The Malta Independent 4 June 2020, Thursday

Paul’s narrative

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 16 February 2020, 10:59 Last update: about 5 months ago

Two women came to the king and stood before him.

One woman said: “By your leave, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth in the house while she was present. On the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were alone; no one else was in the house with us; only the two of us were in the house. This woman’s son died during the night when she lay on top of him. So in the middle of the night she got up and took my son from my side, as your servant was sleeping. Then she laid him in her bosom and laid her dead son in my bosom. I rose in the morning to nurse my son, and he was dead! But when I examined him in the morning light, I saw it was not the son I had borne.”


The other woman answered, “No! The living one is my son, the dead one is yours.”

But the first kept saying, “No! the dead one is your son, the living one is mine!” Thus they argued before the king.

Then the king said: “One woman claims, ‘This, the living one, is my son, the dead one is yours.’ The other answers, ‘No! The dead one is your son, the living one is mine.’”

The king continued, “Get me a sword.”

When they brought the sword before the king, he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.”

The woman whose son was alive, because she was stirred with compassion for her son, said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby—do not kill it!”

But the other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours. Cut it in two!”

The king then answered, “Give her the living baby! Do not kill it! She is the mother.”

The Old Testament...

... can be understood as Israel’s attempt at self-definition, at defining the nation’s constitution, at understanding how to evolve into a sovereign Entity and survive among the other, larger, more powerful Entities.

It teaches a vital lesson: if Israel follows the ways of God (a “superordinate” principle, a higher principle that runs parallel to everyday life but is inspired by what is good and abjures what is evil), then Israel will survive, succeed and thrive.

It is replete with stories of when Israel failed to follow the ways of God, failed to be faithful to the covenant with God and instead chose to embrace false paths. Prophets tried to open the eyes of Israel, but Israel was stubborn, and because of that stubbornness went through exiles, in foreign lands, in the desert, unable to rebuild itself, unable to rebuild the Temple in which to house the Ark of the Covenant (the agreement to be faithful to the higher principle).

It keeps reminding the Jews – and us – that exiles can be long, consuming, brimming with temptations to accept false gods and distorted principles, and that humble understanding of the principles of faithfulness and humble rejection of the principles of unfaithfulness alone can restore Israel to its rightful place as God’s chosen People.

The struggle with God

And yet Israel’s name means “struggle with God”: isra-el.

“Isra” is like our verb issara, to struggle, whereas “El” is God. So isra-el would be “issara ma’ Alla”.

(This is one reason why the current rules of Maltese are weakly designed: it should be Israel not Iżrael; similarly, Islam not Iżlam, because “Islam” comes from “peace”, “sliem”.)

Israel is the name of the Chosen People of God and it means “struggle with God”.

It’s a paradox. But like every paradox, it’s an apparent contradiction: there’s no contradiction between being the Chosen People of God and struggling with God – indeed, you can be God’s Chosen People only by struggling with God, by entering into a relationship with God and trying to understand, through the struggle, what God wants, what God’s ways are.

The struggle is therefore good, as it leads to renewal, to a deeper understanding of God’s ways.

The exile too is good, as it leads to humble self-examination, to humble self-understanding. And self-understanding necessarily leads to an understanding of the relationship with God. For God is in His People and His People are in God.

The struggle is therefore good. The exile is therefore good. The renewal is therefore good.

But they cannot continue forever. The Promised Land has to be reached. The Second Building of the Temple has to take place. Otherwise, the Chosen People risks extinction.

God is with us

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus, and the Evangelist tells us that the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

As an aside, this tripartite division of the bloodline is interesting from a hidden point of view. The Jewish numerological value of the letter “D” (daleth, ד) is 4 and of the letter “V” (waw, ו) is 6. Thus,  D+V+D = 4+6+4 = 14: “DaViD” (ו ד ד) has the (hidden) numerological value fourteen. (The Semitic languages discount vowels.) Clearly, Matthew wanted to emphasise the Babylonian exile and Jesus’ descent from Abraham and David, and therefore Jesus’ right to the throne of David and to the Leadership of Israel, then “exiled” under Roman yoke.

Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary, thought of quietly divorcing her, because her son was not his. But he had a dream, in which an angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

This, tells us Matthew, took place to fulfil what a prophet had said: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”.

“Emmanuel”. The man who had to save the people of Israel (“struggle with God”) from their sins was to be called “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.”

Paul of Tarsus

Paul’s genius lies in his interpretation of Jesus’ life.

You could understand the existence of Jesus as the life and death of one who had to deliver the people of Israel from the rule of the Romans. Indeed, the Romans crucified him for that very crime, for being an enemy of the (Roman) State, for being “King of the Jews” and therefore against Roman rule in Israel and therefore a political criminal.

But Paul of Tarsus, whose shipwreck on these Islands was celebrated last Monday, had a profound intuition. He understood that Jesus didn’t live and die solely for Israel. Paul understood that Jesus lived, died, and rose for humanity.

Read it in a letter to the Romans (note the addressees!): Jesus was “born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the son of God in power, according to the spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead”.

Now whether you believe in the literality of all this is, frankly, beyond the point and a private matter for each one of us.

But what is pertinent and of public importance is not so much the literal story; it’s the higher message.

It is a new (possibly novel) interpretation of the most moving story of the Old Testament: Israel has to go through a period of exile for the Temple to be rebuilt. Matthew places the Babylonian exile in the middle of Jesus’ genealogy – the Jews rebuilt the Temple after their return from that exile; it must be related to the statement made by Jesus about being able to destroy the temple of God and rebuilding it in three days.

This is one very important message of Christianity. The undying hope that after the long journey in the desert, the Promised Land is found; after the long exile, the Temple is rebuilt.

My Personal Library (87)

One of my favourite books is Daniel Boyarin’s A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1997). Not because I necessarily agree with all the book’s theses (actually, I disagree with a number of them), but for two non-literary reasons. One is that I bought it from the London Jewish Book Fair some 16 years ago, in particular personal circumstances. The other is that that book accompanied me during another particular personal experience the following year.

It is an unusual essay, written by a scholar of Talmud who is not trained in New Testament scholarship. For a Christian it is an intellectually stimulating challenge to read about possibly the second-most important figure of Christianity through the eyes of a highly-cultured Jew.

In this book, I found this beautiful sentence, which captures Paul’s outstanding interpretation: “Jewish history, the history of Israel according to the flesh, is taken as a sign for the meaning of Christ and the Church, Israel according to the spirit, in the world.”

Boyarin attempts to integrate the “very old-fashioned (patristic!) interpretation of Paul” with “newer understandings of the vital role that the integration of gentiles into the People of God played for Paul”; he attempts this integration “essentially by claiming that the two are one: The very impulse toward universalism, toward the One, is that which both enabled and motivated Paul’s move toward a spiritualizing and allegorizing interpretation of Israel’s Scripture and Law as well” (pp. 7-8).



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