Monday, February 21, 2022

Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: Galatians 3:13-14 (3 of 7)

(By Andrew Rillera)

Here we read: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” To this Bird concludes, “The only explanation is that the Messiah had willingly taken on himself the dreaded curse that rightly belonged to others. Despite some protests to the contrary, I cannot imagine a clearer affirmation of penal substitutionary atonement.”

I’ll make my job harder and bring up that a few scholars such as Stephan Finlan have suggested that Paul is also evoking the scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement here. So not only do we seem to have Paul talking about substitution, he may be alluding to the Day of Atonement. So all the terms in PSA are at stake here, but only the “P” with sufficient covenantal nuance remains standing upon a closer examination (Editor's comment: See the final post for Chris Tilling’s qualification of even this).

Three observations will suffice in response to the ostensible Atonement allusions. 1) The scapegoat is not about curse transmission. Curses are not placed on the goat—the word does not appear in this ritual—but rather Israel’s ritual contaminations of “iniquities and transgressions” are placed on the goat (Lev 16:21–22). The Day of Decontamination is a disinfecting ritual that begins in the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the tabernacle. Once the purgation blood disinfects that area, the High Priest then moves to the Holy Place and decontaminates the curtain and the incense altar, then he proceeds to the outer altar. Once these are all purged, then he sends the scapegoat to the wilderness as it is ritually loaded with all the sin and impurity contamination of the people that was just removed from each of the preceding sancta. Liane Feldman likens this process to a person who is sweeping a house where one starts all the way in the back and works the dirt towards the front and eventually sweeps it all out the door. The scapegoat is the dust pan that is the vehicle by which the dust/contamination is carried away from the Lord’s presence.

2) Daniel Streett has argued in his article in the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, “Cursed by God? Galatians 3:13, Social Status, and Atonement Theory in the Context of Early Jewish Readings of Deuteronomy 21:23,” against readings like Finlan’s that think this is about the Day of Atonement or the scapegoat ritual more specifically. This is because “becoming a curse” is used several times in places like Jeremiah to simply talk about becoming an object of derision, reproach, and scorn and has nothing to do with curse transmission or anything like “sin riddance” (cf. Jer 24:9 [katara LXX]; 29:18 [verse not in LXX]; 42:18 [ara in LXX, 49:18]; 44:12 [katara in LXX, 51:12]).

Before getting into how it is that Jesus has “redeemed” (exagorazō) those under the curse of the Law, it needs to be pointed out that all Paul seems to be getting at with his use of curse language is that Jesus shared in the same condition plaguing those now under the curse of the law. This is the language of solidarity, not substitution. Like Jeremiah who talks about those experiencing the curse of the covenant as “becoming a curse,” so too Paul is only saying that Jesus went so far as to become an object of reproach and scorn by being crucified in order to liberate his people. Paul is saying that Jesus underwent solidarity with the plight of Israel. This is akin to the prophets like Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel being hauled off into exile, that is, experiencing the curse of the covenant along with the whole people even though they themselves were righteous. But never does “become a curse” mean that curses are being draw away from others and onto something/one else.

3) As it is, the scapegoat ritual is apotropaic and preemptive. It is meant to “ward off” dire conditions that would threaten the community; not mitigate them once already present. Meaning, the Day of Atonement only has a function when there is a sanctuary to be purged in order to ward off the threat of divine abandonment, but it can only do this for sins that can be purged from the sanctuary—for many sins such as murder, sexual immorality, and idolatry, the only remedy is exile because these sins pollute the land, but atoning sacrifices can only purge the sanctuary. The Day of Atonement can do nothing for these types of sins. Once the divine presence leaves, it’s too late and no amount of purging sacrifices or scapegoating will bring it back. This is why Ezekiel only envisions a divine washing and resurrection (Ezek 36:25), not a Day of Atonement, to end the covenant curse of exile.

So whatever Paul means, it seems to have nothing to do with the Day of Atonement. But how is Paul saying then that Jesus “redeemed” us?

First Paul says that those “of the works of the Torah are under a curse” and then quotes the covenant curse from Deut 27:26 (Gal 3:10). Then Paul says that Christ likewise came under the covenant curse from Deuteronomy by quoting from Deut 21:23 as proof that he died a paradigmatically cursed death (Gal 3:13). Thus, Paul is at pains to communicate the simple point, not that sin or curse was transmitted to Jesus at the cross, but that God’s own Son participated fully in Israel’s cursed condition his entire life. Since all those “of the works of the Torah are under a curse” (3:10) and God’s Son was “born under the Law” (4:4), then Paul understands all of Jesus’s life from birth to death (hung upon a tree) as characterized by the curse of the Law that he thinks all Israel is living under. (Paul seems to believe that Israel has remained under the curse of the Law ever since Jeremiah—i.e., Israel was “still in exile” as certain NT scholars are fond of saying.)

