The Translation Of Genesis 15:6

genesis-15v6In this post we’ll conduct an in-depth examination of Genesis 15:6, a verse that is critically important to the Protestant theology of justification by faith. All Bibles, of which I am aware, interpret this verse as God justifying Abram (i.e., imputing righteousness to Abram) on the basis of Abram’s faith.

Whether this is a valid, supportable translation of this verse is, therefore, an important question. Accordingly, we begin by noting a basic problem with the English translations, i.e., they all add words not attested in the Hebrew. Now, this is not necessarily bad practice unless the added words give rise to ambiguity or no linguistic or contextual foundation exists to support the added word(s).

We begin with the KJV’s translation of Genesis 15:6.

And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

The KJV translators added the pronoun ‘he’ (colored red) which leads to a profound ambiguity. Is God or Abram the antecedent of ‘he’ God? Taken by itself, there is no linguistic or contextual reason to choose one or the other1)However, as far as I know, no Bible translates 15:6 such that Abram is the antecedent of ‘he’.. The NRS translators get around the ambiguity by substituting the phrase “the LORD” for the subject of counted (= reckoned in the NRS translation).

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

There is no ambiguity here. The NRS has the LORD reckoning Abram as righteous presumably because, as the first clause describes, Abram “believed the LORD”, i.e., believed the truth of the LORD’s promise of many descendants. However, the phrase “the LORD” is simply not present in the second clause. In other words, it was the opinion of the NRS translators they knew what the original author must have meant so they translated the Hebrew according to their opinion – not according to the text of the verse.

The Septuagint uses a different technique to get around the ambiguity problem. They simply translate into Greek the Hebrew verb corresponding to ‘counted’ (ἐλογίσθη2)= indicative, aorist, passive, 3rd person singular) using the passive voice.Translated this way, the Septuagint’s translation is,

And Abram believed God, and it was counted3)Passive form of ‘counted’to him for righteousness.

But, this doesn’t really work either – for two reasons. First, it simply transfers the ambiguity from the subject of ‘counted’ to its object pronoun, ‘him’. Thus, if its antecedent of ‘him’ (colored red) is Abram, the subject of ‘counted’ must be God and all is well with the Christian theology of “justification by faith”. If, however, the antecedent is God, than Abram is doing the counting and it’s God’s righteousness that is in view, not Abram’s.

Second, the underlying Hebrew verb from which the Greek was translated is not in the passive voice. It’s in the active voice. Thus, the use of “it was reckoned” is simply not attested. It is a rather gross mistranslation.

What if these (and other) translators had just translated the actual Hebrew  without adding additional words or mistranslating verbs? Had they done so, the result would be unambiguous – and here is a literal rendering of the text:

“Then he believed in the LORD and reckoned it to him righteousness.”

Grammatically this translation is completely correct and accurately reflects the source language without adding words or otherwise changing the grammar of the actual Hebrew. So, what can we say about its interpretation?

Grammatically, the Hebrew of 15:6 consists of two independent clauses. The subject of the verb in the first clause is Abram (=he) and the subject of the verb in the second clause is not explicit. If the subject is not explicit, how does this make the text less ambiguous?

Actually, it does not. Recall your high school grammar and the rules governing implied subjects when dealing with multiple clauses (Hebrew and most other languages have the same rules). The rule is this: if two clauses in the same sentence are independent but only the first clause has an explicit subject, the the verb of the second subject is the same as the subject in the first clause. An example might be more illuminating.

Jim drove to the shopping center and walked home.

By the multiple clause rule, Jim is the subject of ‘walked’. Now, here’s another example constructed to be analogous to Genesis 15:5-6:

Mr. Anderson, Jim’s father took his son to the Mercedes dealer and promised that, upon graduation from college, Jim would have the pick of any car on the lot. He knew his dad would keep his promise and thought him  generous.

righteousness of godIn the first sentence (analogous to 15:5), Mr. Anderson makes a promise to his son. In the second sentence (analogous to 15:6), Jim takes his dad’s promise as a certainty and, accordingly, regards his dad as generous.

Now, applying this analogy (and the grammar rule) to 15:5, the verse correctly reads as Abram declaring the righteousness of God. The verse is not about Abram’s faith.

Translation Details

Genesis 15:64)The translation key

צְדָקָה לּוֹ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ בַּיהוָה וְהֶאֱמִן
 ncfsa  prep+3ms  cj+qal wcons ipf 3ms+3fs prep+Pn cj+hiphil, pf 3ms
 righteousness  to-him  and-reckoned-it  in-the-LORD  then-he-believed


וְהֶאֱמִן (vəheemin)

This verb is structured with a vav prefixed to the verb’s perfect form indicating a non-consecutive narrative5)i.e., this clause is not part of a narrative sequence of clauses or it is the termination of a narrative sequence.. If the composer of the narrative had wanted to show a simple narrative sequence, he would have used the vav consecutive with the preterite. The perfect with vav conjunctive can have a variety of discourse functions, but here it probably serves to highlight Abram’s response to God’s promise by recognizing and attesting God’s righteousness – see discussion of vayyachshəveha below.

