Beyond the End-Time: The Temporality of the Biblical Promise

Randi Rashkover
York College of Pennsylvania

When Peter Petit invited me to speak today he asked me to speak on the topic of eschatology or the end-time. My immediate response was ‘terrific,’ as I had just completed a Cross Currents issue on the same topic and have written about the critical value of the concept of eschatology in prior work. Of course the concept of eschatology is absent from the Five Books of Moses. Despite the seeming insignificance of this point, I could without much hesitation say that it has singularly shaped a new theological direction for my work. It is not simply the absence of the category of eschatology from the Five Books of Moses that matters but the reflection upon the presence of the category of promise in its place that re-directs theological thinking today. The goal of my teaching and talking with you today is to guide you to re-consider the notion of the ‘goal’ or end-time of your faith in the context of the category of divine promise. What I will ask of you today is nothing less than a re-consideration of the time of faith � and if by end-time, many of you think ‘redemption’ � then I will ask you to re-consider the notion of redemption in the context of the promise God issues in the Hebrew Scriptures.

I. The Divine Promise and Scripting Redemption

Ever since the 18 th century, Westerners have been captivated by a progressivist notion of history or temporality. History, we have been led to believe, is the time for human betterment towards a grand finale of individual and social cultivation and perfection. In the midst of the crisis of WWI and post-WWI Europe, thinkers like Karl Barth and Franz Rosenzweig beckoned us back to the Scriptures to re-acquaint us with the time that God has for us. Rosenzweig and Buber in particular helped Jews recall that the temporality of the Hebrew Scriptures is the temporality of the divine promise. One key to the unique temporality of the promise is found in Exodus 19:4-8. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Now , the verses tell us is the time that God offers the promise. But the category of promise spans three temporalities � present, past and future. For if now is the time that God gives the promise, the past is the time that God uses to develop a basis for trusting him in his promise. You saw what I did to the Egyptians � how I bore you on eagles’ wings. And the promise designs the future as well � for the future is the time of the fulfillment of the promise � it is the time that God demonstrates his continued worth � the time when God will keep and fulfill his promise.

If the temporality of the 5 books of Moses revolves around this notion of divine pledge � what is the content of this pledge? What does God promise? Even before the divine promise to the Israelite nation, God pledges to Abraham. “Go from your country and your kindred and you father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12: 1-3) What then may we say God promises Abraham? Nestled in between the grander promises is the deepest and most sustained promise God makes to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation” � in other words, I will grant you children. Aviva Zornberg points out that God’s promise to Abraham follows immediately out of the text’s prior visitation of generations and births preceding Abraham and Sarah � culminating in the announcement that “Sara was barren, she had no child.” [1] Read in this context, God’s promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation is God’s promise to overcome Abraham’s greatest and most painful need. Indeed, more than a promise, God’s pledge is an expression of love. God offers himself to Abraham’s desire.

Read this way we may also understand the relationship between God’s promise and circumcision. Circumcision signifies Abraham’s pledge to deposit his own desires and needs into the divine vision announced to him in Genesis 12:1-4. A relationship is established. On one side, God promises to love Abraham. At once however, Abraham is struck by this divine outpouring of love and his willingness to participate in circumcision indicates the reciprocity of his desire to engage in the divine program. Abraham’s pledge to the divine promise is an act of imitatio dei . God’s promise to Abraham is a pledge to transfigure God’s desire (that his will be done and that humanity become masterful over nature (Genesis 1:28)) through Abraham’s fantasy [2] to have a son who is blessed and whose descendants are blessed. In turn, God’s love for Abraham inspires Abraham to imitate God and respond lovingly by pledging to God’s requests to leave family, land and nation.

Covenantal pledging or promise is then the means whereby one loves what the other loves. Through his promise, God establishes the basis for a loving relationship between himself and Abraham. To appreciate the beauty of the covenantal pledge is not only to remark on the divine love that reaches into Abraham and Sarah’s most despairing need but to remark as well on the loving desire for God that this initial display inspires. As an outpouring of love, the divine promise awakens Abraham’s own ability for reciprocal care for an other. It unlocks the human potential to care for another.

