Monday, March 06, 2006

Perhaps some Bible bloggers will respond...

As disturbingly shown by Caravaggio's painting "The Sacrifice of Isaac," Abraham is often taken as a symbol of powerful faith because he was willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac at God's command even though God had promised to make Abraham a great nation through Isaac. Presumably, God would somehow follow through on the promise even after Isaac's death.

The story is a profoundly troubling one even if -- or rather because -- it demonstrates the depth of Abraham's faith.

Perhaps this sacrifice story lies behind Paul's emphasis upon Abraham's never-weakening faith in God. But that raises a question. Yesterday, a few others and I were trying to figure out why Paul states that Abraham never wavered in his faith in God, not even when promised a son through Sarah:

The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans

4:18 [Righteousness is imputed to those with the faith of Abraham, w]ho in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be. 4:19 And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 4:20 yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God, 4:21 and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform. 4:22 Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.

This assertion seems at odds with Genesis 17:15-19, which appears to show Abraham wavering (shown below in red font; ignore the green font for the moment):

A Hebrew-English Bible According to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition

טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ, לֹא-תִקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי: כִּי שָׂרָה, שְׁמָהּ

15 And God said unto Abraham: 'As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.

טז וּבֵרַכְתִּי אֹתָהּ, וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן; וּבֵרַכְתִּיהָ וְהָיְתָה לְגוֹיִם, מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ

16 And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.'

יז וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּצְחָק; וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ, הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה-שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד, וְאִם-שָׂרָה, הֲבַת-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד

17 Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart: 'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?'

יח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים: לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל, יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ

18 And Abraham said unto God: 'Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!'

יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן, וְקָרָאתָ אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, יִצְחָק; וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם, לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָי

19 And God said: 'Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.

If Paul thinks that this doesn't show Abraham wavering in his faith, then he must have some way of interpreting the text in a different sense. Now, Paul probably used the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament, and one of the men yesterday who was discussing Paul's view mentioned that the Greek verb used for laughed in verse 17 can mean "laughed in joy" -- which would probably explain why Calvin took the passage to have this meaning. (Sorry not to supply references here, but the semester has begun.) So, Paul might have assumed on the basis of the Septuagint that the laughter was not a sign of disbelief.

But suppose that Paul was also looking at the Hebrew (and could read it). Could he have read it a different way?

Now comes the sheer speculation ... and the green font.

The verbs in Genesis 17:16 use the past tense form (perfect) but are read as future meanings due to the vav-consecutive, which switches tenses. Thus:

וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן


and moreover I will give thee a son of her

Yet, the vav is not placed directly before the verb, so could one (mis)read this as having a past meaning?

and moreover I have given thee a son of her

Suppose that Paul interpreted the passage as showing Abraham struck by the ambiguity of this promise -- was it past or future? Paul could then argue that Abraham was not wavering but misunderstanding and laughing at what he (Abraham) considered an absurd interpretation of what God was saying.

To spell it out ... Abraham sees the ambiguity of וְגַם נָתַתִּי and laughs to imagine the absurdity of thinking that this might be a future promise (and moreover I will give). He then takes it as refering to a past event, the birth of Ishmael (and moreover I have given). He therefore asks God's blessing on Ishmael. God then corrects Abraham's understanding by clarifying that the promise is a future one and that Ishmael is not the promised child.

Now, one might point out that since Ishmael is not Sarah's son, then Paul could not have read Abraham to be misunderstanding God as referring to Ishmael, for that child had been born to Sarah's servant, Hagar.

Here, though, one need only recall Genesis 16:2, which shows Sarai (Sarah) urging Abraham to sleep with Hagar in order that Sarai might build up a family through Hagar. According to custom, or so the verse implies, the child through Hagar would be considered a child of Sarai.

If Paul did read the Genesis passage (17:15-19) in this way, then he could argue that Abraham was not wavering in disbelief but simply misunderstanding God's meaning and that when God corrected Abraham's misunderstanding, then Abraham believed in the promise of a future son.

Well, as I said, sheer speculation ... but if somebody could find a rabbinical text proposing the same thing...


