, Romans, 334; Käseman, Romans, 122.
  2. For further texts in Philo regarding celestial deification or assimilation, see Creation 144; Dreams 1.135-37, 1:138-145; Giants 7; QE 2.114; Moses 2.108.
  3. As with the frequent misconstrual of Spec. Laws 4.187, the same argument can be applied to commentators interpretations of 2 Baruch 21:4 and 48:8 as referring only to creatio ex nihilo, see e.g. Byrne, Romans, 160; Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 245; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 218; Jewett, Romans, 334; Käseman, Romans, 122.
  4. Translation of 2 Baruch is taken from Daniel M. Gurtner, Second Baruch: A Critical Edition of the Syriac Text with Greek and Latin Fragments, English Translation, Introduction, and Concordances, JCTCRS 5 (New York: Continuum, 2009).
  5. See Di Lella, Ben Sira, 283.
  6. See also in the discussion above of the connection with the “exaltation (ἀνύψωσεν)” of David in Sirach 47:11.
  7. This interpretation of the covenant promise may have a narrative similar to that of Psalm 82 in the background.
  8. For recent comparative studies of Wisdom of Solomon and Romans, see e.g. Joseph R. Dodson, The ‘Powers’ of Personification: Rhetorical Purpose in the Book of Wisdom and the Letter to the Romans, BZNW 161 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008); Jonathan A. Linebaugh, God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Texts in Conversation, NovTSup 152 (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
  9. See Nickelsburg, Resurrection, 81-82.

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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 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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