09j. Excursus: Additional "Tough Phrasing" (covers 3:13, 14, 17, 18)

09j. Excursus: Additional "Tough Phrasing" (covers 3:13, 14, 17, 18)

3:13, 14 - Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Comments:  There are golden moments when the best interpretation of Scripture is Scripture.  This verse seems to find a parallel in Chapter 4.  Allow me to quote verses 4-6 from that location:

“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father."”

The impact of Christ redeeming those who name his name for salvation from the curse of the law in 3:13 bears a striking similarity to 4:4 and the first part of 4:5 “…to redeem those under the law.”  We shall explore the furthering parallels to 4:4-6 when that passage arrives below.  For now, let us focus on 3:13.  That we have previously defined the term “under the law” in some contexts as a position reserved for those whose hearts have not received messianic regeneration is key to understanding Paul’s phrase “the curse of the law.”  I understand them to be tandem phrases at times.  That is, the person who lives “under the curse of the law” surely lives “under the law” as well.  Both phrases describe a position of ill favor and eventual punishment by God.  Under the law in some passaged used by Paul speaks of existing under the condemnation that Torah pronounces against persistent sinners.  Thus, in the economy of the Torah community of ancient Isra’el, to live under the curses instead of under the blessings was to be recognized by God as living in sin and disobedience to his mitzvot (commandments).  In other places of Paul’s letters, under the law seems to simply refer to Jewish identity (cf. Gal. 4:21).  Surely Moshe instructed the Jewish people that obedience invited God’s blessings, while continual and unremorseful disobedience invited God’s curses.[1]  But Messiah did not merely redeem our physical lives from diminishment of blessing if we failed to perform the Words of Torah; Yeshua actually redeemed both body and soul from the ultimate curse pronounced upon the individual who failed to graduate to genuine lasting faith in the Giver of the Torah, a redemption spoken of in legal terms throughout the Apostolic Scriptures.  The plain sense of the verse is not confusing: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Torah.  He did not redeem us from the Torah itself.

But in what way did Messiah “become a curse” for us?  Quite simply, Yeshua was put forth as the propitiation for our sins when he died on the cross.  As the sinless sacrifice, the Father deemed it necessary to place the corporate sin of the world upon his Son so that his Righteousness might be vindicated in the biblical truth that “the wages of sin is death.”[2]  The word “cursed” in the quote from Deuteronomy 21:22-23 “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” only stands to reinforce the Levitical notion that the sacrifice truly bears the weight of the sin imparted to it.  To be sure, if there was found no substitute for the party guilty of a capital offence, then he was to be hanged as a sign that God had deemed him cursed.  In the mystery of the Godhead, Yeshua, the sinless Lamb of God, became the object of such punishment on behalf of those who name his name for salvation.  He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf.[3] 

As pertinent a fact as this is for every sinner, there is likely, however, a more contextual and specific 1st century use of the phrase “curse of the law” found in 3:13, as explained by James D.G. Dunn, which I will quote at length for my commentary here:

Verses 13-14 ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse on our behalf – as it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21.23 with 27.26) – in order that the blessing of Abraham might come in Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, in order that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’.

The thought clearly refers back to verse 10, as the formulation of the scriptural passage to aline it with the Scripture quoted in verse 10 confirms. Paul must intend the ‘curse of the law’ to be understood in the light of verse 10. That is to say, the curse of the law is not simply the condemnation which falls on any transgression and on all who fall short of the laws requirements. Paul has it in mind that the specific short-fall of his typical Jewish contemporary, the curse which falls on all who restrict the grace and promise of God in nationalistic terms, who treat the law as a boundary to mark the people of God off from the Gentiles, who give a false priority to ritual markers. The curse of the law here has to do primarily with that attitude which confines the covenant promise to Jews as Jews: it falls on those who live within the law in such a way as to exclude the Gentile as Gentile from the promise. This is confirmed by the second half of Paul's formulation in verses 13-14: the purpose of Christ's redemption from the curse of the law is precisely what we would (now) expect – viz. the extension of the covenant blessing to the Gentiles. The curse which was removed by Christ death therefore was the curse which had previously prevented that blessing from reaching the Gentiles, the curse of the wrong understanding of the law. It was a curse which fell primarily on the Jew (3.10; 4.5), but Gentiles were affected by it so long as that misunderstanding of the covenant and the law remained dominant. It was that curse which Jesus had brought deliverance from by his death.[4]

