Hermeneutics of Narrative Transformation

The following is the paper I delivered at SBL entitled, “Toward a Theory of Narrative Transformation: The Importance of Both Contexts in Paul’s Scriptural Citations”. Please note: the footnotes did not come through and I’m not sure how to make them work yet.

This section of our collegial gathering is being devoted to the question of method. And, at the start, I feel compelled to express my sympathy with T. S. Eliot, who famously stated, “there is no method except to be very intelligent.”

But Frank Kermode invites patience here, responding to Eliot as follows, “When Eliot said that the only method was to be very intelligent he was both exaggerating and saying too little. Method, he meant, is secondary, for first there must be divination. Having divined, you must say something by way of explaining or communicating the experience of that bewildering minute, and then method is useful.”

And so it is with our striving after some method for coming to grips with Paul’s use of Israel’s scriptures. We see something. We hear something. We understand something. And then we attempt to frame it up before our reading crashes to the ground, in hopes that someone else might begin to see as we see, hear as we hear, understand as we understand.

What I have seen and heard and understood is this: that Paul’s biblical antecedents tell or participate in narratives, and that in order to understand Paul’s citations we have to come to grips with both the original story being told and the way that this story is transformed when inserted into the context of Paul’s letters. Our attempts to read Paul, in other words, will come up short to the extent that we either (a) neglect the narrative flow within which the cited verse occurs in its original OT context, or (b) allow that OT context to be entirely determinative for what the verse means in Paul.

This paper is an offering toward getting a hold of how we might understand that both/and. The original meaning is crucial, and the original meaning is transformed in light of the Christ event.

Toward that end, I will proceed as follows. First, I will give an example of this both/and from Romans 11:26, where Paul cites Isa 59:20. The point here is to lay out the basics of one moment of divining.

We will move from this into a theoretical model that might help make sense of what we saw in Romans 11. Greimas’ actant theory will help provide methodological, albeit after-the-fact, scaffolding for what I am calling a hermeneutic of narrative transformation.

Finally, we will turn in the last section of the paper to probe the utility of this model as a hermeneutical method by applying it to Paul’s citation of Psalm 68:10 in Romans 15.

To begin, then, Romans 11:26.



I. Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11:26

Here, I am summarizing from a slightly different angle an argument I have worked out in more detail elsewhere.

This citation is one of the most vexing in the Pauline corpus. And, it is important. Here we are at the culmination of Paul’s climactic argument in Romans 11, in which he articulates his final hope for Israel.

“… a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel shall be saved. Just as it is written, ‘The deliverer will come [or: go] out of Zion, he will turn aside ungodliness from Jacob, and this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’ According to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but according to election, they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:25-28).

Somehow, the verses cited are supposed to show us that “in this way, all Israel will be saved.” Well then, what is this way, and who is this “all Israel” of whom Paul speaks?

We return to Isaiah 59:20 to see if it offers any clues. And immediately we are met with a problem. What Paul cites as, “The rescuer will come from Zion (ἐκ Σιων),” in the LXX of Isaiah reads, “The rescuer will come for the sake of Zion (ἕνεκεν Σιων).”

What are we to make of this shift?

Option A: Parousia
One popular interpretation is represented most recently by Robert Jewett, who sees this as an indication of Jesus’ return to earth from a heavenly Zion at the parousia. This option deals well with the change in preposition (the deliverer comes out of Zion to save Israel because Zion is now distinct from that geographical location).

It is hard to see, however, how such an interpretation does justice to the sentence that Isa 59 is cited to prove. “A partial hardening has happened, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and thus, in this way, all Israel will be saved.”

Option B: All Israel is the Gentile + Jew People of God
Picking up on the importance of the Gentiles, N. T. Wright has offered an alternative explanation. He suggests that the inclusion of the full number of Gentiles means that Israel is being reconstituted as the Jew plus Gentile people of God.

