Paul’s just been talking about Jews and Gentiles. But who are Abraham’s children anyway? The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and Common English Bible (CEB) offer strikingly different translations of v.1:
- NRSV: “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?”
- CEB: “So what are we going to say? Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy?”
The NRSV assumes that genealogy settles as the question; the CEB questions that assumption. The rest of the chapter may support the CEB translation: Abraham’s children are the ones who share Abraham’s faith, the argument focusing on works (vv. 2-8), circumcision (vv.9-12), and the law (vv.13-15).
I wonder about Paul’s argument in vv.2-8, which reads Genesis 15:1-6 in terms of a faith vs. works contrast. In context, the story is striking. It’s the first story in which Abraham says anything to the Lord, and that “anything” is a sharp question. The Lord responds with, well, more words (hence the accompanying image), and Abraham believes. “Believes”: stays out in the sticks rather than heading back to the rest of his family and civilized life. “Believes”: he doesn’t walk off the set, out of the story. What definition of ‘works’ is Paul assuming to make the contrast work?
Wright notices “trusts him who justifies the ungodly,” striking on three counts. First, ‘ungodly’ is not the first word to come to mind to describe Abraham (but see Genesis 12:10-20, etc.). Second, “justify the ungodly” is precisely what a just judge is not supposed to do (e.g., Proverbs 17:15), pointing back to the mind-bending 3:24-26. Third, ‘ungodly’ (asebēs) points back to the “ungodliness” (asebeia), at the head of Paul’s description of the global problem. So especially in my most self-critical moments, no reason to not feel right at home in Abraham’s family.