In Gen. 15:6 it says "he (Abram) believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness."

My question is, how was this passage understood historically (in the OT/Hebrew Bible)? There are numerous passages in the NT where Paul quotes this passage, yet the audience is the Gentile believer. How would someone reading the Torah, before the time of Jesus, understand this passage?

  • 4
    Excellent question, but note, there were certainly Jews throughout the churches. Certainly in the Roman church at least (cp. Rom. 2:17).
    – user862
    Dec 11, 2013 at 9:12
  • I would argue that most of Paul's 'gentiles' were lapsed Jews but that is not what you are asking. Dec 11, 2013 at 16:28

5 Answers 5


This is an interesting question. To put this verse into context we must begin with chapter 12 where we learn that G-d commands Avram to leave his home and to go to some place G-d will eventually show him and therein make from him a "great nation." Gen. 12:1. He goes -- at the age of 75 and childless, bringing with him his wife and nephew. At Gen. 12:7, G-d appears again to Avram, and promises that his descendants will receive the Land. Avram's response is to build an altar to G-d and to continue on the journey G-d has sent him on. He then goes on to endure many tests of his faith from G-d (with more to come). So now, at the beginning of Chapter 15, G-d appears to Avram and Avram finally points out the obvious -- he's done everything that G-d has asked, but what is this about being the father of a nation -- so far he's come up with nothing, and it looks like his servant Eliezer will inherit him. So G-d tells him to see the stars in the pre-industrial sky and to try to count them -- if he can -- and that is how numerous his children shall be. To that statement, Avram offers no argument or request for proof -- so the Bible says Avram "believed in the Lord" and G-d "counted him for righteousness." Next, Avram asks a very good question -- "how do I know I am going to inherit the Land?" Gen. 15:8. They then enter into a contractual ceremony (the splitting of the parts) to make the actual conveyance of the Land to Avraham's descendants.

Rashi, the 11th Century CE French Jewish scholar, citing Babylonian Talmud tractate Nedarim 32a, explains that the Torah says that Avram "believed in G-d" with regard to G-d's promise of descendants, because he accepted G-d's renewed commitment and did not ask for more. In contrast, he was entitled to ask for a contractual ceremony with regard to the transfer of the Land because of the traditional laws of land conveyance. As noted by the 19th century German Biblical commentator Marcus M. Kalisch (and cited by Rabbi J.H. Hertz in his Pentateuch and Haftorahs (Soncino 1960)), the childless Avram's faith in G-d's promise regarding descendants "is the mark of true faith -- steadfast trust in G-d, despite darkness and disappointment, and despite the fact that circumstances all point in the opposite direction. Early 20th century British Christian Biblical commentator and translator James Moffatt described Avram's trust "as real religion." Hertz, after quoting Moffatt, expands that "trustful surrender to the loving Will and Wisdom of G-d is the proof, as it is the basis, of true religion. Such spiritual faithfulness is a great spiritual virtue and cannot be found where there is unrighteousness."

As a Jew, I would not care to postulate what Paul was intending in Hebrews. But I think it can be understood without adopting the idea that Christians are the successors to the covenant of Abraham. It is enough to say that when you are talking about faith in G-d, what is required is "trustful surrender" to His Loving Will and Wisdom as embodied by Avram/Abraham, not just in the above example, but following each of his other tests, most memorably his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at G-d's command, even though Avraham knew that Ishmael was not an appropriate heir who could be relied upon to carry the message of G-d to the world.

  • -"It is enough to say that when you are talking about faith in G-d, what is required is "trustful surrender" to His Loving Will and Wisdom as embodied by Avram/Abraham, not just in the above example, but following each of his other tests, most memorably his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at G-d's command". YES! Thank you for your wonderful answer! I believe that it carries with it the best explanation of how an OT believer would have understood this passage.
    – Tau
    Dec 12, 2013 at 21:57

This passage would have been understood according to its plain meaning, and in the context of the previous passages, that is, that after G-d promised Abram something almost unbelievable, Abram truly believed and we are told that he was rewarded for this act of faith.

Just before this passage, G-d spoke to Abram and said: (Genesis 15:3) "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your reward [will be] very great.” At which point, Abram says to G-d: what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” In response the Lord said: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

You have to realize that Abram was over 90 years old at that point, and had been childless for many years. To be told at that point that he will beget a biological son and that his offspring will number in the millions, was a stretch, and yet the bible states that believed in G-d's revelation, and was rewarded for this belief.

