This is Part 5 of David Burnett’s guest series.
In early Judaism it was widely accepted that in the resurrection or afterlife, the righteous were to in some sense become as the stars or angels.1 In Dan 12:2-3, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” John Collins points out that the stars in Dan 8:10 are the host of heaven, which in comparison to Dan 12:3 implies that those raised from the dead in vindication will be associated with the angels.2 A similar idea is found in regard to the destiny of the righteous in 1 Enoch 104:2-6: “But now you shall shine like the lights of heaven, and you shall be seen; and the windows of heaven will be open to you… and you are about to be making a great rejoicing like the angels of heaven.” In the Testament of Moses we also find the affirmation of the astral immortality of the faithful as it states in 10:9: “God will raise you to the heights. Yes, he will fix you firmly in the heaven of the stars.” In context of a discussion of the seven ordered eschatological rest promised for those who “keep the ways of the Most High,” 4 Ezra 7:97 states, “The sixth order, when it is shown to them how their face is to shine like the sun, and how they are to be made like the light of stars, being incorruptible from then on.”
4 Maccabees 17:5-6 re-narrates the martyrdom of the faithful mother and her seven sons from 2 Maccabees 7 in the following way:
“O mother, destroying the violence of the tyrant with your seven children, rendering his evil intentions void and demonstrating the nobility of faithfulness (πίστεως)! For like a roof set nobly upon the pillars of the children, you, unwavering, bore up under the earthquake brought on by torments. Be confident, therefore, O pious-souled mother, holding firm toward God the hope (ἐλπίδα) that comes from endurance! Not so much, not so much has the moon in heaven among the stars been made to stand as revered as you, who lit the path (φωταγωγήσασα) toward piety for the seven star-like children (ἰσαστέρους ἑπτὰ παῖδας), have been made to stand honored in God’s presence and firmly fixed with them in the heavens. For your child-bearing was from father Abraham.” (4 Macc 17:5-6)
Here the mother embodies faithfulness (πίστεως) and her seven sons demonstrate firm hope (ἐλπίδα) that God will vindicate them in their willing martyrdom. The faithful mother now stands more august among the stars than even the moon. Her faithful sons are deemed “star-like,” which seemingly identifies them as true children of Abraham.3
Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of the Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation
When considering Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in Rom 4:18 in light of this early Jewish qualitative interpretation, we find fruitful and interesting exegetical results. When the evidence above has been taken into account, we are provided with a kind of narrative framework, out of which we arrive with a reading proposal that may provide a cogent answer to the interpretive problem this study sought to address. This proposal would provide us with a reading which links all the constituent parts (the inheritance of the cosmos, becoming a father of many nations, and the resurrection of the dead) of the one promise Paul understands to be given to Abraham in Gen 15:5 when he is told “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου),” a reference to becoming as the stars.4
Psalm 82 as a Narrative Framework for the Reception of the Abrahamic Promise in Early Judaism
Within the reception of the Deuteronomic vision in early Judaism we find a coherent narrative through which the promise of Abraham could be read. We find the setting up of the cosmic polis, where the celestial bodies (or angels of god) were “allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven (πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς ὑποκάτω τοῦ οὐρανοῦ)” (Deut 4:19; 32:8-9), while Israel was Yahweh’s inheritance (κληρονομία) (Deut 32:9). In early Jewish reception of this tradition, the cosmos was understood as the “greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη)” where the celestial bodies were appointed as rulers (ἄρχόντας) who were to mimic (μιμουμένους) the rule of the “Father of all (πάντων πατρός),” exercising their rule in law and justice (δίκην καὶ νόμον) (Spec. Laws 1.13-19). These celestial rulers (ἄρχοντα) were to “preside (or rule) (χρή) over his subjects (ὑπηκόων) as a father over his children (πατέρα παίδων) so that he himself may be honored in return as by true-born sons, and therefore good rulers may be truly called the parents of states and nations (ἐθνῶν) (Spec. Laws 4.184-188).” But as Philo states, “those who assume great power to destroy and injure their subjects should be called not rulers but enemies (πονηρότεροι) (Spec. Laws 4.185).” Psalm 82 (81 LXX) provides a narrative where the Father of all stands in judgment of the gods who were apportioned over the nations who have failed at precisely task that was set out for them saying “how long will you judge (or rule) unjustly (Ἕως πότε κρίνετε ἀδικίαν) (Ps 81:1 LXX)?” They were commanded to do justice or righteousness (δικαιώσατε) (Ps 81:3 LXX), but they failed, leading to the announcement of their judgment: the gods (Θεοί), or sons of the Most High (υἱοὶ ὑψίστου), will die like men (Ps 81:7 LXX). The hope of the psalmist is then stated: “Arise, O God and rule the earth (ἀνάστα, ὁ θεός, κρῖνον τὴν γῆν), for it is you who will obtain the inheritance of all the nations (ὅτι σὺ κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν) (Ps 81:8)!” This narrative provides us with a framework for how early Jewish interpreters of the Abrahamic promise could understand it qualitatively as well as quantitatively. In light of these traditions, the Abrahamic promise could be read afresh.
