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Friday, December 14, 2018

"Not all who are of Israel are Israel!" - A further look at Romans 9

This post builds on a recent post I did, Romans 9 like you've never heard it before

Thinking about Romans 9 some more, it seems there's one further detail that ties things together even more: Within the famous Patriarchal trifecta of "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," it seems in this passage that Paul only gave examples of the sons of Abraham (9:7-9) and Isaac (9:10-13), but Paul did not seem to mention the sons of Jacob. Or did he? Actually, it seems Paul does mention Jacob, but we probably missed it. 

In the famous (and slightly mysterious) thesis verse of Romans 9:6, Paul says: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel." The standard interpretation of this second sentence is that not all who are biologically Jews belong to "Spiritual Israel". And that makes sense. Calvinists go one step further, and in an erroneous way, and interpret this as basically saying there is a "visible church" and an "invisible church," such that you can be a member of the "visible church" but not actually saved. In this post, I want to consider what I think is a more satisfying interpretation of 9:6.

We are so far removed from Paul's original context that we often forget that terms like "Hebrew" and "Israelite" and "Jew" are not synonymous. They often overlap though, such that you could often use one of the terms to refer to the same thing. But they still are distinct terms (note how Paul distinguishes all three in Phil 3:5). The term "Hebrew" refers to a geographic region, what we call "the Holy Land". The term "Jew" refers to someone of the Tribe of Judah, with a later expanded meaning to refer to being a member of the the Kingdom of Judah. The term "Israelite" means a child of Israel. Who is Israel? Israel is the name which God gave the Patriarch Jacob, changing his name to Israel (Gen 32:28). And since Jacob-Israel had twelve sons, who each became patriarchs of their own clans, this is where we get the reference "Twelve Tribes of Israel (Jacob)". From this we can see that someone from the Tribe of Reuben would be an Israelite, but he would not be  a Jew (since those are only of the Tribe of Judah). So the distinctions can sometimes be crucial for proper precision in your theology. 

Given this distinction, it is more likely that in Romans 9:6 that Paul is saying something along the lines of: Not all twelve sons of Jacob are Israelites today. How come? Because most of these Tribes fell away into sin and were completely wiped out by the Babylonian exile a few centuries before Jesus came. This is where the phrase "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel" comes from. This is why when we see the term "Israel" in the New Testament, it typically does refers only to the faithful Kingdom of Judah (which included scattered members of the Tribes of Benjamin and Levi). Thus, Paul is saying not all who were originally Jacob's lineage are still of Jacob's lineage (i.e. Israel as we now know it). And just like the other examples, Paul does not have in mind predestination to heaven or hell, or "unconditional election". Such ideas really aren't what Paul has in mind in Romans 9, as I've noted in various other posts (e.g. HERE).  

That's all great, but how does this fit with the "firstborn losing their status through sin" theme that was covered in the last post with Abraham and Issac? It turns out that this theme continued with Jacob-Israel as well: 
1 Chronicles 5:1 The following are the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel [Jacob] - for Reuben was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel [Jacob], so that Reuben could not be enrolled as the oldest son; though Judah became strong among his brothers and a chief came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph.
This passage is talking about the incident in Genesis 35:22, when Jacob-Israel was out of town and his firstborn son Reuben tried to steal family power by sleeping with his 'aunt' (so as to produce children which would have inheritance rights under him, cf Gen 9:22-25 with Ham). When giving the family blessing to each of the twelve sons, Jacob-Israel says: "Reuben, you are my firstborn, but you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father's bed and defiled it" (Gen 49:3-4). Instead, Joseph was given the first born status, which is why Genesis focuses so heavily on Joseph in the latter 1/3 of Genesis (e.g. coat of many colors, sold into slavery, Prince of Egypt, saves his family). In fact, it is thought that the 'coat of many colors' which Jacob-Israel gave to Joseph was not merely some bizzare rainbow jacket, but rather an ornate liturgical priestly vestment.

So what we have now is a more fully complete thought of Paul, namely that just because you're a biological descendant of Abraham, or a biological descendant of Isaac, or (as we see in this post) even a biological descendant of Israel (Jacob), does not automatically mean God's promises to "Abraham's children" apply to you. It seems that while losing firstborn status is a great tragedy in these three examples, there are a few more noteworthy examples in Genesis where such a tragic loss took place (e.g. Gen 38:7; Gen 38:27-30; Gen 48:13-20). Paul's lesson is that relying on biological firstborn status is not something you can bank on, especially if you're acting sinfully. Which reminds me, when Paul mentions the ten plagues that God sent upon Egypt, I think it is meant to irk us as to why God gave Egypt so many chances to repent. If you think about it, that's a lot of chances compared to other folks. I think Paul is trying to say that God has been exceedingly patient with the Jews, but there comes a point of 'no more chances'.

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