However, to note exclusively the depth of the divine love for Abraham is to neglect the range of recipients included in this offering. God’s love for Abraham is meant for Abraham � and through Abraham or in this love for Abraham “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God’s promise to Abraham is the promise to extend this love to all the families of the earth. No mere gesture of concern for a species or a nation or a class of people, God’s promise to Abraham marks the unique character of divine love and the meaning of redemption. To deepen our understanding of the character of divine love I want to turn to the famous account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Genesis 22. Often read and analyzed from the perspective of Abraham and his actions, I want to read Genesis 22 as a revelatory text — a text that reveals the redemptive character of divine love. By redemptive I mean a love that offers intimacy with a singular one as well as justice for the community of all others and mandates the pursuit of the same linkage for us. In this way, my reading of Genesis 22 follows the Kierkegaardian tendency to see it as a challenge to enlightenment reason, but does so less through its account of the character of Abraham’s faith and more through its portrait of the character of a divine love that exceeds any Enlightenment or idealist presentation of a God of reason. Read from this perspective, the central question posed by Genesis 22 is, does God permit persons to sacrifice their love for the other, for the sake of their pledge to the divine fantasy? In other words, does monotheism lead to injustice or intolerance? Is the monotheistic God himself, unjust?

The question is posed at the very beginning of the episode: “And He said, ‘Please take your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac- and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mounts which I shall tell you.”(Genesis 22:2) Knowing that Abraham has previously pledged his interests over to the divine vision, God tests Abraham’s love and asks him to forfeit his own desires for the sake of the divine desire, to love God over Isaac. Is covenantal intimacy so great and demanding that it precludes the care and concern I may have for the other who is not within my vertical relationship to God?

Of course, when read as a portrait of divine love, Genesis 22 is nothing other than a testament to the greatness and inexhaustibility of divine love. For the divine command of Genesis 22:2 is nullified by the divine command in Genesis 22:12, “and he said, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad or do anything to him . . . .'” The God of Genesis 17 pledges his love to Abraham by offering up his own fantasy for humankind to Abraham’s interpretation. By calling Abraham to neglect Isaac and then rescinding that command, the God of Genesis 22 reveals that he will not allow a person’s commitment or intimacy with God to preclude the concern for the other. On what grounds? On the grounds that God’s love is never limited.

God’s commitment to Abraham does not delimit his commitment to Isaac or any of Abraham’s descendants. God desires the redemption of the nations of the world, not only a bond with a single individual or nation. “You shall be a father of a multitude of nations . . . I will ratify my covenant between me and you and between your offspring after you, throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant . . .” (Genesis 17: 4-7) God divests his own desires into the interpretations and desires of all of Abraham’s descendants. God’s love for Abraham could not be at the expense of any of Abraham’s children, for he pledges to them as well.

Moreover, the extension of divine love to all of Abraham’s descendants poses no conflict for God. God invites all of Abraham’s descendents to interpret his promise and from the divine perspective, there is no conflict from one interpretation to another. All interpretations of the divine promise are necessary to script the inexhaustible character of divine love. Such is the character of the redeemed world where all are loved by God in their singularity and each is free to script their interpretation of the divine promise.

Of course, by announcing the redemptive character of the divine imaginative offering, the Akedah issues a call for analogous behavior from those who have pledged themselves to the divine imagination. The call for imitatio dei is implicit rather than explicit here, and yet the sheer radicality and unprecedented character of the display of divine love alone commands one to testify to this divine love by acting analogously.

With this reading of the Akedah, the bible re-configures our notion of time. If now is the time that God offers the promise, then now is the time for us to live covenantally. Now is the time to engage in imitatio dei – to love God and love what God loves as God has loved me and loved what I want. How do Jews express their love for God? They act on behalf of God’s desires. But as we have seen, God desires that each individual receive the kind of love and care God initially offered to Abraham. God expresses an inexhaustible love that meets each individual in her own particular constellation of need. Said in other terms, to desire God is to desire the one that God loves. It is to love the nighest as the place or site of the divine promise. It is to recognize the nighest � the next one � therefore as a sacrament that signifies God’s love and inspires my love as an extension of my love for God. Love of God means the quest to care for the one immediately there. It means the enactment of a social justice that exceeds the bounds of reason because it is a response to and a product of the inexhaustibility of the divine outpouring itself.

