This is the first of four installments on this topic, all written by David Burnett. This series is based on a paper David read at the Society of Biblical Literature. — MSH

Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions1


In Rom 4:18 Paul cites the “promise” to Abraham in the LXX of Gen 15:5 “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” in relation to what it means to “become the father of many nations” from Gen 17:5. Modern scholars have traditionally understood the relationship Paul sees between these two texts quantitatively, both promising a vast multitude of descendants made up of Jews and Gentiles. Conversely, some early Jewish interpreters of Gen 15:5 (and related texts like Gen 22:17; 26:4) such as Philo, Sirach, and the author(s) of the Apocalypse of Abraham understood the promise qualitatively: not merely speaking of multiplication, but also of transformation into the likeness of the stars and assumption of their power. Reading Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in light of this qualitative interpretation would place him within the context of already well-established deification or angelomorphic traditions in Early Judaism that see the destiny of the seed of Abraham as replacing the stars as the divine or angelic inheritors of the nations. This tradition may provide a more fitting explanation of the relationship Paul sees between Gen 17:5 and 15:5 in the wider context of the argument of Romans 4. This reading could illuminate the relationship between a complex nexus of ideas that Paul sees implicit in the one promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5. The promise of becoming as the stars of heaven would encompass the inheritance of the cosmos, becoming a father of many nations, and the resurrection from the dead.

PART 1 – Introduction

The “One Promise” of Genesis 15

Romans 4 is rightly understood as a Pauline midrash on the narrative of the covenant promise made to Abraham in the LXX of Genesis 15, with particular focus on Abraham’s response of faith in the promise (ἐπαγγελία) which results in his being credited righteousness:

“Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir (κληρονομήσει); but one who will come forth from your own loins, he shall be your heir (κληρονομήσει).” And he took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And he said to him, “So shall your seed be (oὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου).” Then he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness (καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην). And he said to him “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit (κληρονομῆσαι) it” (Gen 15:4-7).2

For Paul, what was the actual content of “the promise” that is to be believed by Abraham and his seed? C. K. Barrett makes an important observation at this point when he states, “Abraham received a promise. Paul never quotes it exactly or in full, but it is important to have in mind (as doubtless Paul does) the whole of Genesis 22:17.3 Barrett goes on to quote the text of Genesis 22:17, as if to suggest that it is the text Paul is primarily drawing upon for his understanding of the promise given to Abraham in Romans 4, a text whose argument is framed by the narrative of Genesis 15. The critical point here is that much of the language used in Romans 4 is found in those reiterations of the promise in Genesis, showing that Paul more than likely read them together and sees them essentially as one promise rather than many. Of particular importance to the present study are the two that repeat the promise of star-like seed. Later reiterated to Abraham in the Aqedah, Gen 22:17 reads: “Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ) and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess (κληρονομήσει) the gates of their enemies (πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων).” Finally in the promise as retold to Isaac, Gen 26:4 reads: “I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), and will give your seed all these lands (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην); and in your seed all the nations of the earth (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς) shall be blessed.” For our purposes it is important to note what seems to be a close connection between being multiplied “as the stars of heaven (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας)” and the inheritance or “taking the possession of (κληρονομήσει)” the “cities (πόλεις)” of their enemies, or in other words, to inherit “all these lands (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην).” This will result in “all the nations of the earth (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς)” being blessed.

In reference to the meaning of the promise, Paul states in Rom 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and to his seed that he would be heir of the cosmos (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου) was not through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” What seemed to refer to the promise of land in Genesis 15 was somehow interpreted to include the cosmos. The promise here also pertains to becoming a “father of many nations” which Paul links to the resurrection from the dead as he states in 4:17, “as it is written ‘I have made you a father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν) (Gen 17:5)’ in the presence of the God whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα).” He later relates Abraham’s faith to the faith of the believers in the resurrection: “But the words ‘it was counted to him (ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ, Gen 15:6)’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (4:23-24). In keeping with the narrative framework of his argument, the ideas of becoming “heir of the cosmos (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου),” a “father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν),” and the hope of the resurrection are not separate promises, but are understood by Paul as constituent parts of (and having been subsumed under) the one promise made to Abraham in Gen 15:5 in becoming as the stars of heaven.4


