Romans 9-11: An Alternative Ending

I love it when movies have alternative endings. You know, when a "director's cut" version of a movie you love has a special feature that lets you watch the film with a totally different climax, an alternative way that the story could have ended. In most cases, of course, we agree that the version chosen for the final cut of the film gives the best sort of conclusion, resolving the tensions of the narrative in a way that satisfies the audience and gives an overall sense of coherence to the story.

When it comes to the climax of the first eleven chapters of Romans, often called the "theological section" of the letter, there are several different ways for the interpreter to tell the story. In attempting to think Paul's thoughts after him and get at the inner logic and coherence of the text, there is more than a little debate over what exactly it is that Paul means, especially when we get to the well known conclusion in 11:25-26, "...and so all Israel will be saved". I've argued for my current reading of this passage in this post, but I didn't always hold to this perspective. Rather, as I said before, I've spent a good amount of time on various sides of the fence here. Not only do I recognize the merits of alternative readings; I've actually gone back and forth in my own convictions on which reading does the most justice to the text. This is one of those places where the best reading just isn't as clear as we would like it to be.

And yet I do feel quite settled now on my particular approach, which is kind of a hybrid of the two more popular readings, because I think does the best job of following Paul's actual train of thought in Romans 11:11-36, resolving the tensions and giving the most coherent ending to the story. But I've previously written a great deal in favor of both of the more popular approaches as well. In fact, as I was just reading through some of what I had written in favor of one of those approaches, I saw afresh that there is a real argument to be made in its favor. No one side of the fence has the monopoly here. Of course. Hence the debate.

If I wanted my posts this blog to form a systematic theology with no contradictions, I would have to drastically edit the majority of my past studies, and simply delete more than a few. But I would rather make this space an open conversation, a dialog. Not to slip into a postmodern relativity, where the truth ultimately can't be seen through the haze and distortion of our own perspectives, but neither to be content with a positivism where we all assume proudly that we're just seeing things exactly as they are, without coloring and (yes, at times) skewing them. There is real truth to be had, and it really can be seen clearly, but we do all have particular perspectives and vantage points, influenced by our own cultures, worldviews, brokenness, etc. What this means is that we desperately need each other in our search for truth. Especially in the disciplines of theology and history, we need an open, honest, humble community, a people willing to give tentative answers to questions, to talk about them publicly and inspect them critically, and then perhaps to revise them in light of the evidence that comes back through that  whole process.

In light of that epistemological goal, therefore, I offer this alternative reading of Romans 9-11 in the interest of continued dialog. May the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead lead us into all truth, and may we become more like Christ in the process.

Is Paul talking about a mass end-time conversion of the Jewish people in Romans 11:26? I used to be confident that he was, and I thought the suggestion that "Israel" might here refer to the renewed people of God was absurd at best and anti-Semitic at worst. But now I'm not so sure.

Of course the whole chapter concerns "them" (that is, ethnic Israel) first and foremost, as do the previous two chapters, but to say because of this that "Israel" in v. 26 must refer to "them" is to cook the evidence in advance. It would be a good point if ethnic Israel was the only subject of the passage, but since that's not the case, since Paul lays a good emphasis on the Gentiles throughout and an even larger emphasis on the one family of God in Christ via the olive tree analogy (significantly leading right into to vv. 25-26), we must therefore regard the case as suspect.

But let's consider the text step by step.

Most conservative post-holocaust interpretations of this passage take the "until" of v. 25 as sufficient grounds to translate the "and so" of v. 26 as "and then", seeing in it a temporal progression of salvation. Understood in this way, Paul’s intention is to say that part of Israel has experienced a hardening of heart until the full number of Gentiles comes in, and then (i.e. after the dispensation of the Gentiles) God’s redemptive plan will shift back to the Jewish people and they will be saved en masse at the end of this age. The hardening, so it is thought, is merely temporary. To this there must be two replies:

First, it’s important to note that in the apocalyptic context in which Paul speaks, "hardening" is not thought of as a phenomenon which occurs and then after a period lifts. Rather, as in Isaiah 6:9-12, it is something which comes upon the unresponsive in order to reserve them for judgment while delivering the faithful. For Paul, Egypt’s king is the prototype. In the analogy of chapter 9 Pharaoh was the paradigmatic "vessel of wrath" that God hardened and Israel was the "vessel of mercy" that God vindicated through the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. The irony of Paul’s point is that many who are of Israel, the large number who reject Jesus, now sit in Pharaoh’s seat as those "prepared for destruction", while many Gentiles now stand vindicated as those "prepared beforehand for glory". Getting at the upper branches of Paul’s argument in chapter 11 via the root system laid in chapter 9, it appears that the "until" should be understood in terms of God’s withholding the final judgment from rebellious Israel so that the Gentile mission might be fulfilled and that "some" of Paul's brethren, the unhardened "part", might be regrafted in as well.

