Let us just say that a friend of mine gently reminded me (on the phone last Friday) that this might be a good opportunity to ask a much-neglected question in Romans study: Who is “Israel” in Romans? I’m willing to gamble on this one: most of us instinctively think “Israel” refers to one of two groups.
The question of this post of course is this: What does Paul mean when he refers to “Israel” in Romans 9–11?
Most see it as one of the two following: either ethnic Israel as all the descendants of Abraham/Jacob or the elect, believing members of the former group. And the “elective” Israel, this second view, for some becomes the Church (fulfillment idea) for Paul (and some point to Gal. 6:16). Thus, “Israel” is either an ethnic or an elective term. Let me expand just briefly: “elective” Israel refers either to Israel “within” Israel or to the faithful/just Israelite (including, perhaps, those who are in the Church).
Thus: Ethnic = Jews in the flesh
Elective = Those chosen by God to continue the Promise Line, the just Israelites, the remnant, and by extension the Church.
Are those the only options?
Let’s begin with this: “Israel” as a term occurs 12x in Romans and “Israelites” 3x.
Here are the references:
Rom. 9:6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel,
Rom. 9:27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved;
Rom. 9:31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.
Rom. 10:19 Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
Rom. 10:21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Rom. 11:2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
Rom. 11:7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,
Rom. 11:11 So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
Rom. 11:23 And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.
Rom. 11:25 So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
“Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.”
Rom. 9:27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved.
Rom. 10:1 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.
Rom. 10:16 But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”
Now here’s the glaring oddity of this display of evidence: Paul does not call Jews “Israel” until Romans 9–11. Why? Has he been thinking of “according to the flesh” Jews already? To be sure. Has he already thought of Jews and election already? To be sure.
So, why all of a sudden call them “Israel”? Let’s think of a couple things that show up in Romans 9–11 with force: first, Paul’s concern for “Israel.” Second, Paul’s location: he is in the Diaspora as a missionary. Third, Paul’s success is with Gentiles. How does he understand their belief? As provocation of Israel to jealousy. Who is “Israel” in this regard? Judean Israelites back in Jerusalem? Doubtful.
Why don’t we at least try to think of “Israel” referring not to either ethnic Israel or elective Israel but as northern Israel out in the Diaspora? Why not think of Paul’s mission to be right along what others have always believed within Judaism? Namely, that in the New Age there will be a unification of the twelve tribes? A revival of ancient northern Israel and flocking back to the Land? Then, “all Israel” will be saved.
Let’s add this to our list of what “Israel” possibly means as we read through Romans 9–11 along with NT Wright’s commentary on Romans.