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Roman Theme Party

April 20, 2011 1 comment

Put on your most Roman garb, and let’s do as the Romans do. Party like it’s mid-1st century… and Jesus Messiah has risen. However, my parties aren’t all that exciting. There is alcohol, but it’s only a single glass of scotch. The theme is awesome though. It’s new covenant theology baby. Let’s get it started in here.

Believe it or not, Romans 9 is not meant as a standalone chapter. It’s meaning is intended to be understood in light of the rest of the book of Romans. Like the rest of my posts, I’m choosing only to focus on a few snippets of Romans 9 and am not trying to do a complete exegesis of the chapter. I don’t think I have the skill with interpretation to do that. It’s too thick for my thick skull. But I hope what I have to offer does something to make this chapter come a little more alive. I’m going to talk about some of the interrelated running themes of Romans that Romans 9 elaborates on, clarifies, and foundationalizes. Also, if you don’t know Romans well and don’t choose to read the passages I talk about, it’s probably just a waste of time for you to read this. Unless you like my strange writing humor.

Jews and Greeks

The first theme is related to a phrase Paul says three times in the first two chapters of Romans: “the Jew first and also the Greek.” I think his first use is the most telling (maybe not, but I like it the most). He says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Paul is introducing an idea that develops throughout the book of Romans, the Jews received salvation first and now the Greeks (Gentiles) are receiving it. Part of the development of this idea is a multi-chapter comparison between Jews and Gentiles.

In chapter 1 he starts with an overview of all people, making no distinction between Jew and Gentile. He talks about how, because of God’s revelation of himself through His creation, everyone, even those without the Law, is culpable for their sinful behavior. Paul really highlights the perverseness and gross deviations from God’s way. These sort of actions deserve death. Everyone will get the wrath that they have earned. He clarifies in Romans 2:9-10 that he is talking about both Jews and the Greeks. The Jews will get what they deserve first, but the Greek will get his too.

Then Paul gets into a brief discussion of the Law* where he presents ideas that I can’t think of an Old Testament precedent for offhand. Let me know if you can. He says that it is the law that condemns the Jews, but it is also the Law that condemns the Greek! Those without the law show their heart knowledge of the Law by obeying the law, and so, due to their knowledge, are judged by the law. It’s a fascinating (and sneaky) way of uplifting the law while talking about the solidarity Jews have with Gentiles and further introducing the idea that Jews and Greeks are in the same position before God. Paul is smart. In chapter 3 Paul more clearly and specifically talks about how even though the Jews came first, and that’s great, they are in the same position as non-Jew. Both are convicted by the law as a lawbreaker (and in need of the law to be put to death). Both are sinful and wretched and objects of wrath.**

In Romans 9 the first five verses really talk up the Jews and their importance in God’s plan for humanity and all of the firsts that He gave them. They were the first. Awesome. But this inclusion of Gentiles is not God’s lacking faithfulness. Paul has already explained a lot about just how similar Jews and Gentiles are. They are held to the same standards, they are guilty of their own choices, they are equally in need of a saving action. Not only is there a similarity of their state of guilt, but now through the saving action that Jews and Gentiles need is an incorporation of the Gentiles into the covenant people of God as full members. Jews were full members first, but now the Gentiles are too. I think the powerful arguments Paul makes in Romans 9 about this idea of the Gentiles’ inclusion as covenant members are explained in my other posts, so I won’t get to that much here. My point is that in Romans 9 Paul doesn’t suddenly throw upon the Jewish people this idea that Gentiles are fully included as God’s people. Like a good persuader, he has been rhetorically developing the equality and solidarity of Jew and Greek and continuously expounding on the various ways in which they are alike. Romans 9 is simply the same argument expanded.

God’s Consistent Sovereign Relationship With Humanity

Romans 9 is nothing if not a declaration of God’s sovereignty and consistency and a predictive and defensive explanation of his single, complex plan to invite everyone, all people groups, into his kingdom as full partners in a covenant relationship. Throughout Romans, Paul describes a sovereign God who is in an incessant relationship with humanity, most of which is concerned with their mess.

