A popular and well-known theme often heard from N.T. Wright and his supporters is that Israel failed in her vocation, which was to be a light to the nations, to be instructors of the ignorant and teachers to the immature. This failure is why Jesus, Israel’s God embodied, came. Wright has taken criticism in the scholarly world for overplaying this theme and for making Israel herself the messianic agent (Larry Hurtado argues that there’s no biblical data supporting the idea).
That Israel in some sense failed seems to be a fairly obvious theme in Paul – Romans 2:17-29 is basically an indictment for the failure of ‘the Jew’, who by his boasting both fails in his vocation as teacher and light and blasphemes the name of God among the Gentiles. Israel’s light is broken and dim, and instead of causing other nations to see the greatness of Israel’s god, causes the opposite to happen – the Gentiles want nothing to with God.
It may be here that Wright overplays his hand – though Israel was indeed to be a light, Israel wasn’t the actual agent of salvation but that through which salvation comes. Israel’s failure isn’t so much a failure of its own messianic vocation as a failure of its vocation to pave the way for the messiah.
The problem with which God is faced is that Israel is unfaithful – this is the primary failing on her part, not that she failed to be messianic. Romans 3:2-4 shows that though entrusted with the oracles of God but failing to bring the contents of said oracles to the world, Israel’s unbelief or unfaithfulness appeared to threaten God’s own faithfulness (as a side note, Wright appears to make the Incarnation a bit more contingent than other theologians).
God’s answer to this problem (though some may be uncomfortable with the language of ‘divine problem’, or ‘divine dilemma’, it should be remembered that Athanasius used the same language in ‘On the Incarnation) is reveal His righteousness through the messiah, who is faithful where Israel is not. Through the faithfulness of the messiah, the promises of Abraham are brought to the world. The true light (John 1:9) comes into the world, but this time not just to shine the light into darkness but to be the light of salvation.
Here, then, is where I see a bit stronger ground for the identification of Jesus and Israel by means of vocation. Israel is to a light to those in darkness – Jesus is the light of salvation. Israel is unfaithful, Jesus is faithful, and through his faithfulness God’s righteousness is revealed, where Israel’s unfaithfulness appeared to threaten God’s faithfulness. The identity of Israel with Jesus, then, is one of unfaithfulness/faithfulness in their vocation, as opposed to directly identifying the vocation of Israel/Jesus.
After reading this post, I like the basic point but don’t really feel I did a tight job expounding/arguing for it. Criticisms especially welcome here. Two brief critiques, one from Hurtado and one from Ben Witherington, can be found here.