Tag Archives: Romans 11

What is the Romans 11 Olive Tree?

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

Romans 11:17-24 (NASB)

I’m writing this “morning meditation” just to preserve something I know I’ll forget if I don’t document it (as I get older, I find that my memory is becoming somewhat “leaky”).

I want to talk about trees.

Actually, I want to talk about one specific tree, an olive tree, the one Paul mentioned in the above-quoted portion of his Holy epistle to the Romans.

What in the world does that tree represent? Some of the common responses are “Israel,” “Judaism” or the “Jewish people,” or maybe “Jesus,” although that last suggestion doesn’t exactly make sense from the Jewish point of view given that the tree has existed for as long as the Jews have existed if they are natural branches.

ancient_olive_treeI discovered (or maybe rediscovered, given the “leakiness” of my memory) a plausible answer, one that is in fact more plausible than any I’ve suggested above.

The first element to understand is that this tree represents all those who share faith in HaShem, who trust Him. Verse 20 is the key that shows the definition of this tree, because unbelief is the mechanism that breaks a branch off of the tree, and faith is the mechanism by which one remains on the tree. At one time, the only branches on that tree were the natural native ones, which is to say Jews. The cultivation of that tree represents the principles of the Torah covenant that inculcated faith into the entire culture of the Jewish people – thus Jews were a people who had been acculturated to the notion of faith or trust. Being broken off of the tree refers to a loss of faith or a rejection of it. Being grafted onto the tree represents acquiring faith (or regaining it if it had been lost or rejected). Wild branches represent non-Jews from cultures that were not acculturated to faith in HaShem. They were not naturally accustomed to it, but they could learn faith by means of the teachings of Rav Yeshua and thus be “grafted” onto the tree of faith to which they were not native, “contrary to nature” (meaning by means of deliberate intervention by a gardener). The sap of the tree must then represent the nourishment of Torah knowledge, perspective, and insight that Jews have cultivated for many centuries to elaborate the meaning of a life of faith. The root of the tree is thus the source of this nourishment, the Torah.

-a comment of Proclaim Liberty from
June 15, 2015 at 4:06 a.m on my blog post What am I, Chopped Liver?

That’s only part of PL’s rather lengthy missive, but it does serve to illustrate that, from his perspective, the Romans 11 tree isn’t Judaism, the Jewish people, or even Israel. The olive tree is a metaphor for faith and trust.

I provided a link above that points directly to PL’s comment so you can read the content in full (or re-read it given the current context). Frankly, I’ve puzzled over the nature of this tree for more hours than I care to think about without coming to a conclusion. I ended up setting the matter aside, figuring the answer would land in my lap eventually.

I think it finally has.

Of course, given the mention of the Torah being the nourishment the tree provides both to the natural (Jewish) and grafted in (Gentile) branches, what’s to prevent someone from concluding that both types of branches are equally obligated to the mitzvot?

PL responses to this in part:

Now, this analogy doesn’t quite answer the questions about Torah observance for non-Jews, though Acts 15 offers a starting point to differentiate between two discipleship types, and perhaps it also explains Rav Shaul’s reference to two different versions of gospel: one addressed to the circumcised, and the other to the uncircumcised (viz:Gal.2:7), neither of which is to be dismissed as merely so much “chopped liver”. [:)] It may be suggested, however, that an acculturation to faith certainly does occur as wild branches reside on the tree and absorb Torah nutrients, and receive treatment from the Gardener (e.g., pruning) comparable to that given the native branches. Moreover, by faith does it become possible to set aside insecurities, so as to enable facing the discomfort of working to distinguish between applications of Torah which apply to everyone (including wild branches) and those which apply only to someone else (i.e., only to the native ones). We can also consider what might be the implications for this analogy in the present era when so many wild branches come from cultures that have been already at least partially accustomed to the notion of faith in G-d, even if that faith has been contaminated with views that are contrary to Torah or Jews or Judaism or related notions.

James and the ApostlesActs 15:21 hints at the responsibility for non-Jews to learn Torah, even after it had just been clarified that their legal obligations to specific performance were very limited. Why then to learn? I would suggest that making the distinctions I described in the above paragraph requires a depth of Torah understanding, because even common principles of Torah might result in different praxis for Jews and for non-Jews to obey. For example, I recently was looking closely at the text of Is.56 (vs.2&6) to consider the characteristics of how the “foreigner”, who is being commended by HaShem for clinging to His covenant, actually approaches the Shabbat. He is described only as keeping from profaning it; whereas Jews are elsewhere commanded to actually sanctify it and guard it. This suggests some sort of difference in the specific behaviors associated with it. I’m still grappling with what that may mean, and how gentile obedience and compliance to this may thus differ from what I know as my Jewish responsibilities and praxis. But it does show that what constitutes obedience for one may be disobedience if another tries to do the same rather than what is appropriate to his or her categorical situation.

