The 614th Commandment
“I ask you, then, has God rejected his People?”
That’s Paul’s first question immediately following today’s long, thick passage: ‘Has God rejected the Jews?’
(Because they reject God in Christ?)
You shouldn’t answer too hastily.
A couple of years ago, Ali and I were traveling in Southern France, and one hot, sunny day we toured a museum in Nice devoted to Mark Chagall, the Jewish artist who was born in Russia and fled to France before the outbreak of World War II.
The museum is a series of large, round rooms with Chagall’s boldly colored art displayed against spartan white walls.
Because of the diversity of tourists, there was no single ‘tour guide’ per se.
Instead everyone was given a hand-held radio each set to a specific language with numbered buttons that corresponded to the numbers next to each section of paintings.
Holding the radio next to my ear, I worked my way through the museum in no particular order. After a while, because my feet were sore, I sat down on a long leather bench in the middle of a gallery floor next to an old man.
He had a yarmulke barretted to his white, wiry hair and, faintly, I could hear that his radio was set to Hebrew.
Like the old man sitting at my left, I stared up at the painting on the front of today’s bulletin, Chagall’s White Crucifixion.
I pressed the button on my radio, button #14, and I listened as the GPS-sounding voice explained how Mark Chagall, who’d studied Torah before he’d studied art, saw in Jesus of Nazareth the ultimate symbol for the suffering of all the Jewish people.
When the GPS-sounding voice went on to mention how earlier versions of the painting depicted soldiers in black with swastikas on their arms burning down a synagogue- when the GPS-sounding voice said that, I heard the old man next to me start to cry.
His palsied hand was holding the radio up to his left ear.
Just underneath the cuff of his white sleeve I could see the numbers tattooed on the inside of his left wrist.
Like a tag on an animal.
Or a barcode on a piece of supermarket meat.
Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been building to the question.
From: “I am not ashamed of the gospel” to: “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”
All of it.
All of Paul’s memory verse rhetoric and every bit of his dense, theological argument- for 11 relentless chapters, it’s all been driving to this question:
“Has God rejected his People?”
Just take another look at Chagall’s painting and you know: it’s a question we should not ask or answer carelessly.
On November 9, 1938- Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass- a 22 year old boy named Emile Fackenheim managed to escape as Nazi storm troopers ransacked and burned Jewish homes and businesses and synagogues and then took 30,000 men to concentration camps.
Emile Fackenheim went on to become the most important Jewish theologian of the 20th century.
He wrote a book of post-holocaust philosophy called To Mend the World.
In that book, to all those who worship the God of Abraham, Fackenheim issues what he calls the 614th Commandment.
The rabbis always believed the Hebrew Scriptures- the Old Testament- contained 613 Commandments.
But because of the enormity of the Holocaust, Fackenheim says that those who worship the God of Israel should add one more commandment to the list, a 614th Commandment.
Commandment #614 goes like this: Thou shalt not give Hitler any posthumous victories.
For Jews, Fackenheim says, the 614th Commandment means they should not despair.
They should not despair that this is God’s world and they are God’s Chosen People.
And for Christians, the 614th Commandment means we should rethink how we answer that question of Paul’s.
For us, the 614th Commandment means that we who live after the Holocaust must learn to tell a story of the Bible different than the one that led to the Holocaust.
For nearly 2 millennia, the Christian Church’s answer to Paul’s question was an unflinching and uncritical and unbiblical: ‘Yes.’
‘Yes, God has rejected his People.’
But behind that ‘Yes,’ what made that ‘Yes’ possible, is a very particular way of summarizing and interpreting the Bible as a whole.
Behind that ‘Yes’ is a very selective way of mapping the plot of the biblical story.
It’s a way that’s probably familiar to all of you.
It breaks all 66 books of the bible into 4 main acts.
It goes like this:
In the beginning God created humanity, Adam and Eve, to share eternal life with God- a goal humanity could attain by relying upon God’s grace and obeying God’s commands.
That’s Genesis chapter 1 and a sliver of chapter 2. That’s it and that’s Act 1.
But what happens next?
The bible’s storyline hits a catastrophic snag.
Adam and Eve don’t trust God’s one and only command.
Adam blames Eve. They both hide from God.
They sully the image of God in which they were created.
They forfeit the goal of eternal life and they bring upon themselves and their children sin and death to such a degree it’s beyond any human power to heal.
That’s what Christians call- but Jews never have- the Fall.