Judaism provides a number of ways for Jews to enact this care for the other as the site of God. Broadly construed, Jewish law helps Jews live out love for each individual in the human family. On the one hand Jewish law maps out regulations for social relations between Jews and the rest of the human family. On the other hand, Jewish law promotes communal study. While it is easier to see or imagine how the performance of laws extends care to others, it is less immediately clear how communal study functions covenantally.

As I’ve stated above, to desire or love something is not only to want to be near it but to want what my object of desire wants. If God loves the nighest, then I too love the nighest. To love her however means to want what she wants � to want her interests, and her interpretation of the divine promise that meets these interests. To love the nighest is to imagine, note and act on the interests and needs of another person and to imagine the divine love that the other wants. It is to want what you theologically desire – to imagine God through you. Jewish communal study offers an opportunity for discerning the personal and theological needs of the other. This is the meaning of Jewish learning through hevruta . In hevruta individuals construct their own derash � their own fantasy of God – only to offer it up to the other person � the other person’s imagination � and receive it back as it has been so transformed. Jews express their longing for God’s redemption by reading their texts for one another � in view of each other’s desires. In this way, Jewish textual tradition increases and becomes my classroom and curriculum for learning about the needs and desires of others. The study hall � the beit midrash becomes the location of learning how to love another � the place where together we at once imagine and build the kingdom of God.

From a Jewish point of view, the love of the human family is the fullest expression of the love for the God who loves me. But of course, one can now see how the particularity of the Jewish covenantal pledge moves out to what we call scriptural reasoning. Scriptural reasoning becomes the program for hevruta learning through which Jews and non-Jews imagine and build the redeemed order by imagining God through the others with whom we study. Scriptural reasoning promotes the exchange of scriptural imagining between Jews, Christians and Muslims therein providing the opportunity for becoming acquainted with the needs and theological hopes of members of these covenantal houses. It is not surprising that scriptural reasoning results in friendships among the participants who � guided and inspired by the extensivity of the divine promise � pursue and engage in the needs and desires of those with whom they study.

As such, Scriptural Reasoning grows out of the promise offered by the covenantal God. Judaism reaches out beyond the Jewish family and into the human family, not through the identification of universal rational principles (Mendellsohn) nor through the identification of pre-covenantal interests (Soloveitchik) but through the enactment of covenantal life itself. In this way, scriptural reasoning differs from other approaches to Jewish-Christian or Jewish-Islamic dialogue � premised as it is on the notion that the possibility for the human community requires the revelatory God and attempts to bypass this God limit the extent to which persons may actively care for one another. Why? Because only the revelatory God of the promise exposes the inexhaustibility of divine love that reaches into the singular needs of every person � not the human in general, not the Jew, not the American. And by so loving, God awakens in persons a theological desire that seeks the divine fantasy and uniquely pursues this by scripting this vision and realizing the kingdom of God here in our world.

As the practice whereby the Abrahamic traditions increase through engagement with each other, scriptural reasoning calls each tradition into relation with the created order they all share and they all shape. This created order is the space in which the traditions extend into one another � it is the space in which the traditions increase in their love for the other � it is the school in which they learn how to recognize God in the imagination of the other. Scriptural imagining is responsible world-making that appreciates how revelation affords the possibility and mandate for creating the larger community now.

II. God Is With Us

The above reading of the Akedah catapults us into a new understanding of the imperatives of the present moment. Now � not yesterday, not tomorrow � is the time of God’s promise. Now is the time to dwell covenantally and now is the time to learn how to participate with God in scripting redemption. The call presented here greatly resembles Ren�e Girard’s understanding of an encounter with Jesus. The encounter with Jesus affords that unique mimetic engagement wherein I want what the other wants but what the other wants is to love each in their individuality. Loving Jesus means living in the redeemed community now.

