Paul, the Law, and the Curse of Exile

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written (among other reasons) to warn Jewish Christians against believing a false gospel. Apparently the Galatians were straying from the truth by requiring Gentiles to obey Jewish customs before admitting them into the community of faith. Paul responds to this situation by defending his credentials as an apostle and arguing that the distinguishing feature of God’s covenant people is faith, not adherence to food laws or the rite of circumcision. By making these Jewish distinctives mandatory the Galatians were “trying to be justified by the law” (5:4) and thereby departing from the gospel of grace.

With this context in mind, let’s look at Galatians 3:10-13:

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”[a] 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”

The interpretation is this passage is complicated by several questions we may ask of it: Who exactly is under the curse? And who is doing the cursing? Is Paul taking Old Testament quotations out of context to make his argument? What is the purpose of the law, in Paul’s mind, and is his view of the law even coherent? What does it mean for Christ to be cursed? No doubt, the amount of scholarly writing on this subject is too vast for me to attempt a thorough response to these questions, so instead I would like to clear up some misconceptions about Paul view of the Mosaic Law (in this passage) and then focus on his understanding of the curse.

Interpreting Galatians 3:10-13

The most common misconception of Paul’s argument in this passage relates to his supposedly legalistic interpretation of the Mosaic Law – he seems to think that a curse is inflicted upon any individual who fails to keep the law – but as an educated Jew he should have known better. Perfect obedience was never expected under the old covenant because the law itself made provision for wrongdoing through the sacrificial system. So was Paul wrong about the law? I don’t believe he was. A more plausible interpretation suggests that Paul is focusing on Israel as a nation and isn’t addressing specific individuals. Despite the faithfulness of individual Jews, Israel as a whole forsook the law and rejected the covenant by her infidelity and worship of false gods. Thus, the normal provisions of repentance and sacrifice made available through the law were no longer sufficient to deal with Israel’s sin.

As a result, Israel would have to suffer the curse of the law (as spoken of in Deut 27-30). The curse involved a series of divine judgments that eventually culminated in the exile of the Jews from their land, which meant being cut off from the place where God dwelled with them. The curse of exile was still a historical reality in Jesus’ day, as the Jews stilled lived under foreign oppressors (the Romans) and they had not yet been restored to their former state of political independence.[1]

To the Jewish mind, this national curse was a huge problem because God’s entire plan of redemption for the earth was hinged upon the destiny of Israel. Why? Because the Jews were divinely chosen to be messengers of salvation and blessing to other nations, but God’s plan seemed to be threatened by the fact that they were an exiled people, unfaithful to their calling.

God’s solution, then, was to send a Messiah representative (Christ) who would identify with Israel’s helpless plight and to succeed where Israel had failed. Christ would do this by experiencing the same covenant curses the Jews were experiencing and end them in one climactic act – the crucifixion.[2] The cross, then, represented the end of Israel’s exile because Christ carried it for them, in full. But his death was not the end of God’s plan. In the resurrection of Christ we see a newly restored Israel whom God would use to once again bless the nations. Jesus comes back from exile in his resurrection and returns as a new and better Israel, one who is faithful, one who is blessed, and one who is able to extend that blessing to everyone who puts their faith in Him.[3]

So “Paul’s argument runs as follows: God promised Abraham a blessing intended for the whole world; the Torah looked like preventing that blessing getting to its destination; the death of Christ has broken through this problem, and now the blessing can reach its destination securely.”[4]


Footnotes

[1] For a defense of this point, see N.T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p.141.

[2] In Deut 21:23 the penalty of being “hung on a tree” is said to be “God’s curse.” The Temple Scroll from Qumran 64:6-13 (11Q Temple) elaborates further by saying that the offender was guilty of betraying his own people, and as such, was “accursed by God and men.” See Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament Eds. Boring, Berger and Colpe (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p.465. Apparently the Jews had understood this passage in terms of crucifixion before Paul’s application of it to the death of Christ, as evidenced by the Qumran commentary on Nahum 4Q 169 psNah 1:17-18. See Ibid., p.464.

[3] As N.T. Wright remarks, “He is Israel, going down to death under the curse of the law, and going through that curse to the new covenant life beyond.”[3] See (1991), p.152. For the connection between resurrection and the restoration of God’s people, see Ezekiel 37:1-14.

[4] Wright (1991), p.143-4).

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