Paul starts talking about the Gentiles in Romans 1, declaring that it is only by the power of the sovereign God he follows that he invites the Gentiles into an obedience of faith. It’s through God that the call to them comes. It’s ultimately His doing.

Also in Romans 1 is the discussion mentioned above about how God is revealed to all mankind and no man (or woman) has an excuse for his sin. While this, like much of Romans, is a part of the process of showing the relational solidarity of Jews and Gentiles, this whole discussion relies on the transcendence and primacy of God. It is God who has made His eternal power and divine nature visible since creation. Even as people are sinning and making their free choices to refuse God His glory, Paul makes it clear that their continuance in this is because of God. He “gave them up in the lusts of their hearts” and He “gave them up to dishonorable passions.” It’s a way of talking about God’s intimate involvement in the situation without talking about God as the reason for their sin. They sin because they choose to, but could not if God did not give them over to these things.

In Romans 2 we have talk of God’s judgment of all who sin, Jews and Gentiles equally. Judgment is something that can only be done by a sovereign relational God. In Romans 3 we see Paul declaring God’s transcendent and consistent faithfulness to the covenant He has made, despite humanity’s unrighteous departure from the terms of the covenant. God is faithful even when all humanity is not and because of God’s sovereignty, His faithfulness is enough to fill the covenant on behalf of humanity.

Even Abraham, the great father of the present people of God, was not a man who was justified by acting  in line with the terms of the covenant. Even Abraham, the exalted forefather of the Jews, did not live an adequately righteous life to take care of his part of the agreement. But it was God who justified him. Without circumcision, without the law. Abraham had faith that God would do what He promised, but even still, it was God who counted that faith to Abraham as righteousness. He’s the reason the relationship even works.

In Romans 5 Paul explains even further this relational problem humans have with God. He shows, as he has been doing, that the problem is not just one of the people of God transgressing the law or people not having outward signs of the covenant. It’s much deeper than that. It’s much bigger. It’s much more universal. He shows that the relational problem came before the Jews were even an idea, long before Abraham was even a twinkle in his father’s eye, and much much longer before the Law was given to Israel. It’s the problem of the first man. It’s the problem from Man, from Adam, that makes this relationship with God so difficult. And this central problem, universal problem, the core problem, is the one that God is Himself fixing even though it’s not His problem. It’s ours, but God is the only solution. The solution is the sovereign Lord through Messiah Jesus, as Messiah Jesus, making right the issue that plagues both Jew and Greek equally: sin in sinful man. This is a big God who is the first actor in relationship. He is the one who has always been working with humanity to make relationship with Him possible. The Lord YHWH is the ultimate reason for all this.

Romans 9 adds to this theme in a couple of ways. I think it was somewhat of a surprising truth to the Jews that the inclusion of the Greek into the covenant people of God is not unlike what God has been doing all along. Even though it may feel to the Jews like a new thing that is out of character for YHWH, he has always been interacting with all of humanity in one way or another. It has never been primarily about humanity’s action toward Him through circumcision or the Law, but about the Supreme Being’s actions with humanity.

Paul shows this in Romans 9, not by redefining the stories for the Jews, but by showing something in the stories that they may not have seen before. He demonstrates this by interpreting the stories as they were finally meant to be interpreted, in light of the rightwising Jesus Messiah. Blood relationship is not the primary factor in deciding who is a child of the promise, it’s God’s choice. It’s not the way man expects it (like through the firstborn) or tries to make it happen (like through a servant woman), but through the sovereign way of YHWH.

Paul has some pretty strong words with those who would argue with him, declaring essentially that to argue with this point is to argue with God. A paraphrased sampling: God will be merciful to whoever He wants to be merciful to. Who are you to say differently? What are you, a lump of clay, thinking as you argue with God? Will you be the clay set apart for God’s wrath or will you trust that what God is doing through Jesus Messiah now is His faithfulness? What will you choose? It’s a matter of acknowledging the full inclusion of the Greek as covenant members or opposing the Sovereign God who is drawing the Gentiles in with covenantal terms that are both new and old.

