Paul, the torah, and the People of God: Galatians pt 2

Galatians 3:10-14:

[Aside: it is important to note Paul’s quote from Deut. 27-30; Hab. 2, and Levitcus 18.]

Here are a couple of Pauline assumptions: 1. Israel as a whole is under the curse if she fails to keep torah; 2. Israel as a whole failed to keep torah; 3. Therefore Israel is under the curse.

Paul is, with these assumptions, stating this: 1. All who embrace torah are thereby embracing Israel’s national way of life; 2. Israel as a nation has suffered, historically, the curse which the torah held out for her if she did not keep it; 3. Therefore all who embrace torah are under its curse (3:10).1

First of all, in verse 10 Paul pronounces a curse on all who rely on the works of the torah. This has less to do with individuals than is usually recognized. This is about the nation of Israel, who, as a whole turns from keeping the torah and so incurs a curse; specifically the curse of exile. As we all know, the torah had provisions for individual sins; it was when the nation as a whole failed to follow torah that the curse of exile came upon the nation.

If Paul is really invoking the train of thought of the last chapters of Deuteronomy, his point is not that individual Jews have all in fact sinned, but that Israel as a whole has failed to keep the perfect torah, and, as a result, that torah cannot therefore be the means through which she either retains her membership in covenant of blessing or becomes– and this is the point of 3:10-14– the means of blessing the world in accordance with the promises to Abraham.2

This exile and curse is clearly anticipated by Moses in Deut., not as a possible outcome but as an expected outcome; the blessings and curses will be scattered throughout Israel’s history, with a overwhelming tendency to curses.

The torah was destined to send Israel into exile and to bring her under the curse. Not because the torah was bad, but because Israel was in solidarity with fallen Adam, and thus shared the adamic nature; and thus she would fail to keep the torah.

Watch where Paul goes next; to Habakkuk. This book is clearly about God using the Chaldeans to come in and judge Israel and send her into exile. Paul goes here for 2 obvious reasons: 1. Habakkuk says that God’s family (the righteous) shall live by faith; which has been Paul’s argument from 3:1-3:9. 2. Habakkuk is dealing with exile, the curse that God warned Israel about; and during exile God’s people were to be marked out by their faith rather than their torah observance.

So, Habakkuk, faced with the imminent destruction of Israel, had seen the covenant community being redefined in terms of faith: the ‘righteous’ will now be the ones who believes and will be vindicated in the eschatological deliverance.3

3:12 then provides negative confirmation of the same point, that the torah cannot be the place where the covenantal blessing is found. Granted Genesis 15 and Habakkuk 2, which together make the point that God’s intended covenant membership is demarcated by faith; so that, the torah, which offers its covenantal ‘life’ on the basis of ‘doing’ what is says, cannot be in itself the means of faith and hence of life.4

The context of Leviticus 18:5 (quoted in 3:12) too is the warning that unless Israel keeps the covenant charter properly, the land itself will eject those who are thereby polluting it.5 [This is the relevant meaning of exile.]

What does this say about the Torah?

The immediate problem that Paul was facing was this: If we grant and accept the covenant promises to Abraham, what will happen to those promises in light of torah? There are many reasons why torah would come between the promises and their fulfillment: Paul will later speak of its being given to one nation only, whereas God envisaged a worldwide single family, but here he concentrates simply on the fact that the law brings curse, not blessing (compare Romans 4:15 where the torah brings wrath). It cannot of itself produce the faith which according to Genesis and Habakkuk, is the true demarcation of the covenant people, Abraham’s family.6

What then is the solution? The torah is bringing all of its adherents under a curse; all of them. To answer this, and without asking for too much, I would like to establish a point that might seem off subject.

Adam was given a mandate by God to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and have dominion over it. This was given to him. Israel was corporately given the role which had been previously given to Adam. Israel, was to do as a nation, what God had called Adam to do as an individual. This shouldn’t be controversial.

Now, Christ, the second Adam, is reversing this role and he is doing individually, what Israel as a corporate entity could not do. In this way, the Messiah was Israel‘s representative.

Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel’s curse and exhaust it. Jesus dies as the King of the Jews, at the hands of the Romans whose oppression of Israel is the present climactic form of the curse of exile itself. The crucifixion is the perfect example of the curse of exile, and its climactic act.7

Christ as the representative Messiah, has achieved a specific task, that of taking on himself the curse which hung over Israel and which on one hand prevented her from enjoying full membership in Abraham’s family and thereby on the other hand prevented the blessing of Abraham from flowing out to the Gentiles. The Messiah has come where Israel is, under the torah’s curse, in order to be not only Israel’s representative but Israel’s redeeming representative. That which, in the scheme of Deuteronomy, Israel needed if she incurred the curse of the law, is provided in Christ: the pattern of exile and restoration is acted out in his death and resurrection. He is Israel, going down to death under the curse of the law, and going through that curse to the new covenant life beyond.8

The torah has the effect of, as it were, piling up the sin of the world in one particular place, that is, in Israel. This highly negative assessment of the torah’s purpose is then, however, shown to have an underlying positive aim, that the the Messiah, as Israel’s representative, allows the full weight of it to fall on himself. This anticipates one of Paul’s most in depth treatments of the torah which runs from Romans 5:20 through chapter 11. The result in both places is that the torah draws the sin/curse on to Israel in order that it may then be dealt with in the death of the Messiah.9

To sum up: The fundamental note of Galatians 3:10-14 is that of the covenantal curse, Israel’s curse, being taken by Israel’s appointed representative in an act which itself symbolized very precisely all that the curse of exile stood for.10 The death of the king, hanged on a tree in the midst of his own land; rejected by his own people. This was a recapitulation of all of Israel’s sins, climaxing in her rejection of their Messiah and King. Through this God’s promise offspring is created, and the Israel Believers are redeemed from the curse of the law.

In the next section we are going to look at 3:15-23 where Paul contrasts the promise and the torah to see where Paul takes his argument.

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