Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Who Are Abraham's Offspring?

These aren't the only relevant texts, but the relationships between them seem obvious. I'm not sure we can say much at all about the identity of Abraham's offspring until we understand clearly how Paul understood Genesis 15 and 17.

Genesis 15:4-6, 18-21
And behold, the word of the LORD came to [Abram]: "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.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites."
Genesis 17:7-8
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.
Romans 4:13-18
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be."


d4v34x said...

Ha. I'd taken a brief look at this and then sort of forgotten about it.

Two things occurred to me though. 1)Does Paul intend absolute equivalence in each use of the word offspring in the Romans passage? 2)Does the promise that Abraham would be heir of the world encompass all the OT promises to him?

Stephen said...

I would add Galatians 3:16 -"Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring, who is Christ."

The promises (plural)were made to Abraham and ultimately to Christ. Those who have the faith of Abraham in the Offspring of Abraham and are now in Christ are then partakers of the promises so that "a Jew is one inwardly" (Rom. 2:29). National origin does not matter and no one people is privileged. What's counts is being in Christ. To insist that promises made to Abraham must be fulfilled in another way refuses to allow the NT to interpret th OT.

Don Johnson said...

Galatians 3.16 is only referring to one of the OT promises to Abraham, not to all of them. Gen 22.18 is the place from which the language of Gal 3.16 is taken, in the midst of the sacrifice of Isaac story, obviously a very significant tie-in. But note that 'seed' in Gen 22.17 is clearly meant of much more than just One person, 22.18 is, I think, the only one of the promises where the double meaning can apply.

And, a bit of a quibble, but I wish the modern translations would say 'seed' instead of 'offspring'. It's almost like the difference between 'baby' and 'fetus'. The imagery is lost.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


1) Do you have a particular point of non-equivalence in mind? In a context as tight as that, I think our working assumption has to be equivalence unless there's clear evidence to the contrary. Paul does shift usages sometimes, as in "law" in Romans 7, but this is a very different passage, particularly in that it's directly unpacking fulfillment of an OT text.

2) Are you thinking of something outside Genesis 15 and 17?

Stephen, that text was certainly one that was on my mind as well. I just decided to stick with one NT text in this post. But I agree with everything you've pointed out, except that I'd probably phrase your last sentence a bit differently.

Anonymous said...

"a Jew is one inwardly" (Rom. 2:29)" this is so commonly misinterpreted. Paul was not saying in Rom 2 that gentiles are now jews. Paul was identifying that a true jew is one that is inwardly circumcised. Gentiles were brought in for comparison, not definition.

Anonymous said...

To the original point though, I believe the mystery in the NT is not the church per se, but the inclusion of the gentiles into the holy lump (Abraham) in Rom 11.

Ben said...


Gal 3:16 doesn't refer exclusively to Gen 22:18. Carson and Beale's commentary on the use of the OT in the NT shows that the phrase "and to offspring/seed" in Gal 3:16 appears in reference to God's words to Abraham in Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 22:18; 24:7.

Anonymous said...

Easy. Just use a literal interpretation of Galatians and it is obvious:

Gal 3:7 -- "those who have faith are children of Abraham."

Gal 3:29 -- "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise."

Abraham's offspring are those who are in Christ.


Stephen said...


Looks like "promises" to me. I don't see how it could be limited to one promise. And other verses in Gal. 3 seem fairly conclusive. Christ is the Seed. Only those in Him, Jew or Gentile, can be considered seed through this identification. I understand your argument and argued that way until I stopped looking at Scripture through a dispensational lens.


You could write the last sentence without my typos too :-) I did that from prison where I don't have spell check (I go to prison every day but get to come home after work :-)


Ben said...

"Easy. Just use a literal interpretation . . ."

Ah, Keith, you really know where to stick the knife.

Anonymous said...

"I understand your argument and argued that way until I stopped looking at Scripture through a dispensational lens."

Except that this has nothing to do with looking at Scripture through a dispensational lens.

Don Johnson said...

Ben, just to add to this, I think you have to also note Gal 3.8 in the context of Gal 3.16. I think that limits the source to Gen 22.18.

But we can't use Galatians to go back and teach that every reference in Genesis to Abraham's seed means Christ. Gen 15.1-7 clearly means the nation, for one example.

Last, I agree with Keith, all believers are Abraham's seed, but...

