Paul expressed his anguish over the situation with Israel in the previous section between their curses in 9:1-3 and their blessings in 9:4-5, and now he moves to explain the paradox; in a sense, there are two Israels, one according to ethnicity and one according to faith. It seems that God has chosen a certain family of people to be His Nation through which He brought forth His Son, yet not all within that family (ethnic Israel) have chosen to follow His Son, and thus will likely be lost. Paul begins to address this issue in 9:6 ff.:
It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (9:6) This distinction is set forth in verse 6 as you can see; Paul continues:
Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.
We sometimes forget that not all of Abraham’s descendants are or ever were part of “Israel” for before Isaac was born, Abraham fathered another son, Ishmael who was not a son of the promise, even though he was a son of Abraham. Only those who descended through Isaac were considered his descendants, and not even all of them were considered his descendants:
Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Isaac and Rebekah conceived twins, but God’s promise did not extend to both of them and their descendants. Esau, the twin who was born first, thus the heir of Isaac, did not receive the promise and was excluded from those who were considered to be Abraham’s descendants even though he was the firstborn of Isaac. Excluded, his descendants became a separate nation, the Edomites who were enemies of Israel. Let’s not forget that the descendants of Ishmael also became a people, enemies of the Israelites and who even today are the enemies of modern day Israel, and far more numerous.
It is clear in this discussion that Ishmael was not the son of promise because he was the issue of human connivance and not the promise of God who clearly stated that Sarah would bear the son of promise, but the issue of Esau is worthy of consideration: Why did God select Jacob and not Esau? The obvious answer is that God is God and can choose whomever He wishes to serve His purpose, and Paul will make that point. A little less obvious is that God foreknew that Esau would not take His promise all that seriously, so he chose Jacob to carry the promise forward; it seems that God already knew that Esau would trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, and this leads us to the heart of the matter.
There is considerable debate these days about God’s foreknowledge and its relation to cause and effect. Did God make Esau trade away his birthright to Jacob for unknown reasons of His own, or did God know Esau would do this on his own because God is all knowing and not subject to time and space? I am content to let others worry about that one; I think there is a much more important issue in play. When we think of divine covenants, we tend to think in terms of salvation. We see covenant language in 9:4-5 and think of the Jews in terms of salvation with the result that the paradox of Israel is unsettling for us, as it was for Paul, but we must stop and think before we react.
Salvation is only found in one covenant, the New Covenant established by and through the sled blood of Jesus Christ. God’s covenant with Abraham did not contain a promise of salvation for Abraham’s descendants. Instead the Abrahamic covenant had two kinds of promises, the land promise and the descendants promise. God promised that Abraham would have descendants more numerous than the sands of the beach, and that through them all nations would be blessed. With the arrival of Jesus Christ on the scene this was fulfilled, for His blood was shed for all nations, Jew and Gentile to be saved. It also promised that Abraham’s descendants would be given the land of Canaan. Jesus has come and Canaan was delivered long ago and that covenant was fulfilled long ago. God also made a covenant with Moses, the Law. It held that God would be their God and they would be His people if they would follow its laws, but it made no mention of salvation or eternal life. We know that the Law was incapable of making anyone righteous in God’s sight, and Paul has himself made this case in Romans. So then, how could anyone be saved, how could any man be made righteous?
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, thus a person could become righteous in God’s sight by believing Him. (Not believing in Him, but believing Him) This is another way of saying that they could attain righteousness in God’s sight by putting their faith and trust in Him, even though they were imperfect and could not keep all 613 laws all of the time. This righteousness was judged at God’s sole discretion. If we go through Old Testament history, how often do we find an account of such a person? Abraham and David come to mind quickly and there are certainly many others, as well as “regular folk” who aren’t mentioned, yet as often as not, we see Israel turning its back on God, as did the Israelites in the Wilderness; they might have believed in God, but they did not believe God. Paul is trying to impress upon his readers that the paradox of Israel is nothing new, and it does not mean that God has failed or that He is unfaithful to His promises in any way, for the problem is to be found in the unbelieving hearts of the people themselves.
Paul has much more to say on this, as we will see next time!