The Levir in Romans
One of the things that happened in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus was his vindication in the face of man’s rivalrous judicial execution.
But Jesus’s execution was not just a judicial condemnation of God. At Sinai, Jesus, as Yahweh, espoused his people through the Law, and it is on this basis that the prophets later accused Israel of adultery and called her to repentance and a hope of restoration (e.g., Jer. 31:31ff). In the gospels, Jesus the husband returned to Israel to conduct an inspection of jealousy (Num. 5). Instead of repenting, the guilty bride put her own husband to death as a grotesque way of covering her sin.
Amazingly, God had arranged for just such a death to truly cover (atone for) sin, provided there is repentance.
All of this hearkens back to the death of a previous husband. Adam, the archetypal husband, sinned and died. Eve, the archetypal bride, needed a new husband: Israel needed a new Adam. Eve’s hope, and Israel’s hope, was in the coming seed. So we see here the dual function of the levir (Deut. 25): a new husband, to bring the seed. The bride’s hope, Israel’s hope, was in a new husband, a new Adam. The mother’s hope, Israel’s hope, was in her offspring, the seed. Yet bride Israel destroyed her only hope, by killing her husband; and mother Israel destroyed her only hope, by consuming her own seed (a la Exodus 23:19, etc.).
This may be a helpful framework for approaching Romans 6-8. Paul speaks of Jesus’s death, and our related death to sin and to the law. But in just what way have we died? Here’s my thesis: (1) Israel was espoused to Jesus through the law at Sinai, the former Pentecost; (2) Israel put her husband to death, thereby incurring greater guilt but also dissolving the marriage made through the law; (3) Jesus was raised as his vindication, thereby condemning Israel; (4) a new and resurrected husband was offered to a new Israel, the church: to all individuals who undergo the “death” of repentance; (5) all Israel thus underwent some form of death, whether the death of judgment in AD 70 or the death of repentance; and (6) the church was espoused to her husband through the Spirit rather than the law at the latter Pentecost.
This raises the following suggestions in Romans 6-8:
- We have died to sin in that we have repented, identifying ourselves with the crucified and buried husband rather than the faithless bride
- Baptism (associated with the Spirit), and union with Christ, are both aspects of incorporation into the bride and the bride’s own union with her husband, her head
- The “body of sin” could either refer to our union with Adam, or to Israel herself
- Although the law still reveals God’s will to us (and in fact is said to be written on our hearts), we are not under the law in the sense that the law is no longer the most fundamental form of the church’s communion with her husband. The church is now espoused to Jesus through the Spirit, so that the most fundamental form of communion we have with Jesus is through the Spirit.
- Freedom from the law is only half the picture. We must have a new husband and be faithful to him.
- This all suggests that in Romans 7, Paul is speaking of the historia salutis more than the ordo salutis. He is personifying the bride’s experience — Israel’s experience — more than his personal experience. This is not to say that the passage has no bearing on our experience as individuals; it must, if creation is fundamentally typological. But this is not primarily what Paul has in view; he is speaking of real historical transitions in Jesus’s relationship to his bride.
- This also suggests that there is a corporate reading of Romans 8 that we should layer on top of our individual reading. Jesus not only animates us as individuals through his Spirit, but also his church itself. It is the Spirit who prepares the bride and unites her to Jesus.