I want to present a key idea that I think will help to make sense of Paul’s understanding of the story of Abraham in Romans and Abraham. In Romans 4 and Galatians 3, Paul makes a concerted effort to draw a connection between the story of Abraham and his faith with believers in the present day. There are at least two implications of this connection for Paul. Firstly, Christians believers are understood to be imitating Abraham’s faith, suggesting that they experience the same justification that Abraham did. Secondly, through a faith like Abrahams, Christian believers are brought into the blessing of the nations that God promised to Abraham. Both of these points is contained in Galatians 3.9 and are well-established in the commentaries and studies.
What is not well-established that I want to put forward is that the comparison between Christian beleivers and Abraham is not reduced to believing and blessing, but also in terms of God’s calling. When one looks at Galatians 3.1-9, there seems to be a incoherency between the content of vs. 1-5 and 6-9. In the first part, Paul focuses on the experience of believers when they came to faith, including their perception of Christ as crucified, the reception of the Spirit, and the outworkings of power. Then, in 6-9, Paul switches focus on Abraham’s faith. On the surface, the content of these two passages share only one expressed point of continuity that draws a connection between them: faith. Such a mininal connection between these two passages would suggest that Paul is simply drawing a single similarity between the two, in which the coherency of Paul’s argument is only connected by a single thread. It is much more likely, in my mind, that the discursive connections between 1-5 and 6-9 should be understood through a much more expansive overlap between the experience of the Galatians in hearingthe Gospel and the story of Abraham.
Thus, it is my contention that Paul intends to draw an analogy between the wider Abrahamic narrative prior to the creation of the covenant in Genesis 15 in his argumentive move towards 6-9. As such, Paul is implicitly drawing upon a deep analogy between Abraham and the Galatians that includes God’s own action and calling to the believers in a manner in some degree similar to how God called Abraham
The evidence I present forward for this is the rather difficult line in Galatians 3.14: “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might recieve the promise of the Spirit through faith.” There are two questions that can be address of this verse. First, what is the relationship between the arrival of the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles and the recieving of the promise of the Spirit? Second, what precisely is the promise of the Spirit?
If we go back to Genesis 12.1-3, we see progression of God’s promises to Abraham regarding blessings. God will (A) bless Abraham, (B) will make Abraham a blessing, (C) will bless those who bless Abraham, and (D) bless all the families of the earth. Upon a closer look, we can break these four promises down to two basic movements: (1) God’s actions to bless Abraham to make him a blessing and (2) God’s blessing those who bless Abraham to make the familes of the earth blessed. There may also be an implicit movement between (1) and (2) where Abraham is blessed in reciprocation from the blessing that comes from Abraham, but that isn’t likely at issue for Paul’s understanding for the Abrahamic narrative. What is at sake, however, is that there seems to be an analogy between Abraham and the families of the earth within Genesis 12.1-3.
However, there is one thing in God’s promise to Abraham that may hinder the blessing of the families, God’s cursing those who curse Abraham. We may this distantly echoed of in the curse of the Torah in Galatians 3.13. While the curse of the Torah is most like a direct reference to the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and the redemption of these curses as a direct allusion to Deuteronomy 30,1 I would suggest the relationship between the curses, the blessings, and the promises in 3.13-3.14 should be understood by reference to Genesis 12.1-3. In favor of this is the seemingly disjointed connection between 3.6-9 and 3.10-14, where the only common content that is explicitly expressed pertains to matters of blessings and curses. Similar to what I state about about the relationship between 3.1-5 and 3.6-9, I would also put forward there is some deeper continuity between 3.6-9 and 3.10-14 other than just simply the idea of blessing and cursing, which could be adequately explained by the notion that the Deuteronomic blessing and curses are an extension of the Abrahamic blessing and curse.
If this is the case, then we may understand the ‘curse of Abraham’ has come upon even Israel itself by not honoring but bringing shame on Abraham by not obeying the commandments of the God of their father Abraham. As a consequence, Isarel’s disobedience has put a stranglehold on God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham, with Abraham’s descendants living under the curse of Abraham.
While NT Wright observes that Israel’s curse under Torah stood in the way of the blessing of Abraham,2 I think it is important to Paul’s overarching point in Galatians 3 to understand the curse of the Torah as a part of the “curse of Abraham.” In that case, the problem of the Torah isn’t simply that the Torah itself stands in the way or that people are automatically cursed by trying to obey Torah, but rather by living under the covenant of circumcision and seeking to obey the Torah, one perpetuates making the Deuteronomic curses as the curse of Abraham operational in the world by virtue of the flesh and human sin. This curse thereby sets itself against the blessing of Abraham to bless the families of the earth.
