The promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 is that his descendants will be given a land where they will become a great and prosperous nation (goy), that they will be blessed by God, and that for this reason they will be a blessing to all communities of the earth.
And the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and from your father’s house to the land which I will show to you. And I will make you to be a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and be a blessing. And I will bless those blessing you, and the person who despises you I will curse, and all the communities of the earth (ʾadamah) will find blessing in you.” (My translation)
This has generally been regarded as a seminal text for a salvation-historical reading of the Old Testament, and indeed of the whole Bible. God chooses Abraham, and eventually through his “offspring”—that is, Jesus—the Gentiles will be blessed in the sense that they will be saved. This seems to me a misleading Christian re-interpretation of the motif, one that obscures the intrinsic narrative-historical structure of the biblical argument in the interests of securing a coherent theological paradigm. But where does Paul stand on the matter?
Variations on the Abrahamic blessing motif
The promise is qualified in two important respects, which immediately disrupts the easy correlation with the salvation of Gentiles in the New Testament.
First, the blessing of the nations is made conditional upon their reaction to the presence of Abraham’s descendants in the land: “I will bless those blessing you, and the person who despises you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3). This constitutes the premise for the next line: “all the communities of the earth will find blessing in you.” In other words, throughout history there will be people who will bless Israel, and on that account every community (mishpachah) will find blessing (or “be blessed”, depending on how the verb is translated).
Secondly, people who are blessed because they have affirmed Israel’s presence do not become part of Israel. They remain members of the communities or nations to which they belong. The logic of this “blessing” of the nations is reiterated throughout Genesis and beyond. The Old Testament never considers the possibility that the boundary between Israel and the nations, defined by covenant and Law, will be abrogated.
The blessing formula is summarised in Genesis 18:18-19: YHWH has chosen Abraham and his household to keep the way of the Lord so that the nation of Abraham’s descendants will be blessed, and so that other nations will find blessing in him. The explicit qualification (“I will bless those blessing you”) is not made because the emphasis is on Abraham’s righteousness in the context of the condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When Abraham offers his only son, the Lord tells him that he will bless his offspring, who will become great in number and possess the gates of their enemies; therefore, in his offspring all the nations of the earth will find blessing (Gen. 22:16-18). Again, the condition stated in Genesis 12:3 is missing because it is Abraham’s righteousness that is at issue, but the reader is made aware of the difficult political-military contexts in which the promise will have to be fulfilled, and the precise repetition of the language naturally takes us back to the original formulation: those who bless blessed Abraham will be blessed.
When Isaac unwittingly blesses Jacob, he says, “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. … Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen. 27:29). Other peoples will be blessed on condition that they bless and serve Israel.
Finally, the foreign prophet Balaam blesses Israel in the same terms: “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you” (Num. 24:9). This blessing of Israel, moreover, includes the prophecy of a “star” and a “sceptre” which will arise from Jacob and crush Israel’s political enemies (Num. 24:15-24). The blessing and cursing of Israel’s neighbours belongs to a story of kingdom rather than of salvation.
The eschatology of blessing in the Old Testament
Some allowance is made for proselytes, but this is otherwise the consistent pattern of Old Testament expectation: following the devastation of judgment, YHWH will remember his promises to the patriarchs and will forgive and restore his people, Jerusalem and the temple will be rebuilt, and the surrounding nations will serve Israel and make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to learn the ways of Israel’s God. Israel will be blessed, becoming a model of right worship and social justice; the nations in Israel’s vicinity will respond positively to this and so will themselves find blessing.
To give a pertinent example, YHWH declares through Zechariah: “as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong” (Zech. 8:12–13). How will the nations be blessed? Not by becoming Jews but by coming under a Jewish hegemony:
Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ (Zech. 8:22–23)
The eschatology of blessing conforms to the original pattern. If the descendants of Abraham are blessed because God has intervened to judge and restore, the nations will rejoice in this act of covenant salvation, and will be blessed in the access that they have to the goodness of Israel’s God. The nations benefit from the salvation of Israel because the political landscape of the region is now dominated not by the old idolatrous superpowers but by a new righteous monotheistic superpower.
But what happens to the pattern in the New Testament? There are two passages to consider.
