Things I Am Learning from N.T. Wright’s Humongous Book on Paul, Part 2
In Romans 10, Paul contrasts works-based righteousness with righteousness based on faith, illustrating both by quoting a verse from the Torah. For righteousness based on works, he cites Leviticus 18:5 (ESV):
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.
For the righteousness that comes by faith, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30:12-14 (ESV):
[Do not say,] “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
At first sight, this does not look convincing. How can the same law that prescribes obedience to the law as the path to life also be used to prove salvation by faith? What is worse, to support this latter idea, Paul takes a verse that in its context appears to point to the law, not to faith or the gospel; we would expect “the word” in Deuteronomy 30:14 to be a reference to everything Moses has been saying in this book, not to the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth. Is Paul just groping around for some proof texts to support his views (and taking the second one badly out of context)?
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A possible explanation, one I used to hold, is that the law has two sides or effects. It all depends on how we approach the commandments. If we take them as a way to respond to God’s work of grace, we are fine. But if we come to the law as a way to somehow earn or keep God’s favour, or to prove and maintain our special status as God’s people, the same law becomes an instrument not of life, but of death.
By and large, this still seems true to me, but it does not quite explain how Deuteronomy 30:12-14 can be taken as a reference to Christ and his word. What was Paul thinking!?
The latter is exactly the question N.T. Wright seeks to answer in his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, albeit in a broad sense: what were the worldview, the mindset, and the theology of the apostle Paul? Or in other words, what did Paul think?
As it turns out, Paul is a far too clearheaded thinker to rip a verse out of context and use it like a drunkard uses a lamppost: not for the light it gives, but to have something to hold on to. This second instalment (you can read the first one here) on what I am learning from Wright’s 2013 book on Paul will help us understand what Paul is doing with this quotation.
N.T. Wright’s approach to Paul and indeed to all of Second Temple Judaism leans heavily on the concept of story. Jews of that time were very much aware of being part of an ongoing story. Most of that story is told in what we call the Old Testament. Needless to say, the Bible is nothing if not a storybook.
This is true even for the section that we, based on its Greek name, tend to call the law. Its Hebrew name is Torah, which means something like instruction. This fits better with its content, since a significant part of these books is not law text at all. In particular, the first one and a half books contain stories, not laws. When Paul quotes from what he does indeed call the law, he will frequently choose a narrative text (notice how often he goes back to the story of Abraham), not a commandment.
The many individual stories in the Old Testament make up one large overarching narrative, sometimes called a meta-narrative (the story behind the stories). This ongoing narrative embodies Israel’s worldview.
In his analysis of this worldview, N.T. Wright points out that there really are three stories or three levels to the one story. We are looking at the story of Israel, but this story is part of the larger story of humanity. After all, this is where the Bible begins in Genesis 1-11, with the creation and ruin of the human race. The story of Israel only begins at the end of chapter 11, when Abraham enters the scene. Obviously, Israel is God’s pathway to redeeming humanity, in order to bring this broken story to a good ending. Behind the story of humanity lies yet another story, the story of creation, implying the cosmic or all-encompassing dimension of salvation history.
This way of looking at it is quite different from the Western approach to theology, which has majored in abstract ideas such as justification, sanctification, election, etc. The ideal was often to bring these ideas together in a more or less timeless system. With the Reformation and even more so with the Enlightenment, there also came a strong focus on the individual, making the central question: how do I (or how does a person) get saved? In contrast, Paul and his contemporaries thought of the community (Israel) before they thought of the individual, and they started with a story, not with abstract ideas.
A Story in Search of an Ending
The problem of course is that Israel’s story is broken as well. Israel fails in its mission as the agent to bring salvation to the world; instead, it suffers judgement and exile. The question therefore becomes how God will bring this story to a good ending, because he has promised to do so. Obviously then, Israel’s story is a story in search of an ending.
It is a story Paul’s Jewish contemporaries were well aware of. We know of quite a few examples in which this story is retold. In fact, we already find such retellings in the Old Testament, for instance in Ezekiel 20, in some of the historical Psalms, and not least in the book of Chronicles.
One important purpose of contemplating – and then retelling – the story in Second Temple Judaism was to figure out how it would continue and how it would end. How would God bring Israel’s story to its conclusion? Jews at the time differed significantly in what sort of ending they envisaged (the version of Jesus, further developed by Paul, being one among many), but for the most part they did agree that there had to be such an ending: God would keep his promise.
