ESSAY
Paul and the Troublers of Galatia
POSTED
September 15, 2014

Paul stands against those who are “troubling” or “disturbing” the Galatians churches (tarasso; 1:7; also in 5:10). The reference seems to be two great troublers from the Old Testament.

First, Achan is described as a “troubler” for the problems he causes in the aftermath of the battle at Jericho. He seizes some goods that belong to Yahweh from the plunder of Jericho, and as a result Israel loses the battle with Ai that follows. He is declared anathema, and his entire household and all his goods are destroyed in an act of holy war. Can we extend the comparison? Can we say that Paul’s opponents are troublers because they, like Achan, have seized something devoted to Yahweh?

Following Richard Longnecker’s suggestion, Tim Gallant (Paul’s Travail, 49-50) suggests that the answer is Yes, and argues that the “holy thing” that the Judaizers have seized is the gospel itself. They have committed sacrilege by stealing the good news from the Galatians. I am more attracted to Gallant’s other suggestion that the assault is on the Galatians themselves. Like Achan, the Judaizers want to boast in the plunder they take, which is the flesh of the Galatians (6:13). Paul wishes the troublers would end up like Achan, anathematized, scorched from the churches that they trouble (cf. 1:7-8).

The other great troubler in Israel’s history is Ahab, and Gallant (50) suggests that Paul puts himself in the position of Elijah, standing alone against the Judaizers. It’s not a complimentary comparison. The Judaizers are slotted in the position of the Israelite king who most actively promoted Baal worship, and the king whose queen, Jezebel, actively persecuted the true prophets. At least in a general way, that fits Paul’s situation: He stands against powerful enemies who distort the gospel and draw the Galatians away from Jesus Himself, powerful enemies who “persecute” Paul and his allies (cf. 4:29).

As N. T. Wright has suggested, the Elijah reference may help to explain a crux in the interpretation of Galatians 1, Paul’s visit to Arabia. Some have suggested that Paul went to Arabia to do mission work in the Nabatean kingdom. That is impossible to confirm to refute, and leaves one of the main questions to the side: Whatever Paul was doing in Arabia, we wonder why he would bring it up.

We get a clue to what Paul means by Arabia in 4:25, the only other reference to Arabia in Paul’s writings. There in his allegory on Hagar and Sarah, Paul says that Hagar represents Mount Sinai, which is in Arabia. For Paul, Arabia included Sinai. This is consistent with classical usage of the term “Arabia,” according to which Arabia Petrea would include the Sinai. What Paul describes is, it seems, a retreat to Sinai, perhaps to the Mount itself. In any case, he goes to the place that both Moses and Elijah visited.

In Galatians 1, Paul’s reference to his visit to Sinai follows on the heels of his call to be a prophet to the Gentiles, and that suggests a specific link with Elijah. As Paul describes it, his call as apostle to the Gentiles is in separable from his call. Paul does not speak here of a conversion so much as a commissioning. The point of the revelation of the Son in him was to reveal Christ in him to the nations.

Paul’s description of his calling from birth refers to Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:1-7, both of which include a calling from the womb and a mission to the nations. In Isaiah 49, the “despised one” becomes light to the nations. Once despised, the Servant becomes the one to whom princes bow. Paul sees his work caught up in the work of the Servant of the Lord when the Son is revealed “in me.” As the Servant receives the homage of kings, so Paul expects to see kings bow.

The reference to Arabic fits into Paul’s reference to a call, but not only because both Moses (Exodus 4) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were given prophetic commissions at Sinai in Arabia. Elijah’s ministry is in part a ministry among Gentiles, a ministry that includes a provocation of Israel to jealousy (cf. the widow of Zarephath, 1 Kings 17). In 1 Kings 19 in particular, Elijah is told to anoint a Gentile king, Hazael, to replace the king of Aram (vv. 15-18); in the event, he commissions Elisha to carry out the task. This is the first time an Israelite prophet is commissioned to have this kind of role in a Gentile nation. From this point on, Israel’s prophets regularly issue oracles not only to Israel and Judah, but to the nations. Elijah is commissioned to begin the prophetic mission of Israel to the Gentiles, and he is commissioned to do so at Sinai, in Arabia.

We can push this one step further. One of Elijah’s tasks is to commission Jehu to destroy the house of the troubler Ahab (1 Kings 19:16). Jehu carries out the task with zeal, not only destroying the house of Ahab but toppling the house of Baal that Ahab, the “troubler,” had erected in Samaria (cf. 2 Kings 10). If Paul is Elijah at Sinai, that implies that he is also implicated in an assault on an idolatrous house sponsored by troublers, which in the first century can be nothing but Jerusalem temple, the city from which the troublers are emanating (Galatians 2:12).

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

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