"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21
by Charles F. Hudson

Paul seeks to establish a narrow definition of Israel as a remnant chosen according God’s sovereign purpose. In the process he makes some dubious distinctions (offspring vs. children, flesh vs. promise) and fails to note the change from selection to inclusion in God’s formation of the covenant nation Israel.

Romans 9:6b-13

6b For not all who are of Israel, are Israel,
7 nor because they are offspring of Abraham are all children, but: “In Isaac will your offspring be called.” (Gen. 21:12b, LXX)

8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for offspring.

9 For this is the word of promise: “According to this time <I will come> and Sarah will have a son.” (Gen 18:10,14, LXX except for <I will come>)

10 And not only so, but also Rebekah, having conceived by one, Isaac our father,

11 (for though they were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, that the purpose of God, according to His choice, would remain,

12 not of works, but of Him who calls), it was said to her: “The older shall serve the younger.” (Gen 25:23b, LXX).

13 according as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Mal. 1:2b-1:3a, LXX)

Now this is a clever argument, and for those reading Paul’s words from the perspective of Christian faith it may not be obvious what is wrong with the argument. For when an argument supports your point of view, the details don’t matter. Speaking for myself, when I was still a Christian who saw the Church as the new “spiritual” Israel, this passage was very important to my understanding. What I could not see before, as a Christian, seems patently obvious to me now.

Paul begins with the claim: not all who are of (i.e., descended from) Israel are Israel. Then he proceeds to recount how Isaac and Jacob (Israel) were both chosen by God to continue the line of Abraham’s children even though by ordinary or natural circumstances their older brothers would have been chosen: in the case of Isaac, because his parents were too old to bear children; in the case of Jacob, because his twin brother Esau was born first.

All this is interesting, but irrelevant to the question of who is Israel. For when Jacob (Israel) was chosen, so were all his descendants; not just those by his favored wife Rachel, but by both wives and by their maids too! In contrast to previous generations, where the son favored by the father (Ishmael initially by Abraham, Esau by Isaac) was rejected as the heir through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled, Jacob’s favorite son or sons (initially Joseph, perhaps at some point Judah) became, along with all their brothers, part of the “community of nations” (Gen. 35:11) which would make up the one nation Israel. With the election of Israel, God’s plan for his chosen nation came to a turning point: all the sons of Israel were loved by God, all were redeemed from Egypt, and all entered God’s covenant. So, with a few exceptions (e.g., those cut off from Israel because they chose to disregard the covenant), all who are descended from Israel are indeed Israel.

The pattern, the change from selection to inclusion, may be seen in the daily morning blessings (Ribon kol ha olamim): “We are Your people, children of Your covenant, children of Your beloved Abraham…offspring of Isaac…the community of Jacob, Your firstborn son whom You named Israel and Jeshuran, because of Your love for him and Your delight in him.” Children of Abraham, offspring of Isaac, but the community of Jacob, the whole people called by his name. By the way, the identification of Israel (the whole people) as God’s firstborn son is from Exod. 4:22, “Israel is My firstborn son.”

Furthermore, while not all of Abraham’s offspring belong to Israel, all who are of Israel are also the offspring and children of Abraham, with one proviso: Israel counts converts, those who freely choose to enter the covenant, among their number; but converts are also counted (and named) as the children of Abraham.

Paul seems to imply a distinction between the offspring (lit., seed) of Abraham and his children. John’s gospel has Jesus make a similar distinction: offspring, John 8:33,37; children, John 8:39. For John, the children of Abraham (and of God) are those who do the works of their father. For Paul, the children of Abraham (and of God) are presumably those who share the faith of Abraham, which Paul elsewhere presumptuously identifies with believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God (Romans 1:4, 3:22).

Again, just as there can be no difference between the children of the flesh and the children of the promise (God chose to covenant with all the descendants of Israel, born according to the flesh), so this distinction contradicts the stated facts of Scripture. The children of Abraham were not selected according to their good behavior, certainly not according to their anticipation of a coming Messiah, and not according to God’s mercy (cf. Rom. 9:15-18) either. Ishmael was fully as much Abraham’s son as Isaac, and God promised Abraham that Ishmael would be blessed with increase and would become a great nation (Gen. 17:20). The only distinction between Isaac and Ishmael was that the covenant would be made with Isaac and his offspring, not with Ishmael.

And it is the covenant that distinguishes and defines Israel. In other words, Israel is indeed more than an ethnic group, more than a nation or people. Israel is a people, holy, chosen, treasured, affectionately loved, freed and rescued, kept in covenant with a faithful and kind God, keeping His commandments, through all generations (Deut. 7:6-9). Israel with the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) but without the covenant would not be Israel. To reinforce this point, here are passages from Jacob Neusner’s book, Children of the Flesh, Children of the Promise: (1)

Israel on its own bore no importance whatsoever; Israel within God’s plan, living in accord with that plan, formed God’s stake in this world.” (p. 60)

“The ethnic formulation of matters becomes possible only when Israel’s Torah is disregarded [and] Israel’s sanctity reduced to its this-worldly trivialities of politics and ethnic preferences. If Israel is elect, then God is the God of Israel–and of all who come under the wings of God’s presence by entering into Israel.” (p. 62)

“Israel remains Israel, the Jewish people, after the flesh, not just because Israel today continues the family begun by Abraham, Isaac [and] Jacob… and bears the heritage bequeathed by them. Israel is what it is also because of Israel’s character as holy nation.” (p. 65)

In other words, Israel is at the same time defined by promise and by flesh, with converts representing the only apparent exception. Again, on converts:

“In the Judaism set forth in the normative writings, the outsider who accepts the Torah as given by God becomes fully Israel. His or her offspring then take their place in Israel, without differentiation in any material way from other Israelites. True, they have no past, no genealogy except that accorded to them by Abraham and Sarah. But they have the same future as everyone in holy Israel: a portion in the world to come…. By the normative Judaism… the children of the flesh are the children of the promise.” (p. 97)

A final point: Paul quotes the passage from Malachi which has God choosing Jacob while rejecting Esau. A few verses later Malachi also calls Edom, the descendants of Esau, “the people to whom the LORD shows wrath forever.” (Malachi 1:4) This sounds pretty dismal for the Edomites, except that Malachi’s point is in answer to the question: How has God loved Israel? In other words, Edom (hated, rejected) is used as the archetypical counterpoint to God’s great love shown to Israel.

The actual situation for Edomites was quite different. Deuteronomy 23:8-9 (MT) tells us, “Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; do not abhor an Egyptian, for you were an alien in his land. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD.” Here the move toward inclusion is extended even beyond the natural boundaries of Israel to allow for certain outsiders to join themselves to the covenant nation. From early on, Israel had an immigration policy! Once again, Paul’s argument fails.

Notes

1. Jacob Neusner, Children of the Flesh, Children of the Promise: A Rabbi Talks with Paul (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), pages as noted in the text.

 

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