That’s Genesis chapter 3. That’s just one page; that’s Act II.
This is the longest act in the biblical story.
It’s the central drama: the rescue of humanity from Sin.
The undoing of what was done in what Christians call, but Jews never have, the Fall.
But before God redeems all people, God first calls a particular people to point forward to the salvation that comes in Christ.
So God chooses Abraham and Abraham’s children and God promises to them: ‘I will be your God and you will be my People.”
And so, according to Act III, what we find in the Old Testament is God giving Israel land and lineage; so that, they will be the place and people from which Christ will come.
And what we find in the Old Testament is God giving Israel law; so that, they will be prepared for the new spiritual law that will come with Christ.
And what we find in the Old Testament is God giving Israel prophets; so that, they will foreshadow the arrival and atonement of Christ.
And what we find in the New Testament is testimony that redemption from sin has been fully and finally enacted in Jesus Christ and that redemption is now available to us through the Holy Spirit.
So now, according to Act III, all the prophecies and prefigurements of the Old Testament are fulfilled.
Grace replaces the Law.
Baptism replaces circumcision.
Eucharist replaces Passover.
Church replaces Synagogue.
And, because they do not confess faith in Jesus the Messiah, God breaks his promise to Abraham and Christians replace Jews as God’s People.
Finally, comes Act IV.
Act IV is the time we’re in now, awaiting the second coming of Christ when will God will fulfill his purpose and bring humanity to eternal life.
That’s the standard way of telling the basics of the biblical story.
It’s the story the Apostles’ Creed tells: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” SKIP OVER THE ENTIRE STORY OF ISRAEL TO SAY … ”I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”
And then we go on to say how we believe in our forgiveness of sins and our life everlasting…
It’s the standard way of telling the story. It’s the bible tract way of telling the story. It’s the 4 Spiritual Laws way of telling the story. It’s the only way of telling the story that’s make possible something like the Gideon Bible.
And the tragic irony is:
It should not take a holocaust to point out the problems with that way of telling the story.
The first problem, the beginning problem, is that it makes the entire biblical story exclusively about our sin and redemption from it.
Everything hinges on Genesis chapter 3, on just the second page of your bible.
Everything in scripture is a reaction to Adam and Eve’s sin, a reaction to what Christians call, but Jews never have, the Fall.
But there’s a whole lot of other stuff in the Old Testament that God seems to care about besides just foreshadowing Christ- 1340 pages in my bible.
The prophet Micah didn’t just predict where Christ would be born; he told us what God requires of us: ‘to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.’
God didn’t give the law to Moses just to prepare us for Christ; God gave the law so we would do things we would never do unless God told us like ‘care for the immigrants in our land because once we were immigrants in Egypt.’
The prophet Isaiah didn’t just foresee the suffering servant’s wounds by which we are healed; Isaiah foresaw that Day when ‘no more shall an infant live but a few days,’ a Day not when God will whisk our souls off to heaven but a Day when God will come down and make this Earth new again.
The first problem with the way we summarize the bible story is that there’s a whole lot of stuff God cares about other than just our redemption from sin.
The second problem in the standard way we summarize the story is that once Christ comes Israel has no other role to play in God’s work in the world.
God’s People, Israel- they’re like a boat that takes you across to your destination and once you arrive the boat’s no longer necessary.
And since you’re not going back, the boat’s obsolete.
You can leave it behind. Leave Israel behind.
And really you can leave Israel’s bible behind too.
Which leads then to the third problem.
When you leave the Old Testament behind, you make Jesus’ preaching in the New unintelligible.
Because once you’ve forgotten about all that other stuff in the Old Testament that God cares about, then everything Jesus says about poverty, deliverance, forgiveness, healing, debt, salvation, and Kingdom- it all starts to sound spiritual and other-worldly and the exact opposite of what Jesus actually meant.
When we leave the Old Testament behind, we’re just left with a Jesus who died so we can go to heaven when we die instead of a Jesus whom God raised from the dead as the first sign that God was bringing Christ’s Kingdom of Heaven down to earth.
When we do away with Jesus’ Bible we make everything Jesus said unintelligible.
And that leads the fourth and final problem with the way we summarize the bible story.
When we suggest that God has replaced Israel with the Church, what we’re really saying is that God has broken his unconditional, no-strings-attached promise to Israel: ‘I will be your God and you will be my People.’
And if God will break that promise to them, what about all the promises that God in Christ makes to us?
