Before I went overseas with my parents at 14 years of age we were all required to be briefed about culture shock. Sometimes people have very negative reactions to encountering cultures different than their own. We saw this happen with people who went to Guyana (where I was for three years and my parents for seven), who would come to really despise everything Guyanese. It was hard for me to comprehend, because the Guyanese people, while they did things differently than Americans, were not really all that shocking. You adjusted slightly to the local norms, and life went on.
We saw this happen with people who went to Guyana (where I was for three years and my parents for seven), who would come to really despise everything Guyanese. It was hard for me to comprehend, because the Guyanese people, while they did things differently than Americans, were not really all that shocking. You adjusted slightly to the local norms, and life went on. My parents were accused of letting me go too “native,” whatever that meant.
Since then I’ve seen this happen to people experiencing different regions of the United States. It doesn’t take huge differences to cause some shock. It really doesn’t have as much to do with the amount of difference, but rather with how one reacts to the differences. To live with those differences you don’t actually have to change your values or your personality. You just have to recognize who the other person is. You can even disapprove, if you keep it in bounds, and especially if you recognize that the person from another culture has every bit the right to their cultural norms as you have to yours. If you’re visiting, they have more!
Sometimes visiting the worlds of Bible writers can result in culture shock. The cultures of biblical writers were quite different from ours, more different than anything we’d likely experience in traveling in the modern world. I would suggest that the goal must be not to get so shocked by the differences in culture that we fail to hear the people behind these events.
In fact, I find that frequently our tendency to stand in judgment on the characters in stories and even the authors often diminishes our ability to truly experience the value of the story itself. And even many didactic passages are, in essence, story.
Since I’m talking so much about Hebrews, let me apply this to that book. I’ve been searching for metaphors to express two things: 1) The overall message and 2) The role of sacrifice in the book. Here are some ideas. I’ll refine them as I go.
For the overall message, I’ve been using the train. I recall in my first visit to Germany I was met at the Frankfort airport by my translator, who was about 20 years old and one of the few people I’ve encountered who walk faster than I do on a regular basis. We had to catch a train, and to do so we crossed numerous tracks, passed numerous trains, and finally jumped on one at the last minute, just before it started to roll.
My German is good enough to read signs and follow directions, but I couldn’t keep up. By the time we got on the train I was thoroughly lost and couldn’t have told you the destination. I was completely dependent on my translator. After we left the station, for a disturbing moment, she thought she had gotten on the wrong train, but then she determined we were head to the right place and we settled down.
I think I could translate much of the message of Hebrews into a train metaphor. It’s all about getting on the right train and staying on there until it reaches the destination. You have doubts, perhaps, along the way, but you double check (as the author of Hebrews is doing) and you realize you’re still headed in the right direction. There’s nothing more to be done. Just stay on the train. It will take you where you’re going.
I’ll apply this metaphor in a number of texts, though I will note that there are rough edges. Still, I’m finding it more helpful than not.
Second is the metaphor of sacrifice, particularly animal sacrifice. I have discussed atonement and the death of Jesus elsewhere and will doubtless do so many times more. Here I’m referring only to animal sacrifice as part of a general cultic experience. This is something that modern minds find difficult to embrace, or even to observe from a distance. What can all those slaughtered lambs, goats, rams, and bulls have to do with a positive experience?
There are two directions in which I think we fail in relating to sacrifice in scripture. The first is to reduce sacrifice to blood atonement for sin. There are sin offerings, and sacrifices did relate to sin, but blood atonement for sin was not the exclusive view. To see sacrifice as just about blood atonement is just as much a misunderstanding as to dismiss it entirely, which is the second direction in which we often fail.
My metaphor here is community, specifically mutual support and communication in community. The cultic system involves the divine in the activities of the community and the sacrifices relate to the various aspect of this set of relationships. Atonement (and I’ll discuss various words at some later time) doesn’t just involve dealing with specific sinful acts, but rather with a restoration of those relationships and those communications.
We tend to separate prayer and hearing God speak from the activities of the cult. Prophet and priest have different roles, never to meet. But the priest also had a role in communication and the cult supported community.
I think that without this fuller aspect of sacrifice we are likely to misunderstand Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. He is not just a bigger, stronger, better blood sacrifice for sin. He is the only one who can by nature perfect the lines of communication between God and humanity.
Much more on that later as well!