Galatians 3.10-14 is an interesting passage. Paul does not provide an explicit account of his logic regarding the curse of the Torah, which means that in order to comprehend the passage people will rely upon their theological pre-understanding to fill in the gaps. A prominent reading in traditional Lutheran-Reformed circles sees the curse of the law as a punishment due to the lack of perfect obedience, whereas Jesus’ taking on the curse is Jesus’ a description of penal substitution atonement in taking on the punishment that sinners deserve. By contrast, NT Wright considers the passage to be a description of the national exile of Israel in accordance to the Deuteronomic curses in Deuteronomy 28 that Jesus in his death represents Israel. Then, J. Louis Martyn interprets the passage as Paul’s counter-argument against his opponents usage of Deuteronomy 27.26 against the Galatians; for Martyn’s Paul, the Law is a universal power that inherently condemns due to it not being based upon faith, and not simply in virtue of any failure to obey, condemns that Christ by being a greater power provides a liberation from. In each of these three readings, pre-understandings about punishment, identity, and power influence the way Galatians 3.10-14 is read.
Given the lack of specificity by Paul, any understanding of Galatians 3.10-14 entails drawing on concepts that are not explicitly mentioned in the discourse to make sense of (a) the nature of the curse and (b) how Christ redeems from the curse. As a consequence, most interpretations of 3.10-14 will rely upon providing an understanding that provides ideas that can sufficiently explain the passage, but there is little in the text that necessitates one set of explanatory ideas over another. Punishment, identity, and power can all provide accounts that are coherent with 3.10-14, although questions certainly arise about how coherent it is with the rest of Galatians, his Jewish heritage, etc.
I personally favor Wright’s interpretation insofar as it makes reference to the curses of Deuteronomy 28. However, I find setting Paul’s understanding as a discussion of the nation of Israel as a whole to be a bit disjarring of the text. While social identity certain plays a role in discussions about the Torah and certainly Paul is influenced by his understanding of the Israel’s national history in the Scriptures, the text does not read as a commentary on social identity groups specifically. While we should heed Krister Stendahl’s warning against overly psychological readings that can emerge from individualist readings, Paul’s does not frame his discussion of the curse in terms of nation or social identity, but rather in terms of personal identity. In v. 9, Paul refers to those who believe (οἱ ἐκ πίστεως) as sharing in ABraham’s blessed as Abraham believed; Paul highlight individuals with a distinctive identity of having faith. Then, ὅσοι (“as much/many as”) in v. 10 functions naturally as a count noun in that context, suggest that Paul is talking about an indeterminate collection of individuals who rely on works.
Thus, I take Paul’s discussion of the curse to not primarily be about the national exile of Israel, but about individual person who bear a specific property of relying on works. While discussion of national history and social identity can certain be relevant for our understanding what happens to individuals, as our understanding of history and of groups by providing a way to conceptually frame our understanding of individuals, our construal of personal identity is not reducible to the understandings we have of history and social identity.1 Therefore, I take as one criteria for interpretations of Galatians 3.10-14 is that it provides an explanation of what happens to persons.
However, at this point is important to distinguish between the argument of Paul’s discourse and Paul’s understanding of the concepts he discusses. I would contend that Paul’s argument about those being under the curse is purely a Scriptural argument based upon Paul’s understanding of what the Scriptures specifically describe. On what grounds does one say the Torah curses those who try to rely upon it? Because the two Scripture Paul quotes from say that righteousness is based upon faith and not the works of the Torah. Paul does not explain the reason the curse exists, but makes a Scriptural argument that a right interpretation of the Scriptures show that relying on the Torah leads to a curse. It is an argument from the authority of Scripture, rather than providing any specific account and explanation for why the curse exists. This is why Paul does not provide an explicit understanding of the curse: his argument is closer to a form of proof-texting that undercuts his opponents that make circumcision and Torah obedience necessary than it is offering any sort of clear understanding or systematic explanation.
That does not mean that Paul’s argument is simply arbitrary and rests solely on the interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul may have a deeper comprehension of why those who rely on the Torah are cursed that extents beyond the authority of the Scriptures; in fact I argue that there is good reasons to suggest he does. However, it is important to do justice to Paul’s actual discourse try to not try interpret Paul making a type of argument that he is not.
