Over Easter season the readings in the Lectionary all focus on the nature of the Christian life with reference to the resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people. As a rule, these passages are a blast to preach. After all, if you can’t successfully preach the resurrection as being the very heart-beat of Christianity then you probably shouldn’t be in the pulpit.
This week’s sermon is going to be on Hebrews 11 which, for those who don’t know, is basically a summary-history of Israel in the light of the work of Jesus in order to show that the Lord’s followers have always walked “in faith” and will also need to do so in the future (even though the promises have been fulfilled. It’s a great chapter, with a great message, and is truly focused on the reality of what God has accomplished in Jesus. Yet, for modern readers, the text also highlights some serious issues as well. As it appears to many modern readers that Hebrews’ author is playing a bit “fast and loose” with the text.Let me start by saying that, whoever else the author of Hebrews is, one thing we can say for certain that he is a first-century Rabbi writing with a “Second Temple” frame-work. What this means is that the author uses a different “tool-box” in order to deal with Scripture than modern readers would tend to us (which we tend to call historical-grammatical). This doesn’t make the author of Hebrews “wrong” in some of statements he makes – just that he comes to the text with a different set of rules than we tend to come with. I also think that, while we are able to share a similar attitude with the author of Hebrews regarding the fulfillment of the Scripture, we really can’t utilize the same tools. Mostly because we no longer understand the “rules” which commended such uses of Scripture in the Second Temple period (sort of like how there is apparently a way in which you can park on the sidewalk in Boston without getting a ticket – but if you have to ask what the rules guiding such behavior then you’ll never be able to do it yourself).
I have to say that my decision to read Inspiration and Incarnation was well-timed, as it’s reinforced many of the lessons I’ve learned over the years about the nature of Scripture, including some wonderful insights regarding rabbinic exegesis. In the Second Temple period is was considered commendable to look at “what we know,” and then to go back and read the Scripture in that light. So, the Qumran community could write about how they were the fulfillment of prophesy, and so could the community of Jesus’ followers. What Christian writers did, using this cultural assumption, was to read the entirety of the Scriptural story in the light that Jesus was the final fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament narrative. This is what Peter Enns calls, and I’m thankful to him for coining the phrase, a “Christo-telic” reading of Scripture (to de-specialize it, “Christ as final/end”).
Why do I bring all this up? Because as first glance there’s several moments in the summary-history of Hebrews 11 that make modern readers go, “Huh?” Sadly, many Christians miss those moments in Hebrews 11 because they aren’t aware of the Old Testament narrative enough to pick up on the discrepancies. As I said, there are several, but here’s the biggest one (Hebrews 11:24-26, NLT):
24 It was by faith that Moses, when he grew up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to share the oppression of God’s people instead of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He thought it was better to suffer for the sake of Christ than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to his great reward.
Verse 24 is an extra-biblical tradition, which is strange enough for many Evangelicals to hear. Verse 26 is where we see rabbinic exegesis at work – when he says that Moses though it “better to suffer for the sake fo Christ than to own the treasures of Egypt.” Really? From a modern perspective there’s several problems here:
- There’s no mention of any of this in the actual text of Exodus (as we said, the line is at least partially taken from an extra-Biblical tradition).
- Jesus wouldn’t appear on the scene of history for millennia.
- The historical events which lead to the Messianic hopes that Jesus fulfilled (notably, the Exile) hadn’t occurred yet.
This is rabbinic exegesis. Hebrews’ author is utterly convinced that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament, and so reinterprets the Old Testament narrative in that light. Therefore, if someone in the Scripture suffered for an unfulfilled hope – they did so, whether they were aware of it or not, because they hoped for Jesus’ finished work. While this type of reinterpretation might appear to be a little odd to modern readers of the Bible (after all we wouldn’t do it that way), it is also apparently the same understanding that Jesus himself shared regarding how to use the Scriptural story in relationship to him (Luke 24:25-27):
25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Now, many people tend to think Jesus played the roll of the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (remember the scene when he said, “Say a word, any word, and I will show you how it come from Greek culture?”). We picture Jesus telling the disciples, “OK, pick a verse and I’ll show you how it reveals what just happened.” But this isn’t the case. Rather, Jesus himself saw the fulfillment of the Scriptural narrative as having come to pass in him – and so went through the Scriptural story and reinterpreted it in the light of what he’d done. There was nothing unusual about this, in fact both the disciples on the road to Emmaus were amazed by what Jesus told them – even excited.
So, sure, there are problems when we read this text we call Scripture. Yet most of these are the result of the fact that we simply don’t live in the world of the text – we have our own assumptions about what Scripture should, and how it should be used – and when those clash with the assumptions of the Biblical authors we find ourselves stressed.
In those moments, take a deep breath, and remember – “Jesus is the end, Jesus is the end, Jesus is the end.”
I had a comment (was deleted, sorry) asking which extra-Biblical tradition I was referring to regarding Moses’ refusal to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. I thought it was in the Mishna, it’s not – in in Josephus in the Antiquities. You can read this page, but it’s a ways down and I don’t have the ability to link to specific text, below is the relevant quote:
7. Thermuthis therefore perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time had carried Moses to her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, (21) and of a generous mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in , I thought proper to adopt him my son, and the heir of thy kingdom.” And she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands: so he took him, and hugged him to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground, and, in a puerile mood, he wreathed it round, and trod upon his feet, which seemed to bring along with evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt. But when the sacred scribe saw this, (he was the person who foretold that his nativity would the dominion of that kingdom low,) he made a violent attempt to kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, “This, O king! this child is he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of the hope they have of being encouraged by him.”