The Promises to Abraham

The promises made to Abraham form the basis for the entire Biblical understanding of salvation.  In addition to his name, Yahweh, God identifies himself throughout as the “God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.”  This is clear even to a very casual reader of the Scriptures.  Nonetheless, if asked what the promises to Abraham were, most even educated Christians would speak of the promise that Abraham would have a great many descendants and those descendants would live on a particular piece of land in Palestine.  The New Testament in general and St. Paul in particular, however, speak of the promises to Abraham as the beginning of the promise of salvation fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The apostle frames faithfulness to these promises as the means by which the salvation promised by them has always been attained, differentiating this salvation from the purpose of the Torah.  Other passages of the New Testament indicate that Abraham was looking for a heavenly land, not an earthly one and that he believed in the resurrection (Heb 11:16, 19).  Often these latter references are treated as some sort of allegorization or spiritualization of the original promises but does not St. Paul’s usage of these promises vis a vis salvation in Christ require some more real connection?

As most prophecies in Scripture, the promises made to Abraham contain two elements.  One element serves as a sign of the second.  One element of the prophecy is fulfilled in the present or at least near term and this serves as a guarantee that the other more remote element will likewise come to pass.  It is for this reason, for example, that Christ’s great eschatological discourse concerning his glorious appearing to judge the living and the dead is intermingled with prophetic statements regarding the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem itself (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).  Christ’s accuracy regarding the latter ensures the truth of the former.  In the case of the promises to Abraham, the near-term fulfillment is that regarding the land of Canaan as such.  Abraham and his sons and grandsons were brought there and dwelt there.  Once Israel had settled in the land and destroyed the Anakim giant clans, it is said that these promises regarding the land made to Abraham were fulfilled (Josh 11:21-23; 21:43-45).

The fulfillment of this promise is the subject of the latter four books of the Torah and of Joshua.  Its completion serves as a sign of completion of the larger promise to Abraham, the one which then becomes the central promise of salvation in the subsequent Scriptures including the New Testament.  This promise is iterated three times (Gen 15:5; 22:17; 26:4).  “Then [Yahweh] brought [Abraham] outside, saying, ‘Look now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to number them.’  Then he told him, ‘So will your offspring be'” (Gen 15:5).  “I will surely bless you and greatly multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven and like the sand which is on the shore of the sea.  And your descendants will occupy the gate of their enemies” (Gen 22:17).  “But I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens and I will give to your descendants all these lands.  And all the nations of the earth will be blessed in your seed” (Gen 26:4).  Often, sometimes assisted by English translations, these promises are read purely in terms of a promise that Abraham’s descendants will be many in number.  The quantity of his descendants is certainly one element of the promise.

Ancient commentators, however, saw quite clearly that there was a second element (eg. Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 17; Questions and Answers in Genesis, 4.181).  In Genesis 15:5, it was noted by a number of ancient commentators that after telling Abraham to attempt to count the stars, the following on promise is not “so many shall your offspring be” but “so shall your offspring be.”  Abraham’s offspring will be like the stars in more than just numbers.  In Genesis 22:17, parallelism is employed.  Abraham’s descendants will be blessed and they will be multiplied like the stars of heaven and like the sands at the edge of the sea.  In parallel, their multiplication corresponds to the sand of the seashore.  Their blessing, then, is that they will become like the stars of heaven.  How would Abraham have understood this promise that he and his children and children’s children would become like stars?