Peter understands the Jewish scriptures
Following the healing of the lame man at the gate of the temple, Peter addresses the “men of Israel” who gather excitedly around him. Current events, he says, are evidence that Jesus is the prophet whom Moses said would be raised up for Israel. Every Jew who does not repent, therefore, “shall be destroyed from the people”. But for those who repent and turn from their self-destructive wickedness, the sending of this new prophet-like-Moses is confirmation of the promise to Abraham that his descendants will be blessed and that “in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Acts 3:22-26).
Jesus was sent “first” to this generation of Jews so that some might repent and experience the refreshing of the Spirit of God. He will be sent again from heaven at some point in the future, when the kingdom will be restored to Israel, which is the whole purpose of the book of Acts (Acts 3:19-21; cf. 1:6; 28:23).
What Peter “has in mind”, I think, is a future scenario in which Jesus will reign—either from heaven or on earth—over a reformed Israel in the midst of the nations. There is no thought here of the inclusion of Gentiles in Israel. As far as Peter is concerned, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed only to the “people” of Israel (cf. Acts 10:42-43).
This is consistent with the Old Testament pattern: 1) Israel is being “blessed” through the protracted eschatological crisis of the end of the age of second temple Judaism; and 2) eventually the nations will be blessed by the political-religious realignment of the oikoumenē (in effect, the Roman Empire) around restored Israel.
When we get to Paul, however, things have moved on.
Paul has other things on his mind
The eschatological narrative is suppressed in Galatians, but it is there: Jesus gave himself for the sins of his people to deliver them “from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4); justification lies in the future (Gal. 2:15-16); believers in Jesus have been adopted as sons and given the spirit so that they might inherit the kingdom in the future (Gal. 4:4-5, 3; 5:21); those who have the Spirit, by faith, “wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5).
The challenge Paul faces is to persuade the Gentile believers that this is enough. They will gain a share in the future kingdom of God, when the Son revealed to Paul (Gal. 1:12, 16; cf. Rom. 1:3-4) will rule over the nations, because they have believed in that new future and because they have persisted in the righteousness that properly accompanies that belief (Gal. 5:19-21). They do not have to become Jews; they do not have to convert to the Judaism in which Paul formerly excelled (Gal. 1:13-14); they do not have to be circumcised; they do not have to submit themselves to the obsolescent guardianship of the Law (Gal. 3:22-25).
At the heart of his polemic is the argument that Abraham was justified or counted righteous because he believed or had faith in the promise of God that he would have descendants (Gal. 3:6). This idea is given a sharp eschatological spin by the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 a few verses later: “The righteous shall live by faith.” When the wrath of God comes—against the Jew first, then against the idolatrous empire—the righteous person or the person who is counted righteous will live by the concrete expression of trust in the word or promise of God (Gal. 3:11; cf. Rom. 1:16-17; 2:6-11).
So Paul can claim that it is “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham”, who will therefore inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13). But he also finds in the Abraham story a plausible justification for the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of eschatological witness:
the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal. 3:8–9)
Plausible? Well, I have argued that the Old Testament blessing formula requires the separation of the blessed sons of Abraham from the blessing of the nations in Abraham, and that even Peter in his appeal to the promise assumes the same “political” arrangement. The nations would be blessed while not being sons of Abraham.
Paul, however, has collapsed the distinction. Gentile believers in the future rule of Jesus are both sons of Abraham and the nations which are blessed in Abraham. Individual Gentiles are experiencing the blessing of Abraham in the form of the eschatological Spirit because they are sons of Abraham. Paul, it appears, was willing in this case to break with good historical-critical practice for the sake of a neat piece of apostolic persuasion.
Does it mean that he has given up on the “political” resolution of the crisis facing the descendants of Abraham? Certainly not. I think that he continued to hope that Israel would be restored, if not before then after the catastrophe of divine judgment, and that together Gentile believers and “all Israel”, having the Spirit of God, heirs together to the promises made to the patriarchs, would bear witness to the coming rule of Christ over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. It didn’t turn out quite that way, but he wasn’t to know.
So I venture to suggest, respectfully, that Paul did not need to short-circuit the formula in the way that he did. He could have included the Galatian Christians in the blessing of the sons of Abraham on the grounds that they were clearly being justified by their faith in the good news concerning the Son of God. The nations as nations remain then historically and eschatologically apart. They will be blessed at the parousia when, because of the witness of the sons of Abraham in the meantime, they will confess Jesus as Lord.
Anyway, the real lesson about blessing and justification to be learned from this, as we come to the end of the year, is simply: think ahead! There’s trouble brewing….