Accounted for Righteousness?

In Rom 4:3, Paul cites Gen 15:6 in the Greek (from the LXX) as follows:-

ἐπίστευσεν δὲ Ἀβραὰμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην.
Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. (NKJV)

What Paul understood by this verse was that Abraham’s belief in God was regarded by God as righteousness. In a sense, faith equals righteousness. When we inspect the Greek here, however, we find that things are not so clear. The literal translation of the Greek is something like this:-

Abraham believed God and he ἐλογίσθη (elogisthe) to righteousness.

The Greek verb elogisthe comes from the root word logizomai, which according to the BDAG carries a semantic range of meanings:-

  1. to reckon, calculate
  2. to give careful thought to a matter, to consider, to ponder
  3. to hold a view about something, be of the opinion

These meanings do not include the idea of an imputation of values to another, such as “accounted to him for” as understood by Paul. The Barnes’ Commentary, for example, says:-

I have examined all the passages, and as the result of my examination have come to the conclusion, that there is not one in which the word is used in the sense of reckoning or imputing to a man what does not strictly belong to him; or of charging on him what ought not to be charged on him as a matter of personal right.

The preposition εἰς (eis) likewise carries a range of meanings (BDAG):-

  1. extension involving a goal or a place, ie. towards
  2. extension in time, ie. until
  3. marker of degree, ie. up to
  4. marker of abstract goals, ie. into, to
  5. marker of a specific point of reference, ie. with reference to
  6. marker of a guarantee, ie. by
  7. distributive marker, ie. -fold
  8. the predicate nominative or predicate accusative, under Semitic influence, ie. as
  9. marker of instrumentality, ie. by, with
  10. other uses, eg. at

While this is quite a list of meanings, many of the uses cannot apply to “righteousness” since it is not a place, time, degree, guarantee, distributive marker nor an instrument. It is also not a “goal” in the normal sense of the word. In all likelihood, it is being used as a predicate accusative.

It seems that a more likely translation of Gen 15:6 from the LXX is:-

Abram believed God, and he considered (it) as righteousness.

*In quoting the LXX, Paul changed “Abram” to “Abraham”. Whether this was intentional or not is unknown but there is little material difference to the meaning.

At this point, we are pretty close to the Hebrew Gen 15:6:-

וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן בַּֽיהוָ֑ה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ לּ֖וֹ צְדָקָֽה
And he trusted Yehovah and he יַּחְשְׁבֶ֥ (yachshev) to him righteousness.

The Hebrew verb yachshev, according to the HALOT, carries the meanings:-

  1. weave
  2. respect, hold in high regard
  3. assume, regard

The primary meaning of “weave” clearly doesn’t fit into this context. Looking at the other use of this word form in Gen 38:15 where it carries the meaning “assume” or “regard”, that seems to be the more common usage. If so, we can translate the text as:-

And he trusted in Yehovah and he assumed/regarded (it) to him as righteousness.

It is worth noting that “righteousness” here is just a common noun and is not in a genitive form (Greek), or carries a pronomial suffix (Hebrew). In other words, it isn’t talking about anyone’s righteousness, or righteousness attached to a person, but simply the idea of righteousness.

We now have good agreement between the Hebrew and the LXX translations but there are two unknowns remaining in this text. Who is it that considered/assumed/regarded what as righteousness?

And he trusted in Yehovah and he assumed/regarded (it) to him as righteousness.

The first “he” we can safely say refers to Abram due to the context – it has to be Abram who trusted Yehovah and not Yehovah trusting himself. What of the next “he”? Christians traditionally follow the Pauline reading and so assume that the second “he” refers to God and the “it” refers to Abram’s believing or faith. There is nothing, however, in the sentence that would lead to that reading. Someone who is unaware of the Pauline tradition would not have read it that way.

The NET translators tried to justify their assignment of the second “he” to God by saying that the verb form (waw consecutive in the third person) from verses 5-7 always refers to God. This is, however, an extremely weak argument, not just because the same waw consecutive verb in verse 8 clearly refers to Abraham, but because this verb form is one of the most common (if not THE most common) form in the Hebrew bible.

A more normal reading of the verse, unaffected by Paul’s take, would go like this:-

An he (Abram) trusted in Yehovah and he (Abram) regarded (it) to him (God) as righteousness.

Here the “it” would refer to God’s intention of giving Abram a son and an heir. Abraham could trust in God because God was righteous. God then reiterates that promise in the very next verse, Gen 15:7:-

Then He said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.”

Abram responds by asking for an assurance (Gen 15:6):-

And he said, “Lord GOD, how shall I know that I will inherit it?”

Contrast this to the Pauline version where after God considers Abram’s belief as righteousness, Abram goes on to ask for assurance. This does not flow quite as smoothly as the unbiased reading.

Among Jewish scholars, there is some dispute about this. Rashi seems to agree with Paul’s reading while Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. In the Mikraot Gedolot, he wrote:-

The correct interpretation appears to me to be that the verse is stating that Abraham believed in G-d and he considered it due to the righteousness of the Holy One, blessed be He, that He would give him a child under all circumstances, and not because of Abram’s state of righteousness and his reward, even though He told him, Your reward shall be very great.

In the Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis, the author says the Masoretic Hebrew would dictate that without an explicit change of subject, the presumed subject would still be Abram.