I know this is really long by Internet standards, but there is a lot of good information to absorb here. I think (my opinion) that PL is describing how complex and nuanced the Gentile’s “grafted-in-ness” is. There’s no easy black-and-white answer as to who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing as non-Jewish disciples, except that it’s not identical to what observant Jews are supposed to be doing.

We have clues, hints, and starting points, but I think it’s up to us to struggle with how we’re going to build our lives on the foundation of the Bible, and particularly how the Apostolic Scriptures present the lives of non-Jews in Messiah.

I just didn’t want to lose track of the very concept of the Romans 11 tree as a metaphor for Faith and Trust. Lack of faith may get a natural branch knocked off the tree temporarily, but it doesn’t turn a Jew into a non-Jew. Nothing can do that. Being grafted into the tree does not turn a Gentile into a Jew. We’ll always be Gentiles. It also doesn’t turn us into Israelites. Only Jews are Israel.

But being grafted in means we’ve come to faith in Hashem, the God of Israel, and we are nourished by the principles of Torah as applied to the Goyim.

faithI’m not writing this to present an answer or declare some amazing Biblical insight (particularly because the insight isn’t even mine). I’m just putting this here as another piece of the puzzle of our lives in God that may help to fill in the picture.

Oh, one more thing:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Romans 11:25-29

Immediately after writing “if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?”, Paul goes into how Israel’s “hardening” is only partial, that is, temporary, and will only last until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Then “The Deliverer will come from Zion” and “remove ungodliness from Jacob” so that “all of Israel will be saved.”

This is clearly New Covenant language and, as I’ve said many times before, I believe God will truly redeem all of Israel just as He promised. Paul was telling the Gentiles not to let being “grafted in” go to their (our) heads. The olive tree of faith has belonged to the Jews from the beginning. Any of the natural branches knocked off temporarily for the sake of the Gentiles, for our sake, will all be rejoined to the tree by Messiah. Even in being knocked off, temporarily losing the “faith connection,” it was done for the sake of the nations, so we owe a debt of gratitude, even to those Jews who currently reject the notion that Yeshua could possibly be the Messiah. That’s the majority of Jews across the past twenty centuries. Without their temporary absence from the root (and who is to say how absent they are since they cleave with great faith to Hashem), there would be no room for us.

Any Christian or non-Jew who calls themselves a “Messianic Gentile” or “Messianic whatever” who also disdains non-believing (let alone believing) Jews is guilty of ingratitude, not only to Israel but to God who arranged it all. Remember, the “promises are irrevocable.”

Let that sink in.

Romans 11:25 and the Healing of Calloused Wounds

palms of a elderly woman, isolated on black copyspace, grain addedIn spite of Paul’s explicit effort to check prideful attitudes toward Jews among the non-Jews to whom he writes in Rome, a negative characterization of Jews naturally arises from Paul’s use of πώρωσις in Romans 11:25, which is typically translated “hardening,” and thus, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” (NRSV), or “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel” (NASB). Whether translated to indicate that only some Israelites have been hardened, as in the NRSV, or that Israel itself has been hardened to some degree, as in the NASB, commentators also regularly conflate this reference to hardness with God’s hardening of the heart of Pharaoh–although Paul does not refer to the heart of Israelites being hardened. A negative judgment of the condition of the Jewish other is thereby perpetuated, however unwittingly, within an interpretive discourse surrounded by language designed to argue against just such hostile assessments of their condition.

‘Callused,’ Not ‘Hardened’: Paul’s Revelation of Temporary Protection Until All Israel Can Be Healed (PDF), pp 1-2
by Mark D. Nanos, Rockhurst University, Paper Presented at the Central States SBL, St. Louis, March 22, 2010

I found a link to this paper at another blog a few days ago and went through Nanos’ treatment of this short section of Romans 11. I’m glad I did. I won’t go through all of the content (although I suppose I could since it’s only 34 pages), but I want to draw attention to the “hardness” of Israel as is described in most Bible translations of Romans 11:25.

As Nanos says, “commentators also regularly conflate this reference to hardness with God’s hardening of the heart of Pharaoh–although Paul does not refer to the heart of Israelites being hardened. A negative judgment of the condition of the Jewish other is thereby perpetuated…”

“Hard-hearted Israel” gets a bum rap in Nanos’ opinion and he goes out to prove it in his paper.

Πώρωσις Versus Σκληρός

Sklerōs is regularly applied to the hardening of the heart in the sense of being strengthened to express firm, stubborn resistance to God’s will, or being insensitive to it. Paul uses the verbal form, σκληρύνω, in 9:17-18, in keeping with the usage in Exodus 9:12, 16, where it metaphorically describes God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (LXX usually for Hebrew ‫ , שׁה‬also). The σκληρός word group has to do with things hard or rough to the touch, harsh sounds, or harsh or bitter tastes and smells. When used metaphorically, it generally connotes harsh or hard in the sense of austere, stern, insensitive, or stubborn. Instead of eliminating Pharaoh, God is represented as making him stubbornly resistant to God’s will so that the people of Israel would be freed. This hardening is undertaken in order to heighten the impact when Pharaoh is ultimately compelled to change his mind in the face of the inexorable suffering that his resistance provokes. In this way, God’s power and thus name are made known among the nations.

