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Paul was not trained in a modern seminary to read Scripture. As a man of his day, he read Scripture like the rabbis he had heard in the synagogue or studied under in the academy. Often the ways he reads and interprets Scripture seem odd to us. Still they were the strategies his teachers and other biblical writers were using at the time.
Midrash is a term used to refer to how Jewish teachers approached and explained the biblical texts. It begins with a healthy respect for the Scriptures as divinely inspired, as God’s Word to the world. Yet as God’s Word the books of the Bible must do more than tell about what happened back then, they must be read against our current questions, crises and moments. Whenever you hear a sermon about timeless truths or life principles from the Bible, the teacher is engaging in midrash. One way to think of it is to say these ancient texts also speak to modern problems.
For Paul there are many ways of realizing the significance of the Scriptures in his day. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar (Gal 4:21-31) is one of them. Paul offers a figural reading of Abraham’s two sons, one born to Hagar, the other to Sarah, his wife. For him, these two women serve as representative figures of the current problem Paul is addressing in Galatians. Now, this does not mean that Paul discounted the literal, historical meaning—a memorable story of how God had been working out his promises to Abraham and his family—he just sees in the conflict within Abraham’s family a correspondence between the conflict that he was trying to work out among believing Jews and Gentiles in his day.
Like Hillel, one of the great rabbis of his day, Paul often made use of catch words to link one text to another so that they become mutually interpreting. You might call this “stringing pearls.” In Gal 3:6-9 Paul mixes his own commentary (midrash) with Scripture:
Text (Gen 15:6) Abraham put faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness
Comment Those who put faith (in Jesus) are the sons of Abraham
Comment Scripture foretold that God would makethe Gentiles right by faith
Text (Gen 12:3) in you, Abraham, all the Gentiles would be blessed
Comment Those who put faith (in Jesus) are blessed with Abraham who had faith
The story of Abraham provides Paul with a Scriptural image for how to address the predicament in Galatia. Abraham’s “faith” became the occasion for how the patriarch was reckoned by God as “right/righteous”; but what was true for Abraham is also true for all the sons of Abraham, defined by Paul as those, including the Gentiles, who put faith in Jesus. As Paul continued to think through the story of Abraham, his mind shot back to the initial promise itself where God promised Abraham that he and his kin would become a blessing universally to all the nations/Gentiles. These keywords within Abraham’s story (faith, right/righteous, blessing, Gentiles) became the pearls by which the apostle could string together his Scriptures to include this new chapter, the climactic chapter of God’s story in the world.
Earlier this year Michael Bird highlighted an article by Morna Hooker in the Scottish Journal of Theology:
Morna D. Hooker, “Another Look at πίστις Χριστοῦ,” SJT 69 (2016): 46-62.
In that article she joins a chorus of scholars who agree that at key moments in his letters Paul relates that redemption is centered in the faith or faithfulness of Jesus. This is a position argued decades ago by Richard Hays. Now, I’m pleased to note, many scholars have begun to read Paul this way. As Hooker notes, this new reading has deep implications for Paul’s theology.
To read Bird’s blog post click here.
When I was working on The Voice translation of the Bible with Thomas Nelson, I made and won the argument that “faith/faithfulness of Jesus” is how these texts ought to be read on the fact that the King James Version (1611) got it right! Here are two examples:
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
And Galatians 2:20:
20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Most modern translations take this as an objective genitive and render it “faith in Jesus” or “faith in the Son of God.” In The Voice we translated those key passages as subjective genitives: Jesus exercises faith/ trust/ faithfulness (to God). Hooker is correct that Jesus is clearly an object of faith in Paul; but in these and other key places when Paul is describing the essence of the gospel he is clear that our redemption is due to God’s rightness and Jesus’ faithfulness.
There is a phrase in Galatians 3.13 which is often misunderstood:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree– . . . “ (RSV)
The phrase I’d like to consider is “the curse of the law.” What did Paul mean by it? How did/does Christ redeem us from it? All this talk of blessing and curses probably strikes you as kind of strange.
Well, let’s back up to consider the broader context of the letter.
