In chapter 4 of his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul speaks at length about the patriarch Abraham and how his faith relates to the righteousing of Christians through faith in Jesus Christ. But this is not the first time Paul has written on Abraham. His Christian-Jewish opponents in Galatia a few years earlier also apparently invoked the patriarch, and they used the patriarch’s example against Paul and his message. Based on his mirror reading of the Epistle to the Galatians, J. Louis Martyn has reconstructed how the Teachers may have preached about Abraham:
Listen now. It all began with Abraham. Looking beyond the fascinating movements of the heavenly bodies, he was the first to discern that there is but one God. Because of that perception, he turned from the service of dumb idols to the worship of that true God. Therefore God made him the father of our great people Israel. But that was only the beginning, for God blessed Abraham in a way that is coming to its fulfillment only now in the messianic age. Speaking through a glorious angel, God said to Abraham:
In you shall all the nations of the world be blessed, for I shall multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven. Come outside, and look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able. So shall your descendants be, for I speak this blessing to you and to your descendants. (cf. Gen 12:3; 15:5; 17:4; 18:18)
What is the meaning of this blessing which God gave to Abraham? Pay attention to these things: Abraham was the first proselyte. As we have said, he discerned the one true God and turned to him. God’s blessing took the form, therefore, of an unshakable covenant with Abraham, and God defined the covenant he as the commandment of circumcision. He also revealed to Abraham the heavenly calendar, so that in his own lifetime our father was obedient to the Law, not only keeping the commandment of circumcision, but also observing the holy feasts on the correct days. Later, when God handed down the Law on tablets of stone at Sinai, he spoke once again by the mouths of his glorious angels, for they passed the Law through the hand of the mediator, Moses (Gal 3:19). And now the Messiah has come, confirming for eternity God’s blessed Law, revealed to Abraham and spoken through Moses.
And what does this mean for you Gentiles? Listen again to the scripture we have just quoted. When God said to Abraham that in him all nations of the world would be blessed, God spoke explicitly of blessing you Gentiles in Abraham. But this blessing will come to you only if you are included in the people of Israel via your legitimate incorporation into our father Abraham. For, in addition to being himself the first proselyte, Abraham was the great maker of proselytes. You must become, therefore, Abraham’s true descendants, his true seed, along with us.
Listen yet again to scripture: It is written that Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael (Gal 4:22). On the day of the feast of the first fruits, Isaac was born of Sarah the freewoman, and through him have come we Jews, true descendants of Abraham. Earlier, Ishmael was born of Hagar the slave girl, and through him have come you Gentiles. You are descendants of the patriarch! We are in fact brothers!
Offspring through Ishmael, however, you are descended through the son who was begotten by Abraham while, lacing in trust, he was yet ignorant of God. Most important of all, you have come through the slave girl, and, failing to observe God’s covenantal Law, you are enslaved to the power of the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh (Gal 5:16). In a word, you Gentiles are not yet true descendants of Abraham. You have not been incorporated into Israel. In order to participate in God’s blessing of Abraham, therefore, you are to make your descent legitimate.
Who are the genuine and therefore blessed descendants of Abraham, Abraham’s true seed (Gal 3:7, 29)? Again the answer is given in scripture, for the Law makes clear that God has set Two Ways before human beings, the Way of death and the Way of life. You can see this in the case of our father Abraham. He chose the Way of life. Turning from idols to the observance of the Law, he circumcised himself, thus avoiding walking in the deadly power of the impulsive Desire of the Flesh. It follows that Abraham’s true descendants are those who chose the path of virtue, becoming faithfully obedient to the virtue-creating Law, along with faithful Abraham (Gal 3:6-9). Let us say yet again that transference to the path of true descent is precisely what we now offer to you. For, fulfilling the ancient blessing he pronounced over Abraham, God is pleased at the present holy time to extend this line of true descent to the Gentiles. To be specific, God is creating descendants of Abraham through the Law-observant mission to Gentiles approved by his church in Jerusalem, the community that lives by the Law confirmed to eternity by the Christ. In our Lawful preaching to the Gentiles, we represent that church, the community of James, Cephas, and John (Gal 2:1-10).
What are you to do, therefore, as Abraham’s descendants through Ishmael, the child of Hagar, the slave-girl? The gate of conversion stands open (Gal 4:17; 4:9)! You are to cast off your enslavement to the Flesh by turning in repentance and conversion to God’s righteous Law, as it is confirmed by his Christ. Follow Abraham in the holy and liberating rite of circumcision (Gal 3:3; 6:13). Observe the feasts at their appointed times (4:10). Keep the sacred dietary requirements (2:11-14). And abstain from idolatry and from the passions of the flesh (5:19-21). Then you will be perfected as true descendants of Abraham, heirs of salvation according to the blessing which God solemnly uttered to Abraham and his descendants (3:7, 8, 16). Indeed, by entering the people of Israel, you will fill up the vast number of descendants God promised to Abraham.
You say that you have already been converted by Paul? We say that you are still in a darkness entirely similar to the darkness in which not long ago you were serving the elements, supposing them, as Abraham once did, to be gods that rule the world. In fact the fights and contentions in your communities show that you have not really been converted, that Paul did not give you the divinely ordained antidote to the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh, the guidance of God’s holy Law, the perfecting observance of which is commenced in the circumcision of the flesh (Gal 5:15). Being an unfaithful student of the Law-observant apostles in the mother church of Jerusalem, Paul has allowed you to remain a group of sailors on the treacherous high seas in nothing more than a small and poorly equipped boat. He gave you no provisions for the trip, no map, no compass, no rudder, and no anchor. In a word, he failed to pass on to you God’s greatest gift, the Law. But that is exactly the mission to which God has called us. Through our work the good news of God’s Law is invading the world of Gentile sin.
We adjure you, therefore, to claim the inheritance of the blessing of Abraham, and thus to escape the curse of the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh and sin (Gal 1:4a; 3:18; 5:16). For, be assured, those who follow the path of the Evil Impulse and sin will not inherit the Kingdom of God (5:21), lacking the perfection of virtue given by the Law (Gal 3:3). It is entirely possible for you to be shut out (4:17). You will do well to consider this possibility and to tremble with fear. For you will certainly be shut out unless you are truly incorporated into Abraham by observing the glorious and angelic Law. Turn therefore in true repentance, and come under the wings of the Divine Presence, so that with us you shall be saved as true descendants of father Abraham. (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, pp. 20-24)
As wielded by his Judaizing opponents, Abraham poses a powerful polemic against the gospel proclaimed by the Apostle. Even before the giving of Torah on Mt Sinai, Abraham is shown to be obedient to Torah and the father of Israel through circumcision. It is not enough, Paul’s Gentile converts are bluntly told, to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They too must be circumcised–just as Abraham was circumcised, just as Jesus himself was circumcised–if they are to be incorporated into Israel and thus enjoy the blessings of the messianic age. To reject Torah is to be condemned at the final judgment.