Reading Ephesians

Anyone who knows me, knows I am not fond of military imagery in theology: “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is not my favorite hymn. Too much of the Crusades clings to that imagery. However, I had something of an insight reading about the “breastplate of righteousness” this time around, or at least raised a question I would like to chase down at some future date.

Most of the language in this paragraph in Ephesians (6:10-20) comes straight from Isaiah and the Psalms. Isaiah 59:16-17 reads, “He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was none to intervene; So his own arm brought about the victory, and his justice lent him its support. He put on justice as his breastplate, salvation as the helmet on his head; He clothed himself with garments of vengeance, wrapped himself in a mantle of zeal. He repays his enemies their deserts, and requites his foes with wrath.” Isaiah 49:2; “He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.” Isaiah 52:7; “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings glad tidings [gospel], announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!'”

What if the author of Ephesians is writing to a group of primarily Gentile christians after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, who nevertheless, as successors to Paul’s community have a tradition of reading and interpreting the prophets? How to make sense of this language of restoration and vengeance becomes a problem. These christians are no longer going to be very interested in the epic of Israel as an etiology for the Jerusalem Temple. All that language is going to have to be reinterpreted. So, in this author’s hands, it becomes language about a cosmic struggle in which every christian is engaged. Philo does something similar with the life of Moses, turning Moses into a good stoic.

The marriage language of Ephesians could also then be a reinterpretation of Hosea, and other passages in the prophets in which God marries Zion, adorning her and presenting himself to her as a bride. cf. Isaiah 62:1-5. Prophecies of restoration have been reinterpreted as metaphors for God’s relationship to the individual christian.

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