As a child I soon learnt that I had a rare, somewhat deliberating condition. This aliment, because that’s how this condition seemed to me, often left me feeling like a ‘side dish’ as the kids say today. There seemed to be a code, that the other males fell seamlessly inline with. Despite my best efforts to learn and use this code, I was always several steps behind. It seemed all the other boys effortlessly received regular updates regarding this code, and that these updates were easily understood and incorporated into that most cruel of environments, the primary school playground. I was constantly out of date, never really deciphering what the others were on about. It is only in later life that I have self-diagnosed my condition, and as is often the case with knowledge, came a certain level of understanding.
This understand beings a level of peace, and some of the fear has gone out of male gatherings. I can now admit, with my head held high, that I just don’t care about football. It’s not that I haven’t tried; I cannot summon any level of enthusiasm that goes beyond 2 or 3 minutes for what is, after all, just a game. I was born without the football gene.
We Gentiles are just out of it.
Perhaps I have laboured the point above. However, we come up hard against exactly this in Eph 2 vs 11 and 12. This sense of feeling ‘out of it’.
‘Formerly you who are Gentiles by birth’ writes Paul to a largely Gentile audience, were know by the Jews as the ‘uncircumcised’. Big deal. To the modern ear that does not sound so bad really… but if this was translated into today’s febrile situation it would be clear racism since gentile basically means ‘non-Jew’. People would be offended. Some would need their ‘safe spaces’.
Paul goes further. In verse 12 he describes gentiles as being:
- separated from Christ
- not chosen
- uninformed about the covenant with God
- without hope
- without God
Again, in our times you might think ‘Ok…. bit rude, but stuff him.’ But back then this was a big deal, and as ever with Paul, it is so relevant to today. Paul is summerising what the OT seems to suggest regarding the ‘dividing line’ between Jew and Gentile. The writer of 1 Kings demonstrates this assumption that gentiles are both both spatially and spiritually removed from God when they write that a ‘foreigner comes from a far country … and prays toward’ the temple. You gentiles – if you want to experience God – you have to come to the here, and you have to do it this way seems to be the message whereas for Israel God has ‘raised up a horn’ for the people ‘who are near to him’. 1 Kings 20:41, Ps 148:14.
This special status of the Hebrew’s is further underlined by an inscribed ‘warning stone’ that was found in 1871. This stone was hung outside the entrance to the second courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. Gentiles were allowed in the outer, aptly named ‘court of the Gentiles’. However, should a curious gentile dare to go beyond that court, perhaps because they felt the lure of Yahweh … Written in Greek from the time of the rebuilding of the temple it is a ‘temple warning’ text to gentiles and reads:
Let no foreigner enter within the parapet and the partition which surrounds the Temple precincts. Anyone caught [violating] will be held accountable for his ensuing death.
So a serious dividing line then. We have access to God and you don’t. Other divisions abound, and it seems as if one purpose of the law was to act as boundary markers to guard the purity of the Jewish race. A ‘fence’ protected the Jews from ethical decay, forbidding intermarriage, cultural appropriation or even eating with Gentiles. Though surely not intended, human nature inevitably led to the Jews showing contempt for Gentiles’ and seeing them as ‘less than human.’ In response gentiles regarded Jews with suspicion, considering them inhospitable and hateful to non Jews. (72)
Even this short survey shows that the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ as Paul depicts it in 3:14 is real, significant and very limiting. It was not just a question of textual interpretation that interested only scholars, but actually impacted day to day relations between communities. The dividing wall was never intended, and it had to come down.
I have, at a couple of points above, hinted towards current events in the United Kingdom at the time of writing. We have just officially exited the European Union, after 3 years of wrangling. Wherever you land in the debate, everyone seems to agree that the level of disagreement is unsurpassed in living memory. Stories of family members, friends and colleagues falling out over Brexit abound. Perhaps this kingdom has never been so dis-united. We have erected another dividing wall, and it too needs to come down.
That’s the subject for the next post.