An Exegetical Paper on Genesis 15:6
The fifteenth chapter of Genesis says of Abraham, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6, ESV). This paper will evaluate this theologically significant verse.
Word Study: וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן
The Hebrew word וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן is formally rendered into English as the phrase, “and he believed” (ESV), although some translations choose to replace the pronoun with its antecedent (“Abram believed,” CSB, ISV, NET, NIV, NLT). The root verb behind this phrase is אמן, whose primary meaning HALOT defines as “to be firm, trustworthy, safe.”1 In the context of Gen 15:6, אמן is used in the hifil stem perfect tense (הֶאֱמִינ) and carries the meaning of faithfulness, to have trust in or believe in God. Yet, despite the nearly universal English translation as a perfect verb, Max Rogland suggests that the wəqatal form of וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן in Genesis 15:6 actually suggests an “imperfect” condition and, thus, expresses repeated activity.
Given the abundant and clear attestation of wəqatal as an indicator of imperfective situations in OT narrative, the prima facie reading of וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן would be as a habitual-iterative past and, as such, should be rendered along the lines of “and he kept believing Yahweh.”2
Understood in this sense, Genesis 15:6 would be interpreted as the narrator’s categorization of Abram’s belief as an ongoing faith and obedience to the Lord from the start of the pericope, if not the beginning of the narrative cycle in Genesis 12. In other words, Gen. 15 is not presenting Abram as believing God (“coming to faith”) for the first time. Instead, the author of Genesis offers a summary statement that Rogland posits is intended to convey that “Abram was indeed responding in faith to the Lord’s promises and that his questions are not to be read as those of a doubtful skeptic.”3
While this theory is not without merit, a perfective interpretation of וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן is not only normative among English translations but also sustained in the Greek translation tradition. The LXX of Gen. 15:6 renders וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן with an aorist έπίστευσεν, as do the NT citations of this verse (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; James 2:23). Thus, while the theology of Rogland’s theory works, it does not seem warranted grammatically.
Another question that arises from the text is what the object of Abram’s faith was. Is the phrase “And he believed the Lord” (v. 6) in response to one (or more) of the three promises that Yahweh made to Abram in vv. 1–5? Or is Abram perhaps responding in faith to the entirety of Yahweh’s assurances in this passage?4 Schliesser contends,
The prepositional expression that belongs to וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן is יהוָ֑ה. It does not say: Abraham believed Yahweh what he said (credere deo), but: Abraham believed in Yahweh (credere in deum). If read accurately and without limiting its meaning, וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן connotes: Abraham does not only consider or declare trustworthy the words of Yahweh and, furthermore, he does not only gain firmness and certainty in them, but he gains firmness and fastens himself in the one who gave these promises and assurances.5
Thus, both the grammar and the theology of this verse (as understood in its full biblical context) indicate that Abraham’s faith is ultimately placed in Yahweh Himself.
The contextual sense of וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן in Gen 15:6 as having belief in God is found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 14:31; Num. 14:11, 20:12; Deut. 1:32; 2 Kings 17:14; Pss. 78:22; Jon. 3:5). These verses reveal a contextual pattern; in each case, הֶאֱמִינ is used in relation to a belief in God that saves. This same word is used for the faith of the Israelites when the Lord brought them across the Red Sea and drowned the pursuing Egyptians (Exod. 14:31), and the faith to which Jehoshaphat rallies the kingdom of Judah as God delivers them from their enemies (2 Chron. 20:20), and the belief of the inhabitants of Nineveh that saved them from God’s imminent judgment (Jon. 3:5).
The word הֶאֱמִינ is also used in the negative sense to refer to a lack of faith that leads to destruction rather than salvation. Examples include Numbers 14:11 (c.f. Deut. 1:32; Psalm 78:22), where a lack of belief condemned an entire generation of Israelites to die in the wilderness; Numbers 20:12, where a lack of belief prohibited Moses and Aaron from entering the promised land with their fellow Israelites; 2 Kings 17:14 where God allowed the northern kingdom of Israel to be overthrown by Assyria because of their unbelief.
