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Hebrews Backgrounds

Since I’m revising my Hebrews study guide, and have been for more than a year, I can bring up complaints against the old one. One of the most common complaints was that people had a hard time connecting the background reading to the current passage. I included three reading lists: 1) Minimum reading, 2) Extra reading, and 3) Advanced reading. My normal response to that complaint was to suggest just using the minimum reading, and people generally found that worked. The problem is that sticking with the minimum reading results in diminishing the value of the study. Hebrews is a connected book.

I could say that about any book of the Bible, in that one can see the canon as a form of story, the story of the people of faith who become the church. I say that not to diminish the Hebrew scriptures, but rather to emphasize that, combined into the Christian Bible and Christian canon, the story extends into the story of the church. Being able to see Bible passages in the context of the broader story is very important. Hebrews, however, is very much about the connections, and thus understanding it is very much about knowing the background. One can, of course, jump in at the end of the story. This is like looking at the last chapter of a mystery to find out who really did the deed without looking at the process by which the characters found out about it.

Hebrews asks, and I believe answers, the question of how we, as Christians get from being centered on Torah to being centered on the person of Jesus. How do we go from the scriptures of the people of Israel to the message and mission of the church? In these questions lie the avenues to many errors. One of the most critical errors, I think, is to see Hebrews as proposing a massive disjunction between the Old Testament and the New, a view that the Old Testament was superceded because it was bad. This error results from the forward momentum of the book being read as a denial or denigration of the old. In reality, Hebrews does not put aside the Old Testament any more than the reader of a book dismisses a previous chapter because he begins to read a new one. The old chapter wasn’t bad. That’s not why you turned the page. If the previous chapter was bad, you’re more likely putting down the book entirely. (Note: I follow in this post my usual practice of using the term “Hebrew Scriptures” when referring to the books we Christians call the Old Testament as an historical document and “Old Testament” when I’m referencing those same books as part of the Christian Bible. I see these as different views.)

So when Hebrews starts out talking about how God spoke to our forefathers, this isn’t to say, “Wow, what a lousy mode of communication God used, but now, finally, at the end, God has gotten it right!” Rather, it is to say, “Look at the new thing God is now doing right on time! The foundation is good, so we’ll build on it. But it’s not the whole house.” (I must note that this foundation/house distinction has its own problems. I believe the author of Hebrews sees God’s intention in all of the Old Testament passages he quotes. He’s not saying that God created something new out of whole cloth. The new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is not nearly as new as it looks at first glance. Rather, in this passage God expresses his intention to carry out his plans in spite of human failings. We may fail, but God’s plan continues.

So in order to understand the book of Hebrews one needs to understand this background. If you read it without knowing the material referenced, you may get the idea that this is intentionally new and surprising, when instead it is designed carefully to be (and look like) a natural next chapter. “See,” the author suggests, “this is what God has been building up to for generations.”

I’ve said before that the most formative books for my theology have been Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus in that order. I didn’t actually study them in that order, though I have always been fascinated by Hebrews, but a college independent study working on the first chapter of Ezekiel led to many other things and finally a study through Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s wonderful three volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. So while I could hardly call myself an expert in Torah, I’ve read somewhat more in this area than the average Christian. Working through Leviticus gave me a different view of both Leviticus and Hebrews. The sanctuary system of worship was not really an end in itself, as we so often read it. Rather, it was a means to an end. The details here are well beyond a blog post that is already getting longer than it should!

Some argue that the author of Hebrews must have been a priest due to his knowledge of, and interest in, the temple service. I would suggest that isn’t the case. The knowledge that is needed to write a book like Hebrews is a strong knowledge of the Old Testament passages in the context of their story. Too frequently we see “reading in context” as a matter of making sure we read the verse (or even chapter!) before and the verse after. That’s important, as single phrases can be taken out of their immediate context.

But there is also a broad cultural and historical context. When was the passage written? Who wrote it? To whom was it addressed? All of these are questions that help us understand a passage. I would suggest that the author of Hebrews knows his scriptures well and knows the story. When he seems to deviate, as he does in many stories in Hebrews 11 (compare the story of Moses in Exodus to Hebrews 11), he is doing so for a particular purpose. (Hint: I believe it has to do with the “why” of perseverance.)