At 4:41 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


I'm not a Bible blogger, and I have nothing learned and scholarly to add, but I just had to tell you that that that Caravaggio painting was printed on one of the pages of the Bible my family had when I was growing up. I used to like flipping through the Bible and looking at the pictures (most by Renaissance masters). That picture always terrified me, from the first time I saw it (when I didn't know what it was about), up until right now.

Excellent and interesting post, by the way.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It is a disturbing image, one that always causes me to pause in my critique of Islam and recall that Christianity has a background with some similar features.

But perhaps Alain Besancon, in the May 2004 issue of Commentary ("What Kind of Religion is Islam") has put his finger on the crucial difference:

"Christians are accustomed to distinguish the worship of false gods -- that is, idolatry -- from the worship of the true God. To treat Islam suitably, it becomes necessary to forge a new concept altogether, and one that is difficult to grasp -- namely, an idolatry of the God of Israel."

This is a fascinating suggestion, namely, that Islam worships the true God but in an idolatrous manner. (Muslims need not react too angrily to this critique, for they level similar sort of charge against Christians.)

Sometime, I should blog on this argument, but I'd need to re-read Besancon.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting points, though I am not a bible scholar may I note a couple things. The apostle Paul most certainly knew the Hebrew and Greek since he was a top student of Gamaliel,a great teacher of the Pharises(Acts 5:34 and 22:3), before his face to face encounter with the risen Jesus Christ. Paul was the best person to be the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews) since he knew the cultures and languages of that time, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin. He was born a Roman citizen, Acts 22:25-28, from Tarsus.
Paul's account in Romans ch. 4 is an overview of Abraham's faith. When Abram (no name change yet) was first called (Gen. 12) he was told vs. 2 "I will make you into a great nation..." Abram was 75 years old then. In vs. 7 the Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land". Abram goes to Eygpt (Gen. ch.13) then in vs. 14-15 gives another promise "to your offspring forever".
In Gen. ch.15 again Abram seems to question the Lord, vs. 3 he complains "You have given me no chilren; so a servant in my household will be my heir. vs. 4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir."
Perhaps we are allowed to doubt, we are human! Abram, in Gen. ch. 17, is told that his name will be changed to Abraham (father of many)vs 5. Yet he laughed about his old body and that of Sarah. Sarah laughed in ch. 18 when 3 visitors told Abraham again that he would have a son from Sarah "about this time next year" vs. 10-15).
Certainly Paul understood that both Abraham and Sarah had human misunderstanding of how God would do it all. What was important was that they finally believed. I think that is what the passage in Romans is all about, our faith does "not waver through unbelief...but was strengthened in his faith" Rom 4:20. We can wonder or "laugh in joy" at how God can do something but that is not counted by God as "unbelief". Each time Abraham is told by God of the promises, in the end of each event Abraham strengthens his faith, and "it was credited to him as righteousness (being in right standing with God)."

At 10:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks "Anonymous 2" (you're definitely not another "Anonymous" who sometimes comments here).

My one question would be whether Genesis 17:17 really implies that Abraham "laughs for joy," for he seems to me to be expressing a different emotion, i.e., laughter at the absurdity of an old, withered couple bearing a child.

Thus my speculations.

But I could be wrong...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

Volumes could and should be written on the nature of doubt.

At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

Perhaps Paul was referring to the fact that Abraham's faith was effectively unwavering, in that he followed God completely all his life, even if he did fail at various points. The completion of all the tasks that God set before Abraham demonstrated the long-term steadiness of his faith. That's the way I have tended to view that passage. It's always seemed to me that God is more concerned with the total view of a man's life than with the momentary, though that does concern Him, too. I think maybe Paul was referring to that perspective with Abraham, that in taking the long view of Abraham's life, you can see that, ultimately, his faith really was unwavering. What doubts he had, however briefly, were banished, to the point that Abraham believe that God would raise Isaac from the ashes of the sacrifice. It's a very powerful image, a faith like that.

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jim, I guess that the answer will partly depend upon what Paul meant by "wavering." I'll have to check the Greek sometime and look into this point.

Jeffery Hodges


At 2:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would the creator of all leave us a "Book" about Himself? Or. Maybe this "Book" is for humanity.To understand, who we were, who we are, and who we will be. Is it a history book or a way of life book?