Not long after Paul left the churches he founded in Galatia false teachers moved in and started teaching a form of the gospel which was not good news at all. These false brothers were insisting that non-Jews live like Jews in order to get in on the benefits of Christ. What does it mean to live like a Jew? Well, several things. They would have to observe Sabbath as a day of rest, keep certain dietary rules and regulations, celebrate Jewish holidays, promise to uphold all of God’s law, which included men being circumcised. Paul referred to these as “the works of the law.”
When Paul heard his churches had been infiltrated by these Judaizers (as we call them), he fired off the letter we call “Galatians.” His essential argument is this: no one—Jew or Gentile—is put into a right and proper relationship with God by doing “the works of the law.” Instead, the faithfulness of Jesus has made it possible for those who put faith in Jesus to be made right with God.
In Galatians 3 Paul argues that faith all along has been what made rightness with God a reality. It started with Abraham and his covenant. It’s evident in the message of the prophets as well. Those who trust in “the works of the law”—remember, dietary rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision—soon find they are living contrary to the law. For Paul, it is clear the law is not the means of salvation. To try to make the law into something it was never intended is foolish. The law does not justify. It never did. It was never meant to.
So here is where our phrase “the curse of the law” comes in. Jesus, God’s Anointed, has redeemed us from the curse of the law. What did Paul mean? To some degree it depends on what “of” means? You need to know that the word “of” is not found in Greek. It is commonly supplied in English to express the relationship between two words (e.g., the love of God, the friend of sinners, the rock of ages). In Galatians 3 the words are “curse” and “law.” So what is their relationship? In large measure it has to do with how the Greek genitive case—now I’m getting really technical—is interpreted. Let’s start with what Paul did not mean. Paul did not mean that the entire law is a curse. That would be what is known as an epexegetical use of the genitive. So: “Christ redeemed us from the curse, namely, the law, . . . “ Some have taken this approach and unfortunately missed Paul’s point altogether. No Pharisee like Paul would have ever thought of the law as a curse. If you want to know what Jews like Paul thought of the law, read Psalm 119. The longest chapter in the Bible is a celebration of the law, its goodness and its benefits. After that, notice that even before he came to Christ Paul felt confident before God precisely because he was blameless before the law (Philippians 3:4-6). I think we can safely rule out the epexegetical genitive. Well the best candidate for understanding what “of” is may be found in the partitive genitive. The partitive genitive expresses the relationship between a part and a whole. For example, in the phrase “one of my friends”. The set is “my friends.” The subset is “one.” The “one” is part of a whole, “my friends.” This is probably the best way to read the phrase “the curse of the law.” The set is “the law.” The subset is “curse.” The phrase “the curse of the law” could be rendered “the part of the law that pronounces curses.”
“OK,” I can hear you saying, “now in English.” If you haven’t noticed, there are places in the law—especially Deuteronomy 27-28 (part of the law)—where curses are pronounced against those who violate the terms of the covenant. Ancient treaties and covenants always included a list of blessings and curses, announcing what would happen if one party kept or broke their promises. It’s much the same today in modern contracts when a lawyer spells out the trouble you’ll be in if you violate the agreement you made. In those days the penalties for breaking a promise were called “curses.” I suggest the best way to read Galatians 3:13 is this way: Now Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, has redeemed us from that curse-part of the law. How? He did it by becoming a curse for us, that is, becoming subject to the law that said “everyone who hangs on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Since Jesus hung on the cross, he fell under the curse. Now how did the cursed one—Jesus—liberate us from the part of the law that pronounces curses? In a word, resurrection. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he vindicated him as His Messiah and effectively reversed the curse, not just the single curse which affected Jesus but the entire system of curses which affected all of humanity. In the resurrection Jesus became the curse-buster. As a result, the curses associated with the first covenant have been rendered null and void through Christ’s faithfulness. This apparently had been God’s purpose all along.
I’ve met Christians who question why we read the Old Testament. “The New Testament has all we need,” they say. “Jesus did away with ‘the curse of the law.’” Well, yes and no. He did away with that part of the law that pronounces curses, but he didn’t do away with honor your father and mother, or do not steal, or do not murder. He didn’t do away with love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In fact, Jesus repeats these directives, affirms them, and makes them central to his own teaching. Yes, Jesus reversed the curse so that blessing might extend to all people who put faith in Him. But the law in all its beauty and goodness remains.