But... I have enough trouble arguing with Keith on my blog, so I'll leave the rest of that alone.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

d4v34x said...

Ben, having looked at the context again, I'd say Paul does intend a full equivalence in those uses. I think verses 11-12 make that clear:

"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."

All who believe are Abraham's offspring.

As to the promise of being "heir of the world," why the necessity of connecting that to the Genesis

Are you not also heir of the world?

Ben said...

Don, I don't follow your argument at all. If you're trying to limit Galatians 3 to only that particular piece of one text "in you shall all the nations be blessed," you're going to have to explain 1) the plural "promises" in 3:16 and 2) how/why Genesis uses "offspring/seed" in different ways.

There are other things you need to explain too, but that'd be a good place to start. IOW, there is a very heavy burden of proof on you to show how and why you're parsing out one piece of the Genesis promises as all that's applicable to all those who "are Christ's" (3:29). There's also a very heavy burden of proof to demonstrate how "offspring/seed" is used in a different way within Genesis and/or in a different way from Genesis in Gal 3.

Ben said...


I'd agree. In fact, I'd argue that the flow of the passage assumes that the blessings of forgiveness and imputed righteousness (Rom 4:4-9) are inseparable from the promise to Abraham and his offspring to inherit the world (4:13-14). The passage you cite connects the two.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben

Well, my argument is a little too long for a blog post.

I preached on the subject as part of our Christmas series. If you like I can send you the link to my notes.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Anonymous said...

Since Keith brought up interpreting literally, let us examine Acts 3.

Peter preaches to:

12 When Peter saw this, he addressed the people: "Men of Israel

25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your forefathers, saying to Abraham, And in your seed all the families of the earth will be blessed.

So we have a NT text that declares that even unbelieving Jews are STILL sons of Abraham. I suppose the supersessionists could argue Peter was wrong.

So to recap, the seed of Abraham is:

1. Christ
2. Believing Jews/Gentiles
3. unbelieving Jews

How do we know which seed is spoken of? I will go with context. This is the kind of stuff that drives the ARCs crazy.

Ben said...

James, I obviously won't argue with you on your primary context argument, but that text doesn't explicitly demand that non-believing Israelites are part of the "seed/offspring." Sons of Abraham, yes. "Seed," plausible, but not necessarily. We have to consider the possibility that the two terms aren't precisely equivalent.

Anonymous said...

Do you see a substantial difference between seed/offspring (that isn't specifically Christ) and sons?

Ben said...

I think it's a question worth considering. "Offspring" could be more of a technical/theological term, while "sons" could be more genealogical. I haven't looked into it that carefully. Either way, "offspring" is obviously used to refer to Christ AND to those who are "in Christ," so it's not as if it always means precisely the same thing.

Bruce said...

Responding to James:

In Romans 9:1-5, Paul has no problem saying that the Jews have the heritage of covenant, law, promises, even the Messiah... but he still grieves for their unbelief, and their forfeit of all these things if they persist in unbelief. They will not be heirs apart from Christ.

John the Baptist and Jesus had no problem in confronting those who rested in their Abrahamic lineage, often using language very similar to what Paul would use later (axe cutting down trees in the former, branches broken off in the latter).

Finally, Peter could also be understood to be speaking as Paul often does to the churches: he addresses them collectively as believers, though it is also clear that he is aware that some are not truly in the faith. Many in that crowd that Peter preached to at Pentecost proved to be sons of Abraham by faith.

Anonymous said...

@Ben, I agree. The seed/offspring does seem to be specific. I don't know how specific either though. I didn't know if you had searched that out some.

Ex 6:6-9 bases the exodus upon promises to the fathers. That generation of Israel was hardly believing. In fact, verse 10 and Heb 3 both state they did not believe.

@Bruce, the interesting thing about Romans 9 is that those things still belong to unbelieving Israel. I think both Moo and Shreiner make that point. Neither of them could be callied dispensationalists. However, in spite of that, you are correct about them not being heirs apart from Christ. Their present position though is still as sons of Abraham.

I agree with your point about Jesus and John.

I think the context of Peter's sermon in Acts 3 is quite clearly unbelieving Israel.

Ben said...

I'm not sure I've ever posted a link to this PDF of Steve Wellum's chapter on the relationship between the covenants published in Believers' Baptism. Pound for pound, it has to be the most helpful thing I've ever read on hermeneutics. It's directly relevant to this conversation.