I attended a lecture in Jerusalem by a well-known commentator on the prophetic Scriptures relating to the restoration of Israel in the last days. In the course of his stimulating discourse on Israel as a banner to the nations, he spoke of “Israel’s fall” and the consequent benefits to the nations (Gentiles). His reference, of course, was to Romans 11:11-12.
I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid:
but [rather] through their fall salvation [is come] unto the Gentiles,
for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall of them [be] the riches
of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles;
how much more their fullness? [KJV]
The word fall struck a dissonant note in my ear. Based on my studies of Romans it did not ring true to speak of “Israel’s fall” when Paul seems so forcibly to argue against that view in his challenging discourse of chapters 9-11.
When I looked at the King James translation (the one used by the speaker), I noted that Paul says first that Israel did not fall—God forbid—but then adds that, yes, by their fall salvation and riches came to the nations. Read at face value this statement seems contradictory. Did Israel fall or did it not?
For clarification, I searched the Greek text of Romans 11. The results were illuminating on a couple of fronts, and bear significantly, I believe, on our Christian attitude toward Israel.
A Fall or A False Step?
First, the word “fall” in the opening sentence of verse 11 is from the Greek pipto (falling down, falling from one level to another), which is used as a counterpoint to the preceding word, ptaio (stumble). However the KJV’s “fall” in the second and third sentences is not from the word pipto (fall), but paraptoma (misstep or false step).
I say then, Have they stumbled (ptaio) that they should fall (pipto)?
God forbid: but [rather] through their fall (paraptoma) salvation
[is come] unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now
if the fall (paraptoma) of them [be] the riches of the world,
and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles;
how much more their fullness? [KJV]
The Authorized Version’s rendering of paraptoma as “fall” suggests a subtle but significant bias against Israel and prejudices the reader’s orientation. It should be noted that the Apostle Paul does not share this bias; to the contrary he vigorously opposes this very attitude among the Gentile believers in Rome, that the Jewish people have failed, and God therefore has rejected or replaced Israel as His covenant people.
The Jewish Apostle to the Gentile world argues vigorously that Israel is forever beloved of God. YHWH remains faithful even when Yisrael is fickle, because His sovereign election of the Jewish people is not contingent on repentance but is irrevocable.
The Apostle’s point then in verses 11-12 is that Israel has not fallen but stumbled—specifically with respect to the righteousness of God (His saving covenantal faithfulness) and the Messianic identity and atoning sacrifice of Jesus—and that this misstep on their part has brought salvation and riches to the Gentiles joined to Messiah and thereby grafted into the olive tree of Israel’s faith and heritage. All this, in Paul’s perspective, is by the sovereign will of God.
Of the translations I checked, only the NRSV captures the proper sense and flow of Paul’s argument:
So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!
But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles,
so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means
riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles,
how much more will their full inclusion mean! [NRSV]
A False Step or A Transgression?
In checking multiple translations of Romans 11:11-12, a second issue emerged that also in my view reflects a biased Christian reading of the text. Remember, the KJV (and the NKJV) renders paraptoma (misstep or false or wrong step) as “fall”. But notice how the New International Version translates it:
Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?
Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation
has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their
transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means
riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!
The NIV “transgression” is rendered by the RSV and ESV as “trespass”:
So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?
By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has
come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if
their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles,
how much more will their full inclusion mean!
How is this possible? As if “fall” were not bad enough, now we have the overlay of moral failure imposed on Israel, as “trespass” or “sin.”
Israel’s Sin or God’s Sovereignty?
A common derivative meaning of paraptoma in the Greek is a “transgression or sin”—i.e., the result of making a wrong step with respect to God’s law. We find this usage, for instance, in Romans 4:25, speaking of our Lord “who was handed over because of our transgressions.” Also, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:15) we find, “if you do not forgive others your Father will not forgive your trespasses.”
Linguistically therefore the NIV and ESV translations are defensible; but theologically and within the bigger picture of Romans 11, they fall short of the mark and reflect a pervasive Christian bias against Israel and a pejorative reading of the passage.
For the Apostle Paul the overriding issue in Romans 11 is not Israel’s failure or moral culpability but rather the inscrutable and unsearchable ways of God. How He, in unexpected ways, has kept promises to Israel as His elect covenant people, while at the same time showing mercy to the other nations, and in so doing, will bring His intended fullness of salvation to Israel! It is a wonderful mystery, now revealed in the illumination of the risen Jesus. Paul’s focus in this passage is not Israel’s culpability but YHWH’s sovereignty!
For too long the Church has denigrated Israel’s “sin” and “stubbornness,” in contrast to our righteousness and repentance.
Even our great theologians of generations past dismissed Romans 9-11 as a parenthetical aside in Paul’s explication of how individuals get saved by grace (in contrast to Israel’s insistent demand for works). Israel has been relegated to the dustbin of covenantal history, or put on a dispensational shelf awaiting some eschatological consummation. But for Paul, Israel is not the culprit; rather God is the Agent.
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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.
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