Monday, April 23, 2007

Israel as a "cordon sanitaire" -- A good thing in the OT; a bad thing in the NT

I'm just thinking out loud in this post, hypothesizing. The argument is not very clean right now. I'm hoping that writing it would will help me think through some of the issues. I don't intend the argument to be original, I'm just trying to think through some implications. The argument also is not intended to be exhaustive.

Here's the claim I'm thinking about: Nothing about Israel's basic vocation changed in the move from the Old to the New Testament. Given the planned obsolescence of the Law (which I take to be the extended argument of the book of Hebrews, but also a major argument throughout much of Paul), this barrier was a good thing in the OT but a bad thing in the NT. A major line of argument in Jesus and Paul aims to persuade Israel that the fulfillment had come in Jesus, i.e., Jesus' mission fulfills the law and thereby is creates its obsolescence, and so it was the appropriate time for Israel to give up being a barrier between God and the world. Part of Israel resisted giving up their traditional vocation; Jesus told them that God would remove their barrier one way or the other.

First, Israel served as a barrier between God and the world in the Old Testament, and that was a good thing. Because Israel served as a sort of cordon sanitaire, it meant that the world survived and would not be ended by God's judgment. God could tabernacle with fallen men (in the holy of holies), yet the world would continue, in spite of being fallen. To be sure, Israel had to do the "works of the law" in order to live (Gal 3.12) -- obedience when possible; sacrifice for disobedience -- but nonetheless, Israel had real, albeit, limited fellowship with God. This priestly nation then mediated God's grace to the world, serving to protect an unrighteous world from destruction from the unmediated presence of God.

Then Jesus comes -- God incarnate -- and tabernacles with humanity himself. In him, the barrier is removed; God now fellowships with humanity (Mt 27.51, Heb 4.14). This does not cause the world's destruction because God in Christ has assumed humanity's judgment. God has redeemed his promise to Abraham, that Abraham's seed would bless the nations.

Some in Israel opposed this. Some didn't want to give up their special relationship with God, perhaps out of pride; others may not have recognized that the Law's vocation was historically contingent; others rejected Jesus as the One who would fulfill the promise to Abraham, and thereby perforate the cordon sanitaire that Israel and the Law created. That Israel were also children of Adam as well as children of Abraham did not make this task any easier. So many opposed Jesus' mission to fulfill the law, and to fulfill Israel's mission, in himself. Some opposed it so vehemently, that they wanted Jesus dead. (In the greatest of ironies, their move to kill Jesus, and his consequent death, was the very event that perforated the Law, accomplishing precisely the opposite of what Jesus' opponents sought to accomplish by his death, 1 Co 2.8.) Jesus warns Israel over and over again, that they have constituted themselves a barrier to the movement of God's grace outward to the world. Israel could either deconstruct the barrier themselves, by aligning themselves with God's messiah, or God would remove the barrier himself.

Nonetheless, the Law is not, and was not, bad in any overall sense, and God's attitude toward the Law did not change. Rather, circumstances changed as a result of Jesus life, death, and resurrection.


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