In terms of revising the book, I do intend to keep my reading lists, though I’m adding some notes to help draw the lines between the passages. I think it’s important. One of our problems in reading about the Bible is that we are not well enough acquainted with the Bible itself. Thus someone can suggest something that correctly quotes a number of Bible texts, but still misses important points.

Let me give an example. One of the blogs I read (HT: Arthur Sido) pointed me to an article by Greg Boyd talking about the “eye for an eye” command of the Old Testament being superceded. And there is much of interest to interpretation, I believe, in those “you have heard … but I say” statements in the Sermon on the Mount. In applying particular commands to particular times and circumstances, one must be aware of those circumstances. Now I’ve provided the link so you can decide if I’m being unfair to Boyd, but it seems to me that he applies an out of context judgment to Elijah, and as a result manages to quite vigorously dismiss a great deal of the Old Testament.

Some questions that need to be answered:

1) Does “an eye for an eye” or, in fact, any of the “but I say unto you” statements of Jesus apply to Elijah and the prophets of Baal? To me, this looks like applying a command to a situation and a time without any consideration. Reading Matthew 7:1 we might well resist judging our contemporaries for such an act, but we have little hesitation in condemning Elijah with no regard for circumstances or context at all. If you haven’t already, please read at least the second to last paragraph of Boyd’s article. How parallel is the situation of Elijah and that of the disciples who are inconvenienced by having to turn to another village (Luke 9:51-55)? I fail to see here a suggestion of how Jesus viewed Elijah.

2) Do the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount turn the corner on God’s judgment, i.e. bring us to a point where judgment no longer occurs? Consider, for example, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), written by the same hand that recorded Luke 9:54-55. Peaceable scene, isn’t it?

3) While I believe strongly that we have trajectories in scripture, i.e. we are going somewhere with each statement, so we may see modifications, we need to be sure that the place we’re going is not entirely of our own making. One of the things that happens in Hebrews is that the author sees his destination rolled into the texts he cites. He’s building on something he has read thoroughly.

4) What about the eschatological sayings of Jesus? Are these also to be dismissed?

My own response to Greg Boyd’s article is not some sort of revulsion that he suggested an action by Elijah was demonic. Rather, it’s that he pulled so much out of so little with relatively little basis. I’m afraid that it strikes me as inept handling of scripture. I’ve heard so much better, scripturally faithful arguments for non-violence. This is writing your own story in the white spaces without bothering to truly understand the story as you have it.

Is there a need to respond to violent passages in the Old Testament? Indeed there is! And while we’re at it, let’s respond to a few violent passages in the New Testament as well. But let’s do so by understanding rather than dismissing. I think that’s the pattern Hebrews has set, and it’s a good one.

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  1. Henry, you are making me return to a study of Hebrews, but my question now is are you familiar with Milgrom’s book on Leviticus in the Continental Commentary series? Do you recommend it? His three volume work in Anchor is more than I can handle just now.

    1. I haven’t used Milgrom’s shorter work, but I will recommend without hesitation anything he writes. He has the capacity to thoroughly express opposing views. You could become convinced of an opponents position by reading his exposition of it. That’s how thorough and fair he is. He then makes very clear his own reasons for holding a different view.

      His background in the related literature from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures is practically unparalleled. In the Anchor Bible set he covers the history of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian. There are very few commentators for whom I have a similar level of respect, and none for whom my respect is greater.

    2. One other note …

      I quite understand how daunting that 3 volume (about 2200 pages) set can be. My own study of it occupied nearly I year if I remember correctly. I don’t always agree, but in several cases I learned the opposing position from Milgrom himself.

      Another good source of information on Torah is the JPS Commentary set. Milgrom wrote the volume on Numbers. Quite frankly I think Christians need to read Jewish commentary on the Torah to get anywhere. I have simply not read anything by Christian commentators to match, even where the Christian commentator is reflecting theology I strongly approve. The engagement with the text is just generally not adequate. The contributor to the JPS series are all excellent writers, and though there is a great deal of appeal to the Hebrew as you would expect, I think one could read it without being conversant with the language.

  2. Speaking of learning from the opposing position, I left fundamentalism after hearing the arguments against critical theory in seminary. They sounded better than what the conservative prof was defending.

    Thanks for the good info on Leviticus.

  3. Henry, I’m just guessing here, but in regards to your formative books, Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus, is it because you see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement that springs from Leviticus? And Ezekiel foresees a renewed covenant that Hebrews embellishes? Just wondering.

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