Hebrews 12:18-29 as Torah Discourse: Intertextual Analysis as an Interpretive Aid David Ketter May 1, 2009

In the history of interpretation, the Epistle to the Hebrews has been understood

primarily as a polemic against Judaism. Because of this assumption, much of the commentary and exegesis of Hebrews has also traditionally had an anti-Judaistic bent. It has influenced how we understand the authorʼs doctrine and his use of the Old Testament Scriptures. Furthermore, it has led us to make assumptions — perhaps correct, perhaps not — about what error the recipients of the text were falling into. As commentator Leon Morris stated, “[the author] sees the ancient system that meant so much to the Jews as no more than an unsubstantial, shadowy affair” (Morris 1981: 94). Since W.D. Davies published Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic

Elements in Pauline Theology in 1948, there has been a significant move in the realm of theology and biblical studies to re-inform our understanding of first century/Second Temple Judaism. This has led to a host of theologies and interpretations of the New Testament — many of which are at odds with each other. This same discussion, however, is what provides the space to re-examine Hebrews, particularly Hebrews 12:18-29, as a text that is not primary polemical, but intertextual and hopeful. By exploring the passage and its Old Testament basis, the author hopes to demonstrate a theology of revelation rather than replacement. First, intertextuality should be established as a credible analysis of New

Testament scriptures. Richard Hays, in his book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, defines intertextuality as follows: “the imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one” (Hays 1989: 14). In other words, Paul and the other epistolary authors of the New Testament — in addition to rabbinic sages of the same era — used the texts and vocabulary of the Old Testament “in a way that reactivated past revelation

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under new conditions” (ibid). In analyzing passages for intertextual “echoes,” Hays provides seven tests: availability of texts, prominence of source text, recurrent allusions, thematic coherence, historical plausibility, historical interpretation, and sensible reading. As these tests apply, they will be used as a framework for testing the strength of the Old Testament foundations in Hebrews 12:18-29. In approaching this passage, it is important to recognize that many of the

phrases contained herein have multiple sources that the author of Hebrews could have pulled from. Some of the themes are frequent in Torah accounts of pertinent narratives. Rather than weakening the argument, however, the frequency makes the intertextual use of the Old Testament in this passage all the more likely.1 For each Old Testament allusion, there are clear connections from Exodus and Deuteronomy simultaneously, while some are rooted only in Exodus or Deuteronomy. There is also two possible allusions to Genesis and a direct quotation from Haggai. Thus, it will be seen that this passage, at least, is Torah-based discourse to address the failings of this purported Jewish-Christian recipients. The Hebrews passage begins with a description of the mountain scene found in

Exodus 19-20 and 24 and Deuteronomy 4-10. While having connection with a multitude of the descriptions of Sinai/Horeb, the passage that most captures this description is Deuteronomy 5:22 (ESV): “These words [the ten commandments] the LORD spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.” This verse, containing most of the elements found in


See “Appendix: Phrase Sources”

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Hebrews 12:18-19, brings to the readerʼs mind an image of covenant-making, namely the giving of Torah. It is important to realize that in the Second Temple Judaism which these

recipients were brought up in did not see Torah as a burden, a nuisance, or a curse. It was the gift of God. One rabbi, in fact, would say in the decades before Jesus, “Upon three things the world stands: upon Torah, upon the Temple service, and upon acts of kindness” (Pirke Avot 1:2, authorʼs translation). Torah, in a certain sense, is foundational to Creationʼs existence and, to the Jewish mind - Pharisee, Essene, Sadducee, or some variation of them - inseparable from Yahwehʼs own revelation of Himself. We know who God is because He revealed His Torah and it teaches us how to live in a way that is in conformity to His active presence in our lives. This is the hope of Israel and the promise of the prophets. So, when the author of Hebrews is describing the Horeb event and the

