The Jewish People: Our Elder Brothers

Thank God for for the Wayback Machine. Jacob Michael's stuff is still out there, and there's gold in a lot of it. Here's his take on Romans 9, which explains what the Church means when referring to the Jewish people as our "elder brothers."

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The Riddle of Romans 9

If you don't know the Old Testament, you won't "get" St. Paul's writings. He makes use of literally hundreds of Old Testament allusions and quotes in his epistles, and he assumes that his readers know what he's referring to.

Most modern readers haven't got a clue what he's referring to, and so most modern readers end up interpreting his epistles - oddly enough - to mean the exact opposite of what he actually meant.

As a former Calvinist, I know full well just how often Romans 9 is appealed to by Calvinists as an open-and-shut apologia for their particular understanding of Predestination, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, etc.

But I also know, now that I'm a Catholic, just how unaware Calvinists are of the Old Testament background of Romans 9 - the interpretive key that unlocks the meaning of Romans 9.

Let me make a few brief analogies before I present my case for the proper interpretation of Romans 9. Assuming that I'm speaking to an American audience, what would you think if I said to you, "buy me some peanuts and cracker-jacks?"

You'd say I must have the munchies, right? I must want some snacks from the store, right?


Any American would be able to tell you that I've just quoted one line from a song that begins with the words "take me out to the ballgame," and that most likely I'm trying to say that I'd like to go to the ballpark and see a game.

That's what you'd understand if you knew the historical context of the words I quoted. But if you didn't know that historical tradition, you would never understand my meaning.

Likewise, if I said that the Church today is becoming more and more "of the people, by the people, for the people," who but an American would know that those words originally referred to the American government, and that therefore I must be - by quoting those words - likening the Church to an American democracy?

Again, if I said that I have certain "inalienable rights," am I referring to the right to have multiple wives, keep slaves, and grow my own marijuana? Any American would be able to tell you that I'm talking about the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What would happen if I told a room full of Romanians that I wanted to "plead the fifth?" You're starting to get the idea now, I think.

We are like that room full of Romanians when we read St. Paul, because we have no familiarity with Israel's national history, prophetic tradition, covenant laws, etc. If we understood these things, we would understand St. Paul.

St. Paul begins Romans 9 with these words: "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race."

That's an allusion to Moses on Mt. Sinai, after Israel had committed idolatry by worshiping the Golden Calf. Moses pleaded with God to forgive His people, because God was ready to destroy them all and start over with Moses' lineage; Moses says, "if thou wilt forgive their sin - and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written." (Ex. 32:32)

Keep that in mind, then, as you read the rest of Romans 9 - St. Paul has introduced the chapter by calling to mind the greatest act of spiritual adultery in Israel's history, when they rejected God and said of the Golden Calf, "this is the Lord who delivered us from Egypt."

St. Paul next says, "But it is not as though the word of God had failed." What is he referring to? He has just said, a verse earlier, "to them belong ... the promises" - and any Israelite would know that the one dominant theme in the prophets, the one thing promised to them in nearly every single prophetic book, was the restoration of Israel's divided kingdom (which had split way back in 930 BC), and the restoration of Israel's united kingdom mission to the Gentiles.

So why is St. Paul saying that "it is not as though the word of God had failed?" Precisely because it looks, to the Israelites, as though His word has failed; it is some 20-30 years after Jesus' Ascension, and St. Paul - the missionary to the Gentiles, mind you - is trying to pass off the message that Israel has rejected their Messiah, and so God has passed over them and turned to the Gentiles.

God's promises of restoration have failed, have they not?

No, says St. Paul. And why not? His next words: "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants."

This is the thesis statement of Romans 9, and any interpretation of Romans 9 which is not in line with this thesis is already suspect. St. Paul does not employ irrelevant arguments, so if you interpret Romans 9 in such a way that it is irrelevant to the question of Israel's restoration, and Israel's claim to be Abraham's descendants in particular, then your interpretation is most likely way off the mark.