-Nanos, pg 3

Well that doesn’t sound too good if applied to Israel’s response in Romans 11:25. However, there’s hope.

But Paul does not use σκληρός or cognates to describe the state of Israelites; instead, he uses πώρωσις in 11:25 (and as a passive verb in v. 7: ἐπωρώθησαν) to describe the state of some (many) of his fellow Israelites. Πώρωσις (verb πωρόω) refers to a “callus” (verb: to callus) not to “hardness” per se.

Πώρωσις is not a word common to the Tanakh. It is used once in verbal form in the Septuagint, Job 17:7, to refer to eyes “growing dim” from anger or grief  MT: ‫ . כהה‬As will be discussed, the context indicates that it is not “hardness,” or even “blindness” per se, but “impairment” of sight that is at issue, which is better expressed by the Greek variant πεπήρωνται. Πώρωσις is not used in the Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, or Philo. It is common in medical discussions in antiquity. According to Hippocrates, De alimento 53, it has to do with a process of healing following an injury: “Marrow nutriment of bone, and through this a callus forms [Μυελὸς τροφὴ ὀστέου, διὰ τοῦτο ἐπι πωροῦται]” (Loeb; trans. W. H. S. Jones). In other words, the formation of a callus—which involves a process of hardening, to be sure—is to offer protection so that the injured area can sustain life. It promotes healing of broken bones or wounds, not harm or destruction, or metaphorical resistance. It creates an area less sensitive to touch, but that too is a positive feature versus the continuation of the sensation of pain where the injury occurred.

-Nanos, pp 3-4

broken_branchesHow interesting. First of all, it explains why the word “blindness” or some variant is sometimes used instead of “hardened” for Israel or the heart of Israel, but the more important comparison is between “hardened” and “callused” (you can find a number of different translations for Romans 11:25 at biblehub.com). If a branch is broken on a tree (a related metaphor of Paul’s in this context), that doesn’t rule out new growth at all.

If Nanos is right and the word we typically read as “hardened” is more properly rendered as “callused,” then the implication of this verse and probably this entire chapter of Paul’s letter takes a different direction. Instead of suggesting that Israel became “hard” to the good news of Messiah and so it was given to the Gentiles, it seems that part of Israel is temporarily callused until a time of healing can take place. They are “less sensitive” to the gospel for a certain period of time for the sake of self-protection (and for the sake of the Gentiles), but will eventually heal and become more sensitive again.


Oh, there’s more:

If Paul meant “callus,” that need not carry the negative valence that “harden” does. Instead, it would offer a more positive and arguably more salient choice that has to do with the healing and protecting process that takes place after an injury has occurred, such as after a branch has been broken or broken off. The translation “that a callus has happened to Israel” expresses the perfect active verb γέγονεν (“has become”) here. It allows the dative “to” or “for Israel” to be expressed. If discussing a callus in English, we would express this as “has developed” or “has formed”: “that a callus has developed/formed for Israel.” Either way, this also communicates the idea that the callus “has happened” for the benefit of some Israelites or Israel. (Of course, even the translation “callus” contains a value judgment that is at the very least patronizing, for Paul believes that his fellow Jews not joining him in declaring Christ to the nations have suffered a wound that elicits the need for this protective measure; but at the same time his point is that this is a part of the way God is working, using them, so that these Israelites are still a part of the way God is announcing the message to the nations.)

-Nanos, pp 18-19

It’s hard for me not to copy and paste large portions of the text from the Nanos paper because I find his commentary and conclusions so uplifting, but I don’t want to “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak. You can click the link I provided above and read the entire article for yourself. All I want to do is to introduce one small idea based on how a word or two is translated from the Greek into English. I also want to issue a reminder that interpretation begins at translation, not afterward. The fact that not one single translation I’m aware of uses “callused” and that they all use some variation of “hardened” or “blinded” indicates that either Nanos is a lot smarter than other Christian Bible translators, or that he doesn’t possess the specific perspective or theological bias as they do.

On the last page or so of Nanos’ paper, he offers his own translation, which I seriously recommend we consider because it paints a portrait of an Israel that has been injured and needs time to heal, not one that is permanently hardened against Messiah. Israel is temporarily insensitive to the Messiah, ironically both for its own sake and for the Gentiles. But the idea of temporary injury and healing tells us that Israel will heal and that, as Paul says, All of Israel will be saved.

When the time of the Gentiles becomes full, we are going to see some big changes. They’re starting to happen now.