  • I enjoy your answer, as it gives the 'context' for "righteousness"(right standing or favor) w/G-d. This is not 'quid pro quo', rather G-d's unmerited favor and blessing based on Abram's acceptance of G-d's promise of an heir.
    – Tau
    Dec 11, 2013 at 20:15

Just some additional thoughts...

The Aramaic Targum of Onkelos:

וְהֵימֵין בְמֵימְרָא דַיוי וְחַשבַה לֵיה לְזָכוּ׃

And he believed (had faith) in the Word of Yahveh, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

זכו, like the Greek word δικαιοσύνη, means a favorable legal standing in court, i.e., righteousness, merit. A judgment (מִשְׁפָּט) is rendered by a judge (cp. Deut. 25:1), and one party is declared righteous (צַדִּיק), while the other party is declared unrighteous (רָשָׁע). Here, God (or His Word), accounts Avraham's belief/ faith (אֱמוּנָה) as a favorable legal standing, righteousness.

The Aramaic חֲשֵׁב, the Hebrew חָשַׁב, and the Greek λογίζομαι refer to the act of precisely calculating something. In fact, in modern Hebrew, a computer is called מַחְשֵׁב (machshev) and a calculator a מַחְשְׁבוֹן (machshevon). Both of these are derived from the same triliteral root: ח-ש-ב.

The Aramaic Targum of Yonatan ben Uzziel:

והוות ליה הימנותא במימרא דייי וחשבה ליה לזכו דלא אטח לקמיה במילין

And he believed (had faith) in the Word of Yahveh, and He accounted it to him for righteousness, since he did not argue in His presence.

The Greek Septuagint (LXX) states,

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην

And Avraham believed (had faith) in God, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

  • Note, that the targumim aren't pre-Christian, but they are perhaps some of the earliest, extant Jewish literature.
    – user862
    Dec 11, 2013 at 19:54
  • @Hbr3wHamm3rd81-I like your answer also, but is there an instance where this "faith/righteousness" was used in context w/Israel? It seems most of Christianity believes it was 'quid pro quo'-ie: I obey, you reward me for my obedience. That 'faith' merits the reward of favor seems 'foreign' in the minds of many Christians in regards to Jewish interpretations of Scripture-can you add any instances of that?
    – Tau
    Dec 11, 2013 at 20:27

There is only one other place in the Hebrew Bible where explicit righteousness is imputed by the Lord, and that is the story of Phineas, the grandson of Aaron the high priest. That is, the same Hebrew grammar and diction used for Abraham in Genesis was also used for Phineas in the Psalms:

Psalm 106:30-31 (NASB)
30 Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, And so the plague was stayed.
31 And it was reckoned to him for righteousness, To all generations forever.

What did Phineas do? He speared an Israelite and his Midianite consort while in flagrante delicto in the immediate vicinity of the Tabernacle of the Lord (cf. Nu 25:1-14). Since the same Hebrew grammar used for Abraham is now applied to Phineas, readers of the Hebrew Bible therefore understood righteousness not only to refer to belief in the Promised Seed but acts to defend the Promised Seed.

What are we talking about?

Please remember that what Abraham had believed from the Lord (in Gen 12:1-3 and then reiterated in Gen 15:1-5) was the promise of his seed that would eventually sprout abundantly in the verdant and fertile Promised Land. The seed was both collective (the people of Israel) and individual, since the possessive pronoun of the very last word in Gen 22:17 is masculine singular in form and gender, and therefore refers to a specific individual (Gal 3:16), who therefore was "THE" Promised Seed. So there was the collective and individual aspects of the concept "promised seed" in the Hebrew Bible.

Thus Phineas reacted to the disobedient Israelite because he was desecrating the promise of Abrahamic Covenant, which were also reflected as specific injunctions in the Mosaic Law concerning intermarriage with idolatrous people (Ex 34:15-16). In other words, this guy was copulating with an idolatrous Midianite woman, and since the disobedience took place in the immediate vicinity of the Tabernacle of the Lord, the sin occurred "with a high hand." The desecration of the promise of Promised Seed was blatant. Phineas responded accordingly, and righteousness was reckoned to him by the Lord.

Thus righteousness was both visible and invisible.

In the case of Abraham, the faith was invisible, which was eventually made visible (or "perfected") in his subsequent offering of Isaac according to James 2:21-22 and Hebrews 11:17. Phineas, because he embraced the Abrahamic Covenant of Promised Seed, had acted out his faith, and therefore the Lord reckoned righteousness to him. His faith was visible.

