“And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

Being childless, Abram feared that his servant, Eliezer of Damascus, would be his heir, in accordance to their custom, but God promised him a son as well as descendants as numerous as the stars. Because his wife Sarai was beyond childbearing years, the promise of decedents, much less the grandeur of God’s promise, must have seemed impossible, yet Abram believed God, and as a result, it was credited to him as righteousness. Justification by faith as expressed in the Genesis 15 account is a bedrock theme found throughout the NT, in particular, within Pauline writings such as Romans 4 and Galatians 3. The purpose of this post is to examine the Hebrew behind the phrase “and he counted it” (וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ) in Genesis 15:6 upon which so much of this doctrine rests.

“And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, ESV)[1] The word חשׁב at the heart of the phrase “and he counted it” (וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ) has traditionally been translated as “to reckon” or “to consider.”[2] While English translations generally express an act of declaration, with a sense of immediacy, to occur at a specific moment in time, other scholars view חשׁב has having a broader semantic range. The word חשׁב can also mean “to plan,” “to think,” or “to devise;” notions that suggest an act that will come to fruition sometime in the future[3] and presents a range of semantic possibilities. Although its exact origins are impossible to determine, the traditional view that חשׁב in Hebrew contains an element of calculation, such as “to account, calculate, charge, settle (accounts).”[4] This concept is also found in passages like Leviticus 27:23: “Then the priest shall calculate the amount of the valuation for it up to the year of jubilee, and the man shall give the valuation on that day as a holy gift to the Lord.” However, Hwang suggests a widened view of חשׁב to include “to think” or “to plan,” as observed in Psalm 40:17: “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!”[5] When the wider semantic aspects are taken into consideration, they connect to a perception of accounting or planning viewed more in line with Pauls’ Romans and Galatians references to חשׁב in Genesis 15:6.[6]

Genesis 15:6 can be understood with a future orientation in mind. Genesis 50:20 may offer insight into understanding Genesis 15:6 in that Joseph tells his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” The sense of חשׁב here in 50:20 is “to intend” or “to plan,” which indicates a design that comes to fruition at some future point.[7] Reading Genesis 15 in this context, and understanding חשׁב in verse 6 as planning, shows that God’s intention is to give the land of the Canaanites to the descendants of Abram. Paul affirms the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15:6 in the death and resurrection of Christ. With this understanding of חשׁב in mind, the verse envisions a situation in which righteousness could be “reckoned” to a person even though the individual is admittedly a sinner.[8]

Genesis is a book of promises that look forward to an ultimate hope. From a canonical perspective, it is not a stretch to read חשׁב in Genesis 15:6 as “to plan,” while it remains to be seen whether or not this understanding fits the wider pattern and function of Genesis as a whole.[9] Although Genesis is a book of origins, Genesis also contains divine promises that look toward the future. 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

[2] Mark Sheridan and Thomas C. Oden, Genesis 12-50 (Ed. Mark Sheridan and Thomas C. Oden; Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2002): 32.

[3] Vohan Hwang, “Eschatology in Genesis 15:6,” Hebrew Studies 55 (2014): 25.

[4] K. Seybold, “חשׁב,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (ed. J. G. Botterweck and H. Ringgren; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 230.

[5] Hwang, 26.

[6] Samuel E. Waldron, “Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4:3,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 32, no 1 (Spring 2021): 121.

[7] Hwang, 28.

[8] Waldron, 129.

[9] Hwang, 36.

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