Looking to the scriptural citation, he argues that this is a mixed citation, with ἐκ Σιων pointing us back to Isaiah 2:3. There, the prophet declares that the nations will be drawn to Zion because the law will go forth out of Zion: ἐκ γὰρ Σιων ἐξελεύσεται νόμος καὶ λόγος κυρίου ἐξ Iερουσαλημ.

As we will see shortly, the Gentiles are crucial for making sense of this passage, but Wright’s reading is problematic. First, I find it unlikely that this is a mixed citation. The only clue to the shift is the change in the preposition. Moreover, whereas Paul’s citation reads, ἐκ Σιων, Isaiah 2 reads, ἐκ γὰρ Σιων, which to my mind diminishes the audibility of such an echo.

The other challenge to Wright’s reading is that if it is correct, then Paul has cited a passage about the deliverance of “all Israel” that scandalously reinterprets “Israel” and, in the citation, “Jacob,” as referring to Gentiles.

While this is possible, and there might be evidence for it from elsewhere in Paul’s letters, such a reading cuts against the grain of the argument in ch. 11. As Paul goes on, in verses 28 and following, for example, he continues to keep Israel and the Gentiles distinct. “According to the gospel, they (Israel) are enemies for your (Gentiles’) sake, but according to election, they (Israel) are beloved because of the fathers.”

Such a reading sacrifices what the parousia interpretation has seen more clearly: Paul is, in fact, talking about the salvation of ethnic Israel.

So how are we to take this citation? Here is where we need to step back and take stock of the larger narrative unfolding in Isaiah’s prophecy.

C. Interlude: Isaiah’s Story and Paul’s Problem

Isaiah 59 addresses Israel as they are failing to live in a manner pleasing to God: No, God’s arm is not too short to save, but your iniquities have hidden his face from you (Isa 59:1-2).

So God must come to the place where there is no justice and act to restore justice on his own initiative. God will repay adversaries, requite those who have opposed (Isa 59:15-18). The culmination is YHWH’s arrival in Zion (the deliverer comes, in the LXX, for the sake of Zion, ἕνεκεν Σιων) to bless those who turn from transgression.

It is from here that Isaiah moves to proclaim that in the midst of darkness Israel’s God has shone on it (Isa 60:1ff.) That is a summary of ch. 59. And the result of this glorification, in turn, is that the kings stream to Zion’s light (Isa 60:3).

Thus, the narrative of Isaiah runs from sin to God’s glorification of Zion to the drawing of the nations (and scattered Israel) to the bright and shining city.

This, in fact, outlines the very problem Paul is wrestling with in Romans 11: Israel is unrighteous and in need of deliverance. However, in contrast to the story that Isaiah tells, Paul sees that God is delivering the Gentiles, and that this glorification of the nations will be the means by which God draws in Israel.

D. Option C: Narrative Transformation: From Gentiles to Israel

The story as Paul is experiencing it is precisely backwards from the story Isaiah tells.

We see this clearly in vv. 11-14 of Rom. 11.

Paul writes, salvation comes to the Gentiles to make Israel Jealous (v. 11)
Further, he writes that their transgression leads to Gentile inclusion, which should be magnified when Israel is fully embraced (v. 12)
He claims to magnify his Gentile ministry to provoke Israel to jealousy and save some of them (vv. 13-14).

Throughout this earlier paragraph in ch. 11, Paul prophesies that the means of Israel’s reembrace by God is going to be the ingathering of the Gentiles.

Further, after the paragraph we are most concerned with, Paul makes the same argument:

Because of their disobedience, you Gentiles have now been shown mercy, so also they have been disobedient in the face of your receiving mercy in order that they, too may also be shown mercy.

The narrative Paul tells of his own ministry is one in which glorified Gentiles lead to the salvation of ethnic Israel rather than vice versa.

Returning to his citation of Isaiah 59:20, then, we find, first, that it is supposed to be supporting this very same narrative: “A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved.” How will Israel be saved? Through the glorification of the Gentiles. As it is written, “The deliverer will go forth out of Zion, he will turn aside impiety from Jacob.”