mountainʼs own manifestation of Godʼs presence, it is not to terrify the readers but to remind them of their place: they were the recipients of Torah. They (in the style of Deuteronomyʼs “you”) were at Sinai and had seen Yahweh reveal Himself. His mighty acts had brought them redemption from Egypt. His love for the patriarchs and election of them and their descendants guaranteed them the kindness of Yahweh. It also laid claim to their faithfulness. Because of Yahwehʼs grace of in redeeming them, Israel owed him obedience and faithful love. Just as it bound Mosesʼ hearers, so it now bound the recipients of Hebrews. Mosesʼ prophetic call to Israel had become the rallying cry of Hebrewsʼ author and he took on the task of prophet. To explore this role, we must examine the quotation of Haggai 2:6.

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The significance of this quotation can be found in its immediate setting, which is

best seen in the text: In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, ” “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, ʻWho is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.ʼ” [Haggai 2:1-9, emphasis mine] In this passage, Yahweh, through the prophet Haggai, is speaking

encouragement and exhortation to the leaders of returning exiles of Judah as they complete the temple. This construction of exiles was a shack compared to the glory of Solomonʼs temple, which had been destroyed nearly a century before. He guarantees it on the basis of the covenant inauguration at Sinai and promises, “My Spirit remains in your midst.” So, where Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the priest had seen reason to question Yahwehʼs favor on His people, Yahweh takes them back to their covenantal roots and provides them unquestionable assurance. And this assurance of His presence means that He will again act mightily on their behalf to remove those things that serve as barriers to His being glorified in their worship.

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For the author of Hebrews to quote directly from this passage is to again provide

assurance and encouragement to his readers. The prophet appeals to Sinai, promises the present work of the Holy Spirit, and provides guarantee that it is Yahweh who will cause Israel to praise Him worthily and faithfully in a manner that is fitting. The author of Hebrews appropriates this text to tell his readers the same. In other words, “Yahweh is calling you to faithful obedience and worship of Him. He has promised His Spirit and guarantees His presence in worship characterized by faithfulness. He has promised, too, that all our images and idols will be shaken and removed. But we have something better: an inheritance, a kingdom in which to worship our God and live in conformity to His presence, knowing the power of His might against wickedness. The passage contains a string of references and allusions from Exodus and

Deuteronomy. Phrases like “blazing fire,” “darkness and gloom,” “tempest,” “the sound of a trumpet,” are a mere sample of this. They, along with most of the others, come from the Horeb encounter described reminiscently in Deuteronomy 4-10 and narrated in Exodus 19-20 and 24. Yet, it would seem that for all the selections present, the theology of the passage is determined primarily by Deuteronomy 4:1-40, which serves as the conclusion to Mosesʼ first discourse to Israel in the book. As a beginning, the contents of Deuteronomy 4:1-40 must be understood.

Deuteronomyʼs own structure is built around three discourses Moses delivers to the people of Israel near the day of his own death and their impending conquest of Canaan. It functions as a preparation for covenant renewal and a reminder for all that Yahweh had done for them, despite the faithless actions of Israel, and the exhortation to be faithful to the covenant that Yahweh had given them because “the LORD set his heart in

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love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deut. 10:15, ESV). The content of Deuteronomy 4:1-40, however, is not part of the natural

progression of a discourse In fact, this passage is a paranesis “concerning various implications of Israelʼs responsibility to obey the Horeb covenant” (Biddle 2003: 77). While Biddle can make little sense of its exhortations in terms of itʼs organization and direction, it is not so difficult as that. In summation, the direction of the passage is to say that Yahweh has claim to Israelʼs faithfulness because of His mighty actions on their behalf, His revealing of Himself to them and His faithfulness to His promises. Therefore, as the argument goes, He alone should be worshipped and He alone should be acknowledged as God and in this way, they would enjoy the life He gives. One of the key words in this passage is nahalah or “inheritance.” According to

