7. Covenant Righteousness – Abraham’s example

Previously we saw that Abraham obtained righteousness simply by believing the covenant G-d made to him. This was stated in the little sentence:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Righteousness prior to circumcision and the Law

We should not miss when this took place.  The covenant of circumcision is given later in Genesis 17.  Abraham was credited righteousness here in chapter 15 – before circumcision.  So, circumcision was not the cause of his righteousness.  Neither was observance of Moses’ Covenant since that was given hundreds of years later.  The active ingredient for Abraham’s righteousness was his belief.

But belief in what?

Belief is about trusting the Covenant

Think what ‘believe’ means.  Many people think that ‘believe’ means believing that G-d exists.  We think that G-d just wants us to believe that He is there.  It is true that Abraham believed in G-d’s existence, but that is not the point of his righteousness.  G-d had made a covenant with Abraham that He would give him a son.  It was that Covenant or promise that Abraham had to choose to believe or not – even while he knew that he was in his 80’s and Sarah was in her 70’s.  He trusted that G-d would somehow fulfill that promise to him. Belief, in this story, is trust. Abraham chose to trust God for a son.

When Abraham chose to believe that promise of a son then G-d also gave him – ‘credited’ him– righteousness. In the end Abraham got both the covenant promise (a son from whom Israel would come) and righteousness.

Righteousness – not from merit or effort

It does not say that Abraham ‘earned’ or ‘merited’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. What is the difference? If something is ‘earned’ you work for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. It is not earned or merited, but simply given to be received.

We instinctively think that more rigorously keeping Jewish observances, or doing more good things than bad things, practicing more self-denial, or meeting obligations enables us to deserve or merit righteousness.  Abraham proves this thinking false. He did not try to earn righteousness. He simply chose to believe the promise covenanted to him, and righteousness was given to him.

Abraham’s Belief: He bet his life on it

Choosing to believe in this promise of a son was simple but it was not easy.  When he was first promised a ‘Great Nation’ he was 75 years old and he had left his home country and traveled to Canaan.  Almost ten years had passed and Abraham and Sarah still did not have a child – let alone a nation. “Why has G-d not already given us a son if he could have done so”? he would have wondered.  Abraham believed the covenant of a son because he trusted G-d, even though he did not understand everything about the promise, nor did he have all his questions answered.

Believing the covenant required active waiting. His whole life was interrupted while living in tents waiting for the promise. It would have been much easier to make excuses and return home to Harran (modern-day Iraq) that he had left many years earlier, and where his brother and family still lived.  Life was comfortable there.  The fact that he stayed in the Promised Land demonstrated his trust, maintained even at personal cost and comfort.  His trust in the promise made a difference in how he lived his life.

His trust in the promise took priority over normal goals in life – security, comfort and well-being.  He could have disbelieved the promise while still believing in the existence of G-d and continuing with religious observances and good deeds.  Then he could have maintained his religion but not been ‘credited’ righteousness.

Four hundred years later, the covenant mediated by Moses at Sinai did not nullify this covenant with Abraham.  Moses built on it.  G-d is one who is willing to make multiple covenants, anticipating that the covenant receiver will experience the blessing of each one.

Our Example

The rest of the Bible treats Abraham as an example for us.  Abraham’s belief in the covenant from G-d, and the crediting of righteousness, is a pattern for us to follow.  We can see this in Isaiah

New International Version – Isaiah 51:1-2

Orthodox Jewish Bible – Isaiah 51:1-2

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many.

Pay heed to Me, ye that pursue tzedek, ye that seek Hashem; look unto the Tzur from where ye are cut, and to the quarry from where ye were hewn.

Look unto Avraham Avichem, and unto Sarah that gave birth to you; for I called him as one alone, and put a brocha on him, and made him many.

If we pursue and desire righteousness then we are called to follow Abraham’s example – to actively trust the covenants of G-d with Israel.  Today we know that promise to Abraham has come true.  We also know that G-d made several more covenants.  The covenant through Moses at Mount Sinai probably receives the most attention.  But there are several other covenants, each pregnant with promises, which occur through the Tanakh.  For example, consider the covenant prophesied by Jeremiah around 600 BC.

Covenant Promise of a new Heart

New International Version – Jeremiah 31:31-34

Orthodox Jewish Bible – Jeremiah 31:31-34

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them” declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

Hinei, the days come, saith Hashem, that I will cut a Brit Chadasha with Bais Yisroel, and with Bais Yehudah;

32 (31) Not according to the Brit that I cut with their Avot in the day that I took hold of their yad to take them out of Eretz Mitzrayim; which My Brit they broke, although I was Ba’al (Husband) to them, saith Hashem;

33 (32) But this shall be the Brit that I will cut with Bais Yisroel [T.N. OJBC is Jewish]; After those days, saith Hashem, I will set My Torah in them inwardly, and I will write ketuvim on their hearts; and I will be their Elohim, and they shall be My People.

