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.”