Duane L. Christensen, “[t]he central two verses in this structure present [...] a carefully instructed literary whole” in chiastic form, which focuses on nahalah (Christensen 1991: 73). Israel is Yahwehʼs nahalah. “The land,” in turn, is Israelʼs nahalah. This land is Yahwehʼs kingdom and the place of His active presence in the midst of His people (Haggai 2). This motif of receiving an inheritance from Yahweh is then transformed by the author of Hebrews into that very “kingdom that cannot be shaken” from which they can “offer to God acceptable worship.” Thus, the passage as a whole is a call to faithfulness. Far from being a polemic

against Judaism — or rather, an obscure, sectarian Judaism — Hebrews 12:18-29 is virtually saying to the Hebrews, “You serve the great God who brought you out of Egypt and covenanted with you because of the love He had for your forefathers. Worship Him

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faithfully and in truth according to His own demands for worship. He has given you an inheritance — a kingdom that cannot be shaken — so that you may worship Him.” In truth, this argument would be questioned quickly on the grounds of Hebrews

12:22-24: But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. In the history of interpretation, this part of the passage has served as the positive

end of a supreme contrast between, as its been understood, Judaism and Christianity, the old covenant and the new covenant. Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the broad stream of interpretation down to the present day has consistently held this view. Yet, the word alla here does not necessitate a strong contrast. We must take what we know to be true about the passage: Hebrews 12:18-20 is a combination of Exodus and Deuteronomy texts that function much like a Deutereonomic discourse. Furthermore, the exhortation in 25-29 has more in common with prophetic exhortation from Torah for the purpose of calling Yahwehʼs people to obedience. It closes with an undeniable connection to Deuteronomy 4 and the theology of that passage: “our God is a consuming fire.” Since Hebrews 12:18-20, 25-29 have a consistent argument, theology and

common sources, we should not, as interpreters, presume to dismiss that work on the basis of alla in 12:21 and our own presuppositional backgrounds. Rather, we ought to understand alla as the point of transition, the climax of the passage. The author sets up

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a contrast, not to diminish the Sinai covenant, but to make use of its goodness and grace. In essence, the author is making use of the exegetical technique qal vahomer, which is common throughout the epistle (Guthrie 2007, 990). In other words, the grace of God and His deserving the faithful worship and obedience of His people are true of the magnificent scene at Sinai. Compared to Zion, Sinai pales in glory and so, when we speak of those who come to Zion, how much more so is the grace of God evident and how much more so ought His people to serve Him in faithful worship and obedience. Admittedly this has severe implications for the hermeneutics of Hebrews. If

Hebrews 12:18-29 is Torah discourse, particularly displaying the Deuteronomic theology of Yahwehʼs grace and Israelʼs call to faithful obedience, there are surely other parts of the epistle with the same approach. We have read Hebrews as a severe polemic for so long that it would take years of work for us to come to see Hebrews in any other light. One would think, however, that the concern for Godʼs Truth and the desire to be faithful to His word above all else would be sufficient reason for the Church to consider its interpretation of Hebrews and humbly ask and pursue the truthful and faithful interpretations, whatever they may be. One would not be so arrogant as to believe that all our interpretation of Hebrews

would be changed. The supremacy of Christ above angels, Moses, and the Levitical priesthood is without question a major theme in Hebrews. The questions raised would deal with the nature of that supremacy: in other words, what does it mean for these creatures and their roles to be inferior to the One who was the agent of their creation? And since we, like them, are to be placed under His feet, those are important questions

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as we seek to live the lives of faithfulness that God requires of His people as a response to His grace. In closing, we must reconsider our understanding of Hebrews for the sake of the