The slight shift of the preposition from ἕνεκεν to ἐκ transforms Isaiah from a problem into the prophet of his own ministry. The deliverer does not come for Zion’s sake, and then draw the nations to a glorified Israel as Isaiah would have it. The deliverer goes forth out of Zion to the Gentiles, and then Jacob will have its time of purification.

Paul’s is a hermeneutic of narrative transformation. The larger story from that portion of Isaiah is crucial for understanding what is going on, but it is not determinative for Paul’s usage. The current reality, being experienced in the wake of the Christ event, transforms Isaiah’s narrative in light of what is happening in Paul’s work and in his churches.

And to this extent, the hermeneutic on offer here is in keeping with the broad outlines proposed by Frances Watson when he says that “Paul’s rereading of scripture is determined by his single apostolic preoccupation with the Christ-event, which must be interpreted through the lens of the scriptural witness.” There is a circular process involved, in which the OT narrative gives shape to what Paul says about Christ, but the Christ-even also causes a significantly transformed rereading of the OT text.

Thus far, the divining. Can we cast some methodological mold from this that will enable us to recreate such readings elsewhere?

II. (One Possible) Narrative Theory: A. J. Greimas’ Actantial Model

Greimas outlines three general phases, but they can be multiplied to account for a more complex narrative.

a. Initial Sequence
First is more of a statement of intention, an expected “story” that does not actually materialize and thus causes the drama. Here is what we might say for Isaiah 59-60:

God wants to use Israel to send his shining glory to the nations.

b. Topical Sequence
In the second step, the drama of the story unfolds, bringing the transformation needed to enable the story to resolve. Often, this will involve the sender bringing about some transformation in the protagonist so that the protagonist can accomplish its mission:

God becomes the deliverer in order to purify Zion

c. Final Sequence
In the third step, we should have, largely, a repetition of the first, since the hindrances to the original storyline have now been overcome. In fact, I would suggest that at times we only know the “initial sequence” once we see the “final sequence”—it’s only at the end that we know what the point was for the story as a whole.

In Isaiah 59-60, since God has purified Israel, it is now capable of fulfilling its original mission:

God brings all people into his glory

These diagrams can perhaps help us register afresh the shock of the claims Paul is making, and indeed why the entirety of Romans is given to a defense of God precisely as the God of Israel who has spoken through the scriptures, despite what is unfolding in and around Paul’s ministry.

Paul is experiencing a topical sequence that does not bring about the glorification of Israel through the deliverer, but instead, the glorification of the Gentiles through his mission:

And the final sequence he anticipates is not that God will glorify the nations through the glorification of Israel, but that Israel will be glorified by the inclusion of the Gentiles:

Paul’s revision of Isaiah 59:20, then, transforms the verse’s narrative by recasting both Israel and the Gentiles, and, perhaps, by casting Paul’s own mission in the role of the deliverer, or, at least, in the role of “helper”:

This is what I describe as Paul’s hermeneutic of narrative transformation. By changing the preposition Paul has changed the story. Now, the deliverer comes not for sake of Zion, unto the in-gathering of the nations, but goes out from Zion, unto the eventual rescue of Israel.

First, there is a transformation. Key roles are reassigned such that, in the end, even the subject is being played by the original recipient of deliverance—and vice versa.

Paul does not cite the verse in keeping with its original context. And, in case you are wondering, yes there are NT scholars who think that the NT writers, including Paul, cite the OT in keeping with its grammatical-historical interpretation, or a “canonical contextual” approach that uses the whole Bible as the “context” so as to avoid the conclusion that the text has been significantly reinterpreted. Our analysis indicates that such an assessment is unlikely to be sustainable.

Second, even if Paul is talking about God’s act as deliverer to save Israel, such that the parousia is in view, he is no longer telling the same story. In this case, the larger narrative flow of Isaiah has been abandoned altogether. If this is the story of the parousia, then the purpose of the coming deliverer is to purify Israel as the final step to create God’s people, not as the topical sequence by which Israel will itself fulfill the role of drawing all the nations to God.