More noteworthy however than the similarity with Girard’s interpretation of the meaning of Jesus is the difference between the Akedah narrative and Girard’s Christological account. While on the one hand, the Akedah is a testament to the just character of divine love (God’s singular commitment to the individual doesn’t betray his love for each and every individual in the all) it is also a portrait of how difficult it is for persons to behave analogously. According to Girard’s account, an individual’s love for Jesus so completely fulfills her desire that it nullifies any desire she may have for what belongs to another person. In the wake of the encounter, she effortlessly recognizes and acts on God’s redemptive love.

The Akedah is a testament to Abraham’s love for God. The stakes are higher than before for he is not only asked to leave his “land, his relatives and his father’s house,” (Genesis 12:1), but also to entrust his desire for his son’s life into his faith in God’s vision. He complies and he complies with absolute faith in God’s redemptive love. He rushes to the task. God says, “please take your son, your only one whom you love . . . bring him up there as an offering . . .” and immediately thereafter the text continues, “So Abraham woke up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey . . .” (Genesis 17:2-3). There is no mourning here by Abraham. He believes in the power of God’s just and redemptive vision. As divine, it is not within the bounds of his understanding nor ours – but Abraham trusts in it nonetheless. He loves a God who loves justly. All of this comports with Girard’s interpretation.

The Akedah departs from Girard’s theological perspective in its portrayal of what Abraham does not do – what he cannot do and what we, as the descendants of Abraham must try to do with one another’s help. Abraham does not think about Isaac – he does not ask about Isaac’s needs or thoughts. Even if Abraham trusts that God will not follow through with the command, one can imagine that Isaac might not share this faith. Abraham’s covenantal pledge neglects proper concern for Isaac. And not only Isaac – but what of Sarah? Does Abraham speak to Sarah about the event? Does he tell her where they are going? It is not surprising that the Akedah is followed by Sarah’s death in chapter 23. She has already been absent in chapter 22. Abraham has neglected her and her story has not been told.

What can we learn from Abraham’s neglect? We can learn that while divine love is singular and fair to all, the human pledge to the divine fantasy is not. The pledge to any symbolic fantasy is mixed with mourning. Persons may bemoan the full transference of their personal desires [even theological ones] and such focus may blind them to the needs of others. If the challenge and gift of the covenantal life is to open myself to the divine fantasy, it is a challenge and a gift that individuals cannot and do not always accept.

Said more broadly, the Hebrew Scriptures are a testament to the challenge of covenantal life and the pursuit of redemption. Repeatedly they tell of the failure of the human imagination and the challenge to enact redemptive love. Perhaps there is no greater example than Jacob, later renamed Israel , whose life is the painful journey from personal desire for a birthright to the transformation and fulfillment of desire through the divine vision of covenantal lineage. To study the Hebrew Scriptures is to awaken to the challenge of imitatio dei � the challenge to pledge our desires to the other, first to God and by extension to all others who stand as signs of God’s redemptive promise.

If however, the Hebrew Scriptures are a portrait at once of the inexhaustibility of the divine love and the persistent failure of persons to imitate this love, why read this text? Why repeatedly re-call the distance between divine perfection and human imperfection? Each summer Jews commemorate the festival of Shavuout. Technically speaking, Shavuout commemorates the giving of the Torah by God to the Jews on Sinai. Beyond this however, Shavuout is taken to be a commemoration of the Oral Tradition � liturgically commemorated by a night of continual study of Mishnah and Talmud. Shavuout is a liturgical enactment of the inextricable link between written and Oral Torah. Jews never read the written Torah alone. Jews hold that the Word of God extends beyond the written Torah. In Deuteronomy it says the Torah is not above us � or too high for us � it is near us � it is close to us. God’s promise is not strictly God’s command but God’s grace as well and God does not leave us without the means needed to fully receive it. What does it mean to say that the Torah or Word of God is near us when the text presents a standard of love and living that we cannot reach? It means that God offers us his promise not only in our faith but also in our sin or in our idolatry.

The above analysis of the divine promise illuminates how the God of the Hebrew Scriptures leads his children into a loving relationship with the monotheistic God. How does this God seek to be worshipped? The covenantal God wants to be worshipped through the active and loving life of the human community that identifies itself as a sacrament of God’s inexhaustible love. But then, one fails in monotheistic worship and falls prey to idolatry if one either refuses to love God, Godself directly or if one refuses to love and care for the one(s) whom God loves. To fail in the Hebrew Scriptures is to behave idolatrously. It is not to behave irrationally, it is not to behave impractically � it is to neglect the divine promise.