Jewish mission. Because of Christianityʼs “superiority complex” and consequent practice, which resembles Marcion more closely than it does Paul, we further aggravate the partial hardness of heart that God has given Israel at the present time. Though they be “enemies of God” for our sake, we have largely forgotten that “they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28, another passage reminiscent of Deuteronomy). We have much harm to undo if we are to demonstrate to Israel the grace that Yahweh has shown us Gentiles and thus, to make them jealous for the redemption of Messiah. Rabbi Jacob Emden (d. 1776) was a famous Orthodox rabbi in Europe. He

wrote, at one point, an epistle to Christians appealing to them for fellowship and peace, rather than persecution. He was a scholar and student, rejecting anything that did not conform the strict Jewish orthodoxy (including much of the Zohar and significant portions of Maimonidesʼ writings). For all that, he found much value in the New Testament. In his epistle, he appeals strongly according to the following: If certain Christians who consider themselves scholars would understand this secret, who believe that they are commanded to abolish the Torah of Moses from the seed of Israel, they would not engage in such foolishness. The people listen to their selfconceived words, something which was never intended by the writers of the Gospels. Quite the opposite, they have written clearly that they intended the contrary. Because of these errant scholars, hatred has increased toward the Jews who are blameless of any guilt and proceed innocently to observe their Torah with all their heart, imbued with the fear of God. They should instead bring their people to love the ancient Children

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of Israel who remain loyal to their God, as indeed commanded to Christians by their original teachers. They even said to love ones enemies. How much more so to us! In the name of heaven, we are your brothers! One God has created us all. Why should they abuse us because we are joined to the commandments of God, to which we are tied with the ropes of his love? We do this not to enjoy the pleasures of the (evil) inclination and emptiness of a passing world. For truly (Ps. 44) we have become a byword among the nations, and with all this (ibid.). In God have we gloried all the day, and we will give thanks unto Thy name for ever. We pray for the good of the entire world, and especially for the benefit of these lands in which we reside, protecting us and our observance of the Torah… You, members of the Christian faith, how good and pleasant it might be if you will observe that which was commanded to you by your first teachers; how wonderful is your share if you will assist the Jews in the observance of their Torah (Emden 1757). For the sake of integrity; for the sake of honesty; for the sake of our Christian

duty; for the sake of loving neighbor; and above all, for the sake of the Gospel, we must pursue the Scriptures and seek to understand them aright, apart from the polemics of anti-Judaism. To see the critiques of Jesus, the apostles, and the other writers of Scriptures is to see the call of a covenanting God who desires His people, His possession, to repent and turn again to Him that He might again show them favor in the midst of the nations and we, if we hold fast by His work, shall share in that grace.

Appendix: Phrase Sources “A blazing fire” • Exodus • 19:18 • 24:17 • Deuteronomy • 4:11, 36 • 5:4, 22-24, 26 • 9:10, 15 • 10:4 “darkness and gloom” • Exodus 20:19 • Deuteronomy • 4:11 • 5:22-23 “tempest” • Exodus • 19:16 • 20:18 “the sound of a trumpet” • Exodus • 19:13, 19 • 20:18 “a voice” • Deuteronomy • 4:12, 15, 36 • 5:22-26 “the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them” • Exodus 20:19 • Deuteronomy 5:23-27 “the order that was given” • Exodus 19:12-13 “Moses said” • Exodus 19:16 • Deuteronomy 9:19 “innumerable angels in festal gathering” • Genesis 28:12? “God, judge of all” • Genesis 18:25? “sprinkled blood” • Exodus 24:3-8 “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” • Deuteronomy 4:15-23 “for our God is a consuming fire” • Exodus 24:17 • Deuteronomy 4:24

Bibliography Biddle, Mark E. Deuteronomy. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Edited by P. Keith Gammons. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2003. Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964. Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1-11. Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by John D.W. Watts. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991. Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993. Emden, Jacob. “Rabbi Jacob Emdenʼs Views on Christianity.” 30/04/09. Online: http:// www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/falk1a.html Heen, Erik M. and Philip D.W. Krey. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews. Vol. X. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005. Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by D.A. Carson & G.K. Beale. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989. Herford, R. Travers. The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1975. Morris, Leon. “Hebrews.” Hebrews through Revelation. The Expositorʼs Bible Commentary with the NIV, Vol. 12. Edited by Frank E. Gæbelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981. Theodore of Mospsuestia. Commentary on the Twelve Prophets. The Fathers of the Church. Vol. 108. Translated by Robert C. Hill. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2004.

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