God, Gentiles, and soap opera

I used to make a joke about Paul’s logic in Romans 11. I’m no Paul scholar, nor do I know much about Christian theologies of Judaism. But Paul’s argument sounds like a scenario from a daytime soap opera: the lover pursues the beloved, but the beloved is resistant. So the lover turns to someone else, a third party, in order to make the beloved jealous. Thus also with God and Israel: all day long God stretched out divine hands to “a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom 10:21, quoting Isaiah). Israel remained largely “resistant” (Rom 11:25, CEB). So God opened the covenant to outsider Gentiles, “in order to make Israel jealous” (Rom 11:11).

This seems kind of messed up. In a soap, this third party character is sympathetic, but also to be pitied, since they are not loved as an end in themselves. They’re nice and all, but at the end of the story arc, they will have faded out to make room for the true drama between the lover and beloved (once the beloved does get jealous and see the merits of the lover). If you are a Gentile like me, you are this third party character in God’s drama with Israel.

I don’t want to press the analogy too hard. I’ll be the first to register cautions about the overuse of marital/romantic metaphors in Christian theologizing. But in this case, I don’t think it’s too far afield. And the analogy can help to disrupt the sort of easy-breezy universalism that characterizes so much of our thinking about God. (“Of course God loves everybody, and desires the salvation of all!”) In fact, biblically, God is not first and foremost the lover and savior of all. God is a God in an ancient, passionate, turbulent relationship with Israel. God has turned to us outsiders only as a last-ditch means of recovering God’s beloved.

As I said, I have joked about how twisted that is. Of course, the analogy has its limits: Gentiles do not fade out like the third character in a soap opera, but somehow remain as an enduring object of God’s loyalty even after God ultimately wins back God’s first love, Israel. But today I had another thought. I was reading Jeremiah – which is a patchwork of agony, the prophet’s and God’s, now one, now the other, bleeding into each other. And I saw that Paul’s agony in Romans is an extension of that same spirit of aggrieved, unrequited love – “I have great sadness and constant pain in my heart” (9:2). Indeed: “I wish I could be cursed!” (9:3a). There is a desperation here: a no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty relentlessness. And I appreciated the ethical grayness of Paul’s argument in a new light.

Yes, maybe it is twisted that God uses us Gentiles to incite Israel’s jealousy. But it is nothing if not a testimony to the intensity – the unscrupulous intensity – of God’s initiative. Yes, we Gentiles have become participants in this same story, adopted into God’s family, and made recipients of God’s kindness. But at the same time, perhaps the gratitude to which Paul calls us on account of our new position also has a kind of voyeuristic quality. Besides being ourselves God’s beloved, we also now have an insider’s view of God’s love for Israel. We can see as we trawl through Israel’s literature the vast and painful and beautiful dimensions of this drama that has preceded us – that will outlast us. We can thank God to be loved and ingrafted – but we can also thank God for the privilege of looking in on God’s unremitting first love. Like the strange sidelined wonder of that third party character: sad to be used, yet moved by the lover’s older, truer pursuit.

God’s tenacity

“God’s love” – as a catchword, it brings together two of the most sentimental, overworked words in the English language. On the lips of people I know who are excited about it, “God’s love” sounds vast, oceanic, warm: a sort of cosmic placenta. An aureole of undiscriminating embrace around the world. It evokes the blurry ecstasy of a contemporary musical worship – voices, hands, hearts surging in unison, a moment of synchronicity lifted above the usual mundane texture of life. Things slide back into their usual proportion as the regular lights come back on. God’s love, in a word, stands perpendicular to the irksome detail of normal existence.

I’ve always found it difficult to map this concept – sensation? – onto the Bible. The Bible just doesn’t talk all that often, directly, about God’s love. Of course there are the few go-to passages (John 3:16, Rom 5:8, 1 John 4:9f, even Hosea [ch 11] and Isaiah [ch 43] and Deuteronomy [ch 7], for those brave souls that venture into the older testament). But it takes a certain abstraction to make out of these particular texts the kind of all-pervading, gaseous acceptance with which I associate the catchphrase, “God’s love.”

I would find “God’s tenacity” or even “God’s longsuffering” a far more believable theme for gathering up the Bible’s theological testimonies. Something a little more commensurable with the fact that if you were God’s friend and God related to you the history of God’s relationship with Israel and the church, you might equally well say, “that’s beautiful” OR “sounds like you need to get out, God; you just keep getting hurt here” (I kid; sort of).

In fact, God has gotten hurt, serially – and more than once, wanted out. In Noah’s flood, God regretted making humans so much that God destroyed them: “it grieved him to his heart, so Yhwh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” (Gen 6:6, 7). In the golden calf episode and later during the wilderness wanderings, God could not put up with this errant partner Israel any longer, and wanted to start over with someone else, namely, Moses (Exod 32:9, Num 14:12). Again in Hosea, God tells Israel “you are not my people and I am not your God” (1:8).

Each of these moments passed, oftentimes at great cost; and God renewed commitment to forestalling rage and to sticking it out with this recalcitrant people. Nowhere does this drama of risk-taking divine loyalty and human rejection reach greater clarity than in the suffering of Jesus. Today especially I was mulling over one Pauline picture of the bitterly painful, deeply vulnerable divine initiative towards us: God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Rom 8:32). The key verb here in Greek is the same as the Greek Old Testament uses of Abraham in the story of binding Isaac: the messenger of Yhwh promises Abraham blessing “because [he did] not withhold [his] son” (Gen 22:16). In this story, Abraham commits to a terrible act, and one without certainty: he was ready to lose his beloved son and to become a murderer – but also to enter into total uncertainty vis-à-vis God. No reward was promised for his risk, and he faced no surety of divine approval. Paul reverses all this. In Jesus’s death, somehow God committed to a terrible act, and one without certainty. However it works metaphysically, God lost his Son. Maybe God was no putative murderer like Abraham, but God did enter into all the ethical ambiguities of self-suspending love. And, on this picture at least, God faced no surety of human approval.

Without God’s pain and God’s risk, without this specificity – of a community named Israel, of a man named Jesus, of our own particular places and occasions – “God’s love” remains empty and fatuous.