Romans 9-11: Reclaiming the Story of Israel

“I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he wil turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I away their sins.’

  • Romans 11:25-27

“For God has bound all men over to disobedience sothat he may have mercy on them all.”

  • Romans 11:32

One of the most common readings of this difficult passage that I encountered both growing up in the evangelical world and in my movement towards Reformed readings (which I’ve since moved away from) is to blanket this passage with the assumption that Paul is establishing the notion of a “spiritual” Israel over and against an “ethnic” (identity) or a “ritualistic (law) Israel. That is, Paul sees the true Israel as both Jew and Gentile and the “fullness” or “all” of this collective as the elect.

If you spend any time reading Reformed theology you will encounter a reading of the word “all” that can shift between its possible usages and interpretations, such as being rendered “all types” as opposed to all or the whole. You see this in readings of 1 Corinthians 15:22 and the statement “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The “all” in Adam is taken to read universally while the “all” in Christ is taken to mean “all types” or the “sum” of the elect. It is similar for those in the evangeical world who read these verses in Romans to be speaking about “spiritual” Israel and apply the “all” to “all” who are obedient to the Gospel and confess Jesus as Lord. In both cases this flows from an understanding of Romans to be speaking about the salvation of the individual, or the process of salvation in the individual.

Now, if Romans is to be understood to be speaking to a majority Gentile community wrestling with and divided over how it is they make sense of Jewish people now returning to Rome following Rome’s previous purging of them from the city, how does this place these verses in terms of the audiences (or Pauls) question and concern? Scholar Beverly Gaventa argues that Paul’s larger argument of Chapter 9-11 should lead us directly back to Chapter 4 and his initial discussion about Abraham.

This actually used to be the minority and is now the majority view, but the majority of scholars now believe 9-11 to be the climatic moment in the narative that moves us along the journey from the specific context of these divided and largely gentile christian (using that word in a defining sense) communities to the cosmic view and back again to the specific context in chapter 12. And one important note here that comes from this majority view- Paul would not recognize Israel in the same way we would today, as a Country. Paul does not treat Israel “as an ethnic entity”, rather he “treats Israel in terms of the story of creation and redemption which flows from the story of Exodus into Exile and gets bound up in terms of covenent (promise). As Gaventa goes on to say, “coventional treatments of Romans 9-11 often overlook the fact that the primary question Paul raises (in his use of the interloceter, the imagined or fictional opponent) about Israel is a question about God.” Or in other words, the “faithfulness” of God to this covenantal promise. More directly in 9-11, the reigning question is, did God fail in this covenant promise when it comes to Israel. Why is this question raised? Because of what Paul says in Romans 4.

Taking from Gaventa, if Chapter 1 establishes that Jesus is “born from the line of David” (1:3) and that the Gospel is “for the Jew first (1:16), and Romans 2 then has effectively worked to “destabilze” categories of Jew and Gentile by saying there are gentiles who observe the law without having recieved it (in the circumcision/identity sense) and Jews who have the law (in an identity sense) while not observing it. In this sense, if circumcision can become uncircumcision (and vice versa) how then do we make sense of the covenant promise within the story of Israel? Here Gaventa reminds us that it is important to hear this as a gentile (Paul’s audience) but from the perspective of the interloceter probing Paul’s own Jewish “faithfulness”. His cosmic view of creation binds him to the “all” or whole of creation, but it does so with God’s faithfulness lingering in the shadows of his very Jewish concern for the story of Israel.

Which brings Gaventa to chapter 4 where she helps to show how it is that Paul brings in Abraham in a curious way, absent of the larger plot markers of Abrahams own Jewish roots. If you read Romans 4 what stands out is the way Paul writes Abraham in line with his gentile readers, bypassing the covenantal context all together. “There is a striking historical leap from the promise that Abraham trusted (acted in obedience or faithfulness) to the present time.”

Why does Gaventa believe this maters in a literary sense? Because of the ways Paul is striving to speak of what God has done in the cosmic sense rather than emphasizing Abrahams own character. She quotes Francis Wastson as suggesting that oddly enough “Abraham becomes a minor character in his own story.” The story of God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant promise to make right in the whole of creation what is wrong translates from Abraham to “all” of creation. And this leaves an important gap which 9-11 is now returning to witht the question, what do we do with the Jewish story? This is especialy pertinent given the division is likey between gentiles taking on the Jewish identity and those who are not. The question pushes even further in chapter 8 to wonder about that whole circumcision/uncircmsion thing Paul previously presented. “Does Israel have the power to remove itself from God’s love, and if so what does this say about God?” And remember, this is not speaking about a “spiritual” Israel but rather the story of Israel. This is so cruical.

Paul’s definitive answer comes in Romans 9:6 where he says “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Here it is important to recognize something most modern translations miss- a modifier. The modifier is not present in the original Greek text and thus must be added in order to dictate a direction. The modifer “is” (it is not) tends to be the place where readings move towards the idea of a “spiritual”Israel. In context thuogh it is better translated in terms of beiing “constituted”. As Gaventa articulates it, “(the comparitive coulld be) it is not the case that the elected representatives constitute the congress”, or to set it within Romans 9:6 “it is not the case that all those who are from Israel constitute Israel.” In other words, which Paul sees in his ensuing unfolding of the story of Israel, This is a story of God’s faithfulness, not Israel itself. Israel (not spiritual but identifiable Israel) “does not derive from itself”, it exists by nature of God’s faithfulness in the created world. As Paul repeatedly brings up the question “is Israel beyond rescue” in chapter 9 the concern of Paul’s story here is for the whole of creation and how the story of Israel (9-11) fits in with the story of the gentile division (linking Abraham with both).

