Paul and the Torah
Up to the end of chapter 8 in his Letter to the Romans, Paul has called upon three individuals, each of whom illustrate solidarity with the larger human race: Adam, Abraham and Christ. The first two appear prior to the establishment of the nation
and Abraham were neither Israelites nor Jews.
Jesus of Nazareth, of course, was both Israelite and Jewish.
Nonetheless, it is not Jesus’ Jewishness that looms most significant for Paul,
but rather, his parallelism with Adam as the head of a new creation. Further,
Paul has indicated that the Torah, divinely given at the time Israel was called out of Egypt to be a
distinctive people, was nevertheless not intended as the means of
righteousness. Instead, the Torah was given “that the trespass might increase”
(cf. 5:20). To be sure, the Torah was spiritual, holy, righteous and good (cf.
7:12, 14a), but it lacked power in itself to accomplish that lofty ideal toward
which it called the people of Israel
(cf. 8:3). There is a significant contrast between some conventional views of
the Torah and Paul’s view.
A Conventional View of the Torah
In fact, since the law has told us not to covet, I could prove to you all the more that reason is able to control desires. Just so it is with the emotions that hinder one from justice. [ ] Thus, as soon as a man adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, he is forced to act contrary to his natural ways. [ ] In all other matters we can recognize that reason rules the emotions. [ ] It is evident that reason rules even the more violent emotions… [ ] To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous. (4 Maccabees 2:6, 8, 9b, 15a, 23)
I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. (Ro. 7:7-8) I would not have known what sin was except through the law. (Ro. 7:7a) The law was added so that the trespass might increase. (Ro. 5:20a)
He [God] bestowed knowledge upon them, and allotted to them the law of life. (Sirach 17:11) He made him hear his voice, and led him into the thick darkness, and gave him the commandments face to face, the law of life and knowledge… (Sirach 45:5) Hear the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear, and learn wisdom! (Baruch 3:9)
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (Ro. 7:10)
Hence, Paul concludes that “what the law could not do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son” (cf. 8:3).
If the meaning of the Torah was defined outside the conventional box, it follows that Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of
Israel also falls outside the
conventional box. It is the meaning of Israel that occupies Paul’s mind in
Romans 9-11. Paul hinted about this earlier, when he said that true Jewishness
was essentially inward, not outward (cf. 2:28-29). He added the assertion that
the true offspring of Abraham were the people of faith—with or without the
Torah (cf. 4:16-18). Everything that Paul has said about the Torah begs the
question of the meaning of Israel.
Some interpreters have read Romans 9-11 as almost incidental to the larger
theological purpose of the Letter to the Romans. Perhaps the most striking
example came from C. H. Dodd, who argued that these chapters were possibly a
sermon Paul composed for some other occasion and decided to slip it into the
Roman letter as an example of his preaching. Dodd contended that one could go
from the end of chapter 8 straight to the beginning of chapter 12 without
losing anything in the process. Such a view can hardly be sustained, since it
fails to do justice to the larger argument of the book. In fact, it may not be
too much to say that everything Paul has argued so far in Romans 1-8 leads the
reader directly into the subject of Romans 9-11, where he addresses the meaning