Of course neglect of the divine promise, or what is idolatry, breeds suffering and despair. On the one hand, neglect of the divine promise leads to suffering for the one who sins. Judaism is indebted to the great philosopher Hermann Cohen for lending insight into the suffering that comes upon the individual who sins. Even after justice has been served and the law has done its work, persons who sin suffer in the despair over their own moral failings. Such despair registers as nothing less than an existential crisis concerning one’s humanity. “The case that comes under a law is however not the individual who addresses himself as I. The case addresses only the law. The individual, however, thinks himself isolated . . .and in this isolation he is at his wits end, as long as he cannot absolve himself from the consciousness of his guilt, and according to his subjective membership in the realm of moral creatures, may not absolve himself.” [3]

On the other hand, idolatry guarantees that the neighbor will be neglected. While theoretically speaking, one does not need to see an other as a sacrament of the divine promise in order to behave morally towards her, one does need to see an other as a sacrament of the divine promise in order to feel impelled to never neglect her and be mindful of the possibility of this neglect. In other words, secular life and law alone may enable persons to establish systems of social cohesion and order but only the mandate to imitate God in his outpouring of love to ‘this’ one and ‘that’ one and not to a citizen, or a class, or a nation � will guarantee that the singular one who needs � the singular one who may suffer � the singular one who falls through the cracks of the system � will have her needs met.

How then can persons overcome these failings? How can persons be sustained in their faith and checked in their idolatry? What guards us against sin and suffering � both the suffering of the sinner and the suffering of the one the sinner neglects? The answer is of course, the divine promise � the same love that meets us in our needs � meets us in our failure to live covenantally. The inexhaustibility of the divine promise greets Abraham not only in his personal and creaturely needs but meets him again and again. God is with us, we may say, and now is not only the time of the promise but it is the time when God offers his promise to us in ways that lift us out of dogmatism and idolatry and thereby repairs our ability to dwell covenantally. How?

How does the suffering person who sins return to God from out of her sin? How does she move from despair and demoralization back to God and back to the covenantal community? In the early 20 th century Hermann Cohen led Jews in the right direction by turning to the liturgical practice of repentance and confession. Of course, the practices of repentance and confession in the Jewish liturgical life derive from sacrificial practices formerly performed in the Temple by the priest. For a moving account of the stages and character of the liturgy of repentance we may turn to Joseph Soloveitchik’s On Repentance . About repentance in general, Rabbi Soloveitchik says, “the answer lies in the concept of grace. The very phenomenon of repentance, the fact that man can transcend his baseness and ascend the mount of God, is one of the great acts of Grace conferred by God . . .” [4] The liturgy of repentance itself, carefully mapped out in the Torah and then by the rabbis, performs the nearness of the divine promise as it reaches into the heart of the sinner and offers her the opportunity for the remorse, confession and atonement that she needs to be liberated from her guilty suffering. The divine promise offers redemption � liberation from sin � but the divine promise does not offer this from high above or beyond the labor of the repentant herself. Israel will repent and Israel will be redeemed, says the Torah. But the redemption is through and not outside of the labor of repair. God’s promise neither frees us from our own self-inflicted suffering nor does it leave us to despair with it. The divine promise descends to meet our falsifications of it and offers us the means to correct these falsifications and overcome the dogmatism of self-love.

In a famous discussion on Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance , Soloveitchik reviews the prayer of the High Priest who offers the public confession which reads, “I beseech thee, O Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before Thee . . . .” and he asks about the meaning of the “I beseech thee O Lord.” If confession marks the individual’s willing return to God, why invoke the presence of the one to whom I return? Is confession an autonomous act and if not, is it authentic return? “Confession,” Soloveitchik says, “must be preceded by prayer.” [5] Why? Because without God, neither the form nor the content of repentance is possible. Sacrifice, confession, liturgy, these are the operations of the promise as it comes to us in our imperfection. Sin, Soloveitchik says, “is contaminating, but the Shekhinah never departs completely from any Jew, no matter how far he has gone or how deep he has immersed himself in sin. God is there after man sins.” [6] God does not abandon us in our failings but neither does God unilaterally liberate us from them either. Rather, the inexhaustible love of the divine promise authors the means whereby we repair our own falsifications of the divine pledge.