The stars, throughout the Scriptures, are identified with heavenly, angelic beings.  In particular, the sun, moon, and stars in the Torah are identified with the sons of God, the highest rank of angels to whom the nations had been assigned (Deut 4:19).  This assignment happened at the tower of Babel (Deut 32:8).  In response to humanity’s attempt to draw God down and manipulate him through idolatrous ritual, God instead distanced himself from his creation governing it through intermediaries.  Even until the time of the writing of the New Testament, these intermediary spiritual beings were called “gods” by pious members of the Jewish community with the distinction that they were created beings and not to be worship as Yahweh, the Most High God is (eg. Philo, Special Laws, 1.3).  These are the stars of which Abraham would have understood the promise to be speaking.  By Abraham’s time already, these spiritual beings had begun to be worshipped by the nations and had become corrupt, enslaving them.  Abraham himself had to escape idolatry in Ur.  These beings, the enemies of humanity, are those in whose gates the seed of Abraham will camp.  The gates of a city were the center of its power.  The reference in Genesis 22:17, then, is not only that Abraham and his progeny will become like those beings in glory or power, but that they will be victorious over them and displace them.  The battle between Abraham’s seed and the principalities and powers will continue throughout this age (Eph 6:12).  In the end, it is humanity will be victorious.

This is not merely a general promise about humanity, however.  The displacement of these hostile powers will free the nations as a blessing, but Abraham will also be the father of many nations (Gen 17:4-5).  This freedom will allow human persons from the nations to become Abraham’s seed.  This blessing of the nations, however, will also take place through his seed (Gen 26:4).  St. Paul identifies this seed as singular, referring to Christ himself, through which this greater promise is fulfilled (Gal 3:16).  It is through Christ that persons from all the nations of the world become Abraham’s seed (Gal 3:29).  The understanding that it is through Jesus Christ, and therefore through the incarnation of the Word, that this promise is fulfilled fills out the picture of this salvation.  It is not merely a sort of apotheosis in which human persons become like angelic divine beings.  It is not only that humans become gods in the sense that angelic beings are called gods.  Through the incarnation, through Yahweh, the God of Israel who made these promises to Abraham becoming man, our shared human nature itself is united to God.  The promise made to Abraham is, then, the promise of theosis.  And this is how Abraham would have understood it.

As a Mesopotamian following the Ur III period, it is simply incontrovertible that when Abram looked at the stars, he saw gods who governed the world below.  In fact, the Scriptures make clear that his family was dedicated to the moon god, Nanna, who was considered to rule in Ur and also in Haran where Abram paused in his journey to Canaan to allow his father to die in his home country (Gen 11:32).  He remained a pagan until the day he died (Josh 24:2).  Abram, however, was different because Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth, had revealed himself to him.  It was he who spoke these promises to him.  It was he who possessed the lands of the world and could give Canaan to Abram as a gift.  It was he who had created those other gods and who reigned over them as God Most High, alone worthy of worship.

It is because of this that Abraham can be said to have believed in the resurrection (anastasis).  It is because of this that Abraham can be said to have looked beyond the sign of the land of Canaan to eternal life.  It is because he had at least a certain level of understanding that this would be accomplished in something like the incarnation that Christ can truly say that Abraham rejoiced to see his incarnate life (John 8:56).  This understanding of the salvation promised to Abraham allows St. Paul to move so quickly in his Epistle to the Romans from the means of Abraham’s justification according to this promise to the identity of the faithful as sons of God (Rom 8:14-17).

When this salvation, theosis, is presented to Abraham in Genesis 15, it is not a new development.  Rather, it represents the purpose for which humanity was originally created.  It is the destiny of humanity, created a little lower than the angels but crowned with glory and honor, to surpass the angelic hosts through Christ’s incarnation (Ps 8:1-5; Heb 2:7-9).  This destiny produced the envy of the devil which led to his fall in an attempt to destroy humanity.  This destiny likewise led the fallen angels who attended the line of Cain and the gods of the nations to rebel against God out of jealousy.  These rebellions, however, were insufficient to circumvent God’s purpose for humanity.  After distancing himself from humanity after Babel, Yahweh once again draws near to Abraham and to his seed to begin to accomplish this purpose.  To do so, God will, in Christ, defeat the sinful powers and principalities through his resurrection.  He will conquer death and the devil through his harrowing of Hades.  This leaves the third impediment, the corruption of sin, to be dealt with as an obstacle toward human persons’ salvation, theosis.

The corruption of sin would be dealt with through something added to these Abrahamic promises that by no means modified them, but rather allowed for their fulfillment.  This “addition” will be the subject of next week’s post.