Paul’s Reception of the Qualitative Reading of the Promise to Abraham? A Proposal
The following proposed reading will be a rough attempt to understand Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 and his midrashic exposition of the promise in Romans 4 in light of the above tradition. Paul states in Rom 4:18 “In hope against hope (ἐλπίδα ἐπʼ ἐλπίδι) he believed (ἐπίστευσεν), so that he might become a father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν) according to that which had been spoken ‘so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)’.” When taken qualitatively, for Abraham’s seed to become as the stars of heaven meant to become as the gods or angels, the celestial bodies, the “fathers (πατέρας) of the nations (ἐθνῶν)” who had been allotted to rule the nations (Posterity, 89; Spec. Laws 1.13-19; 4.184-188; Sir 44:21; Apoc. Ab. 20:3-5). “In hope against hope (ἐλπίδα ἐπʼ ἐλπίδι) he believed (ἐπίστευσεν)” that he would attain the promise of astral glory (Rom 4:18; 4 Macc 17:5-6). For Paul, the faithful Abraham who had been credited righteousness was known now in astral glory as “the father of us all (πατὴρ πάντων ἡμῶν),” as it was written about him in Gen 17:5 (Rom 4:16-17). As was common in Jewish expectation in Paul’s day, he hoped in the god “who gives life to the dead,” who would raise his seed in celestial glory, replacing the powers (ἂρχοντας ἔχουσα), calling “into being that which did not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα),” or establishing a new cosmic polis (κόσμου); a new creation (Rom 4:17; Philo Spec. Laws 4.187; 2 Bar. 21:4; 48:8). This is what would be understood in Rom 4:13 when Paul states the promise to Abraham and his seed was to “inherit the cosmos (κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου).” As in Gen 22:17, for Abraham’s seed to become as the stars of heaven would result in “inheriting the cities of their enemies (κληρονομήσει τὸ σπέρμα σου τὰς πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων)” (see Ps 81:8 LXX; Philo Spec. Laws 4.185). This expectation is further delineated in Romans 8 where the “sons of God (υἱοὶ θεοῦ)” or “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ)” are “heirs (κληρονόμοι)” of creation as “the creation waits with eager longing for the apocalypse of the sons of God (τῆς κτίσεως τὴν ἀποκάλυψιν τῶν υἱῶν τοῦ θεοῦ ἀπεκδέχεται, 8:19).5
- See above conversation on 2 Baruch 51. For further treatment of resurrection and celestial immortality in Early Judaism, see Hans C. C. Cavallin, Life After Death: Paul’s Argument for the Resurrection of the Dead in 1 Cor 15, Part I, An Enquiry into the Jewish Background, CBNT 7.1 (Lund: Gleerup, 1974); Smelik, “On Mystical Transformation,” 122-44; N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), Wright disagrees that there is a tradition of astral immortality in the usual texts used to support that idea; Nickelsburg, Resurrection; Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: the Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven: Yale, 2006); Turid Karlsen Seim and Jorunn Økland, eds., Metamorphoses Resurrection, Body, and Transformative Practices in Early Christianity, Ekstasis 1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009); David Litwa, We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul’s Soteriology, BZNW 187 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 140-51: It is surprising that in an otherwise thoroughgoing discussion of celestial immortality in Greco-Roman and Jewish sources in relation to Paul, Litwa never mentions the texts that read Genesis 15:5 qualitatively as a promise of celestial immortality, especially in light of how important that text is for Paul to his argument in Romans. For other recent works on the topic of deification or theosis in Paul, see Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); idem, “Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis,” JTI 5.1 (2011): 13-34; Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria, WUNT 2.314 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Rabens, “Pneuma and the Beholding of God”; Michael J. Thate, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Constantine R. Campbell, eds., ‘In Christ’ in Paul: Explorations in Paul’s Theology of Union and Participation, WUNT 2.384 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). ↩
- John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress), 393-94. ↩
- The tradition presented here in 4 Macc 17:5 of being exalted above the moon and the stars may reflect an eschatological expectation to shine as the sun, the greatest of the luminaries in the heavens. This tradition is reflected in Matt 13:43, in the context of the eschatological reaping where the Son of Man sends his angels to dispense of the devil and his people, Jesus says once this has been accomplished, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (οἱ δίκαιοι ἐκλάμψουσιν ὡς ὁ ἥλιος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῶν).” ↩
- The following allusions or references to primary texts below do not denote citation or allusion for Paul in any way, but are used to simply construct the narrative framework which provides for an alternate reading using the qualitative interpretation to how Paul might understand the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5. ↩
- See Rom 8:12-25. Pertinent here is the shared complex of language between Paul and Philo associated with inheriting or judging the cosmos, see footnote 7 in Part 3. ↩
The use of ‘astral’ in the discussion seems to be unnecessarily gnostic in overtones, particularly as no postulation of Angels having physicality is entertained. It is a bit like ‘leading the witness’, instructing people in their visual imagery as you write.
The above does however discuss the reason that 1st Century Jews had no difficulty seeing Yeshua as more than mortal after death. However, the resurrection narrative doesn’t sound quite so ‘astral’, at least, not to me.