This is the final installment of David Burnett’s guest series.
This reading of Genesis 15:5 may appear novel yet it has an ancient antecedent in one of the earliest commentaries on Romans. Origen believed that in Romans 4, Paul did in fact understand the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 15:5 to become as the stars qualitatively. In his Commentary on Romans 4.6.4, he states: “Thus Abraham ‘against hope believed in hope that he would become the father of many nations,’ (Rom 4:18) which in the future would be like the stars of heaven, not only in terms of the greatness of number but also in splendor.”1 Here Origen reads the quotation of Gen 15:5 in Rom 4:18 explicitly as qualitative. In 4.6.7, he speaks further on the nature of the Abrahamic promise, as he understands Paul’s recounting of it. Discussing the content of Abraham and Sarah’s hope, he states:
“On the contrary when they hear of a such a hope of posterity and that the glory of their own offspring would be equal to heaven and its stars, when they hear these things, they do not think about their own goods, about the grace of continence, about the mortification of their members, but instead they regard all these things which contributed to their own gain as loss in order that they might gain Christ.” (Orig. Comm Rom, 4.6.7)
Origen assumes that the promise to Abraham and Sarah of an offspring would be “equal to heaven and its stars” in their “glory” is actually understood as the promise to “gain Christ,” drawing on the language of Phil 3:8. Significant here is the immediate context of Phil 3:8 in which Paul is discussing becoming like Christ (3:10) and attaining the resurrection from the dead (3:11).2 Fee rightly points out that Paul’s language regarding them, “children (τέκνα) of God without blemish, though you live in a crooked and perverse generation (γενεᾶς σκολιᾶς καὶ διεστραμμένης)” echoes Deut 32:5 (ἡμάρτοσαν οὐκ αὐτῷ τέκνα μωμητά, γενεὰ σκολιὰ καὶ διεστραμμένη), unsurprisingly where the immediately following verses (Deut 32:6-9) narrate Israel’s election in terms of the Deuteronomic vision as described above. Paul then turns to the language of Dan 12:1-4 to describe the children of God as those who “shine as lights (φωστῆρες, cf. Dan 12:3) in the world (κόσμῳ, cf. note 28),” reflecting the eschatological hope in Daniel as they are “holding on to the word of life (λόγον ζωῆς ἐπέχοντες, Phil 2:16),” echoing the language of Dan 12:3, “those who hold strong to my words (καὶ οἱ κατισχύοντες τοὺς λόγους μου),” as they approach the seemingly immanent eschaton and the full realization of their hope.3 Again, in the context of discussing the fruit of the spirit and dying to lust and vices Origen states: “Your seed and your works can ascend to heaven and become works of light and be compared to the splendor and brilliance of the stars, so that when the day of resurrection arrives, you will stand out in brightness as one star differs from another star” (4.6.9). Origen here relates the Abrahamic promise of star-like seed in Romans 4 to the discussion of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15, also echoing the language of Daniel 12:3. It seems apparent that Origen takes for granted in his Commentary on Romans that Paul understands the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5 qualitatively as well as quantitatively.
In conclusion, it is necessary to restate the initial problem this paper sought to answer. Esler noticed the deficiency in the quantitative only interpretation of Paul’s use of Genesis 15:5, seeming far too unlikely that having numerous descendants would somehow be the equivalent of inheriting of the cosmos, becoming the father of nations, and the expectation of being resurrected from the dead. This paper proposes a possible answer to this problem. Reading Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in light of early Jewish deification traditions stemming from a qualitative as well as quantitative interpretation of the Abrahamic Promise provides fruitful results. This proposal is supported by widely attested interpretive traditions from Paul’s early Jewish historical context, whether Palestinian or Hellenistic (or diasporic), and is further received into the Patristic tradition, as seen in Origen, through Paul.
- Translations of Origen here are taken from Thomas P. Scheck, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Books 1-5 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2001). ↩
- See Phil 3:8-11. Also important to note here previously in Philippians in the context of a moral admonition in light of the coming “day of Christ (ἡμέραν Χριστοῦ), which Paul seems to articulate here as an eschatological conflation Deut 32:5-9 with Dan 12:1-3, he describes the holy ones as “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ)” who “shine as lights in the world (φαίνεσθε ὡς φωστῆρες ἐν κόσμῳ)” (Phil 2:15). ↩
- See Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 244-48. In the eschatological expectation of Romans 8 the holy ones are also called “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ, 8:16-17, 21),” most likely part of the same complex of language, see above. ↩