Zeal is Not Enough
In today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary Paul describes zealous Jews as still being ignorant of the righteousness of God, as they do not recognise Jesus as the Messiah. Of course, Paul was like that before God called him, so he is really describing a former version of himself.
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Christ is the end of the law not in the sense that the Law or Torah is overthrown, but because Paul believes Jesus death and resurrection was “according to the scriptures”.
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’
The quotation here is from Leviticus 18.5.
But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);
Again, Paul quotes from the Torah, although he is probably paraphrasing again. The NRSV translates Deuteronomy 30.12-14 this way:
12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
The original does not seem to refer to burial or death, and Paul’s interpretation of it as a descent from heaven and a rising from the dead seems a bit strange to our modern minds, but it is well within the traditions of Midrash. Paul’s interpretation of verse 14 continues with a Christological vein:
because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
As strange as we may find Paul’s reading of the Torah, it was in fact the dominant way of reading any scripture up until the Reformation in the 16th century. The ancient Christians read scripture in a four-fold way. First, they read it literally, as a kind of history. They were frankly not very interested in the type of reading. The second type is the moral reading, giving us instruction in how to live. Obviously, this is important in order to known what to do and how to order one’s life. The third is allegorical, which is what Paul is doing with Deuteronomy – he is reading the passage as a reference to Christ, even though it does not refer to the Messiah at all. Finally, the fourth method is anagogical, which means “climbing up”, and it refers to a reading that is concerned with our ultimate fate; this is how Paul reads Leviticus, as a kind of eschatology. If someone seeks to derive righteousness from the law, then one will be judged by that law. Living by faith is both different and results in the merciful grace of God.
The Reformers of the 16th century – Luther, Calvin, and others – derided the analogical readings as they believed one could derive anything by analogy. That said, they were stuck with the fact that the bible is shot through with this kind of analogical intertextuality I do not propose that we as modern or post-modern people should revive these methods, but perhaps we should see through our forebears’s use of them and try to discern the meaning behind them.
In this case Paul’s point is clear: zeal in itself is laudable, but it is not enough. Only when combined with a faith in Jesus does it allow one to read the Torah properly and see the world aright. For Gentiles it is the only basis of salvation. For Jews it would seem to be the same, except that, as we shall see in later chapters, Paul asserts that God will not abandon his promises to Israel, but in 11.26 says that “And so all Israel will be saved”. Paul does not go into detail how that happens, but he has hope for Israel.