The National Catholic Review
Paul’s initial argument regarding Abraham and the law of Moses is that the promise to Abraham on the basis of faith cannot be annulled by the coming of the law of Moses 430 years later (see Exodus 12:40 for the likely origin of Paul’s chronology). What does he mean? Paul argues that the promises God made to Abraham included his "offspring" (Greek: sperma, or "seed"). Although a literal reading of "offspring" in Genesis 17:8 would seem to suggest actual flesh and blood descendants, Paul reads the text in a spiritual sense, what we would now call a typological reading, finding that "offspring" refers to Jesus Christ. Paul, that is, reads a collective noun, "offspring," as a singular noun. This sort of reading is difficult for some modern readers: does not Paul do violence to the literal sense of Genesis 17? What Paul has done, however, is no different than rabbinic or other Jewish exegetes of his day. Because the Tanakh is the word of God, every passage, every word, yes, even every letter has significance, not only in its immediate context but in relation to new or shifting circumstances and readings. Paul reads Jesus Christ in the Scriptures because if Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecies and promises, he must be present in those scriptures in a way that can only be understood in light of the revelation of Christ. The only difference between Paul and other Jewish interpreters of his day is that Paul’s encounter with Christ convinced him that Jesus was Lord, and so was present throughout the Scriptures, while those who did not share this encounter with Christ would not find Him in their spiritual interpretation of the word of God. Paul’s point, however, is straightforward: the promise to Abraham was a promise of Christ and through Christ a promise of salvation through faith to all the nations (3:8-9). Finally, though, Paul must answer, even if that is the case, what was the purpose of the law? Paul says first that it was given for "transgressions," which I take to mean an attempt to "restrain" transgressions (3:19-22). The law functioned as a paidagogus until Christ came, keeping us in check. The image of the paidagogus is central to Paul’s argument. Until Christ came we were in a sort of spiritual immaturity, for the paidagogus was a slave guardian, who watched over children in their care, accompanying them to school, in daily activities and functioning as a disciplinarian and guard until they came to the age of maturity. Once maturity was gained, the very paidagogus who watched over a child might in fact become the property of the child. The child reached the age of freedom, while the paidagogus remained a slave. Once Christ came, maturity was reached and the law was no longer necessary to function as a guard or disciplinarian (3:23-25). Paul uses the language of family – Christians are "children of God" now, members of God’s family, and a part of Abraham’s family through faith in Christ, "heirs according to the promise" (:3:26-29).As children of God, they are adopted by God (4:5) and heirs to all of the promises (4:7). Paul’s exegesis might have seemed like sleight of hand to his first readers and hearers - the Jews are no longer the heirs of Abraham, but the gentiles are? - and I am certain not all of Paul’s interlocutors or disputants would have easily agreed to his understanding of the law of Moses. "You mean, it had a valid divine function, but only for a limited time, until Christ came?" The adoption of Christians into Abraham’s lineage to the exclusion of those who were "real" ancestral descendants would have struck first century Jews and some Jewish Christians as more than odd. But we should not mistake Paul’s exegesis for special pleading or mischief with the "clear" meaning of Scripture. Paul operates as any ancient interpreter, alive to the deep spiritual realities of the text and convinced that Jesus is present in the text. If God sent Jesus to redeem the world, there must also be a way to make sense of God’s activities and revelations before Christ’s coming. God gave the law, but why? God wanted all nations to be saved, to be justified in the sight of God, so how would this take place and how do we understand the promises made to Abraham in light of this reality? Paul does what any excellent interpreter does: he reads the Scripture in light of changing circumstances, experiences and in light of revelation. And what he knows is certain: "there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). For any interpreter not convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus is the Lord, it would be hard to convince them of the validity of Paul’s exegesis of Genesis, both then and now. John W. Martens