Hoping Against Hope
In today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary Paul continues his argument that the faith of Abraham is very different from works, and that grace comes about not by works but through faith. He sees salvation as a zero sum game – it is either accomplished through works or through faith, but it cannot be a bit of one and a bit of the other.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
So the promise depends on faith, not works. The grace of God comes to Abraham and his descendants on the basis of faith.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Paul here is referring to a passage in Genesis 17:
17When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
In Genesis 22, after testing Abraham with the Binding of Isaac, God says to him: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” Paul builds on this to suggest that the true fatherhood of Abraham is not through actual descent, but through faith. The fact that he was graced by God before being given the covenant of circumcision means that he is the forefather of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised – if they have faith. But what is the nature of that faith?
Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
If you have been raised in the English language you probably know what “hoping against hope” means – hoping against all reasonable expectations for an unlikely result. But if you look at the words themselves it is a really strange idiom – how can a person hope against hope? Don’t they cancel each other out? Is this even a proper phrase?
The reason it is so strange is because it’s playing on an ambiguity in Greek that does not translate into English. When the Greek was translated into Tudor English for the Authorised Version/King James Bible they tried to follow whenever possible the principles of word for word translation, and generally using the same word in translation whenever it appeared in Greek. This usually works well, but sometimes the word in Greek doesn’t correspond well or map to an English word. As a commentator “fdp” noted on the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange noted:
[A previous commentator] has pointed out correctly that this phrase is a quotation from the Bible (Romans 4:18), or, more precisely from the 17th-century King James version (“Who against hope believed in hope..”). The Greek original has: ὃς παρ᾽ἐλπίδα ἐπ᾽ἐλπίδι ἐπίστευσεν, where the Apostle plays with the double meaning of ἐλπίς, which can mean both (positive) “hope” and (neutral) “expectation”. In older English “hope” also had both meanings, but the latter is now obsolete. A modern English literal rendering might then be: “Who against expectation believed in what he hoped for”.
Abraham and Sarah were VERY old according to the narrative in Genesis. They should have had no hope of having children together. Nevertheless, Sarah conceived and bore a child, Issac.
Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
The content of our faith is different from Abraham’s; Abraham had faith that through God Sarah would have a child Isaac, and that he would become the father of many nations, and his descendants would possess the land of Canaan. The Christian faith is that we believe in the one who raised Jesus from the dead, who suffered and died for us and was raised to glory for us as well. The form is the same – trust in the God of Abraham (and Isaac, and Jacob) and placing ourselves in God’s hands. What is sometimes forgotten is that the precision of the content of our faith is less important that what we have faith in God. The Divine will not condemn us for weakness of intellect or a lack of dogmatic precision.