Paul is a biblical theologian, and Romans 9—11 is among the bibliest section in any of Paul’s epistles. As noted by N.T. Wright (whose Paul and the Faithfulness of God I follow throughout), nearly forty percent of the text is taken up with quotations from Scripture, a higher concentration than anywhere else in Paul.
That’s a clue to what Paul is up to. Paul’s aim is to explain the logic of God’s dealings with Israel, and what he offers is a reading of that history, replete with citations from the Jewish Scriptures. Though his Jewish contemporaries would agree with a great deal of what he says, he diverges at what is literally a crucial point. As Wright notes, he offers a cruciform reading of Israel’s purpose.
Paul begins with a lament that his fellow Jews who did not accept their Messiah. Like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Paul is in anguish for a people he knows are culpable. They receive an eightfold blessing (9:4-5), but don’t keep faith (cf. Rom 3). Paul isn’t talking about “belief,” but about Israel’s faithfulness in mission. These blessings were entrusted to Israel to be passed on to the nations. Israel evoked blasphemy rather than praise from the Gentiles, and so they stand accursed and separated from Christ.
Of course, many Jews were faithful, and thousands heard the gospel and acknowledged Jesus as King. But as a nation, represented by the priestly class, Israel turned from their Christ. Like Moses on Sinai, Paul wishes he could bear their curse and be cut off from Christ himself. He would, as it were, play Christ to the Jews, if it would save them.
The question, as I noted before, is whether God will be faithful to His own promise in the face of Israel’s missional failure. Will He still save, and save through Israel? Paul’s answer is Yes, but he starts by clarifying what “Israel” means. He does this by a rapid overview of Israel’s history:
2. Exodus, 9:14-18
3. Pre-exilic, 9:19-23 (with allusion to Jeremiah 18)
4. Exile and return, 9:24-28
5. Messiah, 9:29
These are not simply various ways of illustrating a general point. There’s a development within this history, different forms of discriminating “Israel” from “Israel” (9:6).
The difference between Ishmael and Isaac doesn’t have to do with salvation. Yahweh is with Ishmael as with Isaac (Genesis 21:20). Rather, the difference has to do with mission: Which son bears the promise and task of the covenant? Isaac is the one through whom Abraham’s descendants are called; he’s the “child of the promise” who is counted as seed, as the child of God. There is, in short, a distinction between descent from Abraham and being “seed” of Abraham. Even at the beginning, “Israel” wasn’t defined as “descended from Abraham.”
Perhaps the allegory of Galatians 4 lurks in the background. There Ishmael is equated with fleshly Israel. For a time, the Jews bear the promise as the older son, but when the younger Seed arrives he supplants the elder. The younger son, a people made of Jews and Gentiles and born of the heavenly Jerusalem, is the seed. As Paul stresses in Romans 4, this Isaac-people sprang up like resurrection, becoming a people when they had not been called a people.
Ishmael and Isaac had different mothers. With Isaac’s sons, God’s discriminating choice is finer still. He distinguishes between sons with identical parentage, who were born almost simultaneously. The only difference between them is God’s purpose. Unlike Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob are morally distinguished: “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” (9:13). Again, we should probably read this allegorically: The older son, Esau, represents the Jews who reject Jesus; they are “enemies” with respect gospel (11:28). Jacob represents the carriers of the blessing, the Jews who follow Jesus and who afterwards receive Gentiles as equal partners.
Apart from the (possible) allegorization, Paul is on safe ground. His Jewish opponents would have agreed: God has the prerogative to choose some and reject others. He can discriminate Israel from Israel. He’s God, after all.
Paul mentions two incidents from the exodus. Answering an objection about God’s justice (9:14), he quotes Exodus 33, where, in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, Yahweh declares He can have mercy on whom He will (9:15). In context, the point is that He doesn’t wipe idolatrous Israel out and start over with Moses, as He threatened to do. Israel has no ground for complaint about God’s justice, because they persist entirely because of His mercy.
Pharaoh’s experience also raises questions about God’s justice, but from the opposite direction. If God raised Pharaoh up in order to demonstrate His power, how can He blame Pharaoh? I won’t get into the thicket of theological issues here. Instead, I want to ask how Pharaoh fits into Paul’s argument. The “hardening” of Pharaoh anticipates Paul’s reference to the “hardening” of Israel (11:25). In both cases, God turns hardening into life. The reference to Pharaoh prepares us for the paradoxical role “hardened” Israel plays in the salvation of the nations.
The allusion to Jeremiah 18’s parable of the potter (Romans 9:20-24) puts us in the era of exile and return. In Jeremiah, the potter doesn’t mold pots with fixed destinies. On the contrary, the point is that the potter can unmake flawed pots and start again (Jeremiah 18:1-12, esp. v 4). He can plant (make a pot) and later uproot what He planted (destroy the pot and make another). He can build up, tear down, and build again. In fact, He’s done it over and over throughout Israel’s history. And through Israel’s various deaths and rebirths, He’s preserved a remnant. Throughout Israel’s tumultuous history, Yahweh discriminates and chooses an Israel within Israel, as He did in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses.
Paul turns the potter image to a different use. The potter, God, makes some vessels for destruction and some for mercy. “What if,” Paul says in what appears to be a hypothetical: What if God endured the vessels of wrath with patience so He could show mercy on other vessels? What if God, in short, were patient with a stiff-necked people precisely so that other vessels could receive the riches of His glory (9:23)? In the analogy, the “vessels of wrath” are rebellious Jews who refuse to carry out the Lord’s mission. The vessels of mercy are, explicitly, “us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” (9:24).
The Lord’s patience triumphed over Israel’s rebellion and, in spite of themselves, they become the means to glorify the vessels of mercy, the Jew-Gentile church. Again, Paul is anticipating what becomes clearer as these chapters progress: God has not given up His promise to save the Gentiles through Israel. He hasn’t reneged on the principle that “salvation is of the Jews.” Will-they, nill-they, the Jews will be His agent to bring grace and glory to the nations. Whether Israel is faithful or rebellious, the Lord will be faithful.
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