“And he [Abram] believed YHWH, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Genesis 15:6 is the main biblical text the apostle Paul uses to prove that righteousness is by faith apart from works (quoted in Romans 4:3, 4:9, 4:22–3, and Galatians 3:6). Is it appropriate to give that one verse in Genesis the weight that the apostle Paul does? In English translation, the wording of Genesis 15:6 is just like the verses before and after it: “And <subject> <verb> <object>.” Is Paul using—as his central proof—something that is simply a passing statement in Genesis?
Nine months ago, students in my first-year Hebrew class did not even know the Hebrew alphabet. Now, at the end of the school year, those same students are in a position to answer that question, because in class we are studying the faith of Abraham as we read portions of Genesis in Hebrew. Most of what we see in the Hebrew text is visible in an English translation. For example, careful, reflective reading in either Hebrew or English leads to the inference from Genesis 12:1–4 that Abram left his homeland by faith because he believed that God would keep his promise and because he desired what God promised more than he desired what he had to leave behind (Hebrews 11:8–10). Furthermore, the fact that Abraham stayed, even though it meant living in tents as a foreigner his whole life, indicates that his belief and desire was lifelong, not a one-time act, and that Abraham considered his real treasure to be in Heaven (Hebrews 11:9–16).
Learning Hebrew, however, enables students to notice some things that are lost in translation. In Hebrew, the first sentence of Genesis 15:6 (“And he believed YHWH”) breaks the normal past-tense narrative grammar that is used in all the clauses around it. It uses a rare grammatical pattern (weqatal for a past event) that, for an ancient reader of Hebrew, is perhaps equivalent to underlining the sentence: “And he brought him outside. And he said <quote>. And he believed YHWH. And he counted it to him as righteousness.” In Hebrew class last week, we discussed how the Hebrew grammar indicates that the focus of the passage is not on the crediting of righteousness; instead, the grammar focuses our attention on Abraham’s faith. So when Paul uses Genesis 15:6 as his main Biblical evidence that faith is the key to righteousness, he is not pulling a passage out of context or making a big deal out of a passing statement. Instead, he is simply reading Genesis carefully, paying close attention to the Hebrew grammar.
One of the reasons why every student at Bethlehem College & Seminary learns Greek and our seminary students (and some college students) also learn Hebrew is that reading the Bible in the original languages helps us to “rightly handle the word of truth” by emphasizing what the Bible emphasizes, even when that emphasis is indicated by the grammar alone.
John Beckman, PhD
Associate Professor of Old Testament
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