If the liturgy in general and the liturgies of repentance in particular extend God’s promise to us in our selfish neglect of God, it is through law and study that God’s promise extends to those who suffer because of others’ neglect of them. Beyond the bounds of any secular legal system, the commandment issued in the divine promise of love moves recipients to care for the nighest -the one God loves in her singularity. Idolatry neglects the other. But again, the divine promise greets us in our imperfection and provides means whereby fanaticism can be challenged. Products of the enlightenment, most of look to our faculty of reason as fanaticism’s greatest enemy. Religious dogmatism, the enlightenment told us, neglects the rights of every person. Only reason can adjudicate between the rights of persons to guarantee that all are equal. While it may be true that reason alone can guarantee the rights of “all” � the great modern Jewish thinkers have taught us that it cannot guarantee the rights of the singular one whose suffering cannot be spoken to in the language of universal or national law. How can language speak of the suffering of the singular one at all? What modes of discourse can penetrate or give voice to the singular � legal, political, ethical, philosophical? The history of modern Jewish thought is a litany of rejections of each of these modes as adequate to the experiences of human suffering in the face of death and poverty.

Can the Word of God speak for the suffering of the singular? Re-call Abraham’s neglect of Isaac and Sarah. So filled with his singular love for God, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac for God brought Abraham to the brink of idolatry. Of course for Jews, the story of the Akedah does not end with the events described in Genesis 22. The story continues in Genesis Rabbah and then in Rashi and beyond. Profiled by Genesis 22 is Abraham’s experience. Beyond this however, the profile of Abraham’s needs and longings demands that we ask about the needs and longings of those not highlighted. The snapshot of Abraham as imperfect moves readers to recognize the reach of the divine promise. In this way, Oral Torah � given at Sinai and enacted by Jews throughout time, repairs the dogmatism of the believer and inquires on behalf of the one forgotten in the wake of fanaticism. Oral Torah extends the divine promise and activates the work of correcting falsifications of God’s pledge. Like our faculty of reason, the corrective afforded by Oral Torah propels persons out of the myopia of their self-projections and into the recognition of an other � but unlike the faculty of reason, the Oral tradition never rests satisfied with its ability to satisfy the needs of others but is always propelled onward by our failure to imagine the needs of the next one.

With this appraisal of the divine promise as drawing near to persons in their failings, we once again move into scriptural reasoning. If a Jewish life within covenant moves into scriptural reasoning as the scriptural imagining of the divine promise, so Jewish life that fails to live covenantally also moves into scriptural reasoning, this time as a performance that helps correct or falsify dogmatic tendencies. Like the Oral Torah above, scriptural reasoning invites Jews to see their renderings of the divine pledge challenged and shaken out of certainty through the alternative renderings of the other two communities. Scriptural reasoning mitigates against the possibility that Jews will exercise a blanket imposition of a Jewish text on to the world. Scriptural reasoning correctively reminds participants that covenantal life cannot result in an imperialistic and myopic approach to the world for the divine promise mandates that I may only read the world through my text by reading it through you � by offering it to you to read. I may sacramentalize the world through my word only through an encounter than checks my narrative. As before, the engagement between Jews, Christians and Muslims is not a result of an external system of values that prizes universal reason. Rather, the imperative to engage in scriptural reasoning � (and we may now recognize how it is reasoning) � the reasoning with another that helps identify the other as the one who guards against my own fanaticism � emerges out of the life of covenantal promise. The same divine promise that stays with us in our sin and affords us the means of falsifying our sin, also invites us into patterns of reading our sacred texts together � not only to celebrate God’s redemptive order, but to help guarantee that we will not deny it or reject it in favor of a less loving and moral world-view. All that reason would claim to provide, the self-critique and recognition of the other, is hereby offered through the labor of the theological imagination as it engages in the work of tikkun olam . To see the world through Torah is to see Torah through the view of the world.