The salvific sense in which הֶאֱמִינ is repeatedly used in the Hebrew Scriptures illuminates the deeper meaning of its use in Genesis 15:6 by indicating that the צְדָקָֽה counted to Abram was the righteousness of salvation, contra Rabbi Moses Nachmanides who argued that Abram’s faith was unworthy of any particular note.6 Indeed, this is the sense in which Genesis 15:6 is cited in the New Testament. This verse serves as the theological foundation of Paul’s arguments in Romans 4 and Galatians 3.
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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.” (Galatians 3:5–8)
Additionally, James cites Genesis 15:6 in his example of a true, saving faith being alive and active (James 2:21–24). Abram’s faith was proven genuine “when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (v. 21). And notably, while it does not directly cite Gen. 15:6, the book of Hebrews also speaks of Abraham and his faith (Heb. 11:8–19). An interesting parallel is also found two centuries before the NT authors in 1 Macc. 2:49– 68. Here Mattathias uses the example of Abraham in reference to Gen. 15:6: “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” (v. 52).
Abraham is an enduring figure in the Jewish and Christian faiths for a number of reasons. Perhaps foremost because, as Porter notes, “Abraham was understood as the first proselyte or convert to worship of the true God. When Abraham was called, he was called out of a pagan background to follow God’s leading.”7 And Paul twice references Abraham as the spiritual father of all who have faith, both circumcised or uncircumcised. In Jesus, Paul sees the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). And Paul further writes that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). Gen. 15:6 illustrates Abram’s faith in God as expressed even before his biggest trials. Indeed, this verse could be viewed as a concise summary of the Abrahamic narrative.
1 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 63.
2 Max Rogland, “Abraham’s Persistent Faith; Hebrew Verb Semantics in Genesis 15:6,” in The Westminster Theological Journal, January 1, 2008, 241.
3 Ibid., 244.
4 R. W. L. Moberly, “Abraham’s Righteousness (Genesis xv 6),” in J.A. Emerton (ed.), Studies in the Pentateuch (Leidin: Brill, 1990), 105.
5 Benjamin Schliesser, Abraham’s Faith in Romans 4: Paul’s Concept of Faith in Light of the History of Reception of Genesis 15:6 /. Vol. 224. Tübingen :: Mohr Siebeck,, 2007.
6 Lebens, Samuel. “The Life of Faith as a Work of Art: A Rabbinic Theology of Faith.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81, no. 1-2 (04, 2017): 61-81, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/life-faith-as-work-art-rabbinic-theology/docview/1867885690/se-2.
7 Stanley E. Porter, Sacred Tradition in the New Testament: Tracing Old Testament Themes in the Gospels and Epistles, Baker Academic, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/liberty/detail.action?docID=4633413.
Koehler, Ludwig et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).
Lebens, Samuel. “The Life of Faith as a Work of Art: A Rabbinic Theology of Faith.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81, no. 1-2 (04, 2017): 61-81, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/life-faith-as-work-art-rabbinic-theology/docview/1867885690/se-2.
Moberly, R. W. L. “Abraham’s Righteousness (Genesis xv 6),” in J.A. Emerton (ed.), Studies in the Pentateuch (Leidin: Brill, 1990).
Porter, Stanley E.. Sacred Tradition in the New Testament: Tracing Old Testament Themes in the Gospels and Epistles, Baker Academic, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/liberty/detail.action?docID=4633413.
Rogland, Max. “Abraham’s Persistent Faith; Hebrew Verb Semantics in Genesis 15:6,” in The Westminster Theological Journal, January 1, 2008.
Schliesser, Benjamin. Abraham’s Faith in Romans 4: Paul’s Concept of Faith in Light of the History of Reception of Genesis 15:6 /. Vol. 224. Tübingen :: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.