So, when Christ redeems Israel from the Deuteronomic curse, the “curse of Abraham” is no longer in operation through those who have become freed in Christ. There is a free flowing bounty of blessing that will be working itself out in the world through those persons redeemed in Christ. As such, Israel freedom from the “curse of Abraham” means that they can now become agents of the “blessing of Abraham” to the Gentiles through those Israelites redeemed in Christ, which would moot notably include Paul himself as the apostle of the Gentiles. As such, the arrival of blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles is a description of Paul’s own ministry.
This provides the basis of a connection between 13-14a and 14b: the redemption of Jews’ like Paul enables Paul’s apostolic mission to the Gentiles, with the result that both Jews and Gentiles have recieved the promise of the Spirit. Vs. 14b is the logical conclusion of the condensed narrative of redemption and ministry expressed in 13-14a, as both the redemption from the curse for Jews and the arrival of blessings to the Gentiles through redeemed Jews can be understood as the universal reception of the promise of the Spirit. In this case, the repetition of the ἵνα in 3.14 is not intended to outline two conceptually different things, such as the Gospel and acceptance by God3 or acceptance by God and the power of God in the Spirit4. Instead, the repetition of ἵνα can be understood as a restatement of similar things in different language, which discursively functions to draw an implicit, inferential connection between the two purpose clauses, where the narrative action of 13-14a is then redescribed through the second purpose clause of 14b. In other words, the redemption of Jews and the coming of ABraham’s blessing are both the reception of the promise of the Spirit.
Consequently, this entails that 14a and 14b be understood as somehow referring to same thing , much as the morning star and the evening star both refer to Venus, even as the semantic sense of the terms provide different ways to construe Venus. One may try to suggest that the blessing of Abraham is the promise of the Spirit, as it is was the Holy Spirit who made the promise to Abraham. While this is certainly plausible from a theological angle, it is highly doubtful that Paul would refer to God’s promise to Abraham by naming the Spirit, who is not mention in the Abrahamic narrative. If there is a shared identity between 14a and 14b, then it would likely be between the two verbs, γένηται (came) and λάβωμεν (recieved), describing the same event. I would put forward this event is the event of the Gospel proclamation, which Galatians 3.1-5 is a particular instance of. Whereas “came” describes the arrival of the Gospel as the vehicle by which Abraham’s blessing comes, “recieved” refers to the outcome of believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The significance of this is that the blessing of Abraham and the promise of the Spirit are functionally similar in some manner, even if they are not indentical. I would put forward at this point that the promise of the Spirit belongs to the same class of event that Abraham’s promise belongs to: God’s promissory self-disclosure to individual people. Just as God made a promise to Abraham, so too does the Spirit make a promise through the proclamation of Christ that people come to accept.5
If these exegetical speculations are correct, and I need to emphasize that these are speculations at this point, then this suggests at least a third point of analogy between Abraham and the believer: that they both believe God based upon promises that is divinely communicated to them. Both have some sort of calling from God that lead a response of faith. This doesn’t mean that God communicates the promise to them in the same way, as Paul’s description of the promise coming from the Spirit seems to put it in a different class of God’s self-disclosure than God’s direct speech with Abraham. Nevertheless, it may be the case that Paul understands the relationship between God and Abraham to be paradigmatic for believers in some manner that goes simply having a shared faith or being the recipients of blessing.
Also, if this reading is correct, it is important to clarify that this is an incredibly minor point in Paul’s overall discourse. While the activity of the Spirit is central part of Paul’s discourse throughout Galatians, this particular “promise of the Spirit” is not some concept that will open up the rest of Galatians. Rather, it would be simply a one-off reference to what was already familiar within the Galatians experience and was described as universal for both Jews and Gentiles. It is not, in my mind, significant in understanding the rest of the discourse that follows, although it is significant in helping to highlight how importance the memory of Paul’s proclamation of Christ and the Galatians reception of it may very will be to make sense of other parts of Galatians that may present some thorny issues. That is to state that we need not find deep theological significnace to all the language in Galatians, but sometimes the language is used ot refer to the events that the Galatians were presently familiar with.6
In conclusion, I would put forward that the flow of the argument in Galatians 3.1-14 can best be made sense of by recognizing a deep analogy between God’s relationship with Abraham and God’s relationship to believers that in addition to the already recognize faith and blessing also includes God’s agency in calling and making promises to them.
- N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 864-867
- Richard Longenecker, Galatians, EPUB Edition, Verse 3:6-14, vs. 14
- Scot McKnight, Galatians, EPUB Edition, Galatians 3:6-14.
- What the specific content of this promise is not stated, but I would be wary of trying to understand this promise through highly individualistic lens where each person recieves their own unique, distinct promise, but I would speculate based upon my present understanding of Pauline theology that it relates to a blessing that is instrumentally realized through the believer’s dying and rising with Christ.
- For instance, the reference to being baptized into Christ in Galatians 3.27 may simply be understood to be a reference to the ritual of baptism and its understood significance without the communicative intention of anymore theological content than would have already been understood by Paul and the Galatians about the ritual.