Though I’ve read Delivered From the Elements of This World, once before, I did so again earlier today.
“Flesh” (σαρχ, sarks) is not merely a word for bone and muscle, but a multi-dimensional (not incoherent), metaphor. The term itself is the word Paul uses to describe humanity post-Fall (after the ‘Lapse’), and has a range of at least five senses that Leithart traces out.
(1) In Hebrew, flesh is the term bāśār and specifically is focused on the male genitals (Lev. 15), shown in the location God’s sign to Abraham is put (Gen. 17:11).
(2) Therefore, the metaphor extends not just from the physical body, but to refer to genealogy, ancestry, and descent. Paul mourns for the fate of his kinsmen who are ‘according to the flesh’ (Romans 9:3)
“Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones” is kin language in the Old Testament (see Gen 29:15; Judg 9:2; 2 Sam 5:1).”1
(3) The meaning of “flesh” also extends to also mean potency (particularly male potency) but humankind in general. The continual bearing of children and efforts made for each generation. Paul puts no hope in the flesh (Phil. 3:5-6), not in future ancestors, not in human efforts to make humankind immortal.
(4) “Flesh” or “Flesh and Blood” are synonyms for human weakness and finitude.
“Life according to flesh can take the form of confidence in one’s achievements. Jews boast in their zeal for the law. Greeks boast in their potency in battle, in public debate, in sexual conquest.”2
(5) Remember, this is why circumcision takes place in the first place. Renouncing the flesh is the only way to overcome it.3
- Leithart, Peter J.. Delivered from the Elements of the World : Atonement, Justification, Mission, InterVarsity Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central. pg. 79
- Ibid. pg. 79
- Ibid. 86-88. “Beginning with circumcision, Israel’s stoicheic regulations signified this vocation. Israel’s rites were parodies of those in other ancient cultures, many of whom already had stoicheic systems prior to the exodus. Gentiles had temples and priesthoods long before Israel, where they performed rites of sacrifice, observed purity regulations and holiness taboos, enjoyed a rich festival life. At every point, these similarities serve to highlight differences. Israel was told to employ the same elements as Gentiles, but to assemble them so as to form a different human physis…Flesh is not the solution to the human dilemma, to death. Flesh is the problem. The obstacle that needs to be removed is flesh itself, and given the connotations of “flesh” in Scripture, circumcision hints that fertility comes only when the phallus itself is cut off. Circumcision is a sign of “descent” only when we think of descent in a paradoxical way: the children of Abraham were marked by a sign of distrust in flesh, a signifier of flesh’s impotence. At the same time the circumcised renounce flesh, they are entrusted to the life-giving God. The mark in the flesh is an absence —an absence of the normal power of procreation. From Abraham on, the most productive, the most fertile, are those without powers of flesh, those who cut off whatever powers of flesh they might possess, and are fruitful by the power of the Spirit, who gives fruit. To drive home the point, this mark of flesh’s impotence was imposed on the already-impotent, on eight-day-old boys. Jesus was repeating something his Father taught him when he pointed to little children as model disciples.”