Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Anguish for Israel

Romans 8 closed with the exalted themes of new creation and the inability of this world’s suffering to separate us from Christ. Immediately in the opening verses of Romans 9 we get the sense that we have left those exalted heights behind for a much more somber matter. Paul does not indicate to us at first what the topic of these next chapters will be but he does indicate to us immediately that the topic will be serious. He begins with not one, not two, but three assertions of the truthfulness of what he is about to say - “(1) I am speaking the truth in Christ, (2) I am not lying, (3) my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit.” And the thing about which Paul asserts in triplicate that he is telling the truth is that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish”. It is only in v.3 that we even begin to get an idea of what Paul is so upset about and even there he doesn’t spell it out exactly. We only know that Paul is concerned about Israel, his kinsmen. We learn over the next three chapters that Paul is deeply and personally troubled by the fact that so few of his own countrymen have come to see Jesus as their Messiah.

Despite much of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, Paul claims “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” After 2000 years of mostly Gentile Christianity, one might wonder what Israel’s rejection of Jesus has to do with the failure or success of God’s word. But if we are to understand Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, we must see that they have everything to do with each other. That is because the word of God to which Paul is referring is the promises God made to Israel - promises that they would be God’s people and the heirs of God’s kingdom. If those very same people who are now rejecting the Messiah who came to fulfill those promises while Gentiles are simultaneously accepting that same Messiah and thereby inheriting the promises originally meant for Israel, we might ask “Has God abandoned Israel? Has God simply taken what he promised to Israel and arbitrarily given it to others?” Paul’s emphatic answer throughout these three chapters will be “Absolutely not!”

That answer begins in the second half of verse six and the first half of verse seven. God’s word has not failed because “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” It is that idea for which Paul will argue over the next 22 verses and he will do it by recounting the story of Israel.

If you are going to recount the story of Israel, Abraham would be a natural place to begin and that is what Paul does. Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 which God spoke to Abraham; “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” In other words, Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s only son. Ishmael was just as much the flesh and blood of Abraham as Isaac so if bloodlines were what mattered then Ishmael’s descendants would have been Israel as much as Isaac’s. Paul is arguing that “Israel” was never defined by physical descendancy. It was always about those to whom God made his promises. The same is true, Paul declares, with Isaac and Rebekah’s sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was just as much Isaac’s son as Jacob. In fact, Esau was the firstborn with every right to his father’s inheritance and blessing. Additionally, Jacob was no saint but a liar and deceiver. In spite of all that, God chose to enact his promises through Jacob who would later be renamed Israel. Once again, being Israel was never about simply being of the lineage of Abraham. It was about God fulfilling his promises to Abraham through whomever he chose.

This emphasis on God’s choice leads to a natural question. Is God unjust? If it is all about God’s choice apart from any human standard of worthiness, does that make God arbitrary and unfair? Not surprisingly, Pauls says no, and he turns to the next scene in Israel’s story, also God’s greatest act of justice in Israel’s story, to make the point. Paul claims along with Exodus 9:16 that God actively hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not repent. But God did this for the express purpose of showing mercy to the Israelite slaves. To be sure, God made a choice but it was a choice for the salvation of a people. It was the choice that made Israel.

Paul says the same is true in the final movement of Israel’s history prior to the Messiah: the exile. When Paul starts talking about some vessels prepared for destruction and others for glory in v.22-23, many assume that those “vessels” are a metaphor for individuals, some of whom are predestined for hell while others are predestined for heaven from before birth. While I won’t deny that Paul had a very strong sense of the sovereignty of God - I would guess nearly every first century Jew did and that even most Gentiles took for granted some notion of fate or divine providence - I don’t think a Calvinist doctrine of double individual predestination is exactly what he has in mind here. This is because, once again, Paul is not telling the story of individuals. He is telling the story of Israel and when he uses the language of a potter and clay anyone who knows Israel’s story will know that he is echoing the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 18, God tells Jeremiah that Israel is like clay in God’s hands and that God can make or remake Israel as God pleases. This is precisely what Paul has been arguing all along: God is (and really has always been) remaking Israel, even to the point of calling those who were not God’s people “my people” as Hosea says.

More specifically, God is remaking Israel into a remnant of Israel. Paul believes that much as Isaiah claimed that God reduced Israel to just a remnant of Israel in the time of exile so also was God currently reducing Israel to a remnant in Paul’s day. But we will see later in chapter 11, that Paul does not expect this to be Israel’s permanent condition. Instead, this remnant of Israel will eventually lead to the full salvation of Israel. Much like the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart led to the redemption of an entire people, so the current hardening of Israel is meant for salvific purposes as well.

Paul’s claim in this chapter has been that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Paul demonstrated this through Israel’s story. Starting with Abraham, then Isaac, Jacob and on through the Exodus and the Exile, God has always been making and remaking Israel. Israel has never really been all the physical descendants of Abraham because from the moment God chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, a remnant within Abraham’s descendants was being formed. Paul believes that this is what is happening is his own day; a remnant is being formed around Jesus out of Jews and Gentiles that will eventually be the salvation of his kinsmen, Israel