Third, however, the narrative is important. It lays out the terms by which we can understand the role of the new actor. In this case, it seems that Israel’s role in being God’s means of salvation for the other is being played, throughout Romans 11, by the Gentiles.

Once such a surprising reversal of roles becomes evident, it mitigates the likelihood that the citation in Romans 11:25-26 is, as Wright claims, a polemical redefinition of Israel. Wright has correctly keyed into the fact that Israel’s role is being played by the Gentiles.

However, the way that “all Israel is saved,” tied as it is to the entry of the full number of Gentiles, is not that “all Israel” comes to mean Jews and Gentiles, but that Gentiles now play the role of the helper by whom Israel is drawn into God’s glory. The deliverer goes forth out of Zion first, and then turns to remove ungodliness from Jacob.

In Paul’s hermeneutic of narrative transformation, the Christ event, including his own work as an apostle to encompass the nations within it, causes him to reread the OT stories from which he draws his scriptural citations.

What does such a description of Paul’s hermeneutic get us? On the positive side of the ledger, it can tell us for sure that the narrative structures within which his citations are found are important but not determinative. In particular, roles are recast, and surprises occur at the level of who is serving as a helper and who is serving as an opponent in bringing the story to its conclusion.

Further, it helps us spot certain dead-ends, OT storylines that do not come to their anticipated resolution. We might think, for example, of those alternate possibilities in Second and Third Isaiah, where the Gentiles are subjected to Israel as servants or destroyed.

Also, as we have seen here, plotting the narrative sequence of the citation as it occurs in Paul’s letter can help guide us in discovering an interpretation of the OT text that had not previously been explored and that makes a great deal of sense in the context.

Its limitation, of course, is that it can never be entirely prescriptive. While recognizing narrative transformation might provide us with some new parameters and matrices to aid in the continuing struggle to make sense of Paul’s relationship with the OT in general and, perhaps, the Law in particular, affirming a hermeneutic of narrative transformation points us to a particular playing field without necessarily telling us beforehand how the game will unfold.

Nonetheless, it does hold promise for opening our eyes to interpretive possibilities we might have missed. We turn now to Romans 15 to assess one such possibility.

3. Romans 15:1-3

Romans 15:1-3 reads as follows, with a citation of Psalm 68:10 coming at the end:

    We, the strong ones, have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and to not please ourselves. Each one of us strong ones should please our neighbor for good, unto our neighbor’s edification. For even Christ did not please himself, but just as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell upon me.”

On the one hand, this passage is simple.

Paul commands the strong to bear the weakness of the other (v. 1):

This, he says, is an imitation of Jesus who bore reproach on behalf of another, quoting Psalm 68 (Rom 15:3):

Thus, to imitate Jesus, as the OT envisions Jesus’ work, is to play the role of insult-bearer. Christians are called to do what Jesus did, to take his part in the story. And, as they do, they can hope for the new life that Jesus himself was given.

Associating Jesus with the speaker of this psalm, and those who reject or persecute him with the psalmist’s enemies, is standard fare.
The first part of the verse in question is cited by John immediately after the temple clearing incident. The disciples remember that it’s written, “Zeal for your house consumes me.” Perhaps more to the point,
Paul in Romans 11 associates the opponents in this Davidic Psalm with unbelieving Israel of his own day: “Let their table be a snare for them, let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever” (Psalm 68.22-23, LXX).

But the reading I’ve just given, in which we hear the words of this psalm in the mouth of Jesus, and then holding him up for imitation, is problematized when we examine the context of the verse in the psalm. And perhaps here we can begin to see the need for some methodological direction.

In the psalm, the expectation is that God is going to rescue the Davidic king from all his tribulations so that the king can fulfill his charge to be God’s instrument by which Zion will be saved, and the cities of Judah rebuilt.