9 comments:

  1. Continue to love this journey you are creating and am wondering if your OT references are exclusively from the OSB/Septuagint? Again thank you for producing these writings.

    1. I don’t really utilize any particular English translation. Old Testament-wise if there are significant differences, I usually indicate either the Hebrew or the Greek (or whatever else) I’m pointing to. In a lot of cases, especially in the Torah, there aren’t a lot of major differences in the two traditions.

  2. Excellent series, Father. Thank you.
    As with the references you cite, it helps a great deal when you provide links to past posts that deal with the subject at hand. “The Hosts of Heaven” fits perfectly.

    So the means Christ brought about for dealing with human sin and rebellion (the ending of last week’s post) is theosis. “Abraham rejoiced to see this day”.
    The stars…the angelic beings…and St Paul’s celestial and terrestrial bodies, God’s Divine Council…are really beginning to jell, Father.

    And like a cliff-hanger, I await “the addition” to Abraham’s promises in next weeks post!
    Again, many many thanks.

  3. Father, thank you for your wonderful posts. With your brief mention of Christ’s comments on the Parousia, why does it appear that He had promised that ALL those things would come to pass in a generation rather than just the immediate judgment of Jerusalem? It seems that the Apostles themselves and even the early church as a whole were misled into thinking He had meant in their generation rather than a future generation that He would return.

    1. It is certainly true that the apostles believed that Christ’s parousia was imminent. But it is important to note that it has always been the teaching of Christianity that it is always imminent. It is not that the apostles thought it was imminent and then later generations decided it was remote. So the idea that there was something equivalent to the ‘Great Disappointment’ in apostolic Christianity is mostly a canard of modern Biblical scholarship. St. Paul thought Christ’s glorious appearing would happen soon, so did St. Hippolytus, so did St. John of Damascus, so did St. Gregory Palamas, so do I.

      But in terms of the scriptural ‘meat’ of your question, the word ‘generation’ in English used to translate the Greek ‘genea’. In contemporary English, we use generation almost exclusively to refer to a time period and the people born during it. That is not the root meaning of the Greek word, though. Its core meaning is race, ethnicity, or family. It can be used in a manner somewhat parallel to our modern use, as St. Matthew does in his genealogy. This works because in each case, the child of one family comes of age and starts his own family, then the process repeats. Each of those families is referred to as a ‘genea’. This is parallel to our usage but not identical because there are no particular time brackets involved, merely the succession of family units. It is far more commonly used in Scripture, however, with its core meaning. When Christ speaks of the wicked and perverse generation, he is not just stating that people in the first half of the first century AD were particularly awful. Rather, he is continuing a whole theme of divine speech from the Old Testament in which God continuously refers to his own people as stiff-necked, stubborn, and perverse. Nevertheless, despite our sinfulness and stubbornness, we will not pass away from the Earth before Christ’s return.

      The other verse you might be referencing here might be Matt 16:28, that some standing there would not taste death before seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. It is not clear, however, that this is a reference to Christ’s parousia, however. The enthronement of the Son of Man was an apocalyptic event, to be sure, in Daniel 7. Based on its reading by Revelation, however, and other texts it seems to be clearly connected to Christ’s enthronement at his ascension. The overthrow of demonic principalities and powers and all authority in heaven and on earth being given to Christ as he is seated upon his throne is not just a theological construct or analogy but a real event.

      1. Father, thank you, this was helpful. Specifically referring to the verse containing the reference to “this generation” isn’t it true that the disciples rightly concluded He was referring to them since they heeded His warning to flee Jerusalem when they saw the armies and escape the judgment? Could this be an example of prophecies having an immediate and a future fulfillment rather than a misunderstanding of the word “generation”?

        1. To clarify, I don’t think the apostles misunderstood the word ‘genos’. That’s a problem of modern interpreters. But, you’re right that the destruction of Jerusalem served as the immediate sign of the greater later fulfillment of Christ’s return.

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