Now, I would say insight into Paul’s understanding of why relying on the Torah brings about a curse is hinted at in Gal. 3.21-22. Paul understands the Torah as being incapable of bringing about righteousness, but rather it has a universal effect of locking people into sin. It is a shocking idea that Paul expressed in Romans 5.20 that the Torah lead to the increase of sin. However, Paul explains this more fully in Romans 7 that this is not because the Torah is bad, but rather the presence of sin in people’s lives leads to a self-deception that keeps people enslaved to sin, even as they are aware of the presence of sin; the person obeying Torah is caught up in a spiritual battle between seeing and understanding God’s will and the mind being deceived. While Paul doesn’t make his argument in Romans explicit in Gal. 3.21-22, the Romans explanation that sees Christ as the liberating answer to the dilemma of sin that hearing the Torah brings is also Paul’s answer in Galatians. The various correspondence between Romans and Galatians on this point is highly suggestive that power of sin in the flesh to use Torah to increase sin is implicit, but not express as Paul does not wish to provide an apologetic for the Torah that would potentially mislead the Galatians who already seems to think Paul will eventually call them to Torah obedience.
Now, one might hear echoes of Martyn’s understanding of the Torah as a cursing entity, but there is a subtle difference. Martyn treats the Law as a cursing entity, that to curse is part of its power. It is almost certain that Paul would not agree with that. Rather, God is the one who curses as in Deuteronomy 28, not the Torah, but the fleshy reality of humans hearing and obeying the Torah leads them to become entrenched in sin which God responds to with a curse. The Torah is simply the covenantal way of life that governs God’s relationship to the people of Israel; it does not curse so much as it expresses the reality of the curse that comes from God for disobedience.
It also bears clarifying that Paul does not say that the Torah leads to a greater amount of sin than if it had been absent. Paul is not arguing that God gave the Torah to make sin even worse than it was beforehand. His point is solely observational, with the giving of the Torah, sin increased. But for Paul, this is because sin is an inevitable reality of life in the flesh as separated from God’s presence. If we were to imagine Paul offering an apologetic for giving the Torah rather than doing nothing, one might imagine Paul giving an answer that approximately says that human sin leads to an inevitable escalation of sin, but the Torah kept the escalation manageable. While we can not be sure what Paul would say there, my point is to say that Paul’s understanding that the Torah leads to an increase of sin does not entail that he thinks the Torah was not beneficial in any way. Paul is concerned only with the inability of the Torah to make a person righteous.
So, why then do I think Paul considers relying on Torah lead to the curse? Because trying to rely on Torah inevitably leads to further entrenchment in sin, not liberation from it. As a consequence, people who think they are justified by the works of the Torah become increasingly self-deceived about their own condition because they falsely think their obedience to Torah makes them more righteousness and fall into the trap of escalating disobedience that brings about the Deuteronomic covenantal curse from God. This differs from the traditional Lutheran-Reformed reading that suggests the curse if a condition of anything less than perfect obedience. Rather, the curse is the consequence of the escalation of sin that ensues.