In other words, righteousness in the Hebrew Bible is related to faith in the promise of the Promised Seed. Thus, when this faith is "acted out" (as in the case of Abraham offering Isaac or Phineas spearing the disobedient couple) the result is imputed righteousness as well, because the behavior stems from faith and hope in the promise of Promised Seed.

Finally, and very importantly, the promise of the individual Promise Seed was passed to David in the David Covenant (2 Sam 7:10-17). That is, the Lord reiterated that the promised seed (people of Israel) would sprout in the Promised Land (2 Sam 7:10), and that "THE" Promised Seed (son of David) would rule on the throne of David "forever and forever" (2 Sam 7:12-13 and 2 Sam 7:16). David believed this promise of the collective and individual Promised Seed as evidenced by his response in the remainder of the chapter.

In other words, like Abraham, David received righteousness for believing the promise of the Lord regarding the Promised Seed (both collective and individual). We know this because immediately subsequent to this promise from the Lord he committed adultery and then murdered Uriah the Hittite. The Lord subsequently forgave his sin (notwithstanding the ramifications that followed) because David was righteous before the Lord due to his faith in the Promised Seed.

Romans 4:3-8 (NASB)
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered.
8 “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

This passage is quoting Psalm 32, which is the penance Psalm for his adultery and murder. In other words, David did nothing to earn righteousness and forgiveness because righteousness and forgiveness come through faith alone. David therefore did not deserve to be forgiven, but was forgiven because of his faith in the Promised Seed.

In summary, salvation in the Hebrew Bible came through faith in the Promised Seed, or Abrahamic Covenant, which was reflected in the Law of Moses. According to Hebrews 11:29, the running summary of the visible acts of faith mentioned in Chapter 11 (of Hebrews) concerning various characters in the Hebrew Bible was contingent on their faith in the "promise." This promise of course was the Abrahamic Covenant concerning the Promised Seed in the Promised Land.

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    @joseph -- I disagree with your translation of Psalm 106. The word for righteousness used in Gen. 15:6 is "tzedakah." In contrast the verse you cite, Ps. 106:30 (as numbered in Jewish Bibles), states that "v'yamod Pinchas vay'palel, vate'atzar hamagephah" ("Phineas [Pinchas] stood up and executed vengeance, and the plague stopped.") Without identical words or word roots, you are comparing apples and oranges. Dec 12, 2013 at 16:29
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    @joseph -- I also strongly disagree with you that "salvation in the Hebrew Bible came through faith in the Promised Seed, or Abrahamic Covenant, which was reflected in the Law of Moses." Deut. 30:15-20 sets out the formula for eternal life: "Love G-d, walk in His ways [e.g. do acts of charity], and to keep His commandments, and His statutes and His ordinances." In Psalm 19, King David states further that if we ask G-d to overlook our unintentional sins, and for help restraining us from intentional sins, then we shall be "deemed perfect." Dec 12, 2013 at 16:30
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    @Joseph - faith without action is meaningless per the Torah. The Jews believed G-d would save them, but the waters of the Sea did not part until they put they got their feet wet and demonstrated their faith. In Judaism, you at least have to try to do what G-d tells you, or you can't say you really believe. E.g. The Exodus generation didn't believe G-d would protect them against Canaan, so G-d didn't protect them. Dec 15, 2013 at 2:46
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    @Joseph -- you're chart, like your comments, is trying to compare apples and oranges, as I pointed out above. The Hebrew words are different, AND the covenant of peace given to Pinchas and his sons is a different thing. See Rabbi Frand's article at torah.org/learning/ravfrand/5762/pinchas.html As for the NT references -- Jews don't hold by the NT, so they are irrelevant. Dec 16, 2013 at 15:11
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    @user2479 I think you misunderstand my point. Faith is not enough in Judaism. Think of a parent-child relationship. A child can believe that their father loves them, but if Dad required them to do X, Y and Z chores, and the child chose to not do them, the child does not FEAR his father's wrath and takes false faith that he'll be granted a free ride. Even the most holy in this world must fear G-d and observe his Laws, then they will not lack. Psalm 34:10. Remember also, that there are several covenants in Heb. Scripture, none of which supplanted any other. All were supplemental. Dec 16, 2013 at 15:17

Abram trusted God and his trustful surrender was counted as real religion and enough before he was circumcised. Mainly for financial reasons but also because they lived in areas with no rabbi, many Jews before and after Jesus were not circumcised, could not read the law etc. They found their salvation in this verse and it is clear why Paul uses it. (This remains a postulation until I can find sufficient proof but it might explain the reason Josephus was tolerant of uncircumcised Jews.)

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