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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.

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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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