Covenantal Terms

God set out different relationship terms for different covenants. Paul talks a little bit about some of these signs of the covenant in ways that show that, even though they are important and awesome, they are not what is primarily important. We’ve already discussed them some, but I’ll highlight what they are.***

Paul talks about the law and how it is great that the Jews have “been entrusted with the oracles of God.” However, Paul also talks about how the Law has done nothing to make the people of God righteous and the Law has also functioned to the Greek, although they existed apart from the people of the Law, to make them unrighteous. It has the same function for those that have it and those that don’t. Paul discusses circumcision and its value, but how it is valueless if one doesn’t keep the Law (he later shows that no one keeps the Law). So, even though this sign is valuable, it doesn’t make the difference. Before these covenant terms existed, another one was present that is always of value.

Faith. The Law has made all unjust, but through God’s merciful action in Jesus, all can be justified through faith (Romans 3:22-24). It is faith that makes things right, but faith only has power because of the God the faith is in and His initial graceful work of redemption.

Paul explains that faith has always been what the relationship is all about in his interpretation of Abraham. Paul shows that Abraham, the flesh father of the Jews, didn’t obtain covenant righteousness with God by the same ways that the Jews were pursuing it. Although later Abraham had the circumcision and later through his descendants the Law came, it was before circumcision that Abraham was justified. It was apart from the law that Abraham was made righteous. With the forefather of the Jewish people, covenant justification was obtained through faith in YHWH and what He says. It was given through the belief of Abraham. Faith is the ultimate necessity for covenant righteousness for Abraham, why would it be different for the Jews?****

In Romans 9 Paul says it’s fantastic that the Israelites have “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, and the patriarchs.” Then he shows that these things, though sweet, are not enough to be a member of God’s chosen people. Nor is not having them enough to exclude anyone from being a member of God’s chosen people. The old covenant signs are no more and now there is only the term of the covenant that has always been.

Faith. As we see at the end of Romans 9 (and developed even more as Paul moves through Romans*****), Paul’s conclusion is that the Gentiles, although they have not been in this covenant pursuit of righteousness, have attained righteousness by their faith in Jesus Messiah. The Jews, although they have pursued righteousness, have not attained it because they did not pursue it through faith, but through the Law. This whole faith to attain righteousness thing feels counterintuitive because the former pursuers of covenant justification are just as likely to be excluded as the new people who did not pursue covenant justification but attained it anyway through faith in God’s fulfillment of his promise.

But it’s a part of what God has been doing all along and what he said he would do. God laid a stumbling stone in Zion, an offensive rock, and it is trusting in this counterintuitive rock that justifies and keeps people from being in shame. Not only trusting in Jesus for salvation and righteousness and redemption, but also, as implied by this passage, trusting that God’s work through Jesus applies equally to Gentiles. As we’ve been discovering, God has had this in mind all along and his inclusion of the unexpected, determining children by the promise not by genes, and making a covenant relationship with the younger are all precursors to this present covenant with the Gentiles. Including people into His people that were once not His people has long been a part of God’s plan with the Messiah.

Rejecting other believers in Jesus’ work on the cross as covenant members because they haven’t had the same theological background, don’t have the same history, haven’t had the Law, believe different things about a right life, live differently, or are younger in the faith is tantamount to a rejection of Jesus.***** To exclude believers in the redemptive and rightwising Messiah Jesus from the covenant community is to have no faith in God and in what He has been doing all along. It is to stumble on the stumbling stone.

*That I would argue seems to really function to make less of the Law’s special significance to Jews.

**Also, I’m only explaining a very limited portion of the story of Romans. It is important to note that after Paul draws out this deep and ubiquitous problem of sin, he says, “you got a problem? Yo I’ll solve it.” Read Romans 5-8. Just awesome.

***Do you feel yet how interconnected some of the major themes of Romans are and just how cohesive this beautiful book is?