The argument St. Paul is about to mount is this:

1) God promised in the prophets to restore "Israel"
2) but "Israel" does not mean biological, ethnic, natural, and fleshly Israel
3) because not all who are physically and biologically descended from Abraham really belong to Abraham's true lineage
4) Therefore God is going to restore the "Israel" that is of te promise, not necessarily of the flesh
5) Therefore God's promises stand, and His word has not failed

St. Paul's next strategic move is brilliant: "...but 'Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.' This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants."

His logic is irrefutable. He has just made the shocking statement that not all who belong - physically and biologically - to Abraham are truly Abraham's descendants. How can he claim such a thing? He quotes just one verse, but any Israelite would know the story he's referring to ... "buy me some peanuts and cracker-jacks," remember?

"Through Isaac shall your descendants be named" is from Genesis 21:12, and those words were spoken to Abraham by God. Why? Because Abraham was feeling bad about something his wife had just asked him to do. What did she ask him to do?
Quote: "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac." (Gen. 21:10)

Did you catch the intended purpose - the strageic brilliance - of St. Paul's use of this quote from Gen. 21:12? This is the story in which Ishmael - a biological, physical, natural son of Abraham - gets disinherited. So very much is Ishmael disinherited, in fact, that in the very next chapter, when God wants Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, He says, "Take your son, your only son Isaac ..."

Thus St. Paul's argument is proven: not all who are biologically descended from Abraham are truly his descendants - Ishmael, for example.

His next example introduces a new and subtle level of complexity into his argument: "And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, 'The elder will serve the younger.'"

He is, of course, quoting Genesis 25:23, referring to Esau and Jacob - not as men, not as individuals, but as nations: "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger."

But why? What does the example of these two nations bring to the discussion? He quotes another bomb-shell passage: "As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'"

That quote is not from Genesis. That's from the prophet Malachi, and that quote not only supports St. Paul's initial point, it subtly points the finger back at Israel.
Quote: "'I have loved you,' says the LORD. But you say, 'How hast thou loved us?'

'Is not Esau Jacob's brother?' says the LORD. 'Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.'" (Mal. 1:2-3)

On the surface level, St. Paul quotes this because it proves about Esau what it proved about Ishmael. Both Esau and Ishmael are biological descendants of Abraham, but both of them were denied the coveted inheritance. Remember, Esau "despised" his inheritance, and sold it to Jacob for a bowl of stew.

On a much deeper level, however, St. Paul quotes this passage because these are the opening verses of a much longer prophecy.

This is where we see St. Paul's strategy really put to use: quote one or two lines in order to evoke the entire message. "By the people, for the people," in other words. What does the rest of Malachi 1 say?
Quote: "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, 'How have we despised thy name?' By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, 'How have we polluted it?' By thinking that the LORD's table may be despised." (Mal. 1:6-7)

Notice, then, how St. Paul has cleverly introduced the remembrance of Israel's less-than-perfect past; they had violated the father-son relationship and "despised" the Lord's name, just as Esau "despised" his inheritance. Did you notice how that word appears not once, not twice, but three times in those two verses?
Quote: "O priests, who despise my name ... 'How have we despised thy name?' ... By thinking that the LORD's table may be despised."

And what was Malachi just talking about before he started using this word, "despise?" Esau and Jacob. And what does the book of Genesis say?
Quote: "Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright." (Gen. 25:34)

Pay close attention there, because that passage comes from Genesis 25, which is alluded to in Malachi 1 - and St. Paul quotes from both Genesis 25 and Malachi 1 in Romans 9! Guess what St. Paul is doing here? If you think he's linking Esau and Esau's loss of inheritance with Israel as a nation, then you're on the right track.

In other words, Ishmael was disinherited, Esau didn't get the inheritance, and you, O Israel, even as far back as Malachi's time you were being compared to Esau - you're on your way to being disinherited yourself! Not everyone who is descended from Israel belongs to Israel.

Now St. Paul asks a rhetorical question: "Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!" But why, St. Paul? Why is there no injustice on God's part here?