Dunn’s explanation seems to fit more contextually with the situation facing the 1st century Judaisms and with Paul’s reasons for writing the letter to the Galatian congregations.

3:17, 18 - What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Comments:  The first part of this passage, the mention of the promise, becomes a key element of later Pauline literature.  That God would make an unbreakable Promise to Avraham and his offspring and then bring it to pass vindicates both the Father’s competence as well as his trustworthiness.  For Paul, it is imperative that the existing covenant member understands the proper relationship of the Avrahamic Covenant to the Moshaic Covenant.  Allow me to quote Ariel and D’vorah Berkowitz,

For those who trust HaShem for the promises, the proper order for faith and obedience is set by the sequence in which the covenants were given. In other words, faith must precede obedience. But the kind of faith accepted by HaShem is one that naturally flows into obedience. True obedience never comes before faith, nor is it an addition to faith. It is always the result of true biblical faith. To rephrase this in terms of the covenants: the covenant of promise (Avraham) must come before the covenant of obedience (Moshe). If we were to put Moshe first, attempting to secure those promises by obedience, we would be going against HaShem’s order. (This, by the way, is the key to unlocking the difficult midrash used by Sha’ul in Galatians 4:21-31.) All we could hope for would be a measure of physical protection and a knowledge of spiritual things.  But we could not receive justification or a personal relationship with the Holy One through obedience to the Torah; it all had to start with faith. Avraham came before Moshe, but Moshe did not cancel out Avraham!  The two complemented each other—as long as they came in the proper order.[5]

Put plainly, far from diminishing or annulling the Abrahamic Promise, the Torah actually comes along 430 years later to support and compliment it!  Even if Christian commentators disagree with my conclusion that the Torah compliments the Abrahamic Covenant, surely they must agree with the plain sense of Paul’s words, which speak of the impossibility of the Torah doing away with the Promise to Abraham!  God did not somehow start with “salvation by faith,” move to “salvation by works,” and then switch back to salvation by faith!”  Sha’ul’s disagreement with his detractors then is seen as a difference over which order these two covenants should be placed in.  As we have learned, the order in which they appear both in Scripture as well as historically demonstrates the proper order in which their respective lessons should be actualized: Avrahamic precedes Moshaic; genuine and lasting faith in God will always precede genuine and lasting obedience to God.

Quite surely, the Influencers had the sequence backwards, placing the proverbial cart before the horse.  In such a situation, the covenant member-to-be mistakenly believed that the Promise—referred to as the “inheritance” in verse 18—sprang forth from obedience to a ritual implied by the Torah, the ritual of the proselyte.  In this order, faith results from works and human achievement.  In this order, faith in God—the Promise—is rendered non-effectual and unnecessary.  Paul would not have his talmidim (students) falling for such blatant errant theology.  The inheritance must arrive to humanity by other than human means in order for HaShem to receive his proper acknowledgment.  The son of promise (Yitz’chak) was to be born, not of human effort, but by divine fiat.  Likewise, the Messiah—the Ultimate Son of Promise—would be born of miraculous circumstances, proving his connection to the antecedent theology that God alone can secure the Promise for his children.


[1] Deuteronomy Chapters 27, 28.

[2] Romans 6:23.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[4] James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 228-229.

[5] Ariel and D’vorah Berkowitz, Torah Rediscovered (FFOZ, 1996), p. 33.

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