The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (13)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch. 

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul. In the eleventh chapter in the series, Paul began to examine Abraham in light of his faith. The twelfth blog post continued Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law.  In this, the thirteenth study in the Galatians online commentary, we look at Paul’s claim that God’s promises were to Abraham and his “offspring,” with a twist on the meaning of “offspring.”

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4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):

iv) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12): Abraham was justified by faith (3:15-18) part 3. 

15 Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life: once a person's will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, "And to offsprings," as of many; but it says, "And to your offspring," that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17 My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.  (NRSV)

In this section, Paul continues to interpret the Scriptures regarding Abraham, especially Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 17:7, and 24:7, extending his argument that even though the covenant seemed to be based upon the terms of the Law of Moses, in fact the terms were written years before the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai when God made his promises to Abraham and his “seed” (translated as “offspring”). These covenantal promises, the earliest terms of the covenant, Paul states, are non-negotiable and what came before the Law of Moses retains its legal validity.  The key interpretive move, here we might utilize the language of Midrash again, is the interpretation of “seed.”

Paul begins by giving an example from “daily life” (the Greek is kata anthrôpon, or an example according to human practice): “once a person's will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it” (Galatians 3:15). This is an example that indeed most people would have been aware of in Paul’s day as today. Important to note, though, is that the word being translated as “will” here is the same word for “covenant” in Greek, diathêkê. Paul is drawing a connection between his example of the “will” or “testament” of Abraham and God’s “covenant” with Israel which began with Abraham. While we are used to seeing the covenant primarily in terms of the Law of Moses, Paul wants to bring us to this earlier historical point.

Paul states that the Genesis promises, see above for the verses, “were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). The promises, says Paul, were made to Abraham and his “offspring” (Greek, sperma, or “seed”), which refers to one person, not all of Abraham’s descendants. Even though “seed” in the Genesis passages clearly functions as a collective noun, and refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, Paul says in fact it refers to “Christ,” the Messiah who was to come. The chances are good that such a Messianic midrashic reading was based upon 2 Samuel 7:12, in which God promises David  that after he dies, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” The use of “offspring” in 2 Samuel 7:12 for the one who would establish David’s kingdom “forever” (2 Samuel 7:13) makes such a connection to the Genesis passages likely. As such, the promises to Abraham, which include Jesus, are prior to the terms of the Mosaic Law dictating circumcision and the other laws. If Abraham had meant the people of Israel, Paul states, he would have said “seeds,” plural. Reading Genesis at a literal level, this does not make sense of the clear meaning of the collective noun “offspring,”  though the connection to the use of “offspring” in 2 Samuel 7:12, which was probably not original with Paul, does link the Genesis promises to the Messianic promise.

We can speak of this as a Jewish “midrashic” interpretation, parsing, as it were, the meaning of a collective noun to a singular meaning, and linking it to a verse found in another book, and this is correct, but it might also be seen as a Christian “spiritual” or “allegorical” reading, particularly known as “typological,” since it locates a (hidden) reference to Jesus Christ. This was the common practice of the earliest Christian readers and it has been bequeathed to Christians today, by the New Testament and among the Church fathers. What can it mean to Christian readers today?

Without question the literal reading of Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 17:7 and 24:7 refers to the physical people of Israel, and this reading must be maintained as a primary reading of these covenantal passages. But starting with Jesus’ own interpretation of the Scriptures, continuing with Paul, and throughout the Christian centuries, Christians have read the Old Testament in light of Christ. Such typological readings will be, naturally, rejected by those who do not believe Jesus is the Messiah, but such spiritual readings of the text were not unknown to Jewish interpreters of Paul’s day, for whom every verse, every letter, even a missing letter had significance.  Rabbinic and other readers (with a prominent example being Philo of Alexandria) also read the each verse of the Scriptures in light of the other Scriptures, since it was all God’s word, and Paul’s readings fit in with such Jewish interpretive practices. As part of the New Testament, they also have a revelatory claim on Christians, but it is important that they are not seen to nullify the literal promises to the Jews.

Paul himself will use the language of “nullify” in Galatians 3:17, stating that “my point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant {Greek diathêkê, in 3:15 translated as “will”} previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” Paul’s point is clear: the covenant/will which contained the promise of Jesus came 430 years before the Law, a traditional form of dating for when the law was given based on Exodus 12:40-41. The later covenant/will cannot nullify the earlier will/covenant.

In Galatians 3:18, Paul brings his argument to conclusion, stating that “if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.” There is not much more Paul does here than restate his original premise: since the promise was first, prior to the Law of Moses, the promise must stand. But Paul does, however, introduce the language of “inheritance” (Greek klêronomia) to his argument, which is the language of family. Paul wants to focus on Jesus as the “seed,” not the collective people of Israel, yet the language of inheritance reminds us that Paul still has in mind the family of God which “inherits” from the “will” of Abraham through the ancestor or descendant Jesus. Inheritance language is weighty, for inheritance is almost always discussed in the context of family. If the inheritance is through Jesus, it means that the notion of who comprises the covenantal family has been (or will be) rewritten. If the promise is to Abraham and his “seed” Jesus, who actually belongs to Abraham’s family in order to inherit?  

Next entry, Why then the Law?

John W. Martens

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