Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Impossible Yoke: Part III

Getting back to my project, I am now going to examine the second quote from Second-Temple literature that Laato uses in Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach to highlight the positive anthropology of NT-period Judaism.

He quotes from the Psalms of Solomon 9:4-5 (I will quote from the version prepared by R.B. Wright in Volume 2 of Charlesworth's The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [2:660]; Pss. Sol. have a date from around 70-45 B.C. [R.B. Wright in Charlesworth, 2:641]):

Our works (are) in the choosing and power of our souls, to do right and wrong in the works of our hands, and in your righteousness you oversee human beings. The one who does what is right saves up life for himself with the Lord, and the one who does what is wrong causes his own life to be destroyed; for the Lord's righteous judgments are according to the individual and the household [Syr, according to every person and his house].

At the first superficial inspection of this text, it clearly appears that humans choose to do right and wrong and that this ability to choose has eschatological ramifications (the right choices lead to life and the wrong choices lead to destruction).

The way that God is characterized in this passage as well should also be noted. He is clearly shown as righteous, which means that he has the proper credentials to be the judge of humanity. He is also seen as one who oversees humanity, which may sound positive ("I'm looking out for you!") but certainly has a judgmental feel, especially considering the content of 5b. Lastly, God judges according to the individual and the household, thus doing away with the idea that nowhere in Second-Temple Judaism was personalized judgment in view.

This passage could not be clearer in its portrayal of the human ability to choose between good and evil. If we continue reading beyond the place where Laato's quote stops, we can begin to see a fuller picture of the anthropology of this passage. Pss.Sol. 9:5-7 [Charlesworth, 2:660-61]:

To whom will you be good, O God, except to those who call upon the Lord? He will cleanse from sins the soul in confessing, in restoring, so that for all these things the shame is on us, and (it shows) on our faces. And whose sins will he forgive except those who have sinned? You bless the righteous, and do not accuse them for what they sinned. And your goodness is upon those that sin, when they repent.

The picture from this passage is that repentance is available and necessary for those that sin, furthering the positive anthropology here. Since humans are capable of repentance on their own, they are still the ones choosing life or destruction. Also, if humans decide not to repent, then the sins of humanity are not on God but on humanity because each human had every opportunity to repent and chose otherwise.

On the other hand, this passage does have a negative anthropological feel to it in one respect. It almost presupposes the need for repentance. However, characterizing this fact as "negative anthropology" is simply off-base. The anthropology here is more realistic, in that humans are presented as sinful beings, which is demonstrable in the life of anyone who is being honest. God does not leave sinful humans dangling above the fires of hell; instead he provides them a way to experience his goodness through repentance.

Continuing to the end of this psalm, Pss. Sol. 9:10-11 [Charlesworth, 2:661]:

You made a covenant with our ancestors concerning us, and we hope in you when we turn our souls to you. May the mercy of the Lord be upon the house of Israel forevermore.

Here the tension between grace and works is evident. The psalmist admits that God made a covenant with his ancestors. According to the caricature of Judaism presented by the New Perspective on Paul, one would expect Jews around the NT period to understand that membership in this covenant was a matter of birth, which then leads to national (even racial) pride and boasting. This passage reveals something different.

The psalmist says "we hope in you when we turn our souls to you." This "we" can only be his contemporaries who were Jews by birth (especially if we are convinced by the contention that these psalms have a pharisaic pedigree, which R.B. Wright seems to doubt, along with the Essene-origin theory [R.B. Wright in Charlesworth, 2:642].). The point that I am trying to make is that the psalmist is presenting us with the fact that Jews by birth must nevertheless turn their souls toward God in order to be part of the covenant and it is only through this turning toward God that his mercy will be shown to Israel forevermore.

Thus, while the grace of the covenantal election comes into the picture in this last passage, free will still plays a role in covenant membership. If covenant membership is predicated upon one's ability to turn his/her soul toward God, then this passage certainly leaves us with a feeling that its anthropology is unreservedly positive (humans have the ability to gain positive standing before God).

The Impossible Yoke: Part I
The Impossible Yoke: Part II
The Impossible Yoke: Part IV
The Impossible Yoke: Part V
The Impossible Yoke: Part VI
The Impossible Yoke: Part VII
The Impossible Yoke: Part VIII

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