****Hint: It’s not.

*****”The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

******Love Wins.

*******I probably should edit this one. Because it’s long and I wrote one part one day and another part a week later. If anyone wants to show me the things I need to fix, that would be great. I just hate reading what I write. It always sounds better in my head.

Categories: Romans 9 Tags: , , , ,

Romans 9: Mosaic Covenant and Hard Hearts

March 27, 2011 6 comments

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.

Hard Hearts

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.

Romans 9: Prophecy

March 17, 2011 1 comment

We’re picking up right where we left off, with Jacob and Esau, but we find Paul developing in a little bit different direction. Instead of another story, he quotes the first two substantial verses in the first chapter of the prophetic book of Malachi. If Paul merely wanted to proof text to make the point that Jacob had special treatment as the son who received the blessing and Esau was rejected, then he could have merely quoted some similar verses in Genesis to convey the point. Or he could have just said it flat out without actually quoting any Scriptures because for the Jews, it is such a “duh” idea. It is something they wouldn’t have really considered disagreeing with. Of course Jacob was loved, he was Israel who we are descended from. Of course Esau was hated, look at his people! But I think Paul is doing more than using Scripture to prove a point. He is drawing attention to the prophecy of Malachi because of its present pertinence to Israel in light of the present Messiah.

I think we have to do a very brief, simple, narrow, and selective interpretation of Malachi first to bring out some of its themes. The verses Paul mentions are basically the introduction to Malachi and play a key role in its interpretation. Malachi speaks of God’s explanation of how he loved Israel. He did so by choosing Jacob and not Esau although they were both brothers. And the people of Esau, the Edomites, became the enemies of Israel and God cursed them and fated everything they did in the land to destruction. At these words, because Edom is the enemy of Israel, the Israelite people would agree with the words of the prophet and rejoice at how he spoke of their vindication through the judgment of their enemies.

After getting the Israelites’ nods and applause, Malachi proceeds to pronounce judgment on Israel and warns of future judgment if they do not repent. Within that pronouncement, he implicitly and explicitly threatens the Israelites with no longer being God’s chosen people and demonstrates how they have in many ways become enemies of God. In this way, the few verses at the beginning of this short book that Paul quotes become a metaphor that is weaved throughout Malachi. Although Esau and Edom are not mentioned again in the book, their mention forms the backdrop on which the rest of the words of the prophecy are to be read.

Malachi talks about ways that the Israelite sacrifices have profaned God and shown contempt for his name. Then, though God through choosing Jacob blessed Israel, He threatens them with cursing them and even cursing their blessings if they’re hearts are not set on Him and they don’t exemplify their reverence with right action toward Him. This threat of a curse is the “rebuking” of the descendants of Israel. Interestingly, and I think quite accurately, the Septuagint translates “rebuke” with an interpretation of what this means, using instead “cut off.” Later he says of Judah’s sin of marrying foreigners who follow foreign gods, that whoever does so, though he offers sacrifices, should he be cut off from the tents of Jacob. Cut off and separated from God’s people and His blessing, like Esau the hated one.

In Malachi, in addition to direct expressions of the idea of being cut off from the people of YHWH, is a theme that essentially has the same results. Malachi, like so many prophets, draws a sharp contrast between the wicked and the righteous. One is in right standing before God, and one is not. It’s fascinating to me the way YHWH talks about those who are disobeying Him. He talks about the temple as if it may as well be closed down. He talks about blessings being annulled and overridden by curses. He talks about Israel being despised and humiliated in front of all the other nations. He talks about not accepting their sacrifices. He talks about the wicked as not being spared. And He is talking about the Jewish people, to the Jewish people. Malachi uses examples, apocalyptic language, and metaphor to illustrate just how pointless it is to be a descendant of Israel and not live to honor YHWH. One who does this receives none of the blessings of a righteous, set apart relationship with YHWH and receives all of the curses of the Edomites. These wicked may as well not have a covenant relationship with the Lord. It’s a de facto cutting off of the wicked; in relation to YHWH, they will be like the Edomites, having blood descendance to Isaac, but outside of the true line of descent.