In the Hiphil (causative) stem, this verb means “to cause to be certain, sure” or “to be certain about,” “to be assured of.” In this sense the word in the Hiphil conjugation is commonly translated as “believed”. Unfortunately, the modern  conception of belief, in contrast to its ancient biblical meaning, has become a simple interior assent to the existence of a material object or agreement with an abstract idea.

In the causative sense of the verb, the clause claims that Abram came to be certain of the LORD’s promises over the course of the biblical narrative beginning in chapter 126)See, for example, De Gruyter, Walter, Genesis 15: A Theological Compendium of Pentateuchal History, pp 80-82. The first clause, then, is about Abram having come to certainty that the LORD’s promises would be fulfilled. By using the Hiphil stem to terminate a narrative, the LORD’s promise of many descendents was the last drop of glue cementing Abram’s confidence in God’s faithfulness, i.e., fulfilling His promises.

Note the second word, בַּיהוָה, is the name of the LORD (a.k.a., Yahweh, Adonai, etc.,) prefixed with the preposition (Bet). Bet is most commonly translated as ‘in’, so that “in the LORD” is a reasonable translation. However, given the discussion of the previous verb, Abram’s belief is grounded in God’s promise, not the person of God. This becomes clear in the discussion of the second verb, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ(vayyachshəveha), translated as “and-reckoned-it” – see next.


Vayyachshəveha translates into three English words, “and-reckoned-it“, where ‘reckoned’ is a third person masculine singular verb. As such the ‘he’ is implied, not explicit. In many cases, it is safe to add ‘he’ to 3rd person, masculine singular verbs so long as the added pronoun does not cause the kind of ambiguity exemplified in most English translations of 15:6.



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Biblical Hebrew: Lessons 1, 2, and 3 Now Available

podcast_cover_art - CopyLessons 1, 2, and 3 covering the definite article, the conjunction vav, the direct object marker, prepositions and a beginning set of nouns are all available for testing.

Suggestions and comments are always appreciated. Click on the Syllabus tab above when ready.

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My Five Most Interesting Words in the Bible

In response to a request from a facebook friend (who is also a RL friend), I give you my five favorite words in the [Hebrew] Bible.

The first two warrant an explanation. They are at the top of my list of interesting words because I am currently researching the ethics of provocation. Unlike most responses to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack (and like Bill Donohue’s reading), I strongly believe that the editors and staff of Charlie Hebdo are not innocent. As a matter of justice, they did not deserve to die, but they certainly do not deserve the accolades they have heretofore been awarded.

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.

So, here are my five favorite words (today)

  1. הֶחֱטִיא – a verb meaning to cause someone to sin, transgress
  2. הֱסִיתְךָ – a verb meaning to cause someone to be provoked.
  3. אֱלֹהִ֑ים – commonly translated as  both the singular God and the plural gods. Sadly, the distinction is all but lost in the English.
  4. בָּרָא – a verb meaning “he created” where the only antecedent of “he” is God. Get it? Only God can create this way.
  5. תַחְמֹד – a verb meaning to use without asking. This word is interesting to me because it is badly mistranslated (as covet) in the ten commandments. Everywhere else it is translated according to what it really means – to borrow/use without asking.
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The Story of Cain and Abel

This National Geographic video presents the familiar story of Cain and Abel. The content seems straightforward to those who have heard the story as taught in various religious venues including Sunday school, pastoral homilies, seminary, BSF, CSF, and so forth.

The problem with this video, like so much of contemporary religious education, is not so much in the telling of the story, but in its trivialization. Because we 21st century humans read stories like that of Cain and Abel from a Western, contemporary point-of-view, we truly miss much of the meaning(s) of the biblical narratives. This particular story, at least when read in the Hebrew in the ancient biblical context, is much different if only because it is much more profound than what we’ve learned in its popular renderings. Here, for example, are just a few of the problems with the narration that accompanies the video.

  • The sacrifices were not motivated by gratitude.
  • The claim that Cain’s offering is rejected “for no apparent reason” is simply not true. The text of the Bible reveals clearly why Cain’s offering was spurned and Abel’s accepted.
  • The narrative does not describe Cain as “angry and jealous”, as claimed by the narrator in the video.
  • The question posed in the video, “How did Cain know how to kill?” assumed incorrectly that this was the first homicide.
  • It is not his brother’s blood that cries out to God from the ground.
  • There is no textual (or grammatical) evidence that God is angry with Cain.
  • The “mark” put upon Cain is not a visible mark like a stigmata or tattoo.

By way of background I’ve begun a new project – to translate the story of Cain and Abel, paying special attention to the underlying Hebrew and the ancient Semitic context in which the story was first heard. Unlike my previous two translations you’ll be able to follow along as I complete each verse (about one per week), the first of which is now complete and can be accessed from here.

Now, go and study

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