We are studying Hebrews 9:11-22 (and really, through verse 28) for Sunday, June 16. This is the comparison of Christ’s high priestly function to that of the Levitical priests – to the great advantage of Christ’s. [Questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: As noted earlier this quarter, Hebrews is less like a conventional letter of the time, and more like a different form – an essay or a sermon. It is written in highly educated, rhetorically polished Greek, draws heavily on Hebrew scripture, and uses sophisticated argument.
Hebrews has been interpreted in a distinctively anti-Judaic way from an early point in Christian history, and often still is today. [David Nirenberg has written the book on this. Reviews here, here, here and even elsewhere.] Since the anti-Judaic interpretation of Christian scripture is something I am trying not to support or practice, I’ve been searching for alternative readings. The most comprehensive accessible one seems to be Jody Barnard’s review article for Melilah. She looks at several recent approaches, perhaps the most promising of which pay close attention to the [possible] audience for Hebrews – maybe a “Jewish-Christian” one, that the author is trying to talk out of going back to Temple worship practices, rather than a non-Jewish audience that is being encouraged to see itself as superior to “another religion.”
Barnard herself goes on to argue that more is going on in Hebrews than even these apologists usually notice. According to her, they don’t set it firmly enough in its historical context – namely, the incredibly diverse religious environment of its 1st century day, when “Jews” and “Christians” were really hard to distinguish from one another. In that context, she maintains, the author of Hebrews sounds much less anti-Judaic, and a lot more anti-“Levitical cultic,” which is something different. She supports this reading by noting that some key aspects of Judaism of the time (circumcision, sabbath-keeping), which figure prominently in other parts of the New Testament, are never even mentioned in Hebrews. Moreover, the author’s main support points are drawn from Hebrew scripture, and the author seems to encourage attendance at synagogue (Hebrews 10:24-25, with attention to the use of a Greek word for “gathering” that would most often mean “gathering at [our local] synagogue”). From that perspective, it’s not necessary to read Hebrews as a sweeping declaration of the end of Judaism. It does argue against a particular form of ancient Judaism, but we could read it more like the end of a chapter than the end of a book.
In the context of the book itself, chapter nine is almost the climax of a long comparative discussion that has been establishing the surpassing excellence of Jesus Christ: better than angels, better than the [then-contemporary] Levitical priests, mediating a better version of the covenant with better sacrifices – or rather, a better sacrifice – in a better sanctuary. Chapter nine zeroes in on the role of blood in the sacrificial rituals associated with this old-new covenant.
Jesus is introduced as a “high priest” in Hebrews 4:14-5:10, and his high priestly role is discussed further in Hebrews 6:19-8:7 (almost where we left off a couple of weeks ago). Our reading this week takes up almost at this point.
The first verses of the chapter outline the architecture and furnishings of the Tabernacle (9:1-5), highlighting the importance of the separation of the main section of the Tabernacle from the Holy of Holies, into which the high priest goes only once a year – a reference to the Day of Atonement ritual as detailed in Leviticus 16. Verse 9 raises the matter of the “conscience of the worshipper,” which will be repeated in our section, as remaining untouched by these ritual purifications.
We should probably note here that, even though we don’t know precisely when Hebrews was written, and in particular are not sure whether it was written before or after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, NO ONE has suggested it was written before the construction of either of the Temples, back in Solomon’s day. (Permission to laugh at that, because that suggestion would be completely ludicrous.)
So we could also note that the author is treating the Temples as, in essence, extensions of the Tabernacle here, using the design and use of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all of the cultic worship of ancient Judaism. In effect, this erases the distinction between Tabernacle and Temple. It’s like the author is suggesting that all of this worship up to “now,” including the worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, has been “wilderness” worship.
CLOSER READING: In verse 11, the “high priest” that Christ is serves in an uncreated – that is, divine – sanctuary. His priestly ministry is contrasted with the earthly priesthood by being once for all rather than repetitive, and by using different blood (v12) – his own, rather than animals’.
The author begins to draw on a range of Levitical rituals, starting with v13. The “ashes of a heifer” probably refers to the ritual for preparing special sacred material to be used in purifying people who have come in contact with the dead (see Numbers 19). The “water and scarlet wool and hyssop” in v19 might also refer to this recipe for red heifer ashes, but it could also be a reference to the procedure for purifying a leprous house (see Leviticus 14:48-53) – even though it is referring explicitly to Moses’ ritual action after receiving the 10 Commandments (see Exodus 24:3-8) – which doesn’t feature the water and yarn and hyssop, but does feature the language of “the blood of the covenant” (v20).
My point is that the author brings together MANY ritual references in this section, that would presumably have been understood by the appropriate audience, and that call up a complex of associations: the covenant with its ethical prescriptions, the need for purification, the Tabernacle and its resemblance to a house or tent – that also seems to require purification – all for the sake of making it possible for people to worship a holy God.
V12 makes Christ both priest and sacrifice by having “his own blood” be the offering in the Holy Place – a statement which, by the way, probably helps explain why the tradition of reading the gospel account of the curtain of the temple being torn in two as a reference to the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple is so strong.
V13 and 14 contrast the purification of “flesh” in the Levitical rituals with the purification of “conscience” by Christ’s priestly action, a purification appropriate to the worship of the living God.
The discussion in vv16-18 hinges on a Greek word that can be translated as either “will” or “covenant”, as we saw earlier in chapter 8.
I have heard verse 22 quoted a lot. In all that time, I’ve never heard anyone quote the whole verse, with the “under the law almost everything is purified with blood and …” part. It really changes the sense of the verse, it seems to me as a reader, making it … something that pertained to a specific way of doing things, in ancient times.
Because for all the “that was then, this is now” reading that’s been done of Hebrews, that particular verse has been a popular exception. Or so it seems to me. Why is that, I wonder?
Maybe the answer lies in v23. It’s hard to think that the divine sanctuary itself requires purifying sacrifices. It seems more likely to be … the worshippers, on whose behalf (v24) those sacrifices have been made.