This is the second part of a four part series on interpreting Romans 9. Read part one.
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The story is then told in great detail in Romans 4–8, which is constructed around the shape the Old Testament narrative.
Romans 4 deals with Abraham, Romans 5 deals with bondage “in Adam” just as Israel was in bondage “in Egypt.”
Romans 6 deals with the liberation from bondage through the waters of Baptism, just as Israel was liberated through the bondage of the Red Sea. The walk through the Sea leads to Sinai, which is where Paul finds himself in Romans 7.
In Romans 7, Paul makes clear that the Torah was given in full knowledge of Israel’s coming unfaithfulness. Indeed, Israel’s unfaithfulness was the means through which God would draw the powers of sin into one spot, so that in Romans 8, God “condemned sin in the flesh” of Jesus the Messiah. That is how Israel’s unfaithfulness and Jesus’ faithful death unto resurrection fit together as a hand fits into a glove. The Messiah takes the weight of Israel’s exile and undoes it, leading to the glorious restoration, Israel’s discovery of life, and the return to the Garden of Eden.
Throughout Romans 8, then, Paul speaks of the one Israel of God, Jew and Gentile together “suffering with” the Messiah, led by the Spirit, just as Israel was led by the Glory-Cloud through the Desert. Paul’s argument comes to its sharp climax with this people of God receiving, at last, their promised inheritance. Just as Psalm 2 had said, the “inheritance” of the Davidic king was the whole creation, nations and all. As Isaiah had said, Israel would stretch out her borders so that the LORD becomes the “God of the whole Earth.” And then, when the restored human family reigns with the Messiah over the creation, the whole world would be “set free from its bondage to decay”, that is, it would experience its long awaited exodus from corruption.
It is in this context that Paul arrives at Romans 9. Paul has just retold Israel’s story, arguing that the fulfillment of its promises has come through the faithful death and resurrection of its own Messiah, and that the family of Israel, receiving the promised inheritance, would consist of Jews and Gentiles alike, without distinction.
This is a stunning reversal of everything that Israel had expected. The Romans had not been overthrown. God was bringing Romans into his family. Israel “in the flesh” had not been liberated.
Indeed, many Jews, descended from Abraham, had found themselves outside their own family! What kind of business is this? In Romans 9-11, then, Paul gets to the hard work of demonstrating that Israel’s Scriptures had always anticipated this sort of fulfillment. Paul has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” over the fate of his “kinsmen according to the flesh.”
But that doesn’t mean that the word of God has failed. God has not gone back on His promises. In order to prove that, Paul does what many Second Temple Jews were doing. He retells Israel’s covenant story. This is a fact of enormous significance, as there has been an unfortunate trend among Western interpreters to read Romans 9 as if it were a list of “proofs” for an abstract doctrine of predestination. But consider the movement of the text: It goes from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses and the exodus, to the prophets, and then to the arrival of the Messiah. When this is realized, much that was once in darkness will come to light. Furthermore, Paul, throughout Romans 9–11, uses the image of a footrace. This, too, is of great significance, as I will shortly demonstrate.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are from Israel are Israel. —Rom. 9:6
It is important to note that Paul had previously spoken of “Jews and Gentiles.” Now, for the first time, he speaks of “Israel.” That is because Israel is not a casual designation for “the Jewish people.” It is a theologically charged word, filled with all the sense of covenant and promise that it has throughout the Old Testament. And when Paul uses the word, he says that “not all who are from Israel are Israel.” That means that flesh doesn’t make you part of the covenant, as he makes clear:
[A]nd not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac I will call a seed.” —Rom. 9:7
The word rendered “named” here is the same word often translated “called,” so I have followed the translation of Richard Hays. My reason for doing so will soon become clear, as this thread is picked up near the end of Romans 9, and to great theological significance. Paul’s point is that even through Ishmael was descended in the flesh from Abraham, God’s purposes would not be brought through Ishmael, but through Isaac.
This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” —Rom. 9:8–9
A few marks must be set down here: First, the “children of God.” Paul does not use this phrase for simple variety in his vocabulary. Instead, like “call a seed”, this thread will climax near the end of Romans 9. Second, “counted as offspring.” Let us not forget that this word was used in Romans 4 of Abraham, when he was “counted as righteous.” In Genesis 15, the phrase’s meaning is made obvious by its context. It is God’s irrevocable promise to give Abraham a land and a family. The word carries all of the weight here that it carried there. The “counting” as “offspring” means that these are the people in whom God’s promise of inheritance will be fulfilled. The “children of the promise” are the genuine offspring of Abraham, to whom God gives the whole creation as an inheritance. Like “children of God” and “call a seed,” this phrase, too, will be picked up at the end of Romans 9.