God is supposed to be the helper who enables the king to fulfill this task. Thus the initial and final sequence should looks something like this:

But in this intermediate stage of the story, what we find instead is that the king is absorbing the insults directed to God Thus, the Psalmist suggests that he is living out a counter-narrative, a story in which God’s enemies occupy the powerful place of sender, victimizing God Himself through the agency of the king:

In this story, what needs to change in order for the intended plot to find its resolution is not for the king to become the pious person he is supposed to be, but for YHWH to change into the kind of sender who provides the help needed to bring his own story to its intended culmination.

This is a daring move of adopting the interpretive grid of the king’s opponents in an effort to move God to act on the king’s behalf.

The narrative that Paul cites is not one in which God has sent a deliverer to bear the scorn of the people, a la Isaiah 53, it is one in which the deliverer bears the reproach flung upon God himself as God’s people act in faithfulness.

This raises the question, then: what does Paul mean by assigning to Jesus a psalm in which the speaker bears the reproach directed at the other who is not a human, but God? And what does he mean by holding this up as the standard for the Romans’ communal practice?

One common option is to recognize the referent in the psalm but to maintain that Paul still intends to hold up Jesus as a model for being a faithful protagonist sent by God to bear the reproach directed at one’s Christian siblings. This is essentially the route taken by Douglas Moo and Frank Matera.

Thus, to bear the weaknesses of the weak is to imitate Jesus in bearing the reproaches of God. God has created this people, God has put God’s name on it. How the community treats one another, especially in the matter of both Jews and Gentiles accepting the other as co-equal members of the family, is indicative of their participation in the scorn heaped on the God of the Christ event.

Generally, we might say, to be baptized into Christ is not only to be made into a little Christ, bearing his image and recapitulating his redemptive suffering, it is also to therefore bear the name of God the father. Thus, to look in the eyes of a brother or sister is to behold the God who has adopted him or her into God’s family.

A general call may be in place here to continue in faithful allegiance to siblings even when our faithfulness to them is the cause of both their and our reproach.

It seems that Paul has rewritten the narrative of the psalm by recasting its roles: in a striking turn, not only do Christians occupy the place of Christ as his fellow sufferers. Members of the community also occupy the place of YHWH, bearing his name and manifesting here on earth the contempt of the Father who has adopted them into His family.

Another track, however, is suggested by James Dunn.

To say that the crucifixion is the reproach Jesus bore is not yet to say whether it is, as the passage is most often read, the reproach that should have fallen on people, or the reproach that Jesus bore for acting in the name of God.

Dunn suggests, if tentatively, that the reproaches arising from traditionalist Jews against the Christian movement’s claim that the God of Jews and Gentiles has accepted all on the basis of faith, is a reproach against the name of God itself.

In the specific argument of Romans we might press further and suggest that the direct address to the Gentile “strong” continues here. Might the hints throughout the letter that the Gentiles are developing a superiority complex be in play here, as well? If we assign the roles of the Psalm with that idea in mind we discover this:

The final admonition to accept one another calls the Gentile believers in Rome to realize, one final time, that God has bound himself inseparably to ethnic Israel. Those who cling to this identity, even to being “weak in faith” so as to avoid certain foods and to observe certain days, are also those upon whom God has placed God’s name.

The running issue of the letter, as it defends the name of God in the light of Gentile acceptance of the Messiah sent by Abraham’s God, comes together here as Paul not only invites his non-Torah-observant readers to honor those who keep the Law, but to see such Law-keepers as uniquely aligned with God in the drama of salvation.

The Topical Sequence as told in Psalm 68:10 is a provocative false-telling of the story of God’s messiah. It is an intervening counter-story that would derail the story as we learn of its initial and final sequence from elsewhere, that God is going to bring salvation to Zion by means of the king.

The pleas of the psalm are meant to get help from God, the sender, to deliver the king. The true topical sequence, then, is something like this:

With God himself intervening to deliver the king, the king in turn can bring about the salvation of Zion for which God appointed him. In fact, these two things will come about together, as the deliverance of the king will entail the deliverance of Zion.

