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A few years ago, Charles Cosgrove, my colleague here at Northern Seminary, published a book that I believe still deserves to be read by a wider public today. His book, Elusive Israel: The Puzzle of Election in Romans, was published by Westminster John Knox in 1997. His book deals with the question of the election of Israel in the book of Romans.
At the time Elusive Israel was published, it received many positive reviews. For example, John Proctor from Westminster College at Cambridge said in the Expository Times that Cosgrove’s book gives “much food for thought about Paul, about Israel and the nations, and about our responsibilities to the Bible.”
Steven Bechtler from Philips University said that this book is “an ingenious and provocative interpretation [on the destiny of Israel and it is ] . . . highly recommended not only for scholars but for ministers.” Anthony J. Saldarini, from Boston College, writing in Bible Review said: “Cosgrove reads Paul carefully and faithfully” and “has responded to one of the traditional purposes of scripture, to discomfort the complacent and stimulate them to hear God’s word anew.” Another reviewer said that Elusive Israel was “a remarkable book.”
Cosgrove’s book is a study of what he calls “the puzzle of election” in the book of Romans. The aim of his study is to deal with conflicting but reasonable interpretations of several key passages in the book of Romans dealing with the identity and destiny of Israel.
Cosgrove develops his argument within the four chapters of his book. In Chapter 1, Cosgrove explores the identity of Israel by constructing an imaginary dialogue among three Roman Christians who were very familiar with the content and details of the letter Paul had sent to the Roman Church.
The discussion among Chariton, a gentile Christian and Simeon and Reuben, two Jewish Christians focuses on the identity of Israel in Romans and the equally plausible but conflicting interpretations of the writings of Paul. The main issue is Paul’s affirmation of Israel’s election and his insistence on divine impartiality.
In Chapter 2, Cosgrove examines Paul’s use of co-deliberation to invite his audience, within the limits of plausible exegesis, to choose the true meaning of the text. As Cosgrove said: “Paul’s apparent intent is ambiguous enough in Romans to allow for more than one critically justifiable interpretation of what he says about the divine election of Israel . . . [Paul] places interpretive options before our will, and we choose” (p. 32). This is what Cosgrove calls “hermeneutical election.” According to Cosgrove, in Romans 11:11 ff., Paul encourages us to do just that: “to elect for or against the election or dis-election of carnal Israel” (p. 32).
Chapter 3 considers the result of the canonization of Romans: the transformation of the apocalyptic Paul into prophetic Paul. The result of this transformation is Paul’s declaration of the imminent salvation of “all Israel” and his teaching that the church exists already within the beginning of the end. The church also “stands within a larger canonical story that assumes the continuance of history beyond the age of the apostles and thus implies that the divine revelation to Paul is not to be fulfilled in the way he expected.”
In Chapter 4 Cosgrove exercises his hermeneutical election and comes to the conclusion that Paul affirms “that the Jewish people are the true and irrevocably elect Israel.” In order to come to this conclusion, Cosgrove is informed by moral judgment and his own ethical views, which in turn is informed by modern discussion on the destiny of Israel to justify this interpretation, which according to him, is most conducive to a humane use of Romans by the church in the late twentieth century.
To give two examples from the book, I take Romans 9:6: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Cosgrove says that this is “the most enigmatic statement about Israel in Romans” (p. 65). Here in this verse there are two different uses of the name Israel in Romans, what Cosgrove calls Israel A and Israel B.
Then Paul says in Romans 11:13-14: “ Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” Here Paul speaks about saving some of them (some of his fellow Jews). In Romans 11:5 Paul speaks of a remnant: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”
But then, in Romans 11:25-26 Paul says: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved.” Since Paul says that “all Israel will be saved” then, how does the reader deal with Romans 9:22-26, a text that seems to teach that God has created some vessels destined for destruction. To this issue Cosgrove says: “I have opted to adjudicate the question of the identity of ‘all Israel’ in 11:26 in a way that requires the complementary exegetical decision that Romans 11 supplies a surprise sequel to Romans 9:22ff. The effect of this sequel is to overturn the impression that the majority of Israelites are . . . vessels of wrath” (p. 85).
Charles Cosgrove has written a challenging book. One does not have to agree with every conclusion of the book to know that Cosgrove has written a thought-provoking book. I am sure that this work will force every reader of the book to consider the implications of his study. Although Cosgrove’s book was written more than a decade ago, this book is still worth reading.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary