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How is it Written in the Bible?

editor - 15 April 2020

“They are not all Israel…”? (Romans 9:6)

When you are searching the New Testament for what it says about the position of Israel, very soon you will arrive at the chapters 9-11 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Nowhere else, is ‘Israel’ such an important theme as in those chapters. First and foremost, the first five verses of Romans 9 are well known, and speak about the ‘privileges’ of Israel. As a matter of fact, I think that we better speak of the calling or the task of Israel here. Paul has mentioned the privilege, or ‘benefit’, of Israel already in Romans 3:2: “First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

Now, in ‘Israel circles’, we often tend to immediately jump from verse 5 of Romans 9 to chapter 11, the chapter that has both the metaphor of the olive tree and the expectation of the future salvation of all Israel. That is what we can get by in our Israel theology. Verse 6 of chapter 9, and especially the second sentence, is a lot harder: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” Critics of our Israel theology immediately say: “You see? Paul is not concerned with ‘national Israel’. From now on, ‘Israel’ in fact, means ‘those who believe in Jesus’, whether they are Jews or gentiles.”

When read in this way, however, the sentence is awkward, and the logic of Paul’s argument is distorted. For in the following verses (7-13) Paul uses precisely the genealogy of Israel to show what we have to understand by the true Israel. Israel is the nation that originates from the line Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Paul lays all emphasis on the fact that this has all to do with God’s choice and with His promise, rather than the choice or the action of humans (“the children of the flesh”: Ishmael and Esau, verse 8). Further on, in Romans 10, it will appear that, though Israel has fallen short in its calling to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom that has come in Jesus to the nations, the Lord holds fast to His promise and all Israel – the twelve tribes – will be saved by the coming of the Deliverer.

“As if the word of God has failed. Definitely not!”

How can this be? We noted that Paul started by summarising the calling of Israel. And then, somebody has an objection: “Yes, but that is past. They ignore Jesus.” Then Paul says: “As if the word of God has failed. Definitely not!” “For – and here we have it: – are not all Israel who are descended from Israel?” We have to understand this sentence as a rhetorical question. That is possible, for the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament do not have punctuation. We have to add them ourselves. As a rhetorical question, this sentence forms a logical transition from the preceding to the next part of the argument. In that way, God’s word is affirmed. And Israel is – and remains – Israel.

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