At 3:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To ?
Could it be if we are tri in make-up. Or three in goodness. Could there be a doctrine of three in pure evil? If so. Where would it come from? How would you defeat it and where would you confine it? Mat 12:40 three of light vs three of dark. Gen 15:9 three of dark being stripped of their garments. Gen 15:13 the three being gathered from the four winds towards a central point, times up for the reign of evil. Gen 15:16 Surround with a squared or four sided object. Luke 23:21-22 to put up posts enclosed in a square for three by the finger(s) of god. Can we find any objects that might allow us to understand this? Egypt. Three pyramids. Each side is a tri, made up of four sides perfect base of four, this could be the four corners of the land. And then. Pure darkness where one could never straighten out, what better place for three who have moved about only from one way being bent or crooked hence a snake, snakes cannot move unless they are crooked. The three of evil are one before being stripped. Or 3+3+3=12 Rev 15:7 a "tree" is made up of 3 parts of four. Contend with god, sure, which is a 12. And could it be that it is not ten horns in Rev but ten rays of light, or ten fingers of god which is what they "12" would see coming towards them when there reign comes to a end. So can i ask who is this book written about or for?

Someone who is looking for truth.

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Are both comments from the same 'Anonymous'?

Neither comment addresses the query raised in the blog entry, so I don't see the direct relevance for posting them here.

As for the questions raised by the two comments, I don't know the answers to those because I don't quite understand what is being asked, but -- again -- this blog entry is not the place for discussing them.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry my friend

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No problem. Thanks for being gracious.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across your sight while researching a Hebrew word. I cannot find any real good background or study of the root of this word that I'am looking for. Can you help or point me in the correct direction. The hebrew word is תִּשְׁעִים #2552 from Enhanced brown.
Thank You

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tim, I'm not an expert, so I probably can't provide much help.

My Brown, Driver, Briggs dictionary identifies תִּשְׁעִים (tish'im) as an archaic plural. It appears to be a masculine plural of the Hebrew word for "nine," but I suppose that you would already know that.

That's about all that my dictionary says.

What are you looking to find about the root?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

By the way, תִּשְׁעִים (tish'im) means "ninety," but you would also know that already.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I was trying to find any references to the word תִּשְׁעִים (tish'im)in the Ugaritic or any other eastern languages. Thanks for the help.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I didn't help much with תִּשְׁעִים (tish'im), I'm guessing. For Ugaritic, you'd definitely need to find an expert. My lexicon doesn't even have a reference to Ugaritic for תִּשְׁעִים.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts, and, for your passion and desires into the mysteries of this age.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tim, you might check Strong's Hebrew Dictionary. I've found the following online:


tish`iym (tish-eem') multiple from 'tesha`' (8672); ninety:--ninety.


tesha` (tay'-shah) or (masculine) tishtah {tish-aw'}; perhaps from 'sha`ah' (8159) through the idea of a turn to the next or full number ten; nine or (ord.) ninth:--nine (+ -teen, + -teenth, -th).


sha`ah (shaw-aw') a primitive root; to gaze at or about (properly, for help); by implication, to inspect, consider, compassionate, be nonplussed (as looking around in amazement) or bewildered:--depart, be dim, be dismayed, look (away), regard, have respect, spare, turn.

I found this information by Googling תשׁעים, i.e., without the vowel pointings. Perhaps this is of some help.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I had not done tried that on Google. Thanks again for the help.


At 5:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back from many months of journaling Hebrew,Ugaritic and the other lovely Afro-Asiatic languages.

I have a fun little question for you.

If you could stand in front of YHWH and ask for and receive one thing, or He would give you only one thing. It must be something only for you, something that you dont have already. What would it be.

This is a question I have pondered recently, very enjoyable.

Tim From Iowa

At 8:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tim from Iowa, that is an intriguing question. I suppose that the 'correct' answer would be to ask for the one thing that God knows that you most need.

Maybe that would also be the best answer.

I'd be almost afraid to ask for something that I think that I need, for this would be an unusual situation for me to find myself in, and I'd worry about the unforeseen consequences of my choice.

I suppose that I ought to worry daily about those sorts of consequences anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home