Galatians – Curse of the Law (Galatians 3:10-14)

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I was reading James D. G. Dunn’s commentary on Galatians yesterday. His exegesis of Galatians 3 really opened my eyes to a few things I never understood. The first is the importance of the Jewish understanding of blessings and curses as found in “the law” (particularly Deuteronomy). Those who were part of the covenant community were considered blessed. Those who were outside of that community (Gentiles) were considered under a curse. Additionally those inside the community could find themselves under a curse, not if they were sinless, but if they did not abide by all that was in the law. What is the difference? To be sinless would mean to keep every rule every time. That is impossible. But it was not seen as impossible to remain within the law all of the time. “In Jewish thought to ‘abide within all that was written in the law and do it’ meant living within the provisions of the law, including all its provisions for sin, through repentance and atonement. That was why Paul was able to describe himself as “blameless” before his conversion (Phil 3:6); not because he committed no sin, not because he fulfilled every law without exception, but because the righteousness of the law included use of the sacrificial cult and benefit of the Day of Atonement.” – p.171.

Many Christian view their relationship with God as being solid until you sin and then you are in jeopardy until you repent. That is not how the covenant community viewed their relationship with God in the Old Testament.

Another problem with 3:10 comes in translation. The NIV translates this verse, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…” But a better translation is, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” What is the difference? For Paul the works of the law are distinctive Jewish markers (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, etc) that set them apart from the Gentiles. The Gentiles in Galatia have not done those things and so the Jews are excluding them. Paul is saying the distinctive marker of our identity and relationship with God is faith and not those “works of the law.” That means the Gentiles can be accepted without having to be circumcised, etc. Paul is not talking about the whole law here as the NIV translates it. He traditionally uses “works of the law” to mean the distinctive markers of the Jewish community that traditionally set them apart from the pagans/Gentiles. Paul is saying those Jews who put all their eggs in the circumcision basket above faith are under a curse because the blessings under the Abrahamic covenant came by faith and not by works of the law (circumcision, etc).

I have always read this passage as Paul speaking poorly about the law. Paul is not speaking poorly of the law. He is speaking poorly of those who misuse and abuse the law to the exclusion of their Gentile brothers and sisters in the faith.

The rubber meets the road in 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 tree.” 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.” Paul says this discussion of blessings and curses/who is “in” and who is “out” has further implications when it comes to redemption. What did Christ do in redemption of both Jews and Gentiles on the cross and in the resurrection? The Dead Sea Scrolls connect being “hung on a tree” with crucifixion. It is possible that people were saying Jesus couldn’t be the messiah because he was crucified and those who are “hung on a tree” are under a curse (Deut 21:23). Remember what was said above, being cursed means you are put outside of the covenant community. “The curses of Deut 27 and 28 not only involve the withdrawal of covenant blessing, but climax in being put outside the promised land to live among the Gentiles…To affirm that the crucified Jesus was cursed by God, therefore, was tantamount to saying that he had been put outside the covenant, outside the people of God. Which also meant…that God’s resurrection of Jesus signified God’s acceptance of the ‘outsider’, the cursed law-breaker, the Gentile sinner.” – p.178. In other words on the cross Christ experienced the curses of being put outside of the covenant and its promises. In doing so he related with the Gentiles who were in the very same position. “The barrier between blessing and curse had been broken down; now ‘in Christ’ the blessing could come to Gentiles too….This is the conclusion Paul draws from his understanding of Christ’s death as bearing the curse of the law that the effects of the curse have been abolished for Gentiles, that the restrictiveness of a law which marked off Jew from Gentile as such had been overcome, not that the law had been abolished, rendered null and void, or without further relevance to Christians…” – p.179

This clarifies a few things for me. It clarifies what part of the law Paul is talking about here (works of the law – circumcision, etc). Again my tendency when reading this passage in the past has been to focus on law and seeing it in a negative light rather than realize the context and which part of the law Paul is talking about. It helps me understand blessings and curses a little better (being in or out of the community comes with blessings and curses and how Gentiles are viewed as a result). It also helps me understand how these concepts had an impact on Paul’s message and his handling of the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Galatia.

