Lenten Readings: Day 17

Was Abraham a Gentile?

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), “Circumcision Prescribed by God to Abraham, Genesis XVII.10”, 1931

At first glance it seems a strange question. Abraham a Gentile? As the patriarch of patriarchs, the person from  whom all Jews claim descent, one would have described Abraham also as a Jew. And yet, Arabs and Samaritans also claim descent from Abraham, Jews and Samaritans through Sarah his wife and Arabs through Hagar.

Furthermore, the term “Jew” only came into use after the return from the exile in Babylon in the late 6th century BC. It is a variation on “Judean” which referred to the people who lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, the remnant of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon that remained faithful to the House of David when the northern kingdom of Israel broke away around 920 BC. Judah was made up mostly of the people from the tribes of Judah, Levi, and part of the Benjaminites, while the other nine tribes were mostly in Israel. After Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722 Judah absorbed many refugees from the northern kingdom, people fleeing deportation to Assyria and replacement by other peoples. So, before the Jews there were the Judeans, and before them the Twelve Tribes of Israel – and Israel was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. To call Abraham a Jew or even an Israelite is anachronistic.

Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary pivots on this point. The story of Genesis from chapters one to twelve is a series of  narratives about how humanity fall away from God, over and over again. First there was the Garden of Eden and the eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then there was Cain’s murder of Abel. Then Lamech also murdered someone. There was the depravity of humans who mated with the semi-divine creatures. Then there is The Flood, and Ham’s dishonoring of his father Noah. Finally there is the Tower of Babel. God then reaches out to one person, Abram (later re-named  Abraham) in Harran, in what is now south-east Turkey and not so far from war-torn northern Syria. He is described in Deuteronomy 26.5 as “a wandering Aramean”. Aram was never a kingdom as such, but referred to an area in what is now Syria which sometimes included Damascus. Aramaic was the dominant language of the Middle East until the rise of Arabic and Islam in the 7th century AD; Jesus spoke Aramaic, and parts of Daniel and Ezra are written in it. It is closely related to Hebrew, Arabic, and Phoenician. Hebrew actually uses an alphabet devised for Aramaic. It remains a living language for Christians in Iraq and Syria, but is now endangered as many of them have fled persecution and are using the languages of the countries they now live in (such as English). So its reasonable to think that, if he was a wandering Aramean, he spoke an archaic form of Aramaic, perhaps a form the developed into Aramaic in Syria and Hebrew in the Holy Land.

So was he a Gentile? In a sense, no, because Gentile is usually used in a sense that means “non-Jewish”, and it would be just as anachronistic to call him that as to call him a Jew. But he is described as having lived centuries before the Torah was given in Sinai, perhaps something like 1800 BC to 1600 BC. Of course, it begs the question that there was a person who existed named Abraham. Many scholars of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament doubt that there was any such person, and is as historical as Helen of Troy or Romulus and Remus. Perhaps there is an historical kernal somewhere there, but it has been transmitted and transformed over the centuries that one cannot from the Biblical record adduce anything certain (unless one is a conservative Christian who assumes the historical veracity of everything in the scriptures).

Paul was trained in what eventually became the methodology of the Mishna. He assumed the historical fact of Abraham. He carefully looked at scripture as jumping off points to assist in making his argument, but not as uncontestable proofs. He jumps off on the citation from Genesis 15.6: “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. ”

Romans 4.1-12
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

Paul here defines “wages” as what one receives as one’s due and and “righteousness” as what receives as a result of sheer trust. The word “reckoned” is a passive in the Greek in Paul,  as well as in the ancient Greek translation of Genesis 15.6 and the Hebrew original. So who is doing the reckoning? The next verse clarifies that.

So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works:
‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’

This is Psalm 32.1 which is attributed to David. In this passage Paul clearly attributes the reckoning to God. In the New Revised Standard Version it is translated from the Hebrew as “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity.” In the original Hebrew the word means “think X towards person Y” and it does not have the precision of “impute”, which is how it is sometimes translated – reckon gets it pretty well.  Curiously, Paul does not quote the ancient Greek translation of the Septuagint – it has a subjunctive where Paul uses a passive – but he may be quoting from  memory, or using another translation that is no longer extant.

An now Paul gets to his point: Abraham was not yet circumcised when he was reckoned as righteous.

Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.

The work of circumcision – the defining sign of the covenant between Abraham and God (and not something lightly undertaken!) – comes after God thinks righteousness towards the patriarch. God chooses Abraham, not the other way around. He may have been a good man, but there may have been other good people as well. Perhaps God “thought well as well him as another“.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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