Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 2)

Section 2: Galatians 3:7-14

The second argument (Gal 3:7-14) of the probatio (chapters 3-4) builds on the first, the transition being the example of Abraham (citing Genesis 15:6) in 3:6—”Abraham trusted in God and it was counted for him unto justice/righteousness”. In verse 1-5 the emphasis is on the transformation/conversion which occurs for the believer through the work of God (giving the Spirit); here, the emphasis switches to the idea of justification, of a person being made (or declared) just by God. Sometimes this is understood as an initial stage in the process (or order) of salvation, but “justification” is more properly regarded as eschatological—the righteous person appears before the heavenly/divine tribunal at the end (or after death) and is admitted into the heavenly/eternal realm of God. In such a judicial process, a person is declared righteous, usually on the basis of his/her behavior and attitude, conforming, in a religious and ethical sense, to the justice/righteousness of God. For a good example of this in the New Testament, see the beatitudes and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7; Lk 6:20-49). An important aspect of early Christian thought—and one which was shared in part by the ancient mystery religions—is that this end-time justification is applied in the present for the believer (or initiate), with the blessing and holiness of God understood as active and real in the life and soul/spirit of the individual (and, by extension, to the religious community). This is often referred to under the specialized term “realized eschatology”, but it was actually a fundamental aspect of early Christian identity. This realized justification/salvation not only offered hope for the future, it served as a point of exhortation and encouragement for believers to live and act in a manner corresponding to their real condition (cf. Gal 5:16, 25).

In tandem with the idea of justification (Abraham being declared just/righteous), this section emphasizes the blessing which God gave to Abraham. The blessing was part of the promise to Abraham; however, the theme of promise is not developed by Paul until the next section (3:15-29). Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 record this promised blessing (cf. also Gen 18:18), and Paul refers to this specifically in Gal 3:8-9. However, Paul blends together Genesis 12:3/22:18 with 15:6 (Gal 3:6), so that the blessing which will come to “all nations” through Abraham is identified being “counted just/righteous” by God (as Abraham was)—and this justification comes by faith/trust (e)k pi/stew$). This is an extraordinary way of interpreting the blessing of Abraham to the nations, which traditionally would have been understood as a product of Israel’s faithfulness to God and obedience to the Torah, and by which various benefits (material, intellectual and religious-spiritual) would be spread, either directly or indirectly, to the Gentiles. Jewish tradition even held out the hope and expectation, based largely on the writings of the later Prophets (esp. so-called deutero/trito-Isaiah, Is 40-66), that at the end-time all nations would be drawn to Israel (to Judah and Jerusalem) and would come to know and serve faithfully the true God. This came to provide part of the background for the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. Paul has introduced an entirely different approach here by identifying this blessing directly with “justification by faith”—it effectively eliminates the mediating role of Israel and the Torah, making it depend entirely on a person’s trust in Christ. It is this thinking which underlies his shorthand declaration in Gal 3:7:

“Know, then, that the ones (who are) of trust/faith [e)k pi/stew$]—these are (the) sons of Abraham”

There is here a slightly different nuance to the preposition e)k (“out of”) in this expression than used earlier in the letter (2:16, also 3:2, 5). Previously, “out of” indicated “as a result of” or “through, because of”; here it means “from” in the more concrete sense “coming out of”, as according to the biological/genealogical metaphor—believers come “out of” Abraham as off-spring, but only to the extent that they specifically come out of his faith/trust (in this respect e)k can also denote “belonging to”). In other words, they are not physical/biological but spiritual descendants; Paul clarifies this further throughout the remainder of chapters 3 and 4.

It is not just that the (positive) mediating role of the Law (Torah) is removed from the equation, for Paul actually attributes to the Law an entirely different purpose—one which is decidedly negative, though ultimately it has a positive effect. His remarkable (and original) view of the Law is expounded rather clearly in vv. 19-25; here in vv. 10-13 he focuses on just one aspect—the Law as curse, in contrast to the blessing which comes by faith. He begins in verse 10 with the statement:

“For as (many) as are out of [i.e from, e)k] works of (the) Law, (these) are under a curse [kata/ra]…”

The expression e)c e&rgwn no/mou (“out of works of Law”) is precisely parallel to e)k pi/stew$ (“out of trust/faith”) in verse 9, and the preposition e)k has the same force. The roughness of Paul’s expression has caused translators to fill it out, glossing it as “those who depend/rely on works of Law”, and so forth. However, this is a highly interpretive rendering, and not necessarily accurate; it very much softens the expression, shifting the emphasis from the Law itself to a person’s attitude toward it. As I will argue throughout these notes, I believe that this is a basic (though well-intentioned) distortion of Paul’s meaning. It is important to maintain the juxtaposition of the literal expressions, while attempting to interpret them accordingly:

oi( e)k pi/stew$
“the ones out of trust/faith”
—those persons who come from, and belong to, trust/faith
oi( e)c e&rgwn no/mou
“the ones out of works of Law”
—those persons who come from, and belong to, works of Law

In other words, two groups of people are described—Christian believers (those “of faith”) and all others (those “of [works of] Law”). The expression “works of Law” might lead one to conclude that Paul limits this distinction to observant Jews, but it is clear that Paul would include all human beings (all non-believers) in this category, there being a similar legal-religious dynamic at work for pagan Gentiles, parallel to that of Israelites and Jews. It is, therefore, not so much a question of how one regards the Law (“relying” on it, i.e. for salvation), but of a more fundamental religious identity—whether one belongs to faith (in Christ) or to works of Law.

