This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.
So having established some relevant background and key terms for chapters 9-11, let’s now focus on these chapters, which form the part of the letter that is probably most disputed in terms of how it should be interpreted. I want to show that there is a neat structure to this section of the letter, and that knowing the structure helps us to understand the points Paul was making.
I have set out my analysis of the structure of Romans 9-11 below. It is a seven-part chiastic structure, which is commonly found in the Bible. In order, I have labelled the sections as B2-A1, B2-B1, B2-C1, B2-D, B2-C2, B2-B2 and B2-A2. The “B2-” part shows that this is the B2 section of the letter (chapters 9-11). The next part (e.g. “A1”) shows the subsection within this section of Romans. The two “B2-A” sections match, as do the two “B2-B” and “B2-C” sections, with the “B2-D” section forming the centre of the passage.
The next diagram shows the same structure with added details about each section. This helps to demonstrate the similarities between the corresponding sections (e.g. B2-B1 and B2-B2).
We can see that the B2-A1 section (9:1-5) is setting up the issue that Paul will address for the rest of the passage: the fact that many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites are not currently Christians (when using words like ‘currently’, I am always referring to time from Paul’s perspective). This is a tragedy for Paul and his sorrow for the situation is clear.
The final B2-A2 section (11:33-36) is a stark contrast in that, having assessed the situation introduced in the B2-A1 section, Paul almost explodes in praise of God. What has happened in between to change his emotions from sorrow to praise? It can be seen from the text just before the B2-A2 section as well as from the central B2-D section that Paul is praising God because his fellow ethnic Israelites can still be saved!
The two B2-B sections start to address the situation set out in B2-A1 (9:1-5) and consider whether it is God’s fault that so many ethnic Israelites are not currently Christians. The B2-B1 section (9:6-29) asks whether God has failed on an earlier promise to save all of ethnic Israel. Paul is responding to a hypothetical objector who thinks that all ethnic Israelites should be saved. Paul’s objective in the B2-B1 section is to demonstrate that God is under no obligation to save all of ethnic Israel. God can save whomever he wants to save.
In the B2-B2 section (11:1-32), Paul considers the same issue but from the opposite angle. In this section, Paul is considering the possibility that God has chosen to reject all of ethnic Israel. Paul’s point in this section is that God has not chosen to reject any of ethnic Israel. Paul demonstrates this by showing, first, that there are some ethnic Israelites who have come to faith (such as himself!), showing that God therefore can’t have rejected all of ethic Israel. Second, he explains that it is still possible for the other Israelites who are not yet Christians (Paul’s contemporaries from B2-A1) to become united with Jesus, so they have not been rejected either.
Having shown in the B2-B sections that the situation of B2-A1 (9:1-5) is not God’s fault, the two B2-C sections turn the focus onto Israel (i.e. the ethnic Israelites of B2-A1 about whom Paul is sorrowful). In the B2-C1 section (9:30-10:3), Paul explains that these ethnic Israelites have made the error of pursuing righteousness based on their own works. This is contrasted with Gentile Christians, who have obtained righteousness by faith.
In the B2-C2 section (10:14-21), Paul considers some possible excuses for why these ethnic Israelites have not come to Jesus (e.g. perhaps they had not heard the good news about Jesus). He rules out these excuses and shows that the situation is simply that Israel has not believed what it has heard. Paul therefore puts the blame firmly on the ethnic Israelites.
Then we have the central B2-D section (10:4-13). Paul explains the great news that God has made salvation possible for all. He has made salvation depend on something that, thanks to Christ’s work, we are able to do – have faith in Christ. This salvation is for all who believe, and is without distinction between Jew and Gentile.
Seeing the structure of Romans 9-11 like this helps us to interpret the respective sections. In particular, this applies to the B2-B1 and B2-B2 pair of sections. The B2-B1 section (9:6-29) has been interpreted in various different ways by Christians, and the realisation of how it relates to the B2-B2 section (11:1-32) helps us to understand what the B2-B1 section is actually saying. As the two sections look at the same issue from opposite angles (“should God save all ethnic Israelites?” Vs “has God rejected all ethnic Israelites?”), each section acts as a counterbalance for the other. If we interpret one section in a way that goes too far to one extreme, we will find that the other section rules out this interpretation. We must find an interpretation of each of the B2-B sections that is compatible with the other, as well as being compatible with Romans 9-11 and the letter as a whole.
That will be the plan for the rest of this series of posts. The next post will cover the B2-A1 section (Romans 9:1-5).
For those interested, here are some notes explaining some more details about the structure:
The B2-A sections contain the only uses of “Amen”.
“Called” appears 6 times, five in B2-B1 and once in B2-B2.
“Abraham” only appears twice, both referring to “seed of Abraham” (B2-B1 and B2-B2). “Seed” appears three other times, all in B2-B1.
“Flesh” appears 4 times – twice in B2-A1 and once in each of B2-B1 and B2-B2.
“Father” appears 3 times – once in each of B2-B1 and B2-B2, and once in B2-A1.
“Jacob” appears 2 times – once in each of B2-B1 and B2-B2.
“Mercy” appears 9 times, all in B2-B1 and B2-B2.
“Moses” appears 3 times – once in each of B2-C1 and B2-C2, and once in B2-B1 (but this is not a quote of Moses).
“will”/”wills” appears 5 times – four in B2-B1 and once in B2-B2.
“the Scripture says” appears 3 times – in B2-B1, B2-D and B2-B2.
“name” appears 2 times – in B2-B1 (9:17) and B2-D (10:13) – these refer to God’s name being declared throughout all the earth, and that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
“people” appears 6 times – 3 close together in B2-B1 (9:25-26), and 3 close together around beginning of B2-B2 (one is at end of B2-C2) (10:21-11:2).
“remnant” in 9:27 and 11:5 are different words, but the word for “reserved” in 11:4 is the same root as 9:27.
“hardening” is different words in the B2-B1 and B2-B2 section, but the concept is similar.
“righteousness” appears 13 times – 12 between 9:28 and 10:6, one at 10:10.
“Stumbling” appears in 9:32-33 and 11:9 (but different words used in Greek between the two). There is an argument for 9:30-33 being in the B2-B1 section, but I think there is a stronger argument the other way.
“faith/believe” (same word in Greek) appears 14 times. All but one of these are in the B2-C1, B2-D and B2-C2 sections.
“Israel” appears 12 times.
The only uses of the word “Christ” are three times in B2-A1 and three times in B2-D.
This was originally posted here, where comments can be made.