What about when Christ promises to us that God’s love is like a Father who never stops waiting for his wayward child to come home from the far country?
If God will break his first promise to Israel, then how do we know the Prodigal’s Father won’t just say to his child: ‘Nah, you should’ve come home earlier.’
Just follow the logic: if that first promise is conditional, then all the others are up for grabs too.
If God will break that first promise, then Paul has no basis on which to promise that ‘there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’
If God will go back on that first promise to Israel
Then we have no reason to look forward to Revelation’s promise that one day God will come down and make his creation new again and dwell with us so that there will no more mourning, no more tears, no more pain.
If God breaks God’s promises, we’re really not left with much.
There’s got to be a better way to understand the story.
And there is.
It’s the way that Jesus would’ve understood the story.
It’s the way that Paul would’ve learned the story.
Because we should never forget that Jesus and Paul were Jews, and because they were Jews, Jesus and Paul never would have referred to Adam and Eve’s sin the garden as ‘the Fall.’
And so as Jews, Jesus and Paul never would have seen Genesis 3 as the hinge around which all of scripture revolves.
As Jews, as people of the People of Israel, when it comes to the hinge of the story, when it comes to the core of scripture, Jesus and Paul would have pointed not to Genesis 3, not to Adam’s sin and our redemption from it.
As Jews, Jesus and Paul would’ve pointed to Genesis 12, to God’s unconditional promise to bless Abraham and Abraham’s children: ‘I will be your God and you will be my People.’
For Jews, that’s the hinge of the biblical story.
And as Jews, Jesus and Paul would’ve known that that’s only part of the promise God makes to Abraham.
Jesus and Paul also would’ve known that God promises that through Abraham and Abraham’s children, through them, somehow, God would find a way to bless all the nations of the world.
Jesus and Paul would’ve known that from the very beginning of scripture God’s promise, God’s desire, was to have two different families, two different people, Jews and Gentiles, blessing one another and blessing the God of Israel.
Maybe that’s why when Jesus comes back from grave, he tells his disciples to make disciples not of all Jews but of all the nations.
And maybe that’s why when Paul writes here in Romans chapters 9-11, when Paul speaks of God, he uses only active verbs.
As though to remind you that God’s in charge. God’s behind all this.
And when Paul speaks of Israel and their lack of belief in Jesus Christ, all the verbs are in the passive voice.
As though, Israel, the Jews, are not in control at all.
As though God’s People haven’t done anything to reject belief in Jesus Christ.
As though instead God has done everything- everything, even make them not believe- in order to welcome other people into God’s People through Jesus Christ.
As though instead God has done everything- even make them not believe- in order to welcome other people-like you into God’s People.
Through Jesus Christ.
Not long ago, knowing this section of scripture was looming on the preaching schedule, I decided to tour the Holocaust Museum, for the first time since I was a student.
At the start of the tour, I was handed an identification card.
Every ID Card has the name and biography of a Jewish child who experienced the Shoah.
The ID Cards are meant to personalize the events described in the exhibits, to boil down the unimaginable scale of tragedy and make you feel invested in just one life out of 6 million.
The ID Card in my hand felt like a millstone around my neck. On it was the name of a 10 year old boy, גַּבְרִיאֵל, Hebrew for ‘strong man of God.’
My son’s name.
They handed me the ID Card and I looked at the name and I immediately flipped to the end of the bio.
He didn’t make it.
The place that day was crowded with tourists and field trips.
The whole way through I trailed behind a group of Hebrew School kids. At one point, in the middle of the tour, I stood next to the school kids as we looked at black and white photographs in an exhibit.
You could just make out our reflections, Gentile and Jew, staring back at us in the display glass case.
Behind our reflections was a picture of two soldiers- Gentile soldiers- posing proudly in front of a cattle car filled with Jews.
The exhibit noted how the inscription on the soldiers’ belt buckles- the inscription on all German soldiers’ belt buckles- read: ‘Gott mit uns.’
Which is German for ‘Emmanuel.’
Which is Hebrew for ‘God with us.’
I stood there in front of the glass next 3 Hebrew School 5th graders.
Two girls and one boy.
Maybe it was because of the angle of the lights or maybe it was because of where we were standing or maybe it was because of the thickness of the glass but, looking in, I could see our reflections on the display case glass.
Gentile and Jew.
And as though written across all four of our chests I could also see the written translation for the those belt buckles: God with us.
As though it were tattooed on all of us.
And I thought to myself, that’s exactly right.