Malachi also does something that Paul loves to do. He explains how all of this prophetic warning, present and future curses, and present and future judgment is a part of God’s fidelity to His covenant. He states that he made a covenant with Levi, and His admonition, an admonishment of both word and action, is done that the covenant may continue. YHWH says that his humiliation of Israel is done because of their violations of the covenant. With Judah, God’s primary concern is their “broken faith” which is a profaning of the covenant. God’s covenant relationship response to this is to judge by cutting the wicked off from Jacob. A significant part of God’s constant faithfulness to the covenant is judgment and curses upon the covenant breakers. Israel is breaking the covenant in their treatment of the law, half-hearted and contemptible sacrifices which destroy the temple, keeping their resources from the temple, becoming united with those that follow other gods, and their treatment of the oppressed. They were in constant transgression of the central aspects of their covenant relationship and God would not be faithful to the covenant if He did not respond to their departure from the covenant with threats of removal from the covenant.

*Inhale*

At this point, I think the parallels to Paul in Romans 9 are obvious. Israel is in danger of becoming like Edom if they do not accept the terms of this new covenant. Israel will be cut off if they continue in their unbelief. With the coming of Jesus Messiah comes a new covenant with new terms, now not a covenant relationship through law, temple, and sacrifice, but offered by the grace of God and entered through by the faith of those who would trust in Jesus as Lord. Incarnate God coming to Earth as the Messiah also becomes an act of judgment. Jesus divides the true people of God from the supposed people of God. He is the divider of the wicked and righteous and the delineator of the people of Jacob and the people of Esau. It is, in an “already but not yet” sense, the day of the Lord Malachi is referring to that involves a punishment of the wicked and a contrasting grateful, righteous, and rightness of relationship to God of True Israel. In referencing Malachi, Paul shows that God is not doing something unexpected or unlike Him in His new inclusion of Gentiles and potential exclusion of Jews. This is a part of what He’s always been doing and is a fulfillment of what He’s promised to do.

I think this way of reading the text does more to bring us closer to Paul’s intended meaning. Certainly it is more rich with meaning than how Paul’s quotation of “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” is often interpreted. The point of Paul quoting these words is not that he is trying to prove the truth that God makes arbitrary decisions about who He is going to hate and who He’s going to love, because He’s God and He does what He wants. I think even a cursory understanding of Malachi and a context of what Paul quotes actually takes us away from that interpretation. Maybe you disagree. That’s fair. Maybe I’m wrong. A strong possibility. But these are my thoughts. 🙂

*Anyone want to go through this and cite verses for me? Hahaha.

NEW SERIES!!!* Romans 9: Beginning in the beginning…

March 10, 2011 4 comments

Well, I don’t know what to write about, and I’ve never written about this topic specifically.** I feel like I might have some fresh thoughts on it. Unlike my Doctorate-toting theological superiors, I’m not going to talk about Calvinism. I’m not going to talk about Arminianism, Monism, or Open Theism either. I have read authors that used Romans 9 as a proof text for all of these views of God’s foreknowledge. I’m not able to say much about any of these issues. I have much more limited skills with Scripture than the aforementioned scholars, and thus I’m not as capable of twisting it to prove my predetermined point as well as they can.***

You all know about my Jewish heritage by now. Among other things, Romans 9 is a partial explanation of it. It’s a chapter about covenant. It is a major foundation of Paul’s argument about both the institution of God’s new covenant with his (new) people and how that covenant is really a part of what God has been doing all along. It’s not as if God suddenly ended his old plan to start a new one, but he is continuing His former plan in a new way. I doubt I’ll provide a highly specific interpretation – I realized I don’t really like doing that. My hope is that for some of you my thoughts will illuminate more of the chapter so that it feels more rich with meaning, expansive, and accessible. And we go… now.

Paul brings a number of Scriptures to the forefront to explain just what is going on with this whole new covenantal transition of just who is true Israel, the true people of God. I would contend that the stories that Paul references in Romans 9 are as important or nearly as important to understanding Paul’s argument as his actual words. He starts by quoting the book of Genesis, so we’ll start there too.

