Friday, August 3, 2018

Romans 9 like you've never heard it before

When we read the Bible with the wrong glasses on we will often miss some otherwise obvious themes and lessons. I think this is especially true with texts like Romans 9, which have become collapsed (usually by Calvinists) into a bare show of God's (seemingly arbitrary) display of His Power. But I want to propose that Paul had something more fascinating in mind than what any Christian already knows, i.e., that God is Providentially in control of all human events. 

I'm coming to believe that Romans 9 isn't so much focused on salvation/heaven as it is about first-born (priestly) status being lost to the younger born. Not only is there no clear talk about heaven, hell, etc, in this chapter, but there is a pretty clear First-Born theme when you know what to look for. Consider Paul's object lessons: 
  • Paul's first example is Isaac being chosen over first-born Ishmael. When you read the actual story carefully, Ishmael was expelled as an illegitimate child, who mocked Isaac for being second-born (Gen 21:9-10; cf Paul says Ishmael "persecuted" Isaac, Gal 4:29-31). It is hard for us to grasp the significance of first-born status to the ancient mind, but it meant the world to them, especially when it comes to priesthood status.
  • Paul's second example is of first-born Esau and second-born Jacob. God says "the elder will serve the younger," which isn't a reference to being sent to heaven/hell, but rather to supplanting birth order. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, and later on his father’s “blessing,” which likely was also a form of ordination (Gen 27:26-30).
  • Paul's third example is when God tells Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy." This is not as obvious, but if you consider the context, the situation is quite striking. The context is of the Golden Calf incident, wherein the nation of Israel lost its collective priesthood status and was relegated to the Levites alone to offer sacrifices (Ex 32:25-29). The first-born son high-priest Aaron was said to be the Golden Calf ringleader (Ex 32:35), which meant it was up to second-born Moses to take upon the intercessory role of Atonement (Ex 32:30; Deut 9:18-20; Ps 106:19-23). It is within this context that God says because Moses' priestly intercession found favor in His sight, He would honor Moses' request to spare the Israelites. God was not ‘randomly’ showing mercy here as a demonstration of how He can show mercy on a whim whenever He feels like it.
  • Paul's fourth example is that of Pharaoh, which was the head of the strongest nation in the world, Egypt. In some sense, Egypt/Pharaoh was first-born among the world, likely because their pagan gods were considered the strongest. The stated goal of Moses was told in Exodus 4:22-23, "You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son." We know Egypt had smothered God's first-born son, and God wasn't going to let this continue. The express instructions each time Moses confronts Pharaoh is to let the Israelites go "so that they may offer sacrifices" to God (Ex 5:1, etc). It was liturgical warfare, true religion versus false, pagan God against true God. By striking down Pharaoh's first-born son, this was effectively striking down Egypt's priesthood, and thus humiliating their gods, and vindicating Yahweh as the True God.
  • Paul's final example is that of the Jews versus the Gentiles. Obviously, the Jews were to be the "chosen race, royal priesthood," first-born among the nations. Yet in rejecting Jesus, they lost their status, which triggered the influx of the Gentiles into the Body, who would then become God's priests for the world, under the heading of Jesus (the Father's first-born). Hence Paul's quote from Hosea: "Those who were not my people [the Gentiles], I will call ‘my people’" (Rom 9:25).
I think there's an undeniable 'first-born son supplanted by sin' theme here that Paul is making, and it ties all the chapter together, unlike lifting a few verses here and there without any coherent thread, and missing the richness of it all. What lesson is there for God to show mercy on Moses (who was a righteous man)? If the theme was really about God showing mercy unconditionally, we should expect the major sinners like Pharaoh to be shown mercy. In each case, there is sin involved by one of the parties. It is not a 'both are sinners so let's show mercy to one of them' theme. Paul is telling the Jews of his time that all these other first-born sons lost their status, and rejecting Jesus can lead to the same for you Jews. The first-born status also being tied to priesthood also means the undercurrent is that of True Worship, which makes the real issue about glorifying God liturgically, and only secondarily about saving men. (Side note: this is why for Catholics, when Scripture is read at Mass, it is first of all a prayer to God, and only secondarily a lesson to us. This is why the Protestant “worship” being nothing more than a Glorified Bible Study is the ultimate attack on Christianity, because it removes worship of God from the main equation and shifts focus subtly onto man’s quest for knowledge.)


agellius said...

