How Was Abraham Counted Righteous?

Judaism rightly teaches that honoring your father and your mother is a holy commandment of G-d. And the ultimate father to whom the Jews look is Abraham, from whom Isaac and Jacob, a.k.a. Israel - and all the tribes in him - are descended. The Jewish people acknowledge that Abraham pleased G-d. And this is certainly true, seeing as Abraham is described as “the friend of G-d” (Isaiah 41:8). But how in fact did Abraham please G-d? 

Did he become G-d's friend due to his merits as the Rabbis claim?  That would be a righteousness earned before G-d. And following Maimonides, some would ascribe Abraham’s merits to his knowledge.  

Maimonides taught that Abraham discovered G-d through knowledge, writing: “"He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshipers, and he would worship with them. [However,] his heart was exploring and [gaining] understanding.

Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one G-d who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other G-d among all the other entities”. 

Centuries beforehand - and far closer to the time of Jesus Chist - Jewish historian Josephus had written: “Abraham, endowed with great sagacity, with a higher knowledge of G-d and greater virtues than all the rest, was determined to change the erroneous opinions of men”.

If Maimonides and Josephus were correct, and Abraham had a higher knowledge of G-d than others. This, however, doesn’t match with what we read in Scripture. Abraham was the son of Terah, whom we learn from Joshua was an idolator:

Joshua 24:2

Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods.

When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, they lost their original innocence, and their pure minds became darkened, so that the thoughts of men’s hearts were only evil continually (Genesis 6:5) - and this depravity was present in Abraham too.

Because Abraham was a natural child of Adam, his darkened mind could not consciously seek out G-d to call upon him by his own efforts - as a sinful mind can never guide itself to the holy G-d, Jehovah. Therefore, G-d had to call him, as we read in Genesis 12:1: “Now the L-d had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee”. This wasn’t based on anything Abraham had done previously, and was due to G-d graciously choosing him. 

Stephen, an early Jewish Christian, drew this out clearly when he declared in Jerusalem:

Acts 7:2

The G-d of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran

As G-d appeared first to Abraham, he gave Abraham also the ability to respond in faith. And so we read in Genesis 15:6, “And he believed in the L-d; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” 

What’s fascinating about Abraham is that, as a child, he had not received the covenant sign of circumcision, nor received a Jewish education - for circumcision and the Jewish nation hadn’t yet been introduced. In many ways, Abraham lived as a Gentile, being brought up in a pagan household, in a nation far away from Canaan, and without the covenant sign - and yet G-d called him while he was still uncircumcised. Hence the apostle Paul writes in Romans 4:11: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also”. So while Abraham was the father physically to the Jews, he was also a father spiritually to both Jews and Gentiles who would walk in his footsteps, by having faith.

And Abraham’s faith was not merely a bare knowledge that G-d exists, or that he was just and holy. Rather, Abraham knew that his holy G-d would send his Son, the Messiah, in order to provide salvation for his people, by atoning for their sins. Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, and before he cast them out of the Garden of Eden, G-d gave them the promise of the Messiah, who would be born as the seed of the woman, saying to the serpent who tempted Eve:

Genesis 3:15

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

So when G-d gave Abraham promises concerning his seed (Genesis 15:5), Abraham “believed in the L-d; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). 

Abraham put his faith in action when he trusted G-d, when G-d told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom he loved, on Mount Moriah, which corresponded to the city of Jerusalem. Abraham reckoned “that G-d was able to raise him up, even from the dead”, as we learn from the book of (Hebrews 11:19). 

Yet G-d did not put Abraham’s son to death that day - despite the Judaic tradition that suggests Isaac died and was actually raised to life, and that his blood atoned for Israel’s sins. (A Jewish prayer even suggests: “O, do Thou regard the ashes of Father Isaac heaped up on top of the altar, and deal with Thy children in accordance with the Mercy Attribute.”) Instead, G-d gave Isaac back to Abraham, as it were, back from what seemed as certain death - to prefigure how G-d would send his son Jesus Christ into the world, to die and atone for the sins of his people in both Israel and the rest of the world. 

So here then is the true righteousness of Abraham: (a) not that he used the power of his own intellect to reach G-d and so achieve righteousness, for he was depraved due to sin; (b) nor that he inherited his righteousness from his circumcision, for he was not circumcised as an infant, but as an adult; (c) not that he obeyed all the laws of G-d perfectly, for we see his disobedience in his lie to Pharaoh that his wife was merely his sister - but (d) that G-d, who is righteous, had called Abraham to trust in him, as G-d would provide the Messiah through Abraham’s seed. And G-d gave Abraham righteousness as a gracious gift: and Abraham received this righteousness through faith. Abraham did not become righteous through a process, but was declared righteous by G-d through a gift freely given to Abraham by the L-d himself. 

All those who believe in Messiah Jesus today also have the faith of Abraham: and if you put your trust in Jesus, Abraham’s holy seed and Israel’s Messiah, you too will be blessed as Abraham was. 

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