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.