This last week in our Romans class we explored different presentations of Israel’s history in passages in texts from the Old Testament, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and New Testament. The most common elements included: The Patriarchs, Moses & the Exodus, Sinai, (surprisingly little on) Davidic kingship, the Temple, the Exile, the Return, (sometimes a reference to) the Maccabean Revolt & the Hasmonean dynasty, and (very rarely) inclusion of the Nations in some way in the End. We then compared these with Paul’s telling of Israel’s history in Romans 9-11, which goes: Patriarchs, Exodus, Exile, Jesus as Davidic King, Moses giving the Law, promise of the Return by prophets.
One of the things that jump out is that Paul is not doing histography. He is not sitting down to tell the history of Israel, like what is seen by Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 or by the writer of Hebrews in (what we call) his eleventh chapter. Paul is drawing on elements from the history of Israel he believes are commonly held by 2nd Temple Jews as fundamentally important for forming and explaining the identity of the people of God.
Second, there seems to be a freedom in all of the texts that tell or reference the history of Israel to use the events of Israel’s past to “prove” some sort of point by the writer. This ability to manipulate and use these events reminded me of a quote I use when teaching about history by James G. Williams in Women Recounted,
“Every human expression is “fictive” in some sense, which is to say that we shape and refract the “facts,” the givens of our worlds as we think them and utter them. The basic form of history must be narrative, otherwise it has no coherence. In this sense the historian tells a story, which by definition must be shaped by the teller. He or she decides on its form and sub-forms (how to handle speeches, intentions of human subjects, matters of philosophy or ideas that do not lend themselves readily to narration, etc.). Thus, even modern critical historiography is “fiction” to the extent that data do not interpret themselves and the historian relates a kind of story. Or to put it another way, every history as told or written must be made. The common Latin etymology of fact, fiction, fictive, and fictile is suggestive [of this reality].” (Bolding and brackets mine.)
The events of Israel’s history, the data elements, are malleable to the storytellers needs to express the desired truth to the audience. Paul is drawing out a particular lesson based on his interpretation of God’s interactions with Israel. By making Jesus the end goal of Israel’s history and interaction with God, Paul is adding an event into the history of Israel that affects how the people of God should understand God’s work and interactions with them retroactively. It is not that the Old Testament was leading to King Jesus that would have been obvious to Israel, but that after King Jesus we can now see how God was working through the Old Testament to create the perfect moment to present King Jesus to Israel and the world (Eph 1:9-10).
Humans come to know the facts of the world and our lives by locating them in stories that help us make sense of all the data elements forced into our minds by our senses. We are often so confident in our interpretations, or really the interpretations of the groups or tribes we give our allegiance to, that we believe we know the “right” or “correct” way of thinking or knowing the world. There is no other way to be human. We are convinced we are able to “read” the story of the world better than those who “read” it a different way.
If there is a Reality beyond the myriad of human interpretations of events and facts in this world there is no way for humans to know it! There is no hope even in the stories of interpretation we call “sciences.” Even if the human mind is able to perceive, and in a purely physical senses based system there is no reason to believe this is so, we have no way of telling which interpretations are truthful about Reality and which ones just seem to consistently “work” by providing ways to “live” in this “world.”
Paul knows that for any surety in this world, for any true interpretation of Israel and the world, God must give it to humans. The Creator must reach into human history and help humans see and know what is right, good, true, and beautiful about the Reality he has and is creating. Paul believes King Jesus provides the way of knowing and seeing the truth about Israel’s history, and beyond that, the way of understanding all of Creation (Reality) as God has made it. Paul uses the elements of Israel’s history to show that only King Jesus makes sense of Israel, the world, and God. We can know the meaning of facts, and more importantly the identity forming elements of the people of God, precisely because God gave himself to us in King Jesus.