Acknowledging an Overlooked Interpretative Problem in Romans 4:18

 The focus of the present study is here in Rom 4:18, regarding Paul’s quotation of the LXX of Gen 15:5 “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” in relation to what it means in its immediate context to “become the father of many nations” from Genesis 17:5. The scholarly consensus on the relationship Paul sees between these two texts has been understood quantitatively, both promising a vast multitude of descendants made up of Jews and Gentiles. Many scholars even insert the term “numerous” or a related term into their translations of “οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου (4:18)” so the construction reads, “so (numerous) shall your seed be” instead of the literal rendering of the Greek “so shall your seed be,” presupposing the quantitative reading as the only viable interpretive option for Paul.5 Philip Esler, taking for granted the quantitative only view, questions whether it actually accounts for the length to which Paul stretches the Abrahamic promise. He states,

“It is not impossible that having the world as one’s inheritance could be another way of saying that Abraham’s seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen 15:5), but this may be pushing the latter promise too far … [later in referring to the argument of 4:14] The reasoning here is not easy to follow. It would be straightforward if the promise referred to were simply that in Gen 15:5 (to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven), which could then be related directly to Abraham’s faith in Gen 15:6. The answer, however, is probably excluded given that a promise to ‘inherit the world’ goes way beyond Gen 15:5.”6

While being fully aware of the commonly held explanations for Paul’s alleged expansion of the promise, Esler still does not find in them a sufficient answer to this problem: the promise to “inherit the cosmos” seems to go far beyond the promise to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.

I agree with and wish to take seriously Esler’s contention that the promise to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven may collapse under the theological weight that Paul piles on it. I also agree that the answer to this problem is excluded if one is to read the promise of Gen 15:5 as merely quantitative. What this study will seek to demonstrate is that the answer to the problem isn’t excluded from Gen 15:5 per se. A possible answer to the problem, and perhaps a more viable interpretation, gone seemingly unnoticed or neglected by most modern commentators on Romans 4, can be found in a number of early Jewish interpreters of Gen 15:5 (and related promises in Gen 22:17; 26:4), who understood the patriarchal promise of being multiplied as the stars of heaven not merely quantitatively, but also qualitatively, that his seed would become star-like, assuming the life of the gods or angels.


  1. I would like to sincerely thank N. T. Wright, Pamela Eisenbaum, and Ward Blanton for their helpful and critical responses to the presentation of this study in the special joint session of the Pauline Epistles section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature on Sunday, November 23, 2014. I am also especially grateful to Matthew Thiessen, Michael Gorman and Edith Humphrey for their careful and constructive reading of this paper and their assistance in the editing process. Any problems or errors that remain are certainly my sole responsibility. A special thanks to Stanley Porter as well for affording me the time to make any final edits necessary after receiving feedback from my esteemed respondents at SBL.
  2. James D. G. Dunn (Romans 1-8; WBC 38a; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988, 197) says of the present text, “the exposition of Gen 15:6 of which chapter 4 consists is one of the finest examples of Jewish midrash available to us from this era”; N. T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013, 1 or 2:996) states that Romans 4 is a “sustained and quite detailed exposition of Genesis 15.”
  3. See C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, 2d ed. BNTC 6; Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1991), 88. He does note Gen 12:3; 18:18.
  4. “Paul regards the ‘Land’ promise as containing the whole complex of salvation.” See Brendan Byrne, Sons of God, Seed of Abraham: A Study of the Idea of the Sonship of God of All Christians in Paul against the Jewish Background, AnBib 83 (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1979), 160.
  5. Below is a selective, though representative, survey of major modern English commentators since 1932 that presuppose the quantitative view, many of whom insert a term like “numerous” or “many” into their translation. See e.g. C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, MNTC 6 (New York: Harper & Row, 1932), 89, 92; C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Vol. I, ICC; London: T & T Clark, 1979), 245; Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 118, 124; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 217; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 211; Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1989), 56; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 383; Peter Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 69, 74; Brendan Byrne, Romans, SP 6 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 143; Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 283; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 234; N. T. Wright, Romans, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 500; A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 50; Philip Francis Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 191-192, the only scholar here to acknowledge a problem with the quantitative reading, although seemingly without awareness of an alternative; Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 178, 209,  211, 215; Ben Witherington and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127; Leander E. Keck, Romans, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 129; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 336; Schliesser, Abraham’s Faith, 380; Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 743; Frank J. Matera, Romans, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 116; Mark Forman, Paul and the Politics of Inheritance, SNTSMS 148 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 72; Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 848, 850.
  6. Emphasis added. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, 191-92.