In Romans, a parallel applies, with God delivering Jesus from death at the resurrection:

And this, in turn, is the means by which God brings deliverance (again, not to Zion itself, but) to the nations:

Here we can once again apply our hermeneutic of narrative transformation to explore other possible ramifications for the Gentiles’ being associated with Jesus in this story.

For the gentiles, then, to be willing to play the role of the maligned Christ in the false counter-narrative, is to act in faith that God will bring them the same deliverance already brought about for Christ.

And this, in turn, will make them partners in bringing about the salvation, hope, and unity that God has in store for Israel and the Gentiles together:

So when we get to verse 4 and read, “Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope,” we must not separate this from the Christological conditioning given in the previous verses, by which the scripture becomes ammenable as a source of hope; we must not separate it from the subsequent prayer that the God who gives perseverance and encouragement makes the people single-minded, so that with one accord and one voice they may glorify God the father.

The unity they express when the Gentiles are willing to take on the scorn heaped upon their Jewish brothers and sisters plays the same role in the story as the death of Christ in not only bearing the scorn of God but also bearing fruit in one unified people praising God, which is the ultimate “final sequence” as Paul tells it.

This being Christ for one another as Christ was for God, confirming the promises of God given to the fathers, and becoming Gentiles who glorify God with God’s people, is the vision with which the letter comes to its final climactic moment: the Gentiles come to hope in the resurrected root of Jesse—and in this God grants ultimate hope to all people.

Conclusion
Bringing our hermeneutic of narrative transformation with us, we have opened up a suggestive window through which to see an added depth of theological possibility. Although a psalm is not a narrative, and for that matter neither is Paul’s letter to Rome, both depend on narrative dynamics to make their points. And, it is in transforming the narratives that Paul’s audience is drawn into the story and encouraged to understand the work of God in light of the Christ event.

In both examples, the clearest implication has to do with what the OT citation is not: it is not a simple reiteration of the meaning of the verse from its original context.

However, the OT narrative structure provides a story that illuminates the NT passage and has the power to transform it—but that power works both ways. The NT passage is not constrained by the meaning of the Old, but is transformed by it. And the OT passage is transformed in its new context as well.

7 thoughts on “Hermeneutics of Narrative Transformation”

  1. Fascinating. You anticipated my first question towards the end when you said “though a Psalm is not narrative…” Isn’t the same true for Isaiah? Even the canonical text of Isaiah as a whole is more like commentary on a narrative than itself a narrative.

    Second question: I know your narrative method tries to move beyond critical exegesis of the text, but if we acknowledge two or three “Isaiahs” writing at different times for different purposes, doesn’t this further undermine the “narrative” reading of Isaiah? So really, the canonical text of Isaiah is like a library of at least two or three different sets of midrashic commentaries on the Torah story…. And if the canonical text of Isaiah is a sort of set of midrashim on Israel’s history, then maybe Rabbi Paul’s text is an addition to that midrashic tradition?

    1. Yes, the same is true for Isaiah. But the prophecy is supposed to unfold in a certain way, nonetheless. There is a narrative of Israel and God in which God acts to purify and then glorify Israel and draw in the scattered & the nations. So it’s prophetic, but a prophecy that tells a story about the future in some sense.

      No, I don’t think that multiple authorship affects the narrative dynamics. To be sure, multiple authorship might make us attuned to the likelihood of multiple or even competing and contradictory narratives within the text. But this does not change the fact that there are anticipations that God will do x which results in y so that ultimately result z will be achieved–even if x, y, and z vary from text to text. I’m not arguing for an overall metanarrative to Isaiah, but for one telling of Israel’s hopes.

      Further, since Paul would not have been interested in sources or interpolations or multiple authorship, the question of how he is reading and transforming the text is not affected by modern scholarly consensus on this point.

      But all of that is not to deny that if one wanted to give a forward-moving-in-time account of Isaiah that multiple layers of midrash on Isaiah’s prophecy might be a profitable way to proceed.

      My concern, however, was to see how the Isaiah Paul was citing is transformed in his hands. This sidelines some of those questions that would need to be answered in a “history of Isaiainic interpretation” type agenda.

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