He answers with another loaded quote from the Old Testament: "For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'"

And where does that quote come from? Exodus 33:19. And what is the historical context? What has just happened in Israel's history? God spoke those words to Moses, after Moses had just finished pleading for mercy on Israel's behalf, because they had just finished worshiping a Golden Calf! St. Paul began the chapter by alluding to this event, and now he evokes the memory of the sin again by explicitly quoting a verse from that story.

Here is where another subtle argument slips in, and it is a powerful one. The worship of the Golden Calf, which he has now alluded to twice, came just after the exodus out of Egypt. It was there, at that time, that God said to Moses, "And you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son...'" (Ex. 4:22) Do you feel the sweeping current of the argument?

Israel, wake up! Ishmael was Abraham's first-born son, according to the natural and biological order, yet he was disinherited and Isaac - the younger son - got the inheritance. Esau was Isaac's first-born son, also according to the natural and biological order, and once again, he forfeited his inheritance to Jacob, the younger son. Israel, you too are God's "first-born son," according to the natural order of nations - but you can not rely on that natural status, because that is not what God takes into account.

His next words say this very thing, in fact: "So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy."

In other words, it does not depend upon natural power, prestige, status, etc., so do not fall back on your "first-born" status - or you, like Ishmael, like Esau, will be disinherited and your inheritance will be given to the younger-brother Gentile nations.

Next, St. Paul strengthens the argument by tying a few of these elements together: "For the scripture says to Pharaoh, 'I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.' So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills."

Once again, Egypt is alluded to, but this time Pharaoh is thrown into the mix. Why Pharaoh? Because Pharaoh was also a first-born, and an obviously wicked and hard-hearted first-born. The passage which St. Paul quotes is from Exodus 9:16, in the middle of a paragraph that could easily be read as an indictment against the Israel of St. Paul's day:
Quote: "For by now I could have put forth my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth; but for this purpose have I let you live, to show you my power, so that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. You are still exalting yourself ..." (Ex. 9:15-17)

It is also significant that St. Paul uses this verse, because this verse introduces the seventh of the ten plagues which Moses visited upon Pharaoh. Those plagues were instances of mercy from God's hand, ten chances for Pharaoh to repent and do the right thing. Notice that the passage St. Paul quotes does not say that God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of destroying him, but for the purpose of showing God's power.

God's power would have been demonstrated through mercy, if Pharaoh had repented - the supernatural display of cosmic power in the ten plagues was not necessary, strictly speaking. However, Pharaoh's hard-hearted response made it necessary for God to destroy him. Not only is this not the Calvinist presentation of a God who raises up people and elects them for destruction, this is just the opposite: it is an affirmation of Man's own responsibility to respond to God's mercy.

Indeed, this is what St. Paul said to Israel just seven chapters earlier, in a passage eerily reminiscent of Pharaoh and Egypt: "Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." (Rom. 2:4-5)

The passage which St. Paul quotes from Exodus 9 leads us to the end of that chapter, which says, "But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again, and hardened his heart, he and his servants." (Ex. 9:34) This is why St. Paul then says, "So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills."

Wait a minute, though - who hardened Pharaoh's heart? St. Paul seems to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, but that passage in Exodus says of Pharaoh that "he sinned yet again, and hardened his heart." What's the answer to the riddle? Go back eight chapters and St. Paul gives you the key:
Quote: "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him ... Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity ... For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions ... And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct." (Rom. 1:20-29)

If God's nature can be seen through nature itself, then a fortiori Pharaoh should have been able to see God's nature and power in the very visible and super-natural acts performed by God through nature, and the suspension of the laws of nature - water turning to blood, deep darkness, frogs, hail, etc. So what does God do with such people? Hardens their hearts. And how? Three times St. Paul says it: "God gave them up ..." In other words, He lets them have exactly what they want.

Pharaoh had ten chances to repent, and he refused, so God "gave him up," we could say. God responded to Pharaoh's hardness of heart by giving him more of what he wanted, more of the same.

