We are studying Romans 11:11-24 for Sunday, May 19. This continues our study of Romans with a portion of Paul’s meditation on how the nation of Israel figures in the divine plan of justification by grace through faith and the liberating law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which Paul has been laying out in his letter so far. [Questions on this text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are continuing with our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans – that is, the church in Rome in the late 50s CE. One of the things we know about this church is that it’s ethnically mixed, including Jewish and Gentile Christians. What we might call “cultural” differences, as well as frankly religious differences, raise challenges for this church: how do we tell ourselves and others what we believe, who we are, why we do what we do? In particular, there seem to be ongoing questions about how these Christians ought to regard the requirements of the Torah. What are the things Christians “have to do” to be Christian, to be saved, to be righteous?
Since Christians have these kinds of questions today, in our own context, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that ancient Christians had them, too.
In the first part of the letter, Paul has laid out his understanding of how the righteousness of God, embodied in Jesus Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection, constitutes the means of God’s grace for all humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. Faith in Jesus Christ, participation in Christ’s Spirit, solves the problem of how to get lawless Gentiles into the family of God’s people. That was a big problem!
But now there’s a new problem: what’s going on with those members of the nation of Israel who don’t embrace this story, and who don’t embrace the good news that Jesus Christ has liberated all of humanity from the law of sin and death that is reliance on human efforts to be worthy of the living God? Paul spends the next portion of the letter to the Romans – about 20% of his text – detailing his thinking on this topic.
First, Paul reflects on the stories and scripture of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, the Torah, the prophets, the Psalms – working out at least a precedent in God’s past dealings with humanity, with Israel, for what he is seeing now. Remember, he says, God chose this child of Abraham’s, not that one; this child of Isaac’s, not that one; God saved the Israelites and not Pharaoh and the Egyptians … (Romans 9).
Paul reinterprets key passages of scripture in light of his new understanding of the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Torah (Romans 10:5-13; compare Deuteronomy 30:11-14), and of the proclamation of the gospel (Romans 10:14-18; compare Psalm 19), and of the nature of exile (Romans 10:19-21; compare Isaiah 65:1-2). He reminds himself of other times in the history of Israel when things looked hopeless, and weren’t, and of the ultimate role of God’s grace (Romans 11:1-10).
Which brings us up to our text for Sunday.
Which we ourselves are reading after a couple of thousand years of Christian history, during which time the things Christians have mostly done with all of this has definitely not been “good for the Jews.”
I believe we get to trust that Paul was not, in the letter to the Romans, intending to lay some of the scriptural foundations for medieval expulsions and pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, the 19th century “Jewish question,” and the 20th century Nazi death camps. And because of that, I think we get to not read his letter that way. In fact, in light of how badly things turn out for people when we do read his letter that way, I also believe that Christians are morally obligated not to read it that way.
God can save people however God wants to. We know God wants to. We get to trust that God does not break promises. We know the covenant with Israel is a promise.
I for one refuse to believe that God is like Microsoft, and just stops offering tech support for earlier versions of the operating system. And on this point, I believe I am reading with Paul (see Romans 11:25-36).
There are a lot of videos online that demonstrate grafting techniques. Here’s a short one showing olive grafting in Israel.
CLOSER READING: In v11-12, Paul sums up his discussion of the situation of the nation of Israel. He uses a specific verb that in Greek means “to make jealous,” that might remind those of his readers familiar with scripture of Deuteronomy 32:21, where God, speaking through Moses, says “I will make them jealous with what is no people …” (It may be worth noting that this poetic section in Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy 32:1-43, finishes with a strong statement of God’s ultimate redemption of Israel.)
In v13 Paul specifically addresses “you Gentiles.” The word translated here as ministry could also be translated “service.”
The images in v16 seem to be tied to the logic in v15, both of which hark back to the logic of a kind of sacrificial offering – in this case, an offering of dough. [This might be a reference to challah, “separating dough,” which is one of the three commandments specific to women, the others being nerot, lighting shabbat candles and niddah, the “family purity” practices connected with menstruation. Considering that all three have to do with separation, this seems possibly significant.] The connection Paul makes between sacrificial action and ultimate redemption and resurrection from the dead probably needs to remind us of Christ, whose death and resurrection is Paul’s central pattern for interpretation throughout the letter.
The reference to the “root” in v16 introduces the extended image of grafting olive branches. The phrase in v17 translated as “rich root” in the NRSV, in some other versions as “richness” or “fatness” – which would make sense in the case of olives – is a Greek word that specifically refers to plant life. This is the only place in the Bible it’s used.
The grafting image seems designed to highlight the agency of God and the appropriate attitude of gratitude on the part of the not-at-all-in-charge-of-this-operation grafted branches. That is, Gentiles. That is, generally speaking, “us.” Gentiles, says Paul, if you’re alive, just be glad, and don’t be thinking or talking or acting like this has anything to do with you being in any way better or more deserving or more anything like that. You’re a plant, for heaven’s sake.
And folks, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”