He first quotes Genesis 21:12: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Let’s get this clear straightaway: Most often, when a Biblical author quotes one part of a text, the whole context of the text they are quoting is important to what they are saying. So, in my simple way, I ask, what is the context of Genesis 21:12 and how does it relate to Romans 9? Let us take a gander.

In this story, Abraham is about to send the slave woman who mothered his firstborn child into the desert to what seems like imminent death because his wife Sarah is jealous and doesn’t want Ishmael (son of Hagar) to have any of Isaac’s inheritance. And God says that this is good because even though Ishmael is the firstborn of Abraham’s children and as genetically related to Abraham as Isaac is, he is not the child of the promise.

The Israelites had focused primarily on tracing their bloodline back to Abraham through Isaac, which is a part of their unique place in God’s kingdom, but the key component is the promise God made to Abraham in their covenant. By elucidating the primacy of the faith element of the covenant, Paul shows how, in the same way that Ishmael was cut off from the holy set apart people of God by not being a child of the promise, Israel, though blood related like Ishmael, is now, in light of the institution of the new covenant through Jesus Messiah, in danger of being sent off into the desert and cut off from the people of God. They were once from Isaac, but without imitating the faith of Abraham they will become Ishmael. Paul does not change the meaning of the Abrahamic covenant here, but is showing the implications of its fulfillment through Jesus.

Continuing his point, Paul quotes a slightly different story in Genesis 18. Interestingly, Paul chooses to pick a narrative involving the Abrahamic covenant that is one of disbelieving laughter. In this story, Sarah overhears three men (who in context, seem to together comprise YHWH – ever notice that before?) who tell her husband that in a year she will give birth to a son, the child of the promise. Then she laughs and asks a question of disbelief. It sounds quite ridiculous that in her and her husband’s excessively old age she will bear a child. It’s a silly idea. Very difficult to believe. And He is doing something else that is almost unbelievable now.

He is fulfilling the words of the covenant in Genesis 12. After all this time, YHWH is completing, and continuing in a new way, His covenant with Abraham. He spent all this time blessing the blood descendants of Abraham, His chosen people, and now through them, He is blessing all nations. But He is not doing so by using Israel to help other nations with food, water, shelter, and law training. Instead, YHWH is blessing all nations by creating a new Covenant through the Messiah where inclusion is no longer a matter of national identity, blood descendance, ethnicity, or even Law abiding, but membership is the result of faith in Jesus Messiah and through the blood of Jesus Messiah. These are the markers of this new covenant. Because the old Covenant has been filled full, Israel can no longer hold to it and expect to continue with their status as God’s people, they must accept the terms of the new Covenant and trust in the Lord Jesus. This covenantal shift is surprising. For some, it’s surely laughably ridiculous. For many, it’s so absurd that they’ll kill those who believe in it. Yet, like Sarah, the joke is on them if they do not believe the words of God who came to earth as His own incarnate messenger (also like the story of Sarah).

Finally, Paul mentions a Genesis 25 passage about Jacob and Esau and the atypical blessing and tracing of the line of descent through the younger of two brothers. It’s not man’s way of doing things, it’s not by the virtue of Esau or his status as the firstborn, but God’s choice, God’s promise. And He chose the younger. The Jews descend from Israel (Jacob), who basically stole the promise right out from under Esau. And now, it must feel to the blood Israelites that their inheritance is in a sense being ripped from under them as God is creating a new true Israel. What was once theirs by rights, by blood, by birth, by covenant of circumcision, by covenant of law, is now fulfilled and shifting in a way that is more inclusive, but also involves rejection. Like the story of Jacob and Esau, the two peoples will be separated and one who did nothing good or bad to earn it will be of the promise and the other will be no longer a part of YHWH’s set apart people. Without faith in Jesus, members of Israel will be cut off.

*”Oh Yeah!” Fist pump. Pelvic thrust.

**At a later date I’ll address other topics that people brought up.

***Cue Nate Ray, “Oh Lord.”

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