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 older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” —Rom. 9:10–13
Having looked at God’s elective purposes through Isaac, Paul continues the story, looking at God’s elective purposes through Jacob. Perhaps it could be argued that God brought His purposes through Isaac because he, unlike Ishmael, was, according to the word of promise, Sarah’s seed. No such argument can be mounted with Jacob and Esau. They were twins. Nothing distinguished them. But God chose to bring His “purpose of election” through Jacob rather than Esau. Often, when reading this text, it is assumed that “purpose of election” carries the sense it does in the Westminster Confession, that is, God’s simple “good pleasure” to elect some to salvation while electing others to damnation. Paul says no such thing. At this point, it is still a possible reading, but “purpose” will be picked up in just a few verses so that God’s “purpose of election” will be itself identified.
Paul quotes two texts from the Old Testament, and it will do us well to read them both in their contexts. First, Paul quotes Genesis 25 (v. 23), that the “older will serve the younger”:
And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
It has often been noted that the referents in the original context are the nations of Israel and Edom. This is not without significance, though we should not use it to argue that Paul does not have in view the individuals of Jacob and Esau. As has been noted, Paul is retelling Israel’s story. God intended to bring His elective purposes to pass through Isaac, then through Jacob, then through Jacob’s family. One is not in opposition to the other. As long as we keep our eye firmly focused on the text, this will lend no support to doctrines of unconditional election. In addition to Genesis 25, Paul quotes Malachi (1:2–5):
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”
Like Genesis 25, Malachi 1 has in view both the individuals of Jacob and Esau and the nations to whom they gave birth. Indeed, the histories of Israel and Edom are explained in the light of what occurred in the lives of Jacob and Esau. Paul’s point remains firmly in view, that the elective purpose of God was being brought to pass through Jacob and his family. But there is one, slightly more faint, echo. Malachi in this chapter proclaims that the nations will worship the God of Israel. Likewise, he condemns Israel for their own unfaithfulness. In a number of ways, this anticipates Paul’s own argument in the coming verses, as we will see.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness on God’s part? By no means! —Rom. 9:14
Many translations have obscured the actual point here by rendering “unrighteousness” as “injustice” as if to say that the question is God’s fairness in choosing one for salvation and another for damnation. This is not, however, Paul’s question. The “unrighteousness” that may be in God is not His “fairness.” Rather, it is His covenant unfaithfulness. The question, for Paul, is whether God remains faithful to His promises to His people Israel.
For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” —Rom. 9:15
This citation from Exodus 33 is given as a direct answer to the question of whether God is unfaithful to His covenant. In Exodus 33, Israel has just fallen into apostasy with the Golden Calf. Things have gone massively off track, and Moses has to ascend the mountain in order to intercede with God on behalf of Israel. God considers wiping the people out and creating a new nation through Moses. What Moses invokes is precisely the faithfulness of God to the Abrahamic promise, which, not coincidentally, is exactly what Paul is defending here. The point that Paul is making in using this text is that God is fully faithful to the covenant, but He is faithful on His own terms. It is not Israel who decides how God fulfills His promises. In this way, Romans 9 is most certainly about the sovereignty of God, but it is about the sovereignty of God in terms of His elective faithfulness.
So then it depends not on him who wills, nor on him who runs, but on God, who has mercy. —Rom. 9:16
It is here where the image of the footrace is taken up. Paul had earlier, in Romans 7, personified Israel as a single person, given the Torah, promised life, but finding, through his unfaithfulness, that the promise of life had turned into death. So in Romans 7, also in Romans 9. The one who is willing and running is Israel. The way in which God fulfills His promises to Israel depends not on Israel. Rather, it is on “God, who has mercy.” The conceptual root of the word “mercy” is the Hebrew hesed, the very word used in Exodus 33. In Exodus, as in many of the Psalms and Prophets, that word carries the connotation of God’s overflowing covenant love and faithfulness. It depends, not on Israel, running towards the goal, but rather, on God, who makes the covenant, and sets up the goal.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” —Rom. 9:17
This is where the language of “purpose” is picked up. This is God’s “purpose of election.” God chose Israel in order that He might “show his power” and also, crucially, that his “name might be proclaimed in all the Earth.” Just as in Genesis 12, Exodus 19, and Romans 2, Israel was chosen and called so that she might serve as the vessel through which the knowledge of God would spread to the whole world. The analogy here is between Israel and Pharaoh. Israel is like Pharaoh, and the way in which this is the case will become evident in the coming verses.