But this is beside the point, in a way. St. Paul is not interested here in a theological discussion of God's passive or active role in hardening the heart of man - he dealt with that in Romans 1. What he is interested in showing here is that Pharaoh had a hardened heart and that he refused to repent after being given many opportunities. Why would he want to stress that Pharaoh had a hard heart? Remember what St. John said about Israel?
Quote: "Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him ... For Isaiah again said, 'He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.'" (John 12:37-40)

Likewise, Jesus Himself said that Israel was hard of heart way back in the wilderness: "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Matt. 19:8 )

Finally, Ezekiel had prophesied that the time would come when God would "sprinkle clean water" upon Israel and "cleanse" them from their idols; but notice what God says about their hearts: "I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezek. 36:25-27)

St. Paul's message is striking: Pharaoh, the first-born son, who was given many chances to repent, had a hard heart of stone, and was destroyed for that hardness; Israel, you are also the first-born son, but you have had a hard heart ever since your sojourn in the wilderness, and you are now being given time to repent - if you harden your heart like Pharaoh, you will be destroyed like Pharaoh.

If Israel has become like Ishmael, and like Esau, then they have also become like Pharaoh and Egypt, their historical arch-enemy.

Now, follow carefully St. Paul's next move: "You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?' But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me thus?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?"

The question he poses is logical: if God hardens whoever He wants to harden, and shows mercy to whoever He chooses ... if He arbitrarily chooses to love Jacob but hate Esau, then why does He find fault - grounds for judgment - with anyone? We are all just following His chosen path, the path He willed for us to follow, right?

St. Paul's answer appears to be a dodge: shut up and stop asking such impertinent questions, you mere mortal! In reality, however, St. Paul's answer is no different than it has been throughout the rest of this chapter: why does God still find fault? Who has resisted His will? You have, O Israel, beginning with your rejection of God in favor of the Golden Calf, and continuing even up until about 20 years ago when you rejected God Incarnate with the words, "We have no king but Caesar!"

That is St. Paul's answer, but how does he communicate that answer? By suddenly injecting the conversation with words like "potter," "clay," "vessel for beauty," etc. What is he talking about? He's reminding Israel of something God said years and years before, through Jeremiah:
Quote: "So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the LORD came to me: 'O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it.'" (Jer. 18:3-10)

Is God's message here, "I will choose which vessels to destroy and which to elevate, and I will choose arbitrarily without being questioned, because I'm God and I can do what I want?" No! His message to Israel, first through Jeremiah - when Israel faced the prospect of exile - and then again through St. Paul - when Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem was only years away - is quite simple: I can make of you a vessel of beauty, or I can make a vessel fit for destruction, and it all depends on whether or not you will hear my voice, repent, and turn from your evil ways.

When St. Paul speaks of how God has "endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction," he is saying nothing different than when God said through Jeremiah, "If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it" - i.e., a vessel made for destruction - "and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it" - i.e., God endures with much patience.

He has patience with those nations - the Gentiles - because He wants "to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory" - who is St. Paul talking about? Israel, "us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles."

Here is where St. Paul uses the first-born theme to give Israel hope; if God will endure with much patience those Gentile nations who are fit for destruction, then a fortiori He will endure with more patience His first-born son among the nations. If He will forgive the Gentile nations and make them beautiful vessels of honor, then how much more will He forgive Israel and restore Her to Her former glory?

So much more could be said about this most perplexing chapter in Romans, but this should suffice to answer some basic questions, and get the reader started along the right path to understanding the chapter more fully.

The key, I will repeat, is reading St. Paul in the context of the Old Testament, which, because St. Paul was a trained scholar in the school of the Pharisees, would certainly have been familiar ground for him. The Old Testament is St. Paul’s theological playground, and the only problem is that he sometimes presumes too much in thinking that his readers will be able to follow his subtle and complex arguments.

But follow them we must. And the best way to begin is by opening your Old Testament and re-reading the texts until they become familiar to you. Only then can you hope to have a chance at understanding St. Paul the way he intended to be understood.

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The Jewish People: Our Elder Brothers - by VoxClamantis - 11-23-2013, 01:05 AM

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