Romans 10 is part of Paul’s retelling of Israel’s story in Romans 9-11:
It is clear that Romans 9 belongs smack in the middle of that second-Temple genre which consists of retellings of Israel’s story (one thinks of Jubilees; of Pseudo-Philo; of Josephus, of course; and, in the early Christian writings, of passages like Acts 7 and Hebrews 11). Here is Abraham; then Isaac; then, via Rebecca, Jacob and Esau; then we pass to Moses and his stand-off with Pharaoh; then we move to the period of the prophets, and their vivid denunciations (and also promises) to the people of Israel. The story then seems, so to speak, to run into the sand: even if Israel’s sons are numbered like the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved (9.27); but then we come to the Messiah himself (10.4), and with him the long-awaited fulfilment of the promises of Deuteronomy 30 (10.6–10) and of other key prophecies (10.11–13). It ought to be completely uncontroversial to point out that this is Israel’s story, told of course, like every other retelling, from a particular point of view. (Loc. 31696-704)
Deuteronomy 30: The Key Text
Paul is not the only one to turn to the final chapters of Deuteronomy as a key source for information about the ending of the story. When other, non-biblical sources retell the story of Israel, Deuteronomy 30 often features as well. So what do we have in the final chapters of this book?
- Deuteronomy 27 gives instructions for the blessing and curse ceremony on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.
- Deuteronomy 28 contains an extensive overview of the blessing and the curse.
- Deuteronomy 29 issues a stern warning, but with the implication that the threatened consequences of disobedience will come to pass.
- Deuteronomy 30 marks the great turning point. It assumes that the dire consequences described in the preceding chapters and climaxing in exile will indeed have come about. But now the people return to Yahweh and God restores them to the land. The key promise comes in verse 6:
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Dt. 30:6, ESV)
We should therefore not make the mistake of treating Deuteronomy 27-30 as an ahistorical scheme, as if this would mean: at any point in time people could sin and come under the curse, or repent and revert back to blessing, moving back and forth numerous times if needed. In these chapters we are increasingly confronted with a linear sequence, a series of events that will take its course, from a to b to z. They prophetically describe what will befall the people of Israel. This is confirmed in Deuteronomy 32, the song of Moses. In poetic form Moses prophesies how Israel will turn away from God, will go into exile, and will eventually be brought back. In Wright’s words:
Perhaps we can get at the heart of what I am saying like this: that, within the continuing narrative which virtually all Jews believed themselves to be living in, which we have studied at some length above, a great many second-Temple Jews interpreted that part of the continuing narrative in which they were living in terms of the so-called Deuteronomic scheme of sin–exile–restoration, with themselves still somewhere in the middle stage, that of ‘exile’. (Loc. 3959-62)
The words Paul quotes in Romans 10 follow within a few verses of the key promise (Dt. 30:6) just quoted:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off… But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Dt. 30:11-14, ESV)
Paul therefore does not take this as yet another exhortation for Israel to obey the law, but as referring to a whole new ballgame. The word to be obeyed is now in their heart, not just on tables of stone. Leviticus 18:5 states the general principle behind the law as it was valid for the phase before the exile (the ‘old’ ballgame). In Paul’s view, this ‘exile’ stage has just come to an end and the ‘restoration’ phase has begun. Deuteronomy 30 is located in this new phase, in which Israel’s inability to keep the law has been dealt with. There is therefore a narrative sequence, a story, involved.
Once we see this, we understand how Paul can quote the law to back up grace. Paul is not mining the Old Testament for proof texts, for isolated incidences, statements, and examples he can put to use for his own purposes. He has not taken his proof text out of context at all; on the contrary, he has noticed that the context has changed – something I expect most of us have missed (I certainly have). He has noticed that Deuteronomy 30 belongs to a different part of the narrative map: this goes with the time of restoration.
It is something to be aware of: often, in quoting Scripture, Paul does the opposite of isolating a proof text from its original context and putting all the weight on a single verse (or two), regardless of whether the verse can really carry that weight! On the contrary: often, the short quote serves as a signpost to something much larger: the longer passage of which it is part, an overarching narrative (which is the case here), or a big theological idea (as in those two words “in Christ”; not a quote, to be sure, but still a world of biblical thought condensed in just two words).
Paul recognizes in the death and resurrection of Christ the beginning of the new phase, and therefore in the gospel the word that has to be received and believed. Paul finds further support for this in the prophets: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32, ESV, quoted in Rom. 10:13). Again, just one verse, but connecting us with – and pointing to – the whole prophetic concept of a new age and a restored creation.
This is the only way how Israel – or anybody else – can begin to fulfil the real purpose of the law: to love God with all your heart. It is God’s doing, not the result of human effort. It is therefore based on God’s grace and our trust, not on works of the law. Admittedly, what Paul does with Deuteronomy 30 is still a daring leap, because the new obedience looks nothing like the old, traditional way of keeping Torah, but it does harmonize with its deeper purpose and storyline:
Paul is using Deuteronomy 30 to say: Ah, but in the enabling promise of covenant renewal, God himself holds out a new way of ‘doing the law’, a way which will be ‘in your mouth and in your heart’, a way which will come from God himself in the form of his ‘word’, and which will enable you to ‘do’ it. This is the massive claim which Paul is making through his bold and creative, but covenantally coherent, use of Deuteronomy. (Loc. 32017-20)
So what story are you living? And how do you let it shape your every day?
N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013)
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2001)
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