The two columns a year I try to write about Judaism-one in the spring at Passover time, one in the fall just before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur-are enough to get me in trouble with both major doctrinal positions on the present and future status of the descendants of ancient Israel.
When I write that Abraham is the father of all who believe in the God of Abraham, not just his blood descendants, some accuse me of embracing "replacement theology." When I write that God has something special in store for Abraham's physical progeny, others worry that I'm falling into creeping dispensationalism.
The apostle Paul spent nearly three chapters of Romans exploring the difficult question of old Israel/new Israel relations. He made things as clear as could be: "Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel . . . the children of the promise are counted as offspring. . . . I ask, then, has God rejected His people? By no means . . . even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again."
And after all that, Paul counseled others-and himself?-not to be adamant in delineating the mysteries of old Israel's salvation: "Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved. . . . Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways."
It will be wonderful to see God unfold, sooner or later, the old Israel/new Israel plan. Jews who are not Christians, of course, think differently. Mark Oppenheimer in The Washington Post recently gave two reasons why most Jews hold out: First, they think "this whole Christian thing just doesn't make much sense"; second, they live by "emotions like loyalty, love, nostalgia and guilt, and cherished cultural traditions like Passover Seders and latkes at Hanukkah time."
Paul dealt with both intellectual and emotional questions. First, he realized that only by "this whole Christian thing" does the Old Testament make sense. For example, the almost-sacrifice of Isaac leads Jewish scholars to agonize about how God could appear to be encouraging human sacrifice, which He condemns elsewhere-but it all makes sense if we see how God was preparing us to understand the immensity of Christ's sacrifice (and also to show us why two-thirds of the Trinity have the names Father and Son).
Paul knew that "this whole Christian thing" is also the most sensible way to interpret the long record of Israel's disobedience to God that Moses, Nehemiah, Stephen, and others all spoke and wrote about. Why did God give laws that His people regularly broke, if not to show that people set aside in a holy land could still not be holy unless their hearts were changed? Christian understanding also explains why the Messiah is both suffering servant and triumphant king: He comes twice, so He's both.
Perhaps because Christianity holds up very well intellectually, Mr. Oppenheimer acknowledges that "the most important reasons of all" are emotional, ranging from nostalgia and guilt to loyalty and love. Paul's loyalty and love are evident when he writes about his people: "As regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." Paul combines tough truth-telling with total hope in God's love: "For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all."
What will all this look like in practice? Columnists are supposed to lay out roadmaps in no uncertain terms, but it seems to me that some biblical teaching is like a Class One whitewater rapids, easy for novices to paddle through, while some is a Class Six, sharply angled and filled with foam, spray, and mist. All I can conclude from Paul's discussion of God's mysterious plan (and my Jewish descent gives me a particularly strong reason to look hard at these passages) is that it includes in some way both old Israel and new. Praise God from whom, as Paul wrote, some inscrutable ways flow.