Our excursion into the world of the biblical promise now complete, what now can we say about Jewish notions of the end-time? At the start I asked that you open yourself to re-considering your view of the time of faith and the meaning of redemption. The above derash on the Akedah asks you to consider your future within the context of the divine promise. The language of eschatology is the language of the end � an end occasioned by both grace and judgment. Alternatively, the language of promise is the language of love and responsibility � grace and repair � or, in Luther’s terms, the language of justification and sin at once. Instead of reading the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of the end-time, we ought to read the end-time through the lens of the promise. Before closing, and having invoked Luther’s theology of the cross, I would like to suggest briefly how one might recognize the temporality of the promise within the Christian world-view as well.

III. The Promise Through Christ

Generally speaking, biblical scholars characterize the synoptic gospels as apocalyptic texts. Mark’s gospel introduces this temporality, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near . . .”(Mark 1:15) Christianity operates within the temporality of the beginning of the end and the end itself. Add to this what have been called the Radical Kingdom ethics of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and early Christianity seems bent on anticipating the end-time. And yet, this focus on eschatology has arguably caused Christianity some vexing problems. If, for example, the gospel of Matthew is strictly viewed as an eschatological text, then, Matthew’s kingdom ethics become nothing more than that � ‘kindgom ethics’ � applicable only to the preparations for the immanent kingdom, less applicable the more distant one’s expectation for the kingdom becomes, to the point where the realities of the day are simply too pressing to have to meet the rigorous standards of the kingdom ethics at all. If however, Christians dismiss the Sermon on the Mount, then how does one live like a Christian? One way, I would like to suggest, of resolving this problem is to transpose the eschatological concern of the synoptic gospels in general into the context of the biblical promise. Such a transposition I think will help Christians recognize the standards of the kingdom ethics as the divine standard � the standard of divine love � expected of Christians only in the context of their reception of the divine promise through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ who at once extends God’s love to each and every individual in their sin.

Of course I am not the first to suggest that one read Christian eschatological anticipation in the context of the notion of biblical promise. In Romans (and elsewhere) Paul explicitly links the meaning of Christ and the fulfillment of the biblical promise. For Paul, Christ is the new covenant � that is, Christ is the means whereby the promise/s God made to the Jews are now made available to the gentiles (Romans 10:17-18). The question then is not, is Christ is the vehicle of the divine promise, but rather, what does it mean to say that Christ is the fulfillment of the divine promise? How does Paul construe the meaning of the Abrahamic promise and what does it mean to say that this is offered to gentiles as well as Jews through Christ?

Paul’s recourse to the language of promise and covenant has often been read as a rejection of Jewish life � if not of the Jewish people as recipients of the promise, then of Jewish law as a viable response to the promise and therefore a mandate for faith in Christ as the unique mode of covenantal life. Such readings of Paul’s perspective of the Abrahamic promise are bolstered by what appears to be Paul’s desire to dissolve differences among persons and establish the covenantal community as a single body of all who receive grace through Christ. Read this way, Pauline theology advances a universal ethics of grace that denies difference and demands participation in a unified totality of believers.

Recent scholarship on Pauline theology chips away at anti-Jewish and imperialistic readings of Paul’s thought. Of note here is an article written by Pamela Eisenbaum, “Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Anti-semitism” [7] . Eisenbaum makes two arguments. First, she argues (like John Gager) that Paul’s Romans is written to a gentile audience and therefore Paul’s dismissal of Jewish law under Christ relates only to gentiles and not to Jews. Second and more significant for our purposes here, Eisenbaum argues that Paul does not advocate an ethics of imperialist universality but rather a vision of the divine promise that at once retains differences among persons and attempts to organize healthy and loving relationships among persons of difference. Eisenbaum defends her reading of Pauline ethics by recourse to Pauline statements like, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1-2). “Let each lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule . . . let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called . . .” Eisenbaum says, “I do not think Paul preaches the collapse of all human difference . . . I think, rather, that Paul assumed human difference s a God-given part of creation, and more importantly, that it is an essential aspect of Paul’s utopian vision.” [8] In other words, Eisenbaum suggests that for Paul, the Abrahamic promise that God makes available to gentiles through Christ is a promise to care for the needs of all persons in their difference in a community that honors these differences. Of course, Eisenbaum’s reading of Paul echoes my reading of the Abrahamic promise above, and helps therefore to locate the essential biblicism or Judaism in Paul’s theological position.