The curse is not transmitted to him as sin is transmitted to a scapegoat; rather, Jesus is simply born a Jew, “born under the Law,” during a time in Israel’s history where the curses promised in Deuteronomy and prophesied about in Jeremiah are the lived reality for all, but also that Jesus’s death functions as a sort of “poster child” for Israel’s condition. This is not about substitution, but rather seems to be better conceptualized as “(covenantal) cursed solidarity.”

If this is the case, that Paul is communicating Jesus’s full participation in the negative conditions of Israel, then as Morna D. Hooker has asked, “But if Christ is identified with man’s condition, how do the conclusions follow? How are the Jews set free from the curse of the law, and how does the blessing come to the Gentiles?” (“Interchange in Christ,” 15). She goes on to observe that “underlying this there is an important assumption” (15); namely, “the resurrection” (16). Even though the resurrection is not mentioned explicitly it has to be in view even if it remains implicit (cf. Gal 1:16; 2:20). The resurrection is the only way Paul’s conclusions can follow. Paul says that “the blessing” (opposite of curse) comes “in Christ Jesus” (3:14) and this can only be because in Jesus’s resurrection the opposite of the curse he was living under (and died under) has occurred; the curse has been overturned in his resurrection. This point about the resurrection is made explicit in Rom 4:25 where Paul says that Jesus was raised for our justification, the very concern of Gal 3:11 (cf. 2:16–17).

The fact that it is Jesus’s resurrected life that breaks the curse poses significant problems for any attempts to push the scapegoat image through. The blessing comes not by forever banishing a once pure victim that has had a curse unloaded onto it (indeed, the scapegoat in Lev 16 doesn’t even bear a “curse”), but rather by the one who overrules and annuls the curse by being raised up (cf. 1:15–16; 2:20) after living and dying under the curse (3:13). Put another way, the curse is dealt with by construing it as a judicial sentence (hence the dikaioō language) and then reversing that judicial sentence in Jesus’s resurrection life. Paul gives no hint that the curse has been permanently carried away by banishing a living creature, which would be essential if the predicate “scapegoat” is to be remotely intelligible. By living and dying under the curse of the covenant, Jesus’s resurrection thus redeems (exagorazō) all those living under the curse since it means that the curse does not have the final word; the blessing of resurrection does.



At 5/06/2022 2:45 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I love the direction you are going here. And I agree with most of your conclusions. I critique PSA whenever I have the opportunity. But can I offer some feedback to some of the ways you substantiate your thoughts about solidarity?

1. You said, "Thus, Paul is at pains to communicate the simple point, not that sin or curse was transmitted to Jesus at the cross, but that God’s own Son participated fully in Israel’s cursed condition his entire life. Since all those “of the works of the Torah are under a curse” (3:10) and God’s Son was “born under the Law” (4:4), then Paul understands all of Jesus’s life from birth to death (hung upon a tree) as characterized by the curse of the Law that he thinks all Israel is living under."

I would say that a closer reading of Galatians 3:10-16 implies the curse comes upon anyone "under the law" who does not continue in all that the law commands. The emphasis and logic is on the inability of those "under the law" to obey the whole law, continually. The curse he specifically cites from Deuteronomy has to do with a deficit in the scope and sustainability of adherence to the covenant-al law.

Also, I don't think his argument is that Jesus was a curse his entire life. Jesus only becomes a curse by hanging on a tree, not by being born under the law. Christ was faithful under the law (the faithfulness OF Christ" and therefore did not come under the curse of the law due to a lack in the scope or sustainability of his obedience to the covenant-al law. In fact, Paul's argument later in Galatians 3:26-4:6 is that Christ is the faithful Son who allowed the Father to mature him to a point of being qualified to receive the inheritance ("the Spirit" according to 3:15-16). The dilemma Paul seems to be facing is how Christ can make contact with those cursed under the law if seemingly, the onyl way to become cursed under the law is to become disobedient to the law. But Paul finds a "loop hole" of sorts via the possibility of becoming a curse by "hanging on a tree." Presumably, according to Deut 21, one could be falsely accused of a crime worthy of death by false witnesses (in the context of Deut 21 the "case law" example was the rebellious son) and therefore an innocent person could be hung on a tree, assume a cursed condition according to the law, and yet still be innocent, and therefore not guilty of a covenant-al sin.

I do think you are right that Jesus is joining Israel in their cursed condition, but Paul performs a very clever hermeneutical move to not only get Jesus into that cursed condition (via Deut 21) but also says that once he makes contact with them, he is then able to grab them and pull the out (ex-agorizo) of that condition and into the blessing/inheritance, kind of like someone in the coastguard who jumps into the raging storm to rescue someone drowning. He gets just as wet as they do, but he is able to pull them out - save them. Paul revisits this same argument in 3:26-4:6 and expands it in a more developed way. Essentially, 3:26-4:6 is 3:13 writ large. Thoughts?


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