Second, the wording at the start of verse 26—translated "and so" in the NKJV and NASB, and "and in this way" in the ESV—does not denote a temporal progression, but rather a logical one. Nowhere in Romans does houtos ever come close to meaning "then" or "after that". Paul is explaining that this is how (houtos) God is saving "all Israel," through holding back the final judgment from apostate Jews so as to bring the "full number" of Gentiles into the covenant family; he is not giving a time-space prediction of a future event after the Gentiles come in.

Now since 11:25 begins with the conjunction "for" and v. 26a continues with "and" we should assume they are an explanation of what has gone before, not a new and radically separate point. It is highly unlikely that Paul would be expressing something in these verses which he has not given advance support for. Thus the "mystery" is not a hidden truth only now articulated, but rather, as Pauline mysteries usually are, part of the long-range redemptive plan which God has revealed through the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, in this case that it was through committing Israel to disobedience that He would have mercy on all (cf. 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1, 7; Eph 1:9; 3:3-9; 6:19; Col 1:26-27; 2:2).

This, as Paul explains it, is why Gentile boasting is out of the question, because they stand on the mercy of God in Christ and not on their own merit. If they were to "think highly" of themselves because of God’s unmerited favor, then the same thing which happened to ethnic Israel would happen to them. And thus it stands also that, if Israel relinquishes her own ethnic boast, then God will be able to graft her back in (vv. 20-23). The "mystery" which stands against Gentile arrogance, then, is most definitely not that there will be a mass eschatological ingathering of Jews, but that Israel’s hardening is the process by which God in his wisdom is saving the "fullness" of his people, both Jews and Gentiles.

For many, the primary difficulty in seeing "all Israel" as denoting the whole family of God, including both Jews and Gentiles, is that the term appears just before with strict reference to the hardened part of the Jewish race. If Paul is talking about ethnic Israel in verse 25, the logic goes, he must be talking about ethnic Israel in verse 26 as well. What this argument forgets, however, is that Paul has already juxtaposed unsaved ethnic Israel right next to the renewed and reconstituted Israel, the children of promise, in 9:6-8 (cf. 4:13-16; 9:22-24). It would stand to reason that the same polemical redefinition of "Israel" that formed the base of Paul’s argument in this section would return at its climax, now invested with all the appropriate meaning and standing over against all ethnic claims, both the claim of the Jew and the claim of the Gentile.

Reading the text of 11:25-26 with what’s gone before from 11:12-24 in mind--especially Paul's olive tree analogy, and standing behind that the redefinition of "Israel" provided in 9:6--it is in no way eisegetical to assume that when he says the full number of Gentiles will "come in" he means that they will be grafted in to "Israel", the one family of God. Given that well grounded assumption, as well as all of the points above, the only exegetically viable option, from the text itself and its surrounding context, is to take "Israel" in 11:26 as referring to the whole family of God. The other option requires that one not only forget the context of chapters 9-10 and indeed the surrounding parts of chapter 11 itself, but also ignore the several red flags from within the very text in question.

Paul is saying that part of Israel has been hardened, thus, according to his own argument, no longer truly belonging to Israel, and that through this hardening God is calling the Gentiles in to the family, and that the full number of Gentiles together with the full number of (unhardened) Jews constitute the "all Israel" which God is saving. The logic is thus the same as in 9:22-24.

"What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (hardened Israel)? And {He did so} to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, {even} us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles."

In other words, God is withholding the final judgment from unrepentant Israel in order that he might have time to bring the responsive remnant of Jews and Gentiles into the covenant. Or as he says again in 11:12, using similar language, Israel's fall is riches for the world. So we can see that the reading of 11:25-26 which I suggest has precedent all throughout 9-11. One cannot say the same, I think, of the popular reading.

But there is still one more point to consider: It's very likely that the "all" of 11:26 looks back to the "all" of 10:11-13 ("all" who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved"), which in turn looks back to the "all" of 9:5 (the Messiah is "God over all"), which itself points back further to the "all" of 4:16 (“all the seed... Abraham is the father of us all”). Thus, if Paul meant for all Abraham’s "seed" to include Gentiles, and for all under the lordship of the Messiah to include Gentiles, and for all who call on the name of YHWH to include Gentiles, then the cumulative force of context compels us to think that he meant for "all Israel" to include Gentiles as well.

Israel is now a worldwide family, open to all who come by faith through Christ, for the Jew first and also the Greek. Therefore the suggestion that anyone should be excluded, most of all those to whom the word first belonged, is seen to be absurd. This has been Paul’s argument throughout Romans and this is what forms the theological bedrock for the responsibility that Gentile Christians have to their Jewish brethren in the present.