0 Responses

  1. Matt, you’ve just had a “eureka” or an “epiphany” concerning Paul’s understanding of The Law. Our heritage suggests that The Law was a legalistic system. It also suggests that freedom in Christ is freedom from legalism. This “New Perspective on Paul” is a breath of fresh air. NT Wright, Dunn, EP Sanders, and Richard Hays are among those bringing new light and understanding to Paul’s theology. If you haven’t read these guys I would recommend you do so. This new perspective also clears up those passages where Paul seems to put The Law in a good light (Rom.7:12). Good post brother.

  2. I read Paul and Palestinian Judaism some time back but I don’t think it quite sunk in. I really want to take a closer look at N.T. Wright. Back to the Lowry sermon, I will have a look tomorrow to see if it is any of the Bland/Fleer books.

  3. Your missing the larger context. You had it right in the first place

    The Law has been abolished–all of it

    “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law”

    That was to the Jews in the OT. It was not about Gentiles or just rituals..but every single one of the 613 laws.

    You Are seeing the deeper meaning in that rituals are what were being added for Gentiles as a false gospel. But your missing the fact that Law was the curse–the entire Law–not just the things being added for Gentiles

    Why is something good a curse? Because the entire code was setup to display that no man could be perfect and keep it. Because no man could keep it–and thus attain righteousness–that man was lost–cursed

    1Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

    Paul says: “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the WHOLE law”

    Think now…what Paul is saying is not that works, like circumcision, are the curse–but that works, the entire Law, was a curse

    30What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 32Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” (Christ)

    They believed they could EARN salvation. Not just by circumcision or sabbath keeping–but literally earn it by keeping the Law–which includes not stealing, lying, murdering etc. There is no reason to apply only laws that separated them from Gentiles

    The curse is the entire Law as a code to earn salvation

    The law was a burdon…a yoke. Just read Hebrews and you can see it in no other way. Christ came to give Jews Rest from the slavery that was the Law. Its only purpose was to expose sin and foreshadow Christ

    I do understand the problem your having though..all of us have confronted it. Why does God put a yoke around the jews? The answer is that God knew Man’s idea(in every religion) was that they could somehow earn God’s favor. Man didnt only think that moral deeds were enough…but rituals too. So God gave them a mound of deeds that is described by NT writers as Slavery.

    He used mans own ideas to prove they were flawed. Only by God’s unmerited grace can man be saved–as no one but God himself could be perfect.

    Without understanding it–it can seem unfair. But the gospel WAS preached to Abraham and Jews fully knew it—“Abraham Believed God and it was credited as righteousness”. Faith was the only thing that ever counted. The only thing the law did was affirm the need for faith by showing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that man was cursed and utterly condemned by adhering to any system of works.

  4. John,

    I hear what you are saying and see where you are coming from. I am trying hard to think through it and agree with you but there are parts that I cannot agree with.

    If the law was slavery then God was a slave master because he is the one who gave it. You talk about the law as if it was meant to be kept perfectly. It wasn’t. Paul was making the point that if you try to keep it perfectly it becomes a curse to you because that is never how it was intended to be. If the law was meant to be kept perfectly what were sacrifices for.

    If the law was a curse what is Psalm 19:7-8 saying?

    “The law of the LORD is perfect,
    reviving the soul.
    The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.

    8 The precepts of the LORD are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
    The commands of the LORD are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes. ”

    By your theory that is by someone who is a slave and under a curse. Right? Let’s talk about this a little because I am really trying to get my mind around this one and feedback is good.

  5. Hello,

    What is sin? Only faith in CHRIST JESUS will save us, not any laws. But, the laws of GOD can cause one to miss the mark, and not be saved. If one is a theif, and that person does not repent from stealing, and he or she die in that state, then he or she will not inherit the kingdom of GOD. 1Cr 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God The law is perfect, it let us know our sins, we need to repent from dead works and be obedient like faithful Abraham; Gen 26:5 Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. Circumcision was only temporal until the seed came, and that seed is CHRIST. You are right, no one can keep the law perfectly. Only one done it, and everyone else fail. That is why we die and let JESUS live in us to fulfil what we can not do.

    1. if GOD,S ten commandment law a curse then we can do any thing under the sun steal,kill, take our brothers wifes GOD FORBID REMEMMEBER the law is a CURSE

  6. SIN IS THE TRANSGRESSION OF THE LAW OF GOD SO to do away with the law of GOD is to do away with sin . so now we need to release everyone in jail every . REMEMMEBER THE LAW IS A CURSE. STUDY SOME MORE THE ? IS WHAT LAW THE ANSWER IS THE CEREMONIAL LAW IS CURSE

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