BEN: Chapters 8 is rather different from the other early Jewish literature you’ve thus far surveyed and it prompts some good questions. Suppose someone were to say to you—‘you’ve demonstrated that grace falls under the category of gift, but it appears you’ve also shown that gift does not necessary fall into the category of grace, at least as usually understood by Christians. By this I mean that the writers of the NT, and Paul in particular, emphasize we are all sinners, and therefore ipso facto unworthy of God’s gracious activity in our lives. If God were looking for worthy recipients of his grace, he’d still be looking. One can perhaps talk about appropriate or ‘fit’ recipients, but not worthy ones. How would you respond to this sort of push back?
JOHN: Your question presupposes that the only kind of grace worth calling ‘grace’ is grace to the unworthy. That is to impose one particular definition on the word grace (that it is, by essence, incongrous). I understand why people do that, and don’t mind if they do so long as they recognise that this is a particular and peculiar definition of the concept. In fact Christians have argued about the meaning of ‘grace’ all down the centuries and lots have thought that it makes perfect sense for God to give grace to worthy and/or fitting recipients. Or, even if the initial grace was to the unworthy (e.g. at baptism), further grace, and any hoped-for grace at the last judgement, can only be given to those who on one ground or another have proven to be at least partly worthy. So, when you say ‘as usually understood’ this might be better glossed: as usually understood in the Reformation tradition. That God helps those who help themselves (or present themselves as worthy, by repentance and its evidence in good works) has been a very common construal of grace. Since Paul is using the same language as others in antiquity who talk about God’s grace (or human grace) to the worthy (he does not have a special word for ‘grace’), I judge it better to apply the term ‘grace’ to all the references to God’s abundant mercy, goodness and loving-kindness, and then to ask: and how did these sources understand (and ‘perfect’) this concept.
BEN: The Pseudo-Philo material in some ways stands at the other end of the spectrum from the Qumran material, in that the author keeps emphasizing that despite bad times, God will not renege on his promises to and his covenant with Israel. This would not seem to be a sectarian document, as grace seems to be for all Israelites— right?
JOHN: Yes, Pseudo-Philo and the Qumran Hymns share a common emphasis on God’s mercy to the disobedient, but for Pseudo-Philo, who traces this all through Israel’s history (e.g. at the Golden Calf), this is the phenomenon that has sustained all Israel all along, and he expects/hopes it will sustain the nation (though not necessarily every individual within it) to the end. In that sense, this texts reads Israel’s story rather like I think Paul reads this story in Romans 9-11.
BEN: To me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pseudo-Philo is the distinction between judgment and destruction. Like in the earlier chapters of Revelation, judgment can be seen as discipline, and so is not punitive, whereas destruction would be punitive and final. Thus Israel is regularly subject to God’s judgment when they sin, but not what we would call ‘final judgment’. Right?
JOHN: Yes, I was struck on reading this text that it could talk of judgments on Israel that are temporary (even if devastating) or partial (applicable only to some) – as sin had to be punished in some way. But the covenant and therefore Israel cannot be destroyed in any final or complete sense – or else God’s whole creation project would go down the tube. So there are repeated cycles in Israel’s history of sin, leading to divine judgment, followed by restoration in mercy, followed by sin, etc.
BEN: I’m also fascinated with what this book does with the offering of Isaac in sacrifice, even suggesting that this is why God ‘chose them’, the them I am assuming means Israel. In other words, the author doesn’t see God’s choice of Israel as arbitrary or based on no prior considerations.
JOHN: Well, that is interesting. The author is responding to the way that in Genesis 22, after the offering of Isaac, God gives a sworn oath that ‘because you have done this, I will bless you and I will make your offering as numerous as the stars’ etc. (Gen 22.15-17). That looks like rewarding Abraham and his offspring for the offering of Isaac. So it has God comment on this incident: ‘his offering was acceptable to me, and in return for his blood I chose them’ (Pseudo-Philo, LAB 18.5). This is one of several comments that suggest that the patriarchs and their behaviour and character is in some sense foundational to the covenant (see texts cited on page 273, especially LAB 35.3) – which is indeed one natural way to read Genesis. This may well be a way of ensuring that God’s covenant promises do not look arbitrary. I am not sure this text is as exercised by that question as Philo was, and as Paul was also in his own way, but it does work hard to show that Abraham and Moses (and his father) were heroic figures, and that is at least one explanation for the covenant and its endurance.
BEN: The author seems to have a somewhat developed view of the afterlife, in part because he has realized that justice is not always done in the generation when Israel has been wronged, or exiled or etc. I would say that this idea— that we need an afterlife theology if we are going to continue to affirm the justice of God to his people, arose in part because of the long period of Babylonian exile—and you can see this is the apocalyptic prophecy in the later OT—Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah. Surely it can’t be an accident that it is in those contexts, for the first time that we hear about resurrection etc. Would you agree?
JOHN: I think there may be political and social factors like this that encourage the development of belief in an afterlife, but I am cautious about simple cause-and-effect arguments, as beliefs have all kinds of roots. The ancient Egyptians, of course, had vivid and well-developed notions of an afterlife (not the same as a resurrection, of course) well before Israel displays them (as far as we can reconstruct), and there may well be Egyptian or other Near-Eastern influences on the development of Jewish apocalyptic ideas. But it is certainly the case that the more hopeless things look in the present and in the foreseeable future, hopes for ultimate justice are invested in a life beyond this. In the case of this book, good people get swept away along with the bad in God’s punishment of Israel – but something a lot better is in store for them in another world.
BEN: How are the mercy of God and the irreplaceability of Israel in God’s plan inter-related in this book?
JOHN: Mercy is an absolutely necessary mechanism for Israel’s history to continue, given its persistent tendency to go astray. And the reason Israel’s history has to continue (though questions arise at the time of the Golden Calf ) is because there is simply no alternative. Israel is core to the meaning of the cosmos, and if Israel were to disappear, the whole of history, and the whole of the world, would be meaningless. For this author it is either Israel or nothing: God does not have a Plan B up his sleeve. And a God whose only plan for the universe comes to nothing is not worth calling God. Mercy is the life-jacket that keeps the Israel-story afloat.