This then provides the backdrop for Paul’s understanding of the redeeming curse of Christ. Paul implicitly employs Deuteronomy 21.23 as a description of Jesus’ crucifixion; Paul identifies the crucifixion as a curse. However, it is a curse of a different sort; it is not a covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. Thus it is not the substitute punishment for disobedience to Torah, but rather a description of Jesus’ own status in virtue of his crucifixion. In fact, I would argue it is an interpretive mistake to assume Paul must have an idea of one curse substituting for another in mind. Nowhere else do we see any development of such an idea, but we see Paul make repeated references the crucifixion and blood of Christ, which suggests the redemption is more based upon something in Christ’s experience of the cross than in the status the cross conveyed to him. Rather, I would suggest that Paul’s argument is largely rhetorical as a better explanation; I would suggest the reference to Jesus being cursed discursively functions as an oblique reference to the crucifixion, using to rhetorically highlight the connection between the cross and redemption from the Deuteronomic curses. Such a rhetoric strategy would suggest that there is the actually effect that Christ’s curse in being crucified on a tree redeems people from the covenantal curses, but Paul does not explicitly suggest a direct causal mechanism from the curse of Jesus to the redemption of a curse of relying on the Torah.2
So how then does Paul consider Christ’s curse/death redeem Jews and other Torah-observers from the curse? Firstly, Christ’s death demonstrates that the works of the Torah does not make one righteous. If many of the most dutiful observers of Torah rejected Jesus and put him to death on the cross, then for those Jews who truly believe and recognize Jesus as the Messiah, it should dispel the illusion of Torah observance providing any basis for becoming righteous. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that Christ’s death had no purpose (Gal. 2.21) and that there could be have been another way to bring about the blessings of God’s promise to Abraham. Those who failed to recognize this but promoted a message of circumcision and Torah obedience was tantamount to rejecting the Gospel (Gal. 1.6-9), and are called false brothers (Gal. 2.4). Instead, the faith comes from a calling (Gal. 1.6, 15) and came with some sort of vision (mental imagination? a perception of Paul as a Christ-like figure?) of Jesus’ crucifixion (Gal. 3.1). While Paul does not explicitly state that faith in Jesus dispels such illusions, the way he talks about the cross and those who believe certainly suggests at the very least that he considers such a belief not simply in error but a case of being fundamentally deceived, as if they have not really understood the significance of what happened to Jesus and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Furthermore, in light of his own Damascus Road experience that lead him to look upon his previous life as misguided and with the rest of the Pauline corpus as evidence, it is warranted to consider that the death and resurrection of Jesus was seen as having a sort of persuasive power upon believers in casting way deception and illusions when it came to how many Jews understood the significance of the Torah.
Secondly, in Jesus Christ, believers experience a freedom that the reliance on the works of Torah could not provide but instead actively works against (Gal. 5.1-6). As the Galatians received the Spirit when they heard Paul’s preaching about Jesus’ crucifixion with faith (Gal. 3.2), they experienced of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit that lead them to call out to God as Abba conveys their own adopted status as God’s children (Gal. 4.6) and at work in them to cultivate and bring about a future righteousness (Gal. 5.5; 5.22-25) that will bring the blessing of life (Gal. 6.9) that the Torah could not provide (Gal. 3.21). While Paul does not make explicit in Galatians the intrinsic connection between Jesus and the Holy Spirit like he does in Romans 8, that faith in Jesus Christ is the “gateway” to receiving the Spirit who transforms the believers highlights the way that Jesus Christ provides redemption from the entrenchment of sin that the Torah also caused.
Thus, through dispelling the illusions about the power and purpose of the Torah and providing freedom from the entrenchment of sin that trying to obey the Torah brought about, the Jewish believer (1) doesn’t operate their life under the covenant of the Torah can instead become recipients of Abrahamic covenant and its promises instead3 and (2) is freed to begin to realize in their life the righteousness that God wants from His people that the Torah was not capable of bringing.
- It should be noted, however, that the reverse relationship if also true. Discussions about personal identity can impact our understanding social/collective identity, particuarly if the characteristics of persons we describe relate to the cognitive prototypes we have for people of a particular social identity. For instance, to talk about persons who obey Torah relates to the prototype of the Jewish people as those who follow the Torah. So, Paul’s discussion about personal Torah obedience will also impact how one understands Jewish social identity. Romans 1-8 and Romans 9-11 are the two sides of the same coin, where Romans 1-8 addresses personal experience of faith and Torah, whereas Romans 9-11 address the implications of Paul’s doctrine of justification for Jewish identity. This merits the need for special attention to Paul’s discourse about the Torah and consider whether he speaking in terms of the person or of the collective.
- Now, as a matter of disclosure, I am cautious about reading any sort of ontological or metaphysical explanations into Paul’s discourse unless there is strong evidence for such an ontological/metaphysical reading.
- This interpretation does imply that Paul sees an covenantal independence that leads to a mutual exclusion between receiving the blessings of the Abraham covenant and living life in Torah obedience under the Sinatic covenant. While I will not fully develop my argument here, I will posit that Paul things the covenants of Israel’s history are not successive in that later covenants build upon and encapsulate all the promises and obligations of the previous covenants, but each of God’s covenant independently stands on its own as its own relational agreement between God and people. Furthermore, the Sinatic covenant was not the realization of the Abrahamic covenant, but for Paul functioned as a covenant that steward Israel prior to the fulfillment of the Abraham covenant in Christ.