God’s Ironic Hatred in Romans 9?

This past Sunday in my Sunday school class, we reached Romans 9. I was struck recently for the first time by the possibility that Paul’s use of texts in this section might be profoundly and perhaps intentionally ironic.

The idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and that God hated Esau, have something in common – and not just the fact that they represent problematic and objectionable details in Scripture.

They are also traditional affirmations of divine election of the Jewish people and God’s favoritism towards them against their enemies.

Given that Paul challenged the idea of favoritism and partiality on God’s part earlier in the letter, are we really to understand Paul to here be embracing what he once rejected?

It is perhaps better to view Paul as doing something similar to what he did in Romans 2 and in Romans 4: he is using Jewish proof-texts for the view he opposes, and turning them back on his opponents.

Paul’s point in Romans 9 is not merely that God is free to choose whomever he will. He starts with the classic election texts – God’s choice of Isaac rather than Ishmael, his choice of Jacob rather than Esau. Paul then uses those very central texts related to Jewish election to argue that God has always restricted and drawn in the boundaries of the chosen people to a select group within a larger number of descendants. And so why should anyone complain that God is not now choosing all of Israel, or all Jews? Surely this is precisely in keeping with the logic of election, the election in which Paul’s Jewish contemporaries boasted of their elect status.

Paul is turning the tables on them.

By Romans 10-11, Paul will of course indicate that those who have fallen and missed the boat are not in fact excluded, not fallen beyond recovery. Even if they are branches broken off the tree, they can be grafted back in.

And so ultimately Paul doesn’t seem to want to say that anyone is genuinely “elected out” or “deselected” from participation in the covenant people.

Why then use such difficult and objectionable texts?

Perhaps it was precisely because those texts were being used against him and his Gentile mission. Perhaps they were being quoted by his opponents that God loves some and hates others.

It seems to me that Paul uses these texts of divine hatred ironically and subversively, turning them back on those who utilized them as weapons of exclusion. But his doing so is not ultimately to affirm divine hatred and exclusion, but to undermine the very notion by turning those texts on their users and then emphasizing the opportunity for them to be included even so, even though he has made them out to be excluded in precisely the way that they claimed Gentiles are excluded.

I don’t think there can be any doubt, having reflected on this, that there is something ironic about Paul’s use of these texts about election and divine hatred. The only question, in my mind, is whether Paul was being intentionally ironic.

What do others think?

  • http://lowerwisdom.com JSA

    That’s exactly how I read it; I always thought this use of these difficult texts was very deliberate.  It’s in keeping with the “stumbling block” idea and “judge not”, and reminds us of Haman.

  • Brian

    I have to say, James, that you and so many others within the guild have made Paul, so much more fun to me. I have to go back with this interpretation in mind, for I must confess that I didn’t pick that up.

  • Pat & Jim Barton

    In advocating for inclusion of GLBT Christians, I tried to cite to Romans 1:24-27, and then, cleverly I thought, point out how different the relationship of gay Christians are from the relationships Paul describes there.  Basically, I was trying to do exactly what you are suggesting Paul does.  Feedback thus far has suggested I was not very successful. :( 

    But, I do get the idea, and I think it makes sense as what Paul might be doing here.

  • Geoff Hudson

    One definition of ironic is to be humorous or sarcastic by the use of language of a different or opposite tendency.  It would seem that Paul is indeed being sarcastic.    He claims the high ground by quoting old testament texts against the ‘Israelites’ (Rom 10.1).  It would then seem hypocritical of Paul to pray for them.  And to condemn them due to a lack of knowledge of Jesus (10.2) is even worse. 

  • Gary

    After reading Romans 9, I was struck by one set of verses,

    “but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.”

    If I were to replace “law” by “scriptures as inerrant”, replace “faith” by “belief in Jesus”, and replace “works” with “reading the scriptures”. So is the stumbling stone the inerrant scriptures (law), followed mindless, without paying attention to the obvious teachings of Christ? Like my favorite, Leviticus 14 :-)   or Numbers 31 :-(
    bad Moses.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Pat & Jim, I’ve blogged about the subject of GLBT inclusion in relation to Paul’s thought in Romans and elsewhere, and so you might find some of my earlier posts on that topic interesting (let me know if you can’t find them easily!)

    Gary, I do think that many Christians today resemble the stance Paul is arguing against more than the stance he himself adopts. I could see Romans having a powerful impact if either paraphrased or commented on in such a way as to have it addressing Christian ideas of election rather than Jewish ones. 

  • Jim Moore

    Dr. McGrath,

    Long-time lurker, first-time commenter here.  I would really, really like to believe Romans 9 should be read the way you suggest but I’m sceptical.  I spent most of my Christian life in conservative Calvinist circles.  I’m sure you know how they read this text!  I gave up on Calvinist orthodoxy a long time ago, but still find many of their readings of Biblical texts persuasive.  I just think the Biblical authors themselves were wrong.  At any rate, it would sure help your case if you could point to some earlier interpreters who caught Paul’s irony.   

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Jim! I’m skeptical of my own suggestion, and so not at all offended if others are too! :-)  While I would need to dive into the history of interpretation in more detail than I have in order to really address your concern, what I can note is that there is a consistency between what I am suggesting Paul might have been doing in Romans 9, and what he does in earlier parts of the letter. In Romans 1-2, Paul engages in a somewhat ironic condemnation of “typically Gentile sins” not because he considers such condemnation appropriate, but precisely so that he can tell anyone who joins in the condemnation that they have condemned themselves. In Romans 3, Paul takes some passages that condemn outsiders and mingles them with similar ones that addressed Israelites, to turn typical outward-aimed condemnation inward. And in Romans 4, Paul takes what may have been a favorite passage of his opponents, the story of Abraham and the covenant (including circumcision), finding a creative way of using it against them. And so while that doesn’t answer your question about the history of interpretation (which I don’t have time to look into at the moment, but would love to hear from others about if there are readers who have worked on this), hopefully it at least indicates that what I am suggesting might be in keeping with what Paul wrote (or one possible understanding of what Paul wrote) in other parts of the same letter.


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