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.