Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Joel Willitts on the Meaning of Israel

On Euangelion Joel Willitts has some interesting comments about Mark Nanos' work, and he asks good questions about the meaning of the term "Israel" in Rom 9-11:
"I have been wondering these days about the term 'Israel' especially Romans 9-11. What is the difference for Paul between the terms 'Jew' and 'Israelite' that surface in Romans? Why does Paul use the term Jew elsewhere in Romans, but in the context of Romans 9-11 he uses the term Israelite/Israel? Now most, as far as I can tell, see this change as one of election: who are the true chosen people? Most of course think Paul at best is saying that both Jew and non-Jew are now God's chosen people and the election term 'Israel' can be applied to both or at worst that the non-Jews have now taken ancient Israel’s place as God's true Israel (quoting Paul 'not all Israel is Israel')."
I think Paul's statement that "not all Israelites truly belong to Israel" (Rom 9:6) means simply that "not all Israelites are presently faithful". Thomas Tobin cautions that the passage shouldn’t be pressed beyond this loose meaning (Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 327). It doesn't mean literally that unbelieving Judeans are no longer part of Israel, and it doesn't mean that Gentiles should be considered part of Israel -- even if Paul comes very close to suggesting that in the context of election.

Philip Esler says similarly: "Despite the inclusive message of Rom 9:6-13, Paul does not identify the Christ-movement with Israel. He comes perilously close, but avoids taking that final step." (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 279.) Likewise, in Rom. 9:14-29, Paul refrains from calling the remnant of faithful Christians "Israel". He did so years before, in Galatians (Gal 6:16), but he won't go there now. He's a new man.

We know this because Rom 9:30-11:14 is explicit about ethnic Israel. Paul contrasts Israel with the Gentiles (Rom 9:30-10:4) and then insists that despite all appearances, God has really not abandoned the Judean people (Rom 11:1-12). And he then develops his olive tree metaphor (Rom 11:17-24), returning to the view of faithful Judeans and Gentiles (9:6-29), the remnant who have turned to Christ. But again, he does not refer to this group as Israel. In fact, this new Christian entity is distinguished from what immediately follows in Rom 11:25-27: "All Israel" will be saved after the Gentiles have been evangelized and joined the faithful Judean remnant. So the Judean people as a whole can count on an apocalyptic miracle in the end to save them from the consequences of unbelief. There is no spiritualized (Christian) Israel in view here.

Joel suggests, however, that ethnic Israel may encompass Gentiles residing in the northern kingdom of old under David and Solomon, and that the meaning of Israel is not so contingent on Jacob and his descendants:
"The meaning of the term 'Israel' is thought to go back to the story of Jacob and his descendants. Indeed this view seems surely possible and perhaps even likely given that Paul references them in the context. Yet I question such a quick assumption when we come to Paul's statement 'all Israel will be saved' (Rom 11:26)... Isn't it at least possible that when Paul says that 'all Israel will be saved' he envisages the restoration of political-national Israel that included the restoration of the twelve-tribe kingdom of David and included non-Judeans and non-Israelites -- that is those of the northern kingdom? Thus the term 'Israel' as a political term can encompass at least three groups: Israelites, Judeans and those who are neither, but within the kingdom of Israel (=kingdom of David)."
That's an interesting suggestion, but I think a superficial one. As Joel concedes, Jacob is referenced in Rom 9-11 (9:13, 11:26), and the question throughout is whether or not (and if so how) stumbling Israelite heirs will be saved in the end. We're in danger of trivializing Paul's anguish over the failure of his own people to accept (who he considers to be) the messiah if we stretch ethnic Israel to encompass Gentile territories subject to David's census. When he says that "all Israel" will be saved, he means the Judeans -- the heirs of Jacob (11:26) -- will be saved precisely "for the sake of their [Judean] ancestors" (11:28).

To me, the most important thing we can take from Paul's meaning of Israel in Rom 9-11 is that it corrects his earlier usage in Gal 6:16. There he was comfortable thinking of Gentiles (and the remnant of believing Judeans) as the new "Israel". As Joel points out, most critics assume that's what he's getting at in Rom 9-11 too, but that's not true. What Paul doesn't say in Rom 9:6 is as important as what he does say... and the rest of Rom 9-11 speaks for itself.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

If Paul had not had developed the olive tree / grafting metaphor by the time he wrote Galatians, then I would definitely agree that it would be perilous to facilely read Gal 6 into Rom 9.

We have to allow for some development in Paul's thought over his career.


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