The Merit of Faith: Genesis 15:6 in JPS

jps.jpgI just received the JPS Bible and Torah Commentary Collection (9 volumes) from Logos and started “thumbing” through a couple of the volumes. I’m glad I picked it up. It looks like a valuable series—primarily for what it reveals about modern Judaism’s understanding of the Tanakh.

As I expected, though, I’m going to disagree with many of the interpretations that it defends. Nahum Sarna’s interpretation of Genesis 15:6, for example, is disappointing on several levels.1

6. he put his trust in the Lord The scene that opens with fear and depression closes with a firm statement that Abram remains steadfast in his faith in God. The promises must be realized, even in the face of a seemingly recalcitrant reality.

He reckoned it to his merit God is the subject of the verb.2 Hebrew tsedakah, usually “righteousness,” sometimes bears the sense of “merit.” The idea is that Abram’s act of faith made him worthy of God’s reward, which is secured through a covenant. This interpretation is supported by Nehemiah 9:7–8 and by the similar phraseology in Psalms 106:30f., which refers to the narrative of Numbers 25:6–13. The latter tells of the intervention of Phinehas at the affair of Baal-peor, as a result of which he was granted God’s “pact of friendship”—“for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time.” The alternative possibility that Abram regarded “it,”—that is, the promise of posterity—as an expression of God’s righteousness and grace seems less likely.3

First, his comments are incredibly brief. (He doesn’t even footnote other places where righteousness supposedly means merit.) Second, he defends the wrong interpretation. Finally, he doesn’t even mention the evangelical Christian reading in a footnote, which apparently isn’t even a possibility since he mentions “the [less likely] alternative possibility that Abram regarded ‘it,’—that is, the promise of posterity—as an expression of God’s righteousness and grace.”

I think I’ll stick with Paul on this one.


  1. Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 113.
  2. So Targ. Onk., Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Sforno.
  3. So in Deut. 9:4; 2 Sam. 19:29; Dan. 9:18. The alternative interpretation is given by Bekhor Shor, Ramban, Ralbag, Abravanel.

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2 Responses to The Merit of Faith: Genesis 15:6 in JPS

  1. dwayne January 10, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

    Gen 15:6
    “and” should be “for”. there are 4 conjunctions with the same spelling
    “it” is He. (he she or it)
    God accounted him righteous with His righteousness that is why he believed God.

  2. David Paul January 14, 2010 at 3:23 am #

    Lloyd Gaston (Abraham and the Righteousness of God) mentions an alternative interpretation of this verse from Nachmanides (Ramban) which I think is they key to understanding how Paul read the verse and therefore a key to Paul’s entire theological enterprise, which granted goes the grain of Protestant exegesis (but more in line with the New Perspective). “He trusted the Lord and he (God) reckoned it (Abraham’s faithfulness) as righteousness (God’s righteousness, both toward Abraham and for Abraham’s seed). Ramban likens this meaning with Psalm 106:30. What Abraham merited was righteousness for others. That is how Paul understood “pistis christou”–the faithfulness of Christ merits God’s righteousness for both Jews and Gentiles. Grace enters the picture NOT because “faith” is not a work but because the merited-righteousness is had by others by pure grace. The reason Paul used Genesis 15 (and not say Genesis 22) is that Abraham was not circumcised at the time of chapter 15 (also, as E.P. Sanders points out, in the LXX Genesis 15:6 contains a pistis-word and a dik-word as does Hab. 2:4 and the reason Paul picked this verse does not hinge on the fact that pistis used here is usually traslated as faith and not faithfulness). I think for, Paul (and for James!), pistis means faithfulness and that is why God’s righteousness is merited to him.