Implications of this reading? First, this challenges how we move into Paul’s discussion of election. Individualistic readings of Romans that read it in terms of the process of salvation see in 9-11 God’s election of the individual using the idea of “spiritual” Israel to do away with all disinctives that seperate humanity in a societal sense. It universalizes Paul’s words and removes it from the story of Israel on the basis that “all have sinned”, making the Gospel all about individuals being saved (or elected) to live in glory with God. This misses two crucial parts of Paul’s story:

  1. The cosmic story in which we find the emergence of a third player, the Powers of Sin and Death, which is portrayed as an actual agency
  2. The story of Israel, which often gets absorbed into the assumed Law-Gospel debate making the “law” (salvation by works) bad and the gospel (salvation by faith alone) good. Spiritual Israel then leads to a long history of reading Israel”s story as one of poential superseccionaist claims that now gets freed by the grace of the Gospel. This makes little sense of the questions and concerns Paul is relating through his dealing with the story of Israel, and what hangs in the balance, something that tends to fall by the waysid when pushed and pulled into renderings of a “spiritual” Israel, is the question of what do we do with God’s faithfulness in light of the story of Israel, which carries force with the gentile audiences hearing the spirit, suffering, and new creation emphasis of chapter 8.

Second, when we hear Paul’s telling of the story of Israel in chapter 9 and following election should not be standing out as though our confidence in the faithfulness of God hinges on the elect of a “remnant” that God holds secure in their salvation over and against the rest. When you hear the story in view of the Old Testament narratives what becomes clear is how election means “election for” (the sake of the world) not “election to” (individual election). To hear the phrase “I (God) will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compasion on who I will have compassion” should set us straight into those familiar and sacred stories, where in the Old Testament context it is not speaking about the salvation of individuals but of a chosen representative raised up to serve the whole of this cosmic picture of creation. Paul is emphasizing the pattern of God; his freedom to have mercy on or to “chose” the lesser in an ancient point of perspective to be a chosen representative of God’s new creation vision. It is about God’s freedom to do so over and against social expectations. Written into this of coure is a story of the unfaithfulness of Israel. To say “Jacob I loved, but Esau, I hated”, that troublesome phrase for many, is not to hear this speaking about God hating individuals. Rather this phrase is pulled from an Old Testament story about nations in conflict (the nation born from Esau and the nation born of Jacob). Here is it important to be immersed in the larger narative of the Old Testament and the patterned history that it represents. In the story of Cain and Abel we have this similar establishing picture of a family divided. The warring nations in Israel is consistently depicted as brothers against brothers, which gets read into the pattern of God’s subverting the normal familial expectations regarding the first born. This plays into God consistently switching sides from the readers perspecive in order to to stay faithful to the promise, and always using the unexpected persons and places to pull somtheing new from the destruction. This is why the story of Israel cannot be subsumed into nationalistic interests. Even the point of the “hardening” of some follows a similar track. Here Paul establishes in line with the “gving over” to resistance that we see in the Exodus story, but this always functions in service to God’s faihful promise to make, as chapter 8 says, all things new, to bring about the new creation.

It must be said here too that readings that suggest the point of all this is to establish the right of God to choose some to slavation and others not (however they interpret the final judgement) and thus read 9-11 as the process of sanctification (the making of a righteous life) simply misses the story of the Gentiles, the story of Israel and the story of God that Paul is telling. It misses God’s justice bringing hope to these contexts.

And what about justice? When the “all” is interpreted as spiritual Israel and read through the lens of individual salvation, what you end up with is a story that massages out the particular contexts of these three stories. And when we lose that context God’s justice becomes less about speaking into these contexts and all about the punishment of death deserved (for all) and punishment asborbed (for the elect in the Reformed view or the repentent in the opposing view). Any potential justice must follow this judicial sense of the word and must be predicated on death as the ony truly deserving punishment. All roads in pursuit of God’s justice lead to death as their ultimate end.

This faces real problems when trying to attend for Paul’s view of the cosmic narrative, both in the redemption of the whole of creation and in the establishing of evil as an agency and the object of God’s wrath. This misses the ways God is subverting the forms of justice Paul notes in the world through using these representatives. Now, what I am not arguing for here is universal salvation (that’s another discussion). What I am argung for is placing justification and righteousness in the same camp as part of Paul’s grander vision of God’s being faithful to the covenant promise, which is fulfilled not in some future sanctfied existence but in the defeat of the Powers and the renewal of creation that has already begun. This is so crucial to the quesiton Paul is asking in Romans, which is what about God’s faithfulness. This is what we find in the story of Israel and it is what Paul is applying to the gentile story with concern over their division regarding the work of God playing out in their context as gentile believers. The assurance of salvation is this gospel story- the death and resurrection of Jesus which defeats the Powers of Sin and Death and ushers in the new reality. What follows then, which is evident in Paul’s continued emphasis on the call to obedience and allegiance within this new reality, is the question of which reality we are standing in, that which brings life or that which brings death. This is not a matter of “believing faith. This is a matter of participation based on the faithfulness of God. This then becomes a much diffrent question then “am I saved or not”. Rather its, how can I know God is making things right in the world? That’s the question Paul is asking in Romans, and this should frame our sense of justice accordngly as it moves us to then bear witness to the fact that God is in fact faithful to that promise even in our failures. This is the true force of God’s elective work.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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