The people who are (or who remain) “of the Law” are under a curse (u(po\ kata/ran). The word kata/ra literally means a “wish (or prayer) against (someone/something)”, in other words, a “curse”, though the term imprecation is perhaps more appropriate. In modern society, the magical-dynamic force and significance of imprecatory language has been almost entirely lost, “cursing” having been reduced to empty profanity, so it can be difficult for us today to appreciate exactly what Paul is describing. He turns to the books of the Law (Pentateuch), and draws two examples of “curses”:

    • Deut 27:26: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) who does not remain in the (thing)s written in the book [lit. paper-scroll] of the Law, to do them”—this version Paul cites (in v. 10b) differs slightly from the LXX (“…who does not remain in all the words of this Law…”) which is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew.
    • Deut 21:23: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) hanging upon (a piece of) wood [i.e. a tree]”—Paul’s citation (v. 13b) is modified to match the formula in Deut 27:26.

Deuteronomy 27 records a ceremony in which the people of Israel publicly accept the agreement (covenant) YHWH has established with them, the statutes and commands of the Law (Torah) serving as the basic terms of the covenant which Israel agrees to follow. In verses 15-26 the people together announce a curse on all who violate the commands—vv. 15-25 specify specific kinds of violation, while v. 26 is a general declaration related to the Torah as a whole. The actual curses themselves are stated in 28:15-68, parallel to the (much shorter) statement of blessings (28:1-14). Deuteronomy 21:23 is not a curse as such, but rather a statement that a person executed by hanging is the “curse [hl*l*q=] of God”. The verb llq has the basic meaning “to make small, weak, of no account”, etc, and refers to the uttering of the curse (that is, the words). In the Deuteronomic injunction, the corpse of the hanged person must not be left on the tree (and unburied) through the night, or it will defile the land—i.e., the dead body serves as the curse-vehicle, the means by which the effect of the curse comes upon the land. “Cursed” in Deut 27 translates a different verb (rra), which, based on the cognate (arâru) in Akkadian, appears to have had an original meaning “to bind“—i.e., to bind a person by a magic formula, the words being efficacious to produce what they describe. In the context of Israelite monotheism, it is God who brings it about, according to the words of the curse-formula. A person cursed is thus bound—the punishments or detrimental consequences laid out in the curse-formula will surely come to pass upon him (or her).

Paul use of these two passages is interesting. First, the application of Deut 21:23 to Jesus’ death is relatively straightforward, especially since the punishment of crucifixion (being “put to the stake”) may be referred to as hanging “upon a tree” (cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39). His use of Deut 27:26 is more difficult. Gal 3:10 is often understood in the sense that no one is able to obey and fulfill the Law completely, the transgression of a single command or regulation being enough to violate the entire covenant. However, Paul never quite says this; it could, perhaps, be inferred from Gal 5:3, but otherwise has to be understood on the basis of statements regarding the general sinfulness of all human beings, etc. I will discuss this question in more detail in a separate note, but I would say that the immediate context of Galatians 3-4 is a better guide to what Paul intends here; and, in 3:19-25, he clearly states that a primary purpose of the Law was to bring about (and increase) transgression. By a profound paradox, which Paul never entirely explains (either here or in Romans), even the person who appears blameless according to the Law (cf. Phil 3:6) ultimately ends up violating the very thing that he/she wishes to uphold. The underlying argument is somewhat complex, but the line of reasoning here in Gal 3:10-13 would seem to be as follows:

    • The one who is (or feels) bound and obligated to the “works of Law” ends up violating the Law/Torah
      • and is thus under the curse of God (acc. to Deut 27:26)
        • Jesus frees (redeems) us from the curse (slavery metaphor)
      • becoming the curse of God by his death (acc. to Deut 21:23)
    • Jesus, in his own person (and by his death), fulfills/completes the Law (cf. Rom 10:4)

In a technical sense, one might find problems with Paul’s reasoning here, but it has a definite logic, and believers will recognize the theological (and Christological) truth of it. The logical framework relates primarily to verses 10 and 13, but in vv. 11-12 we find embedded a smaller core argument which likewise draws upon two Scripture passages:

    • “No one is made/declared just [dikaiou=tai] in [i.e. by] the Law alongside [i.e. before] God” (v. 11a)
      • The just (person) will live out of trust [e)k pi/stew$]” {Hab 2:4} (v. 11b)
    • “The Law is not of trust/faith [e)k pi/stew$]” (v. 12a)
      • The (one) doing [poih/sa$] them will live in [i.e. by] them” {Lev 18:5} (v. 12b)

The two Scripture references are set to confirm the pair of statements regarding the Law, which affirms that a person is declared just by God according to faith/trust (and not by observing the Law). Vv. 11-12 are intimately connected with the central proposition of vv. 10-13—that Jesus frees (redeems) us from the curse—and can be regarded as virtually synonymous with it.

The association with the Torah as a curse is striking, and certainly a very un-Jewish thing to say—it appears to be virtually unique and original to Paul. We ought also to understand precisely what this signifies: the “curse of the Law” refers primarily to the Torah as the vehicle or means by which the binding (enslaving) curse comes upon people. Paul realized that this could easily be misinterpreted, and attempts to clarify his meaning with the exposition in vv. 19-25 (to be discussed in the next section).

In verse 14, Paul concludes the section by:

    1. Re-iterating that the blessing of Abraham has indeed come to the Gentiles—by faith (in Christ), and
    2. Introducing the wider context of the promise to Abraham—identifying it with the (Holy) Spirit

This promise will be the theme of the next section.

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