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Second Temple Judaism was a form of covenantal nomism, according to E. P. Sanders’ terminology. This means that Torah-observance was a way of expressing loyalty to the Lord of the covenant who had graciously elected Israel. I think Sanders’ view (taken up in bits and pieces and with some modifications by N. T. Wright and others) is a bit shallow, because he doesn’t take sin very seriously. He doesn’t see that nationalism (or exclusivism), especially in the face of the universalization of grace that comes in with the new covenant, is just another species of legalism/self-righteousness. He doesn’t see that the Jewish “superiority complex” is a form of prideful autonomy that must be condemned.

Jonah provides a good test case (and in a sense, his problem is symptomatic of the problems Jesus and Paul confront in the pages of the NT). Jonah didn’t believe in works-righteousness per se in the Pelagian sense, but he did want God to be stingy with his grace, respecting ethnic boundaries. That’s the sin, in part, that led to the exile, and it’s
still Israel’s sin in the first century (cf. Mk. 11:17, Mt. 23:15; Gal. as a whole).

The book of Jonah, in addition to being a historical narrative, is a parable about the exile and restoration: Israel will be swallowed by up by the Assyrian sea monster, but then this Leviathan will spit back her into her land.

She’s being judged for trying to keep the light God has given her to herself, hiding it under a bushel rather than using it to illumine the nations. Or to change the illustration, she’s God’s mailman commissioned to deliver his message of love and redemption to the nations, but she acts as if all the mail in the bag is her own. This doesn’t mean she believed in salvation by works, or even in being Jewish; it does mean that she tied up Jewishness with salvation in an illegitimate way (e.g., God graciously saved a person by making him a Jew and bringing him into the sphere of Torah). Jonah’s sin is the basic sin that Israel commits right down to the time of Jesus (e.g., Mt. 3:11ff): The sin of nationalistic pride. It could be labeled corporate Pelagianism, I suppose. Even first century Jews who would have been open to the category of God-fearing Gentiles seem to have looked down upon them in arrogance.

Wright puts Sanders’ historical insights into Judaism to better use than Sanders himself. The key, as we have already noted, is to see that Paul’s critique of his unbelieving countrymen and the Judaizers is redemptive-historical. Israel, Torah, and circumcision have all served their purpose in God’s plan and are now obsolete. Covenant loyalty must now be expressed in this new form: faith in Jesus, sealed in baptism. Faith, in the redemptive-historical, eschatological sense, has now come (cf. Gal. 3:23). For Paul, circumcision, which really was a divinely required, God-honoring badge of covenant membership is now a mutilation of the flesh (Phil. 3:2). The dietary laws, which in previous generations were worth dying to maintain (note that the writer of Hebrews praises the Maccabean martyrs in chap. 11) are now a form idolatrous belly worship (Phil. 3:19). The animal sacrifices have now become an abomination (Isa. 66:3).

Paul argues in Galatians 3-4 that the Jews should have always known the Torah had to
be temporary. It couldn’t endure into the new age because it divided up the people of God into various factions (High Priest, priest, Levite, Israelite, God-fearing Gentile) with varying degrees of holiness/nearness to God. But this was at variance with the promise God made to Abraham, namely that all the nations of the earth would share in the blessing God granted to Abraham. In other words, God promised Abraham one single family — but the Torah divided up the people of God. Therefore Torah must go so the one family can come into being. That’s the burden of Paul’s argument in 3:19ff.

This new family shares in Abraham’s blessing because it has received the Spirit, which at Pentecost clearly began the reversal of the Babelic curse. Whereas Babel divided humanity into various people groups, now the gospel will cause those diverse peoples to come together in the unity of faith. Every language is now to be a vehicle of the good news.

The land that God promised Abraham, therefore, was only a down payment on a much larger inheritance — the whole world (cf. Rom. 4:12). God has promised that every nation on earth will ultimately be grafted into the true Israel (cf. Mt. 28:16-20). That is the gospel (Ga. 3:8).

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