Exegetical Exercise

Image - harrowing of hell from St Swithun Psalter

A scene from 12th century imagination: Jesus drags the dead out of the mouth of hell

The Uniform Series text for this coming Sunday is Galatians 5:1-17:

(1) For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
(2) Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. (3) Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey* the entire law. (4) *You have cut yourselves off from Christ, you who want to be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace* (5) For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.* (6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
(7) You were running well; who prevented you from obeying* the truth? Such persuasion* does not come from the one who calls you. (9) A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. (10) I am confident* about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. (11) But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. (12) I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
(13) For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for [the flesh], but through love become slaves to one another. (14) For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (15) If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
(16)Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not [fulfill] the desires of the flesh. (17) For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing* what you want.

Here are my notes:

“For freedom Christ has set us free!” Love it!! Note the “us” – whoever “we” are, it includes Paul. And maybe the “you-all” to whom he is writing. But that may depend. “We” won’t show up again until 5:25, conditionally: “if we live by the Spirit …” Here, it follows on “we are children not of the slave but of the free woman” (4:31), the conclusion of the wild allegory of Sarah/Zion/heavenly Jerusalem/freedom//Hagar/Mt. Sinai/Jerusalem/slavery, which is not the text of the day thank God. Still, (1) makes about as much sense as a conclusion to the end of chapter 4, maybe more, as it does a beginning of chapter 5. So maybe it’s a segue.

There are several suggestive repetitions, which are obscured in the English translation. One is the echo of “the whole law” or “the entire law,” from verse 3 (where it’s a burden) to verse 14 (where it’s encompassed by the principle “love your neighbor as yourself”). The sense of “the law” seems to shift from (3) to (14), too. In (3) the emphasis seems to be on performance (circumcision, whatever else falls into that category, and whatever we want to label “that category” – ritual? procedural? purity? ethnic identification/boundary maintenance? Nothing seems ideal). In (14) the emphasis seems to be on the ethical dimension of the law.

Second is the nature of the “obeying” in (3) and the identical “doing” in (17), both of which are forms of Greek poieō – I always look up when I see this verb, with its connotations of making, creating, or bringing into being by doing. We might want to say something like “living out” in both places.

Third is the echo of dikaios – righteousness/justice – in (3-4), where “justification” and “righteousness” both include that root. Verse 4 is a nifty Greek sentence where the wish to be justified by the law interrupts a parallelism that puts “Christ” in the same position as “grace,” so the separation from something results in a falling away – metaphorical? And in effect, it’s separation/falling away from Christ/grace.

Fourth, the peithōs in (7-10); peithō can mean persuade, convince, it can shade over into cajole, mislead, and in the passive it can mean obey or follow (so, still hanging onto the sense of being persuaded to …), so it creates an effect in which they were persuaded of the “truth” but were hindered in following this; the “persuasion” that has hindered them doesn’t come from “the one who called them” – by implication, and comparing 1:15 and 5:13, God through grace/Christ – and on the other hand, Paul has been persuaded/convinced in “the Lord” (Christ) about them (a note of hopefulness, and now he’s about to lay the blame for all this confusion on the ones who have been confusing the Galatians – way to let the audience off the hook?).

There is something about (13-14) that is vaguely reminiscent of the liberation from Egypt, and the giving of law; that episode was understood as freedom, and commitment to the law; now in (14) Paul after all this talk about being enslaved to the law and not wanting that for the Galatians reveals that he is actually advocating a form of enslavement, to the whole law – the whole law that is summed up as “love your neighbors as yourselves,” so it amounts to becoming slaves to one another. So, he’s preaching a slavery (love) that is elsewhere equated with freedom. [There is something paradoxical about this, but it also makes sense – maybe it’s a coincidence that today is Valentine’s Day? If I do something for my daughter, or my partner, because I love them … sometimes there is no discernible difference between “having” to and “wanting” to … I could equally truthfully say “I had to do that, for her” and “I wanted to do that, for her.” The difference between the imperative of “slavery” and the imperative of “love” is subjectively real and significant, but it might not be operationally, behaviorally observable.]

Finally, (16-17) really seem to be changing the subject. Or maybe the subject started to change back in (13), freedom, which is “walking” in the Spirit and making what you want … ambiguous, because do “you” want what the Spirit wants, or what “the flesh” (about which lots of commentary … we know, not = “the body” but rather that which is not informed by the Spirit, maybe including what we would think of as “social and cultural conditioning” or “feelings”) craves? So then, depending on which “you” want, either the Spirit or the flesh is preventing “you” from just going flat out in that direction.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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