While the need for Hebrew is self-evident for Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, it’s need is sometimes diminished within Chrisitan communities for the New Testament. The following little study shows how a close reading of the Hebrew Bible can raise useful questions for New Testament interpretation, too. In fact both Jewish and Christian communities can be challenged and encouraged by the following Hebrew text.

Genesis 15:6
וְהֶאֱמִן בּיהוה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה

And he was trusting in the Lord
and he credited to him as righteousness

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ
καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην

And Abram trusted in God
and he credited to him as righteousness

The verse at Genesis 15:6 played an important role in the earliest recorded layers of Christian faith. Both Paul (Rom 4:3, Gal 3:6) and James (2:23) quoted the verse in its Greek form and used it for different purposes in their discussions about the essence of faith.

There are distinctions in the Hebrew text that were not translated in the Greek Septuagint and because of this we can see that Paul and James were essentially quoting the Septuagint text when writing on this verse in Greek. Nevertheless, while quoting the Greek, their understandings fit with different parts of the Hebrew.

The first word in Hebrew is וְהֶאֱמִן “and he was believing.” This is not the expected narrative tense וַיַּאְמֵן “and he believed” that would have been used for a simple narrative past event in Hebrew.  The verb וְהֶאֱמִן is an open-ended narrative tense in Hebrew that was not used very often in a context like Genesis 15. Typically, this Hebrew tense (a sequential future and sequential imperfective, often called ve-qatal according to its formal structure) is used in past contexts when repetition is involved, like the series of habitual events in the description at Genesis 29:2-3 יַשְׁקוּ (ἐπότιζον they used to give water, yiqtol) . . . וְנֶאֶסְפוּ (συνήγοντο they used to be gathered, ve-qatal) . . . וְגָלְלוּ (ἀνεκύλιον they used to roll, ve-qatal) . . . וְהִשְׁקוּ (ἐπότιζον they used to give water, ve-qatal) . . . וְהֵשִׁיבוּ (ἀνεκαθίστων they used to return it, ve-qatal). It is relatively rare that this tense is used in Hebrew for a single event to mark its open-endedness. (See Gen 2:25 וְלֹא יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ “and they were not being ashamed”

[yiqtol! The expected form would have been וְלֹא הִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ]. The tense יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ provocatively provides an open-ended staging for the story of Genesis 3.) Hebrew narrative tends to be relatively insensitive to aspect, as was pointed out in a blog “Relevance Theory and the Problem of Tense-Aspects in Biblical Hebrew [http://www.biblicallanguagecenter.com/relevance-and-tense-aspect/].”

As an aside, it should be noted that the Septuagint translation from the 3rd century BCE did not translate the open-ended nuance of the Hebrew verb even though ἐπίστευεν ‘he was believing’ was available. The Greek author may have thought the simple Greek past ἐπίστευσεν ‘he believed’ fit the overall context more smoothly. It is also possible that the translator was influenced by Mishnaic Hebrew, the spoken Hebrew dialect in use during the Second-Temple period. In Mishnaic Hebrew the form והאמן was already the simple past tense, as we sometimes see in later biblical Hebrew books, for example, Nehemiah 9:7-8 (והוצאתו … ושמת … ומצאת … וכרות “and you took him out from Ur-Kasdim (complete event) and you made his name Avraham (complete event) and you found his heart faithful (complete event) and cutting [ambiguous infinitive structure] a covenant with him …”) Nevertheless, the natural reading in Genesis 15:6 is according to First-Temple Hebrew and the ancient audience and anyone fluent in the classical biblical dialect would immediately have heard or pictured the equivalent of “and he was believing …”.

How does the Hebrew affect our reading and application of Genesis 15:6? The Hebrew text uses a yiqtol/ve-qatal tense “and he was believing.” In a past context this verb looks at the process of believing without looking at the beginning or end of the “believing.” (In a past context such a structure is neither modal “he might/should believe” nor future “he will believe.”) The verse does not imply that Abram first believed God at this point. Nor does it imply that Abram’s faith was even a complete act at this point. Quite obviously Abram had already started to trust the Lord’s promises when he moved out of Haran and travelled to Cana`an in Genesis 12. And the author’s choice of this verb tense here at 15:6 forces the reader to think about ongoing implications. In a real sense, Abram’s faith was a lifelong “walk.” There were aspects that matured and were tested. The most climactic and shocking test of faith will come later in Genesis 22 with the command to sacrifice Isaac. In fact, James in the New Testament specifically makes the link between Genesis 15 and Genesis 22. We may speculate that he was aware of the open-ended nature of והאמן and he certainly interpreted Abraham’s life accordingly even though he quoted the Septuagint text in his Greek letter. Paul, on the other hand, linked Abram’s faith to the second clause in Genesis 15:6 “ויחשבה לו צדקה “and he calculated it for him as righteousness.” The crediting of righteouness in Hebrew is a simple past, a whole event, including the endpoint. Paul saw Abram’s righteousness in God’s eyes as complete, and his application of this verse fit the Hebrew ויחשבה , where the crediting of righteousness was encoded as a done deal.

Before we conclude this little essay we need to look at another ambiguity. Who did the crediting, Abram or God? Did Abram consider God’s promise to be “righteous,” or did God consider Abram’s faithfulness to be “righteous”? There is a hint in the text that God responded to Abram’s faithfulness by considering it “righteousness.” The reference of “he” that is inside the Hebrew verb is ambiguous. But the overall passage was tracking Abram as the main participant on stage. There is a little helping word “to him” that weaves through the story. In verse 1 the word of the Lord comes “to Abram.” Then in verse 2 Abram speaks but the verb is simply ויאמר “and he said,” not ויאמר ליהוה “and he said to the Lord” or  ויאמר לוֹ“he said to him.” The same structure is repeated in verse 3 where Abram speaks again. There is no “to him” . However, in both 15:4 and 15:7 when the Lord speaks to Abram an extra pronoun is added אליו “to him.” The author was tracking Abram as the main participant on stage. This makes it probable that the phrase “to him” in 15:6 was referring to Abram: “and [the Lord] considered it [Abram’s faithfulness] for him [a pronominal tracking device for Abram] [to be] righteousness.” Incidentally, the medieval Jewish commentor Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaqi, 1040-1105) reads Genesis 15:6 similarly: הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חֲשָׁבָהּ לְאַבְרָם לִזְכוּת וְלִצְדָקָה עַל הָאֲמָנָה שֶׁהֶאֱמִין בּוֹ “the Holy One, blessed be he, considered it for Abram to be merit and righteousness because of the faithfulness that he placed in him.”

Where does this episode leave us? Abraham can be considered the father of faith. God is good and his promises are trustworthy. However, as we walk and journey through our life on earth we do not always see God’s perspective on individual situations, just like Abraham did not see how he was going to have children and a great inheritance. But he walked by faith and was trusting God. He was loyal to the promises and to the covenant. We, too, have a journey to walk. Our faith is not a one-time assertion, but a life of faithfulness. We may look back and say “we have believed God,” More practically, we can learn from this verse to say to God, “we are trusting you” and to know that God is pleased. Our life is a journey, a whole trajectory, and in the middle of it “we are believing in the Lord,” just like Abram “was believing in the Lord.” We are believing that his promises are true and sure so that a walk of faith does not need to fear the future even if we do not know the future.