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Galatians 3:8 – Which Verse is Paul Quoting?

Sometimes when a NT author quotes the OT, there’s no mistaking where he’s directing our attention.  For instance, in Galatians 3:6, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6.  It’s clear and precise, a word for word quotation.  No scholar I’m aware of argues otherwise.

            However, Galatians 3:8 presents a challenge.  Which verse is Paul quoting?  I’ll give the text in both English (ESV) and Greek (just the quoted portion), as both will be relevant in the discussion:

Galatians 3:8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

Galatians 3:8b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη·

            At first we might turn to Genesis 12:3 as the source of the quotation.  It’s a great candidate:

Genesis 12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

            Pretty close, right?  And it’s the first occasion in Scripture where God makes this promise, which adds extra impact to the argument.  Let’s compare the Greek translation of the OT (called the Septuagint, or LXX for short):

Galatians 3:8b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη·

Genesis 12:3b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς

            Both texts share the main verb in the same form.  They both also have the next phrase, “in you all.”  However, Gal 3:8 has “the nations” and Gen 12:3 has “the tribes of the earth.”  So there are some differences in wording, but the context of Genesis 12 certainly matches Paul’s context and his main point.

            Consider another verse, though:

Genesis 18:17-18 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

            Let’s compare the Greek:

Galatians 3:8b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη·

Genesis 18:18b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν αὐτῷ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς

            Again, the same verb and verbal form are used.  Notably, Gen 18:18 uses “the nations” just like Gal 3:8 (though it does add “of the earth” to those nations).  The pronouns change from “in you” to “in him” due to who God is speaking to.

            Is it possible that Paul mashes up both texts in his quotation?  Perhaps he uses the first part of Gen 12:3b and then adds in “the nations” of Gen 18:18b to fit his discussion of the Gentiles in Galatians 3 (the words “Gentiles” and “nations” are the same in Greek).  This is certainly a possibility.

            There are three other candidates for a possible source reference to Paul’s quote:

Genesis 22:18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Genesis 26:4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,

Genesis 28:14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

            Here’s a comparison of all the relevant Greek phrases from all these places:

Galatians 3:8b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη·

Genesis 12:3b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς

Genesis 18:18b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν αὐτῷ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς

Genesis 22:18a ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν τῷ σπέρματί σου πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς

Genesis 26:4b καὶ ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν τῷ σπέρματί σου πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς

Genesis 28:14b ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς καὶ ἐν τῷ σπέρματί σου

            We see that each of these verses uses the same verb in the same form.  All use the same preposition (“in”).  Only Gen 12:3b and 28:14b lacks the word “nations,” but all the Genesis verses use “of the earth” (Paul does not).

            Another possibility is that Paul didn’t intend to quote one specific passage.  Perhaps he intended to reference all of these occasions where God made the promise to Abraham.  (In a similar way, I might say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  I may be quoting Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movie, or perhaps its original comic source, or maybe one of the other movies that use the line, or I could be referring to the theme in the Spider-man universe in general.)

            What makes things more complicated is when the Hebrew text is thrown into the discussion.  As Douglas Moo points out in his excellent commentary on Galatians (in the ECNT series, pg. 218), the Hebrew verbs show more variety than the Greek verbs, adding more possibility to the meaning of Paul’s statement.

            My own assessment of the verse leads me to lean towards the opinion that Paul is mixing in “the nations” from the other promise passages in Genesis with Gen 12:3.  So it’s a conflation with an eye towards the promise theme in general.

            The study of the OT in the NT is complex and deep.  A PhD candidate could spend an entire dissertation exploring this one verse.  The complexity of Paul’s quotation in Gal 3:8 speaks to the depth of his Old Testament appreciation and knowledge, a depth we ought to strive for ourselves as well.

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