Ears to Obey

There is a textual curiosity in Hebrews 10. As is his practice, the author quotes from the Old Testament to make his case, in this case Psalm 40:6-8. Interestingly, he quotes from the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint. This is important because if you compare his quote in Hebrews 10:5 with Psalm 40:6 you will see what appears at first to be quite a difference:

Psalm 40:6b       But you have given me an open ear…

Hebrews 10:5b   But a body you have prepared for me…

To be more specific, the phrase in Psalms is literally “ears you have dug for me” in the Hebrew. Ears and bodies seem rather different! What’s going on here?

First, let’s consider why they might be different. In truth, the phrase “ears you have dug for me” is unusual even if evocative. F. F. Bruce thinks that when faced with this odd expression the translators of the Septuagint took it as a case of ‘part for the whole’, that is, “[T]he ‘digging’ or hollowing out of ears is part of the total work of fashioning a human.” Accordingly, they generalized the expression to “a body you have prepared for me.” That’s a possible explanation, though there may be more to it.

Let’s ask, “How is this phrase functioning in the psalm?” The phrase “ears you have dug for me” is set in contrast to “sacrifices and offerings.” What is the intended contrast? The psalmist is contrasting the practice of sacrifice with…what, exactly? A clue is found in v. 8: “I have come to do your will, O my God.” The psalmist is contrasting obedience to God’s will with the performance of sacrifices. This sounds remarkably like Samuel’s icy indictment of Saul when he tried to explain his failure to destroy the animals of the Amalekites as he had been instructed: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (see 1 Samuel 15).

What does this have to do with ears? There is a consistent theme in Scripture that true hearing of God’s word is shown in doing God’s word. By saying that he has been given divinely prepared ears, the psalmist is saying that God has prepared him to hear God’s word and to respond to it in action. If this is the sense, then the Greek translation’s adaptation of the phrase to “a body you have prepared for me” makes sense since obedience would be enacted bodily.

What does this have to do with Hebrews? First, we should not find it surprising that the author is using the Greek translation of the OT. The Septuagint was far more accessible in the early days of the church than the original Hebrew. Paul, for instance, quoted from the Septuagint sometimes and sometimes offered his own translation of the Hebrew. And since most of the Mediterranean world spoke Greek, the Septuagint was the preferred option.

Further, it is not surprising that the author liked the Greek rendering (whether he was aware of the original Hebrew or not) because of the way he uses the concept of “body.” The quote “a body you have prepared for me” (10:5) results a few lines later in the conclusion, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). The author understands the words of the psalm to come ultimately from the mouth of Jesus whose body—a clear reference to Incarnation—was prepared by God for the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

So, is this a case of the author Hebrews choosing willy-nilly what translation he uses so he can make his point? Ultimately, I don’t think so. Yes, the word ‘body’ proves more useful to the author’s purpose than ‘ears.’ But the original point of the psalm was that God was not so interested in the sacrificial system as he was in whole-person obedience to his will. The author has made the point that Jesus did just that; he lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15; 7:27-28). Further, Jesus’s bodily sacrifice was a piece of that whole life obedience (Heb. 2:17-18). With the ears God had given him he heard God’s word and with the body that was prepared for him he obeyed what he heard.

In the end, there is a deep irony between the psalm and Hebrews. For the psalmist, whole-life obedience was set in contrast to the sacrificial system. In Christ, whole-life obedience culminated in a whole-body sacrifice. As Bruce writes: “Wholehearted obedience is the sacrifice which God really desires, the sacrifice which he received in perfection from his Servant-Son when he came into the world.”

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A one-two (three-four) punch

hebrews-logoMany commentators have observed that Hebrews is more of an oral document than a literary one, more sermon than epistle. Its introduction is not the beginning of a letter but rather a Christological shot across the church’s bow. The argumentation throughout the book is tight and this has wooed many an interpreter down many a rabbit trail to the loss of the coherence of the book and the sermon series.

To avoid such deviation, it is helpful to remind oneself that the author’s goal was the encouragement of his readers, a readership that clearly faced some measure of persecution and was in danger of falling away from the faith. Attending to this one can observe a deft pastoral hand in the first four chapters, in particular.

After the scintillating introduction, the author engages in an extended comparison of Jesus and angels on the basis of several Old Testament texts. As Creator, Son and Sovereign, Jesus is superior to the merely ministerial angels. This comparison, however, is in service of an exhortation made clear in 2:1-4. If falling away from the word brought by angels resulted in severe penalties, how much more so the superior Word that has come through the Son. In short, the ‘application’ of the author’s first ‘sermon’ is a warning: Don’t drift from the Word! We might call this encouragement of a negative sort.

However, the remainder of chapter 2 (5-18) continues themes from chapter 1 concerning sonship, sovereignty, and angels. Once again citing the OT, the author stresses the similarities between his readers and Christ. Christ shared in our fate and our flesh so that we might share in one family and in one future. That future is the fulfillment in Christ of the psalmist’s prophecy that God will put everything under the feet of the s/Son of man (Psalm 8). Whereas the angels compared unfavorably with Christ in chapter 1, humanity compares quite favorably. So much so that one upshot of the passage is that humans are superior to angels (2:16), not just Christ.

But again, this OT exegesis and theologizing is in service of a practical application and encouragement. Because Christ has shared in the full experience of humanity, he can be a faithful high priest for us. That is, Christ understands (2:18). We can call this encouragement of a positive sort.

Putting the two chapters together, we see the author offering a wagging finger of warning followed by a brotherly hand on the shoulder.

The author repeats this one-two punch of warning followed by encouragement in chapters 3 and 4. Having established the pattern, the flow of argumentation in chapter 3 is more cryptic than in chapter 1. Here he compares Christ to Moses rather than to the angels. Though both faithful in their callings, Christ is superior to Moses in a way similar to his superiority over angels: Moses is a faithful servant; Jesus is a faithful Son.

Once again the author turns to the OT and quotes from Psalm 95 concerning the failure of the wilderness generation to enter the promised land. Because they tested God with their faithlessness in times of testing, God swore that they would not enter His rest. The author brings application from this to his readers by pointing out that it was the very generation who had experienced the ‘salvation’ from Egypt that fell away and failed to enter the land. The argument is similar to that in ch. 1: if those who fell away from the faithful servant-leadership of Moses did not enter God’s rest, how much more will we not enter his rest if we fall away from the Son-leadership of Jesus? This is another warning, another negative encouragement.

However, as ch. 2 developed the themes of ch. 1 in a positive direction, so ch. 4 continues the themes of ch. 3 in an encouraging direction. Playing off of the Psalmist’s use of the word “today”, the author makes the case that there is a rest superior to the one offered the Israelites in the promised land. He sets this rest before his readers’ eyes as a motivation. The argument is that while the Israelites were motivated by a good rest in the Promised Land, we are to be motivated by the superior, eternal rest that God offers us in Christ. That greater rest should invite greater obedience. This is a positive encouragement to live into our greater calling.

If one imagines these as a series of sermons, one can appreciate the pastoral concern that the author of Hebrews brings to his listeners by speaking rich, biblically reasoned words of warning rooted in the Old Testament, and following them with even deeper words of encouragement rooted in the person and work of Jesus.