Adam, start off by reading the following quote found in Wikipedia regarding the so-called primary purpose of the letter:
According to Wikipedia: “The primary purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews is to exhort Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity.”
Questions/points for you and I to tease out a bit:
Is this the common understanding of Hebrews?
Do we need to know who wrote this letter?
Who was the letter of Hebrews written to?
Can we really understand specific verses or passages without considering how they relate to the whole?
Does the letter reveal more about itself than suggested in this “primary purpose”?
What if Israel’s own history — and I mean, all the way up to that point in time — is the key to understanding the letter?
One of us can lead into a consideration of the basic premise of that which is called “history”.
JIM: When someone speaks of history, I have learned to take it with a bit of skepticism because so much depends upon who is telling the story. Do you know what I’m talking about?
As I see it, most people relate things that have happened in such a way as to put themselves in the best possible light. It might be easier to place the blame of spinning history upon those in power, but I think just a good look in the mirror of one’s own past should convince anyone that we’ve all done a lot of spinning in our own circles. Those in power just get to tell bigger, more official stories than the rest of us. Of course, these official versions of history become the assumptions of the majority.
Adam, let’s follow this up. Ask me for any examples from my own experience (you can even offer up some of your own … before or after).
Because I grew up in Virginia, I was taught Virginia History, which of course was obviously slanted in view of Virginia’s interests and/or benefit. I’m not saying that the info was necessarily inaccurate — though I discovered along the way that some of it was a total fabrication — I’m saying that the material was often or maybe mostly one-sided, for it was meant to create pride and loyalty. Patriotism, you know. Shameful deeds of the past may have been touched on but were handled in such a way as to help engender a sense of honor and patriotism. Somehow, I learned along with my fellow students to accommodate glaring facts that should have shocked me and destroyed any trust or respect I had in those who committed such deeds, as well as in those who perpetuated the propaganda. Although I grew up in the sixties, I didn’t really understand the outrage of my radical and hippie generation. Ironically, many former protesters and non-conformists of my generation now continue to perpetuate the same kind of lies, just with a different spin.
There is something I have found quite unique about the history of Israel, that is, of the Hebrews. While the usual accounting of one’s own history is filled with over-exaggerated we’re-the-good-guys kind of stories, the core documents of Israel’s history describe their failures, their crimes, their rebellions, and their deceptions in vivid detail. I’m not suggesting that we can’t find such accounting of our own country’s flaws and failures — because it’s out there, if you look for it — however, the official documents we hold most dear don’t put us in such a bad light.
Adam, maybe you could comment on Israel’s own attempts at spinning their past history, as seen in their traditions — mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 15:1-9
Then some Pharisees and scribes *came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ “But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’” Matthew 15:1-9 NASB
What seems apparent to me is that every one of us should be able to relate to the whole process of manipulations that allow us to gloss over and even contradict the truth that is often safely tucked away from consideration. You see, it’s not that we don’t know it’s there, rather we’ve learned to ignore the obvious in order to rationalize glaring contradictions. This kind of thing showed itself in many of the confrontations Jesus had with the leaders in Jerusalem, and it didn’t change as time went on. Understanding Israel’s history with this in mind provides the groundwork for understanding the letter written to the Hebrews — the people who are the descendants of Abraham, aka the children of Israel.
Let’s consider an event recorded in Acts that details the brutal murder of Stephen. Stephen was one of the men chosen to administer the serving of food, and he was obviously more than just a cafeteria worker. Consider the historical approach Stephen took with those who argued against him in Jerusalem. We might view this as Stephen’s version of to the Hebrews. Adam, you’re familiar with this story, aren’t you?
Adam, I’m assuming you’re somewhat familiar with the story … LOL! Could you put into your own words how this situation came about? I’m including the passage below for easy access and not suggesting that you should read it aloud (though you can if you want).
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. They put forward false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel. Acts 6:8-15 NASB
Stephen’s message to the Hebrews. Adam, let me know if you’d like to jump in on any of these segments.
Stephen’s message to those who rejected the promised deliverer, Jesus, was presented as an epic tale of Israel’s rejection of whoever God sent to rescue them. In other words, at the time it was happening, those who were descended from Abraham could not see what later would become recognized as God’s faithful works among them. Beginning with Moses, Stephen set the stage by reminding them of how Abraham lived as an alien in the land promised to him and his descendants. Realize that everything Stephen told them that day could not be argued with, for he merely declared the accepted story of their roots.
The added phrase, “even though he had no child,” emphasized how Israel’s own existence started off with a lack of physical validation. This is crucial to recognize because Stephen addressed those who took pride in their heritage as sons of Abraham, and yet the way they perceived their God and their position as leaders had nothing in common with Abraham’s faith.
God told Abraham ahead of time that his descendants would remain as aliens in a foreign land where they would be enslaved for 400 years. And I would like to point out that for many of the years leading up to the brutal treatment they received near the ned, they may not have realized they were slaves. Genesis 15:13 Once again, Abraham was told this while it seemed impossible that he could even produce any children
When Abraham was 99 years old, which was after Ishmael was born, God gave him the covenant of circumcision for he and his descendants. Abraham and Sarah both laughed at hearing such an insane proposition. Genesis 17
Regarding circumcision in the passage: Holman’s translates Acts 7:8 this way -> Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision. After this, he fathered Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; Isaac did the same with Jacob, and Jacob with the 12 patriarchs. Turns out there is no “begat” or “begotten” or “became the father of” in the Greek where it refers to Isaac and Jacob as well as the Patriarchs. I don’t know why the translators assumed the begetting rather than both the begetting AS WELL AS the circumcising, but I have a feeling that Holman’s has translated it more directly … especially in view of Stephen’s harsh words at the end where he calls them “uncircumcised in heart.” Acts 7:51 The added emphasis brings home what they already knew, that the fathers of their particular tribes didn’t seem to benefit from having been circumcised when it came to their treachery and rejection of the one God ordained to rescue them from disaster.
The Patriarchs of Israel were so jealous of one of their own because he was favored by their father. That jealousy caused them to devise a way to get him out of the picture. The brothers didn’t all agree how it should play out, but he was stripped of his special robe, thrown into a pit, and left for dead. Later, a traveling band of slave-traders gave them an easy solution to their problem, and they sold him into slavery. Joseph became Pharaoh’s right hand man, and he would eventually rescue them from a severe famine. In this, we can see the course of Israel’s history. For God’s promised deliverance was brought about through their rejection. God turned it for their good.
Stephen then continued his message with a very thorough account of how Israel rejected Moses, a man called by God to deliver his people. It was not only when he tried to reconcile those who were fighting with one another, but also much later when he brought the Law of God down from the mountain.
Adam, would you read the conclusion of Stephen’s message? Acts 7:51-60
“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:51-60 NASB
Spoken to Hebrews who were rejecting Jesus as the one God sent despite all they had witnessed and heard. (This perspective is seen throughout the letter to the Hebrews, although it is too often not distinguished from the heart of the author in writing it.)
Stopped their ears, didn’t want to hear