The apostle Paul seems incapable of discerning the intentions of Israel’s God in straight lines and transparent mathematics. Something is always up. Something deeper than we know is in the mix.
When Paul traces mercy’s purpose, mystery—though neither confusion nor cluelessness—is axiomatic.
The apostle’s struggle with Israel’s fate in the vortex of YHWH’s purpose thrusts him into agony but not into despair. The line between these two searing experiences falls at the place where Paul discerns that some deep and inevitable good is to come of it all.
The integration into ‘spiritual Israel’ of unwashed pagans in formidable numbers looks for all the world like the rejection of the incumbents. Israel seems not to have been transformed by this development in the redemptive story—Paul will not back down that such it is—but rather to have been dismissed and then replaced.
Paul is aware of the ugly appearances. By his report, his own Jewish people have failed to join him in following Israel’s anointed. Paul will not have this white-washed or nuanced as less than the tragedy he understands it to be.
Yet tragedy, in redemption’s trajectory, is rarely if ever final.
Paul’s vocabulary as he describes Israel’s immigrants, granted passports with unseemly haste, is resolutely humbling. They are not original branches, but ‘grafted in’. They are not discerning early adopters of grace but ‘a foolish nation’. They are not righteous pursuers of Jacob’s God but people who accidentally stumbled upon a Savior whom they never sought and to whom they never cried out for help.
The apostle is building his case that unseen forces are the best explanation of Israel’s ‘hardness’ and Gentile ‘inclusion’.
Yet Paul detects, in way that eschatological systems rarely find it possible to do, promising nuances in it all.
Paul has found it impossible even to contemplate not following the one who appeared to him unasked on the road to Damascus, an untidy but compelling connection of the apostle to the experience of his gentile audiences. What then is one to understand of the fate of Israel, who has not felt the attraction?
Paul detects in YHWH’s movements a kind of residual loyalty even to the nation that has generally rejected Messiah’s appearance. So strong does this conviction direct his developing logic that he cautions gentile followers of Jesus against feelings of superiority vis-à-vis Israel as though this would constitute almost an unpardonable sin.
By our arrogances they shall know us.
The apostle considers it unimaginable that God has rejected his original Israel. Simply put, this is not how YHWH goes about his business.
Even when appearances suggest such a radical turnabout, Paul knows that it cannot accurately reflect even the hidden work of one about whom Israel has sung ‘YHWH is good, his loyal love endures forever.’
Paul envisions a day when, in defiance of the either-or options of lesser artists, all good things will be true.
His language is taciturn because his understanding falls short. As so often when standing before heavenly mystery, Paul does not explain but rather exclaims. Yet, once articulated, the truth of his statement hangs promisingly in the air, to be ignored at the peril of hearts and minds with more truncated expectations of mercy’s destination:
Now if Israel’s stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! (Romans 11:12 NRSV)