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Romans 11 & Israel's "Fall" (part 2)

A quick survey of Romans 11 demonstrates Paul’s emphasis—not upon Israel’s moral culpability but upon God’s sovereign actions:

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. [2]

The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,

as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,

eyes that would not see

and ears that would not hear,

down to this very day.” [7-8]

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall?

By no means! But through their stumbling

salvation has come to the Gentiles . . . [11]

But if some of the branches were broken off,

and you, although a wild olive shoot,

were grafted in among the others . . . [17]

. . . if God did not spare the natural branches,

neither will he spare you. Note then the

kindness and the severity of God: severity

toward those who have fallen, but God's

kindness to you, provided you continue in

his kindness. . . . for God has the power to

graft them in again. [21-23]

Lest you be wise in your own conceits,

I want you to understand this mystery, brothers:

a partial hardening has come upon Israel,

until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

And in this way all Israel will be saved . . . [25-26]

. . . As regards election, they are beloved for the

sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the

calling of God are irrevocable. [28]

God has consigned all to disobedience,

that he may have mercy on all. [32]

Notice how nearly all the active verbs relate to God: He rejects not; He hardens hearts, blinds eyes and dulls ears; He breaks off branches and grafts in branches and will re-graft natural branches; He shows both kindness and severity; He consigns to disobedience and He shows mercy to all. The children of Israel on the other hand are beloved by God, their election sure and unconditional, and in some manner all Israel shall be saved. They bear responsibility of course for their choices; but even Israel’s stumbling—not unto a fall—is construed by Paul within the bigger picture of God’s divine ordination.

This expansive view and insightful penetration into God’s mysterious sovereignty with respect to Israel and the nations pushes Paul to the precipice of resounding doxological proclamation:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

. . . For from him and through him and to him are all things.

To him be glory forever. Amen. [33, 36]

Words and Worldviews

Three points I would make in closing.

First, in view of all that has been said above, and considering the specific context of Paul’s metaphor of Israel’s stumbling-but-not-falling, surely it is permitted and even preferable to translate paraptoma in verses 11-12 as “misstep” or “false step” —and not the more prejudicial “trespass” or “transgression.” And certainly not “fall” as in the KJV and NKJV. These commonly used terms betray a bias against Israel that does not do justice to the author of Romans, Paul, or to the readers of his epistle.

Secondly, symbols bind up reality for us, and words are powerful symbols. We should exercise caution in our language about Israel, Jews and Judaism. We must be cognizant of and take responsibility for a terrible history of Christian contempt and anti-Semitism, and always look for opportunities to bring tikkun or mending to our broken relationships. We should become sensitized to that history and prejudice even as it is reflected in the translations of Scripture.

Finally, as part of the ongoing Hebraic renewal of the Church we must rethink Paul. He was not anti-Judaic in his theology nor anti-Semitic. God forbid! In his critiques of Israel and his Jewish opponents, Paul speaks from within the Jewish community, not as an outsider. He speaks with the pathos and the passion of Israel’s prophets, like Jeremiah, as one within and concerned for the well-being of Israel. Paul is not a “convert” from Judaism to Christianity; nor does he as a “Christian” turn and attack his former faith, Judaism.

In his own day Paul was misunderstood and maligned even by many of his fellow Jewish believers in Yeshua. He was accused of forsaking the traditions and the Torah, and urging other Jews to do likewise. By his personal testimony and that of James, however, we know this was not true. Nonetheless, through the centuries Paul has been the favorite son of many opposed to Jews and Judaism, and even the hero of some outright anti-Semites, like the 2nd-century Gnostic Church leader, Marcion.

Let us get this straight. Paul was philo-Semitic! He was a lover of Israel, of the Jewish people and the Jewish scriptures. Should not we, too, assume a philo-Semitic stance when reading his letters? To presume otherwise is to bend us toward a misreading of the Apostle and to tip us in the direction of contempt and mischaracterization of Jews and their God-given faith.

Israel is beloved of God, and His love is everlasting. Therefore Christians should love the Jewish people as well—not because of their place in prophetic end-time scenarios, but because of their place in the Father’s heart. Paul teaches us this foundationally important truth. We would do well to learn it.

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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

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