Part 1: Moral vs. Ethnic Righteousness
Righteousness is a concept that has always been associated with deeds. That is, what a person does enables a person to tell whether or not that person is righteous or unrighteous. So then, the person who does what is good is rightly called “righteous”, while the person who does evil is rightly called “unrighteous”. In this way, righteousness has been defined as an attribute that implies that a person’s actions are justified, and can have the connotation that the person has been “judged” or “reckoned” as leading a life that is pleasing to God. This is altogether true. The Scriptures definitely speak of righteous deeds, actions, motives and the like. However, there is another way in which the term “righteousness” is to be understood throughout both the Old and New Testament. That is, a righteousness that proceeds from ethnic purity. Although righteousness is almost never understood this way when it is read by most Bible readers today, it becomes us to understand righteousness under this category in order to read the Bible rightly, and in order that through gaining a grasp of this understanding, we might learn how this “ethnic righteousness” has been rethought in light of Christ’s resurrection.
Righteousness in the Bible had a two-fold understanding. The first and most common way in which it was understood was with regard to moral righteousness. Under this category of moral righteousness, righteousness is defined by morally doing what was good and upright in God’s sight. Here are a few examples of how righteousness is used in this way. Of Abraham God says, “I have chosen him that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him (Gen 18:19).” And to the priests he says, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor (Lev 19:15).” And again he says to the people of Israel, “the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people (Deut 9:6).” After this last statement concerning the unrighteousness of Israel, he goes on to describe the many lawless deeds which they have done, and how they have not performed what is right in God’s sight. Thus, in this way righteousness was defined as morally doing what was good and right in God’s sight.
The latter and more unpopular way in which the term righteousness is understood today is to be understood in terms of ethnic purity. For lack of categorical terms, I have called it ethnic righteousness. This ethnic righteousness was not derived by the accomplishment of moral deeds of charity or uprightness; rather, this righteousness was bestowed upon Israel by the free gift of God’s choice of them. In this way, Israel’s righteousness was bound up with God’s election of them. This can be observed in Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:15. When opposing Peter, he says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth, and not Gentile sinners.” This statement was made, not merely because Gentiles sin more than Jews. In fact, that wasn’t true at all. Rather, it was a statement made in order to highlight the ethnic righteousness which both Paul and Peter had by the inheritance of birth being born Jewish; a righteousness which Gentiles where excluded from.
As a matter of fact, Gentile nations outside Israel were called the uncircumcised. They had no share in God’s covenant, and therefore had no share in the blessing of eternal life which God had promised to Abraham. Just as the apostle Paul spoke of the Gentile nations saying “…Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:11-12).” It was only to those Gentiles who abandoned their nation, household, lands, and were willing to sojourn within Israel by becoming circumcised that were to be blessed along with them. Concerning the Gentiles, the prophet Isaiah says of them, “They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand (Isa 44:18)”, but of Israel God said, “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ (Isa 45:19).” For this reason, election was understood as a matter of ethnic descent, and ethnic righteousness was the result. Such righteousness was not a matter of grace, but a matter of due. That is, even though election was a gift to the nation of Israel itself, the ethnic righteousness which proceeded from being a part of the chosen nation was seen as a matter of inheritance.
That being said, this ethnic righteousness, though counted as Israel’s birthright, was not without the need to be upheld. To the contrary, under the law there were many commandments which God gave to Israel in order that by doing them, they might uphold their ethnic righteousness. While God’s election of them was secure, the righteousness which they were to inherit by means of their ethnic descent could be jeopardized by failing to uphold ethnic barriers regarding purity and cleanness which God commanded them to observe in the law. Moses said, “If a person does these commandments he shall live by doing them (Lev 18:5).” Because this ethnic purity and ethnic cleanness was commanded by God in the law, becoming ceremonially impure and ceremonially unclean was deemed to be unrighteous. Consequently, the people of Israel became guilty before God by reason of touching an unclean animal caucus (Lev 5:1), eating unclean foods (Lev 11:43), having a bodily emission (Lev 15:15, 30-32), leaving your dung unburied (Deut 23:13-14), Touching the garments of a leprous person, or even walking into a diseased house (Lev 14:46-47). There were also the more pressing matters of ethnic purity regarding Israel’s separation from the nations (Acts 10:28), the command to be circumcised (Gen 17:14), to avoid association with Gentiles (Deut 23:2-3), to avoid the practice Gentile customs (Lev 19:19, 27-28), etc… Violations of these commands often resulted in death, or being cut off from the people. In both cases, a person’s status of ethnic righteousness would be forfeited as a result of their lawlessness. Thus, ethnic righteousness was inherited by being an Israelite, and sustained through their obedience to legal practices given to preserve their ethnic purity.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it must be noted that just because a person was ethnically righteous having kept all of the precepts of obedience to the laws regarding ethnic purity and holiness, this did not make him morally righteous before God. Note how Paul boasted of his own ethnic righteousness saying, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Phil 3:5-6).” The Pharisees did not have a reputation for moral righteousness. Rather, they were known as a group whose primary occupation was to ensure the nation’s ethnic purity was faithful to God. Therefore, Paul could speak of being blameless in righteousness, while still remaining in moral compromise.
That being said, it was equally true that moral righteousness was only to be found in Israel. While Israel was the only nation capable of fulfilling the commands of God concerning the upholding of ethnic righteousness, they were also the only nation capable of fulfilling God’s commands concerning moral righteousness (Ps 147:19-20). Consequently, to be a Gentile was deemed synonymous with being unrighteous in both respects; that is, both morally and ethnically. That is why Paul called said of them that they were “having no hope, and without God in the world (Eph 2:12).” In their uncleanness, the Gentiles were rendered incapable of pleasing God. However, this was not the case with Israel. Rather, Israel was not only capable of upholding ethnic righteousness through the law, but was also entrusted with the law as a means by which they might become morally righteous by obeying it.
So then, the first step in rethinking righteousness in light of Christ’s resurrection is to understand that in Scripture there is a category of righteousness which is to be understood in terms of ethnic purity and not according to morality.