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(13) When the Law Becomes The satan
The apostle Paul had a problem before he became Paul, while he was still known as Saul: he was zealous, extremely zealous. Laying out his street creds in Philippians 3:4-6 he says that when it came to zeal he was a top-notch, A-One lover of Torah. He went so far that in his thinking he had to “persecute the church.” He loved Torah and that love led him to take as his model Phineas, the proto-typical zealot whose story is told in Numbers 25. God (El) had told Moses to “impale all the chiefs of the people in the sun before El, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel” (25:4). One poor bloke brought his lovely Midianite wife into their tent and whilst having a quickie before dinner, suddenly found Phineas busting through the camel skin, spear in hand. He proceeded to ruin their sex life by driving a spear through them both.
Now El (God) was so pleased with this that he turned away his fierce wrath from Israel due to Phineas’ “manifesting such zeal among Israel on my behalf” (25:10). It didn’t end there though. God granted Phineas his own personal “covenant of peace” and “a perpetual priesthood” (25:12-13). So if God is angry at the people because of their sin how do you get God to bless you? You go kill anyone you think is offending God (sounds like some Fundamentalist American Christians today, doesn’t it). The story doesn’t end there for Phineas made it into Israel’s rock and roll songbook and you can just hear his tale kareoked “Then Phineas stood up and interceded/and the plague was stopped/and that has been reckoned to him as righteousness/from generation to generation forever” (Psalm 106:30-31). At the time of the Maccabean revolution in 167 B.C.E., as the elder Matthias Maccabee lay dying he extolled the greatest heroes of Israel’s faith citing Abraham who was “found faithful when tested and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”, then he extols Joseph, and then Phineas who “because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of everlasting priesthood” (I Macc. 2:51-54).
Does any of this language sound familiar? It should. The entire letter to the Galatians is built around the problem of what happens when Torah is interpreted through the lens of zeal. When Paul refers to Abraham in Galatians 3:6 should we think of Phineas as the contrast? Yes! Immediately Paul goes on to cite Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all things written in the book of the Law.” If God curses you, then you are fair game here below for others to do with you as they please and that usually means getting rid of you. If you are perceived as a law-breaker, and if by your violating Torah you bring God’s wrath down upon the nation, it is essential to get rid of you, for you are sin, and must be purged. A zealous interpretation of Torah brings death and destruction in its wake. This is the second problem Paul has with the law (the first being that it fuels sinful tendencies as we saw in the previous post).
For the zealot, the law is an accusatory instrument. It is used satanically in order to justify violence against the perceived violator, the sinner, the heretic, the law-breaker. This is why Paul could say he was the most zealous person he knew. What he is saying in other words in his confession in Philippians 3 is that he was the most satanic person he knew, the one who, like the Attorney General in the Prologue to Job, went about looking for those evil law-breakers, and he found them in the early Jesus movement followers. How far did Paul go, he consented to the lynching of Stephen. That was a righteous act as far as he was concerned. This satanic accusatory perspective blinded Saul/Paul and it still blinds people today, including sadly, Christians.
Paul’s beef is not with the Torah as a set of guidelines, but as a means of exclusivity, of marginalization, of torture, and of death. This is why Paul can tell the Corinthians that the Torah was a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9) or that “the letter kills” (3:6), and not just metaphorically or spiritually but literally. Every Christian justification for war, violence, subjugation, or torture comes from this misreading of Torah. What was meant as life is, because of our misguided interpretation, death itself.
The zealous interpretation of the law, an interpretive model which dominated most of the groups in Paul’s time (and which Peter and James would follow), is, and always has been, the problem. There is one text that connects these two: the Law as an accusatory instrument and the satan and it is found in Colossians 2:13-15: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.” Never does Paul (or any New Testament writer) say that God put our sins on Jesus or that our sins were nailed to the cross. No! It is the accusatory instrument which is nailed to Jesus’ cross; it is the “principality and power” which is unmasked and disarmed so that it may never have power over us. It is this way that Jesus overcomes sin and the devil in his crucifixion. Jesus’ death was a supreme act of zealous behavior on the part of the Jewish “authorities” and an act of cowardice by the Roman ones. This is what gets exposed in the death of the innocent wandering preacher from Galilee.