Is this how Paul thought “all Israel” might be saved in practice?

Generative AI summary:

Paul envisioned that “all Israel” would be saved under circumstances of national disaster and divine intervention. According to Romans 11:25-27, Israel’s partial hardening persists until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, after which a deliverer will turn away impiety from Jacob, fulfilling God’s covenant. Paul also saw the influx of Gentiles provoking Israel to jealousy, referencing Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 32:19-23, which describes divine jealousy and wrath leading to Israel’s destruction by foreign nations. Thus, salvation comes through severe judgment and purification of the nation, leaving a remnant of faithful Israelites.

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Arch of Titus frieze, Wikimedia Commons + Fotor

Under what circumstances did Paul imagine that “all Israel” would be saved? How did he think it would come about? I want to look at two passages here that point to national disaster as the circumstances and means by which such a reversal might happen. The second is the obvious one:

For I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning this mystery—that you may not be wise in yourselves—that hardness in part has come upon Israel until the fulness of the nations should come in. And in this way all Israel shall be saved, as it has been written: “The deliverer will come from Zion, he will turn away impiety from Jacob; and this to them is the covenant from me,” whenever “I may take away their sins.” (Rom. 11:25-27*)

But we begin with Paul’s earlier argument that the influx of gentiles into the redeemed community can be understood in light of Moses’ words: “I will make you jealous of a non-nation, with a foolish nation I will make you angry” (Rom. 10:19*). He is determined to maximise his ministry in order to “make jealous my flesh and save some from them” (Rom. 11:13-14*).

The words of Moses quoted come from this passage:

And the Lord saw it and was jealous, and he was provoked on account of the wrath of his sons and daughters. And he said: I will turn away my face from them, and I will show what will happen to them at the end, for it is a perverse generation, sons who have no faithfulness in them. They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols. So I will make them jealous with what is no nation, provoke them with a nation lacking understanding. For a fire has lit up from my anger and will burn as far as Hades below; it will devour earth and its produce and will light up foundations of mountains. I will gather evils against them…. (Deut. 32:19-23 LXX)

This is a prediction of what would happen at an end time to a “perverse generation” of Israelites in whom there is no “faithfulness” (pistis). It’s the sort of thing Jesus might have said (cf. Mk. 8:38; 9:19; 13:30; and parallels).

It is important to note that YHWH becomes “jealous,” is provoked, and made angry by Israel’s idolatry with the result that Israel also is made jealous, provoked to anger with a non-nation, a nation without understanding.

Jealousy or zeal is a ferocious reaction, and it rather suggests that Israel will then act recklessly or violently. In any case, a devastating outcome is envisaged: they will be wasted by famine and disease, cut down by the sword, their bodies will be scavenged by wild creatures, they will be scattered among the nations, preserved from annihilation only out of concern that the invader would brag about the victory (Deut. 32:23-27).

So when Israel is made jealous or provoked to anger by a foreign nation, it is a measure not of their salvation but of their destruction—and by that the eradication of the “abominations” committed by this particular perverse generation.

The deliverer will come from Zion

The quotation about a deliverer coming from Zion to turn away impiety and remove sins from Jacob comes from two passages in Isaiah:

And he saw, and there was no man, and he took notice, and there was none who helped; so he defended them with his own arm, and with his compassion he upheld them. And he put on righteousness like a breastplate and placed a helmet of salvation on his head, and he clothed himself with a garment of vengeance and with his cloak, as one about to render retribution, reproach to his adversaries. And those from the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those from the rising of the sun, his glorious name, for anger will come from the Lord like a rushing river— it will come with wrath. And the one who delivers will come for Sion’s sake, and he will turn away (apostrepsei) impiety from Jacob. And this is the covenant to them from me, said the Lord, my spirit that is upon you and my words that I have put in your mouth shall not fail out of your mouth or out of the mouth of your offspring, for the Lord has said it, from now on and forever. (Is. 59:16-21 LXX)

Because of this the lawlessness of Jacob will be removed (aphairethēsetai). And this is his blessing, when I remove (aphelōmai) his sin, when they make all the stones of the altars broken pieces like fine dust, and their trees will not remain, and their idols will be cut down like a forest far away. (Is. 27:9 LXX)

We would normally read “I will take away their sins” as a statement about forgiveness, presumably on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death, but the Old Testament background may suggest that this is not what Paul had in mind. Both the Isaiah passages quoted and other texts just the sort of narrative that emerged from the other quotation.

  • The deliverer who comes to “turn away impiety from Jacob” is God, who has put on a “garment of vengeance”; he comes to “render retribution” and to save the victims of injustice from the wicked in Israel (Is. 59:17-20 LXX). This is judgment, not forgiveness.
  • The removal of Jacob’s lawlessness or sin (Is. 27:9 LXX) may evoke the language of atonement: “by this the guilt of Jacob will be atoned for” (Is. 27:9 ESV). But the sin was removed by exile, “fighting and reviling”; sacred sites were demolished, idols were destroyed; habitations were left deserted. Atonement is a metaphor for the suffering of the people; the concrete means of renewal is war and destruction.
  • If God takes away (aphairōn) “acts of lawlessness and of injustice and sins,” it is by not acquitting the guilty person, by “bringing lawless acts of fathers upon children and upon children of children” (Exod. 34:7 LXX).
  • God is long-suffering and compassionate and will remove (aphairōn) “acts of lawlessness and injustice and sin,” but not by cleansing the guilty; rather he repays “sins of fathers upon children” (Num. 14:18 LXX). Subsequent generations will suffer for the sins of an egregiously wicked generation. This is not YHWH being vindictive and arbitrary; it is a realistic expectation when “punishment” comes in the form of invasion and exile.

Punishment of the unrighteous in Israel is not the only way that sin is removed: the angel places a burning coal on Isaiah’s lips which takes away (aphelei) his lawlessness and purifies his sins—though even here there is an implied violence. But the critical interpretive context for Romans 11:26-27 is provided by the Isaiah passages, in which the thought is of a severe disciplining of the nation on account of its acts of lawlessness and injustice and sins.

All roads lead to Rome…

It is unclear whether Paul shared Jesus’ premonition of a devastating war against Rome as the judgment of God against a wicked and perverse generation of Jews; and it is difficult to know how the ripple effect of such a catastrophe for Jews of the diaspora would have been imagined.

But the extrapolation is not difficult to make. Paul has already catalogued the sins of his people in the language of the Psalms and Isaiah—including this statement from Isaiah 59: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known” (Rom. 3:15-17; cf. Is. 59:7-8). The chapter tells Paul’s story for him: there is no justice in Israel, the righteous poor are trampled under foot; therefore, there can be no complaint if God dresses for war and comes in person to banish wickedness from Zion.

God does not regret the choice of Israel—the “gifts and calling”—but the demonstration of mercy towards his people cannot be separated from the punishment of disobedience (Rom. 11:28-32). We may not like the sound of that, but it is a thoroughly biblical idea, and it is how history played out, up to a point.

By this stage, within enough gentiles having come in (Rom. 11:25), Israel has missed the opportunity to be saved by repentance and forgiveness. But if the deliverer comes, whether to or from Zion, and banishes impiety, violently removes the sin of Jacob, then a cleansed nation is left, in that restricted sense having received mercy.

In this way, “all Israel” is saved, not by the inclusion of all but by the exclusion of many, who are cast into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, as Jesus put it.