For this semester’s New Testament Exegesis class we were assigned passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans. As with Old Testament Exegesis, two students are given the same passage but write their own papers. That way the class has two different takes on the same passage when it comes time for the class discussion. Third-year Jake and I were given Romans 11:25-32, famous for the phrase, “And so all Israel will be saved.” It’s an intense passage, and by that I mean that the interpretation of every section of it is contested and requires careful thought and study. Third-year Hilmer told me he dodged a bullet by not getting my passage.
The following is the introduction from my paper. It introduces the major questions posed by the passage, and outlines my arguments for how it should be read:
When you tell Dr. Van Vliet that you are working on Romans 11:25-32 for New Testament exegesis, and he responds with a clap on the shoulder and a “Sterkte, brother,” I think you are justified in feeling a flash of self-pity. This is one of the most contested passages in Romans. Eminent and orthodox scholars study these same few words yet arrive at very different conclusions, each convinced of conclusive evidence for their own reading. Thus it is a humbling thing for an amateur exegete to wade into the passage himself, and to find himself disagreeing with scholars with much greater skill and experience than his own. Yet one cannot remain neutral; a position must be taken.
The difficulty is not necessarily in determining the overall message. It is clear that Paul is speaking of some sort of benefit for Israel as a result of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant. The difficulty, rather, lies in determining what exactly that benefit is, and more specifically, in relating all the parts of this cryptic passage into a cohesive whole that supports your argument for that benefit. Is Paul speaking here of a future event or a present process? Will Christ at his second coming turn a great number of Jews to faith in him? Will he turn every Jew who has ever lived to faith in him? Or is Paul revealing here a less spectacular but ongoing work of God throughout history? Does “all Israel” refer to every Jew, or to great numbers of Jews, or is Paul rather speaking of all believers? What is Paul proving with his Old Testament quotations?
As with any passage in Scripture, this one must be understood within its own immediate context. And when that context is studied closely, I believe that Paul’s message in these eight verses becomes less enigmatic. Paul opens this section of Romans with a lament (9:1-5), and closes with a doxology (11:33-36). The lament introduces what weighs heavily on Paul’s mind: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (9:2,3). His deepest sympathies are for the salvation of his own people, those whom God had called his own: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (10:1). Thus he explores the question of their salvation and what this new Gentile era means for them: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” (11:1) And again: “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!” (11:11). It is in the context of this final question that Paul writes 11:25-32, and what this final question leads to is Paul’s bursting forth in praise.
Chapters 9-11 are a journey and Paul pulls in many things along the way. He speaks of God’s work of election (9:11-13), his absolute sovereignty (9:16-23), and the power of his Word (10:8-17). It is especially the latter that is intertwined with Paul’s main theme. He asserts in 9:6 that “it is not as though God’s Word had failed,” and sets out to demonstrate that the Word spoken to Israel is not only trustworthy, but irrevocable (11:29). In fact, Paul quotes that Word extensively in these chapters to support his teaching, thus demonstrating its veracity.
But his main question is: what about the Jews? Does the dawn of this new redemptive-historical era mean that God has finally rejected his Old Testament people? Are the Gentiles to be understood as the new Israel, a replacement chosen people? Is there anything left, anything to be hoped for, for Jacob’s children? Paul’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!” The interpretation that I will argue for here has as its key 11:11b: “Salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” And it is through this envy of the Gentiles that Israel will be brought to salvation (v.14). As a result, the hardening that Israel has experienced (v.7) is only a partial hardening (v.25), that is, a hardening that can be softened through envy. And in this way God will save not just the chosen remnant of Israel, the holy root into which the Gentiles have been grafted, but also those whom he has numbered among the hardened. Natural branches that were pruned will be grafted back in (v.24), and so all Israel, that is, the full number of God’s children from both categories of ethnic Israel (pruned branches and holy root), will be saved. This is the source of Paul’s great joy. The inclusion of the Gentiles, far from resulting in the final rejection of Israel, actually results in the fullness of Israel being brought in. It is by means of the Gentiles that God will reach those who have been obstinate.
Finally, I do not take this as a one-time future event, but as an ongoing work of God through history. Israel has not experienced a full hardening but only a partial one, and this will continue until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in. Throughout this time, then, God will continue to provoke hardened Jews to jealousy and then to repentance and faith. Paul’s argument beginning in chapter 9 is that God has always had his faithful among Israel, and with the inclusion of the Gentiles this will not change. On the contrary, because of the Gentiles God’s faithfulness will continue and all Israel will be collected from all times and places through history. There does not appear to be anything in Paul’s argument that suggests a distant salvation of one generation of Jews.