Romans 9: Mosaic Covenant and Hard Hearts
Been an exhausting last week. Terribly exhausting. Haven’t been able to get myself to read anything other than some psalms. Not that you all really care. I know you don’t want to hear excuses, you want to hear about Romans. Consider it done.
The Mosaic Covenant
Onward we go with Paul into the book of Exodus. He first quotes from Exodus 33 where YHWH says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The Lord says these words to Moses just before he shows Moses His glory. YHWH is passing before Moses, showing Moses only His back, as a confirmation to Moses that the Lord will do what He said He will do and as a sign to the Israelites that what Moses said was true and trustworthy. His glowing face certainly was convincing. What was God affirming? That His presence would remain with Israel. Why did God need to affirm that?
Before God passed His glory before Moses, Moses had already went up to Sinai and came down with two tablets on which were written the Law, which is the sign of the Mosaic covenant that outlines the terms of the relationship. But when Moses came down with the tablets, the Israelites were in the middle of breaking the first commandments written on the tablets (which, by the way, they had already been told and were already written down by Moses). They were worshipping a golden calf. YHWH wasn’t too happy that Israel had already transgressed the Law that outlined the covenant that they said they would abide by. So, remaining faithful like He does, He told Moses to go on with Israel to the Land YHWH promised under covenantal oath to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God would not go with them because He was so angry He was going to kill the Israelites along the way. Moses didn’t like the idea of going without God.
Moses talked with God like a man talks to a friend. Even though the Israelites had already been given a portion of the Law by Moses that he wrote down and put in the book of the covenant, Moses did not seem to think that was adequate in being the set apart people of God. Moses told God that it is pointless that Moses has favor with God, it is pointless in Israel being the set apart people of God, and it is pointless in them being in any way distinct from the rest of the world if the Presence of YHWH does not go with them. This was a bold argument by Moses to get YHWH to go with them. God agrees with him.
It is in this background context that the Lord says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Then God proceeds to pass His glory before Moses, the mediator of God’s covenant with Israel. In the immediately following story YHWH makes new tablets with the same words on them as the previous pieces of stone. Along with the tablets, YHWH remakes the covenant with Israel. He starts the covenant relationship anew, obviously not because of the human exertion or will, for Israel had just heinously broken the covenant, but because of the mercy of God. And…
Back to the Future. Romans 9. Where God is also in the process of making anew His covenant with the people of God, because they have broken it. With this new covenant comes new terms, because it is not a redoing the old but a fulfillment of it with the creation of the new. God had compassion on the Israelites because He made a series of covenant relationships with them and their descendants. God had mercy on the Israelites because He chose them. It had nothing to do with their exertion or will. Now, in this new covenant, made because Israel transgressed the old, God chose the Gentiles to become full covenant members along with the Jews.
Who was Israel to argue? In His compassion He once chose Israel because of nothing they did to deserve it, now God was choosing to take away the ancestral delineators, ethnic inhibitors, and the Law as the signs of the covenant. As a part of His righteousness and carrying through His covenantal plan for the blessing of all nations, God has made a new covenant with Jesus as the mediator and faith(fulness) as the relational terms of the covenant. How can Israel possibly object? For they, like the Gentiles, were only chosen to be the set apart people of God because God will have mercy on whom He has mercy and compassion on whom He has compassion.
This section will be more brief. I promise. Right after Paul quotes and gives a brief commentary on the last verse, he goes on to say:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
He is again quoting Exodus here, a totally different portion of Exodus, but still, Exodus. Most of you already have an idea of the context. God, through Moses, is sending a whole buttload of plagues on Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to let YHWH’s people be free, that God might continue in his covenant faithfulness and righteousness with His covenant people. Pharaoh keeps saying no. Pharaoh keeps hardening his heart toward Israel and YHWH and refuses to let them go. In the context of the verse Paul quotes, God describes it as Pharaoh “exalting [himself] against [God's] people.”
Paul’s verse in Exodus is an explicit statement of an underlying thematic idea of the story of Pharaoh and the ten plagues of Egypt. This idea is that God is really the one hyping up and staging this whole event. God is creating a huge cataclysmic event to begin the Exodus from Egypt of God’s people. He’s building the circumstances and making this an event that will live on in the memories of both Israel and all the nations who hear of it. One of the ways Scripture talks about God keeping the tension and the drama of this thing building is through His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Sometimes Scripture talks about Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and sometimes it talks about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart* so that Pharaoh wouldn’t let God’s people go. Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal coming from his hardened heart resulted in a more drawn out drama with increasingly grand miraculous plagues. And…
Back to the Future II. Romans 9. I’m assuming, as I am wont to do, that Paul is quoting this verse to convey themes and communicate ideas that go beyond using the verse as a proof text that God hardens some and not others. With that assumption an important question arises. To whom is Paul comparing Pharaoh? Well, who else did God raise up that he might show his power and glorify his name throughout the earth? Who else exalted themselves against God’s people? Who else did God harden like he hardened Pharaoh? Hmmmm… Uh oh.
It’s Israel. The Israelites are the ones that God raised up so that through His power in them His name might be proclaimed throughout the whole world. And it is that same Israel who Paul is warning not to exalt themselves above the Gentiles that are now God’s people, even though Israel was first. And it is the people of Israel whose heart God is hardening, all those of Israel who are excluded from the new covenant because they do not accept the terms of the covenant by acknowledging that Jesus Messiah is the Lord and believe in their inmost being that he was resurrected. The very Israel that was saved through God’s mercy by the hardening of Pharaoh who was against their God and His covenant people is now in danger of being hardened by God because of their opposition to God’s mercy and His covenant people. Paul is brilliant.
*This might be interesting to some. When Scripture talks about God hardening Pharoah’s heart, this idea doesn’t even sit right with John Calvin. He says that God did not directly harden Pharaoh’s heart, but what God did was allow a fallen angel to harden Pharoah’s heart. By YHWH’s mere allowance of this, Scripture can talk about God actually doing it, even though, according to Calvin, God had no direct involvement. Source: somewhere in The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Personally, I have a different sort of solution to the same problem that does involve God’s direct action rather than an indirect allowance, but most people would prefer Calvin.
P.S. For those of you that find my approach to the text helpful or intriguing, (even if you think my interpretations are suspect), you should come back in a couple of days from the time of posting. I have a surprise.
P.P.S. Zack Galifanakis is funny. I was watching his stand up while writing this.