When applied to the question of Christian eschatology, this Pauline emphasis on Christ as the means by which God extends his promise to the non-Jews contextualizes the end-time into the time of the promise � or what is a mandate to testify to God’s promise in Christ and live in a community that cares for each as singular. Read this way, the Pauline interpretation of the Abrahamic promise should move Christians to a concern for individuals in their singularity, much in the way it motivates Jewish recipients of the divine promise. Consequently, the embrace of the divine promise can also lead Christians to scriptural reasoning as a vehicle for identifying the places of singularity and need and difference in others that one wants to sacramentalize as loved by God through Christ.

The notion that Christ acts as the vehicle of the divine promise to each in his/her singularity is present in the gospels as well. One may argue that the ethics of the kingdom announced by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount are a reflection of this ethics of inexhaustible love. To read the Sermon on the Mount in the context of the divine promise diminishes the emphasis on the end-time and appropriates and mandates these ethics as relevant to all who receive God’s promise through Christ. Have we then resolved the difficulty surrounding the kingdom ethics? To say only that the kingdom ethics are relevant now and not strictly the preparation for judgment is not to say that we are any more capable of realizing them. As was the case in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a gap between the announcement of the divine promise and our ability to testify to it. We fail. And in our failing we suffer and cause others to suffer. Can Christianity acknowledge this failing? Is redemption fulfilled upon the offering of the promise through Christ to each in her singularity? The Gospel of Mark says, “the time is near the time is fulfilled, repent and believe.” Why repent and believe? Isn’t it enough to believe?

It is Luther who perhaps more than any other Christian theologian understood this Markan mandate. Yes, Luther tells us, now is the time of the promise, but we are at once justified and sinners. The promise is now, but it has come near to us in our sin and while God has offered us justification, we remain sinners until God’s work is complete. The promise is near us � God is with us, Luther tells us, in our refusal of God even after the promise is offered. The time of the promise is now. The time of fully receiving it and testifying to it is now and tomorrow. How then can we wait? How can we emerge out of our sin? Only through God’s grace � a grace that heals the sick and sets her on a course of improvement.

Ironically enough, it is Luther’s doctrine of ” sum simul justus et peccator ” that brings Luther closest to the Judaism that he so vehemently demonized. To recognize the suffering of the Cross � the extension of the promise into our suffering is to recognize that God’s promise at once guarantees that all are cared for and provides the means whereby we may check or overcome our failings to participate within it. While Luther himself never recognized the similarity between his view of time and the rabbinic view of his time, nor did he fully identify those operations of grace within Christianity that help check our sin and falsify idolatrous expressions of the promise, his theology opens a space for other Christians to identify these corrective elements in the tradition � what are the sacraments and the hermeneutical practices of the church, but those operations whereby God is near us in our sin and graciously helps Christians testify to the ethics of the kingdom? Among the manifold operations of grace whereby Christianity might express its journey of repair from sin to righteousness is the practice of scriptural reasoning. Just as the appreciation of the divine promise led Judaism outward to scriptural reasoning with Christians and Muslims, so recognition of the promise leads Christians to study texts with Jews and Muslims as an exercise not only of expressing the presence of the promise now but also of expressing the repair that mediates between the divine perfection and human imperfection.


[1] Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, The Beginnings of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (Doubleday, NY, 1995), p. 73.

[2] By fantasy I mean an image or portrait of one’s desires.

[3] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism , trans. Simon Kaplan (Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, NY, 1972), p. 169.

[4] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance: The Thought and Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveithick , ed. Pinchas H. Peli, (Paulist Press, NY, 1984), p. 32.

[5] Soloveitchik, On Repentance , p. 78.

[6] Ibid., p. 86.

[7] Pamela Eisenbaum, ” Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Anti-semitism? ,” ( Cross Currents , December, 2000.)

[8] Eisenbaum