A Faith that Grows

By RANDALL BUTH October 2013

“And Abram was believing the Lord, and he calculated it for him as righteousness (Gen 15:6).”

Abraham’s faith or faithfulness played an important role in the earliest recorded layers of Christian faith.  Even today, “faith” or “belief” is often understood as the core of Christian identity.  But what does it mean to “believe”?

The first time that “believing” is used in the Bible, it is associated with the “father of faith”, Abram[1] (Gen 15:6).  The first Hebrew word used there 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. The verb וְהֶאֱמִן is an open-ended narrative tense that was not used very often in a biblical Hebrew story.  Any Jew fluent in the classical biblical dialect of Hebrew would immediately have heard the reading of Gen 15:6 as the equivalent of “and he was believing.”

How does the Hebrew affect our reading and application of Gen 15:6?  Both Paul (Rom 4:3, Gal 3:6) and James (Jam 2:23) quoted Gen 15:6 and used it for different purposes in their discussions about the essence of faith.  While Paul and James were reading and quoting from the Greek translation[2] of the Hebrew Bible, their understandings of Gen 15:6 also fit the Hebrew.  The Hebrew text of Gen 15:6 uses a verb that looks at the process of believing without looking at the beginning or end of the “believing.”  It does not imply that Abram first believed God at this point.  Nor does it imply that Abram’s faith was a complete act at this point. Quite obviously, Abram had already started to trust the Lord when he moved out of Haran and traveled to Canaan in Gen 12. 

The author’s choice of an open-ended verb tense here at Gen 15:6 forces the reader to think about the ongoing implications of Abram’s faith. 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 Abram’s faith came later in Gen 22 with God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on an altar.  In fact, James 2:20-24 specifically makes the link between Gen 15:6 and Gen 22’s sacrifice of Isaac. We may speculate that the writer of James was aware of the open-ended nature of the Hebrew in Gen 15:6’s “and he was believing.”

While James focused on the open-ended nature of faith or faithfulness, Paul, on the other hand, was more interested in Gen 15:6’s second clause, “and he calculated it for him as righteousness.”  God's crediting of righteousness is presented here in the Hebrew as a simple past, a complete act including the endpoint.  Just like James’ open-ended faith, Paul’s understanding of justification by God as a completed action is correct as well.

Where does this episode leave us?  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 just a one-time assertion, but a life of faithfulness.  We may look back and say “we have believed God,” but more practically, we know that God is pleased by daily trusting him. We are believing that his promises are true and sure in Jesus Christ, so that a walk of faith does not need to fear the future even if we do not know the future.

For a more grammatical analysis of Gen 15:6, check out the Biblical Language Center's blog.

[1] Abraham was called Abram in the book of Genesis up until Gen 17:5.

[2] The Septuagint (LXX)