You really need a Like button. : )

Anonymous said...

nick cannot explain Acts 13;48.

Nick said...

Hi Anonymous,

I always enjoy when people cannot actually address the main post but still have the need to comment anyway, because it means my argument is solid enough that the Protestant really cannot refute it.

As for Acts 13:48, here's what I see:

"46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed."

I'm not sure what's so controversial here. Paul was preaching to the Jews, since they were entitled to hear the Gospel first, but they cast aside his message, judging themselves unworthy of eternal life, so Paul turned to the Gentiles and began the fullness of his calling. I have a mini-series on God's Elect that addresses this as well:

Nick said...

I will edit the main post to include more Liturgical elements present in Isaac and Jacobs lives. Both were said to have built Altars. So the priesthood-worship theme is present in every example, culminating with Jesus as High Priest. The theme of Salvation History is for sin to attempt to block the Incarnation and disrupt true Worship.

Two other comments I've made elsewhere are posted below.

Nick said...

Since I've started studying Romans 9 beyond the surface level, I see the utmost importance of researching the OT texts Paul has in mind. For example:

Rom 9:10-12 "And not only, but *also* when Rebekah had conceived children, 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 him who calls) she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”

Genesis 25:21ff "Isaac prayed for his wife, because she was barren, and Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the older shall serve the younger.” When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob."

Without the Genesis account in mind, it sounds on the surface like God is just sending someone to hell/heaven for no reason. Not because of their good works or their bad. That's a pretty shallow lesson. But with the Genesis account in mind, we see that "before they were born" means "while they were wrestling within her womb". This is thus a prophecy being made before we know how each son would turn out - before they had done good or evil, God made this prophecy. Furthermore, the prophecy was that of *serving*, not about sending to heaven or hell. The Hebrew mindset held a *yuge* premium on being firstborn, so this was no small matter. It meant that the younger's lineage ("nation") would carry the messianic promise.

Thus, the 'works' Paul has in mind is biology, since firstborn Esau was also a jock and the favorite of Jacob, on the natural level destined for success. The text speaks of Jacob in an insulting manner, saying he was a mama's boy and vegetarian. We wouldn't expect big things from him. At no point in their lifetime did Esau actually 'serve' Jacob. That came later on while each bloomed into full fledged tribes themselves.

Nick said...

The NAB gives a fascinating footnote in Romans 9 (hat tip to Joe H of Shameless Popery). It seems plain that St Paul has indeed quoted from the book of Wisdom, a book which Catholics say is part of the Bible, but which Protestants have rejected. This would mean Protestants have rejected an inspired writing.

In Romans 9:21, Paul says: "Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?"

Many people think Paul is quoting Isaiah, but Isaiah doesn't speak of this. Rather, the NAB notes this comes directly from Wisdom 15:7, "For the potter, laboriously working the soft earth, molds for our service each single article: He fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve for clean purposes and their opposites, all alike; As to what shall be the use of each vessel of either class the worker in clay is the judge."

Below is a comparison of the 4 OT references to God as potter, compared to what Paul says in Romans 9:21. As you will see, the references to Isaiah are the least similar, with the reference to Jeremiah being somewhat similar, while the Wisdom reference is very similar to Paul's words. We have "same lump" and "vessels for noble or ignoble purposes". (Note: I don't think there is any conflict in meaning among the OT references, I'm only saying Wisdom's specific details are uniquely found only in Rom 9:21).

Rom 9: 21Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?
Wisdom 15: 7For the potter, laboriously working the soft earth, molds for our service each single article: He fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve for clean purposes and their opposites, all alike; As to what shall be the use of each vessel of either class the worker in clay is the judge.
Isaiah 29: 16Your perversity is as though the potter were taken to be the clay: As though what is made should say of its maker, “He did not make me!” Or the vessel should say of the potter, “He does not understand.”
Isaiah 45: 9Woe to anyone who contends with their Maker; a potsherd among potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?” or, “What you are making has no handles”?
Jer 18: 3 I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. 4Whenever the vessel of clay he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making another vessel of whatever sort he pleased. 5Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done?—oracle of the LORD. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel.

And worth noting, the same Greek language of noble/ignoble is used by Paul in 2 Timothy 2, which isn't about Predestination to heaven or hell and clearly includes your free response:

"20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work."