I think it is time to amplify and restate a point I posted about in December 2009:
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O LORD God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
In Romans 4, Paul argues from the way Abram responded to a promised reward, and the nature of the promise, in order to prove justification is by faith, not by works, so that believing Gentiles are justified by God along with believing (and only believing) Jews.
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his reward is not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
The “very great” “reward” that Abraham believes he will receive is a nation that is covenanted with the LORD that will go into Egypt and then come out, as the rest of Genesis 15 explains. But it is more than that. Paul points out that the content of the promise mentioned in Genesis 15, which Abra[ha]m believes, includes what is said in Genesis 17:
And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
So the promise itself, even though it includes a special nation marked out by circumcision, promises that Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations. “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” This promise, is, in fact, an OT reality. Jacob hears it begin to be fulfilled when Joseph tells him that he has been made a father to Pharaoh (Genesis 45.8). The OT is filled with believing Gentiles, contrary to many Evangelical (and quasi-Marcionite) myths about the world before Christ. Paul is not satisfied with the OT benefits, however. He sees the promise as promising that eventually all nations will belong to God in the same special way as Israel so that there is no longer any distinction or special privilege among them.
But I’m getting away from my main point.
Paul makes a huge deal about the language of Genesis 15.6: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
This passage is treated by unbelieving commentators as an occasion to mock Paul’s reasoning, and I don’t see Evangelical commentators really confronting the difficulty (though this is a blog post, not a research paper, so I haven’t read many of them before writing this. If you know of someone who deals with the issue, let me know). The reason is that Abraham is not the only person in the OT to whom something he did “was counted as righteousness.”
Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
they provoked the LORD to anger with their deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was stayed.
And that was counted to him as righteousness
from generation to generation forever.
Thus, Psalm 106 explains the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25:
And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”
So like Abraham, Phinehas’ reward was very great. His act of zeal and loyalty to YHWH was counted to him as righteousness, which means, just like was true for Abraham, his descendents would be a special priestly covenant people.
It is ridiculous to read Romans 4 as if Paul was ignoring Phinehas’ story because it worked against his argument from Genesis 15. If Paul singles out language only used two times in the OT we can be sure that Paul is not incompetent and that he is arguing from both stories! After all, what is Paul’s argument? That Abraham is “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. As Paul goes on to write:
That is why it is of faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the one of the law [the believing Jew like faithful Phinehas or forgiven David] but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham [the uncircumcized believer], who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”
The whole point is that Abram the believing uncircumcised Gentile was justified just like Phinehas the faithful believing Jew. Thus, if Abraham receives the same (and really a greater) reward as Phinehas, righteousness and covenant standing for himself and his heirs, then the reason for Phinehas’ reward cannot be his Jewish works, but the faith he held in common with the uncircumcised Abram.
Paul does not thoughtlessly overlook Phinehas. He argues from him, albeit silently. Just because we don’t read Numbers or the Psalms that much doesn’t mean Romans is supposed to be understandable without such knowledge. We have no business treating Paul as ignorant as we are or as accommodating such ignorant readers, and then self-righteously deciding his argument is flawed on that false assumption.