34 (33) And they shall teach no more every ish his re’a (neighbor), and every ish his brother, saying, Know Hashem; for they shall all have da’as of Me, from the katon of them unto the gadol of them, saith Hashem; for I will forgive their avon, and I will remember their chattat no more.

This promised covenant is expressly given to the ‘people of Israel’ and was to come in effect sometime after Jeremiah since it was given in the future tense.  It would build on the Sinai covenant by writing the law in hearts and minds as opposed to stone tablets, promising that all ‘will know’ G-d and receive His forgiveness.

Following Abraham’s example

We all have the opportunity to follow Abraham’s example with these covenants, choosing whether to trust or not.  When Abraham first received the promise of land in Canaan it was not immediately clear whether this implied remaining in the land or moving to Egypt to avoid famine (Genesis 12:10-20).  When Abraham was given the promise of a son it was not immediately clear if this was going to happen through Sarah or her servant Hagar (hence the events of Genesis 16, and the divorce in Genesis 21 with the effects felt even today).  Abraham was not perfect in his trust, but he did not give up, working through all the issues that his journey of faith brought before him.

As his physical descendants, Jews should be the first to follow Abraham’s example, learning about and taking hold of all the covenants offered by G-d.  Like Abraham it will require a life-long journey, some agonizing choices, thinking differently than the crowd, with many opportunities to turn back.  But as well as receiving the promised son and being credited righteousness, Abraham also obtained something else equally precious.  As G-d, through the pen of Isaiah said of him.

… Abraham my friend… (Isaiah 41:8)

Friendship with the One who created space and time, birthed the nation of Israel, and who is mysteriously guiding her steps thousands of years later is certainly worthwhile.  Since these ancient promises seem to be stirring to life in our day, why not understand the covenants to better generate wise decisions?  And why not tackle the one that is most puzzling – the covenant that reiterated blessings to ‘all nations’ because of the obedience of Abraham in the testing of the sacrifice of his son Isaac.

6. The Ageless Promise to unnoticed Abraham – Quiet but Everlasting

As I write this article the world’s attention is focused on multiple sporting championships.  The American NFL is heading for the Super Bowl.  The hockey and basketball champions for this year will soon be decided.  And while these dramas have North American fans riveted, much of the rest of the world is focused on the Australian Open Tennis Grand Slam.  Then there are always soccer (football) matches and championships.

Even with all the attention focused on these championships; they will still be largely forgotten in about six months. What the world takes great note of today will be quickly forgotten as our attention moves on to other amusements, championships or political events. The highlight one day quickly becomes forgotten history the next.

We saw in our previous article that this was also true in Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that held the attention of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes.

The account of Abraham in the Torah continues with further encounters with this Promise-Making Lord – Blessed be He.  Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learns much more – even moving from history to the eternal.  The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like those today; it is one of an unnoticed man taking hold of eternity, so we’d be wise to take note.

Abraham’s Complaint

Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise of Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had made Aliyah to Canaan in what is today Israel. Other memorable events had occurred in his life – except the very one that he waited for – the birth of his son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we continue in the Torah with Abraham’s complaint:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.

I am your shield,

your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, 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.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

G-d’s Promise

Abraham had been camping in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 85 years old. He complained that G-d, blessed be He, was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continued with:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

Here the Lord, Blessed be He, basically repeated His initial promise by declaring that Abraham would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.  In our time today we know this has literally come true in the Jewish people.  But back then, this promise would have seemed unbelievable.

Abraham’s Response: Everlasting Effect

How would Abraham respond to this Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It helps us understand how shalom with G-d is obtained. It says:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is probably easier to understand this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, making it read:

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no championship fanfare and so we might miss it. But it is truly significant because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need for shalom with G-d, Blessed be He.

Reviewing our Problem: Corruption

Though mankind was made in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:26-27) something happened that corrupted that image. Now the Bible says that

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

This diagnosis covers all peoples: Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, male and female, educated and simple. The corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies and how the Bible uses the word ‘miss’ have helped me picture what is meant by ‘become corrupt’ in Psalm 14.  The end result is that we find ourselves separated from Adonai the Lord, Blessed be He, because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has launched us into autonomy from and a tendency to not do good – reaping futility and death as a result. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours – and it is pretty much the same all over the world.  What else is a Righteous G-d to do, but to declare us all unrighteous?

In fact we are separated from the Source of Life and so the words of the prophet Isaiah come true

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Abraham and Righteousness

But here in the conversation between Abraham and the Lord, Blessed be He, we find, slipped in so quietly that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that G-d accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness?  It was not circumcision – that step came years later (in Genesis 17).  The Ten Commandments and the other Laws of Moses came hundreds of years later, so it was not his observance of kosher food and the many other regulations governing life and diet – good though they are.  The Bible simply says here that Abraham ‘believed’. That’s it?!  When you think of the elaborate observance of many Jews, and even look wider afield at the observances of peoples in other religions and read that Abraham, gained the prize of righteousness simply by ‘believing’ it seems to utterly unbelievable – too good and too simple to be possibly true.

But what does ‘believe’ mean?  And what can we learn for our own righteousness?  We reflect on this later.