< December 23, 2012 >

Commentary on Hebrews 10:5-10


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eminent eighteenth century Genevan philosopher and writer, argued in several of his most influential works that some aspects of "natural" life need to be supplemented by human intervention.

Children, for instance, require the supplement of education on the way to maturity. Education thus becomes something that nature does not supply by itself, but is nevertheless necessary for human flourishing. The problem that Rousseau recognized, and which troubles his own writing, is that supplements have a tendency to take over -- supplant -- those very things they are meant to complement. In other words, while intended as additions supplements can become usurpations, taking the place of the original.

An example Rousseau offers in his work, Émile, is that of masturbation. He calls it “that most dangerous supplement” because it can supplant the role that sexual intercourse is meant to play toward procreation. With masturbation, Rousseau observes, the act can so profoundly supplement that of intercourse that one can do away with the latter altogether.

In his Confessions, Rousseau admits that he himself was far better at offering this advice than keeping it.

A similar problem abides in this week’s lection. Hebrews 10:5-10 can suggest a supersessionistic relationship between the old and new covenants. Supersessionism is the view that the Christian faith supersedes the Abrahamic faith, making the latter an empty shell of ritualistic adherence that no longer signifies anything salvific for humankind.

A recent volume, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009), takes up this issue in earnest, offering essays by a number of prominent scholars on how we are to understand the relationship between the theology of Hebrews and the Levitical cult. This entire lection is predicated on a supplement: Greek for Hebrew.

Let me explain. Scholars are united in their view that the writer of Hebrews relied upon the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint or LXX). In our scripture lesson, the writer quotes directly from Psalm 40:6-8. The original Hebrew version of 40:6 reads, “but my ears you have opened.” The LXX version (39:7) renders the Hebrew very differently in Greek. It reads, “but a body you have prepared for me.” Some scholars argue that this need not be viewed as a corruption of the text, but as synecdoche. Even if this is the case, it seems doubtful that the author of Hebrews would have connected the supplement of Christ’s body for the sacrificial temple economy had s/he found “ears” rather than “body” in the Greek translation. We can rightly ask if this difference is supplementing or supplanting the original Hebrew and the preacher will have to decide.

When the author of Hebrews reads this text in the LXX s/he sees a prophetic foreshadowing of a body (Christ’s body) being prepared for the New Covenant according to God’s will (10:10). The Greek supplements the Hebrew -- a necessary feature for Jews scattered throughout the Mediterranean diaspora. And, at the same time, the risk of usurpation abides. Hebrews 10:9b presents a tricky translation problem of its own. The NRSV translates the verse, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” The NIV expresses the Greek: “He sets aside the first to establish the second.” The new CEB renders the verse, “He puts an end to the first to establish the second.” The difficulty in translating this verse into English arises from how to render the Greek word anaireó and a great theological decision hangs in the balance with its proper translation.

If you aren’t sufficiently troubled by this pericope then you aren’t reading it closely enough. There is a high degree of semantic disparity between abolish, set aside, and put an end to. When we consider that the writer of Hebrews is talking about the sacrificial economy necessary for the purgation of sins, our translation decision becomes much more dire. It is clear that Jesus’ sacrifice, in some way, supplements the Levitical sacrificial system: “We have been made holy once and for all through the offering of Jesus Christ’s body according to God’s will” (10:10).

But how, precisely, does this supplement work? The Greek word anaireó is a compound word (ana +haireó) that can mean “to take away,” “to abolish,” or “to claim (for oneself).”1 As a preposition preceding a noun or adjective in the accusative case (“the first”/to proton) ana can signify “up” or “up to.” The verb haireó, when in the active voice, means “to take” in English. The word connotes very different meanings according to the various decisions translators make.

But, like a supplement, I think it better to render the word in such a way that its ambivalence is retained. I would preach this verse as “He took up the first in order that he might establish a foundation for the second” for it allows the ambiguity -- ana-haireó -- to remain; it does not submit itself to a logic of supersessionism. The specter of anti-Semitism haunts this text and it is imperative that we acknowledge what the text is doing and what it is not doing. As we proclaim these words, I believe the troubling logic of the supplement -- simultaneously addition and replacement -- lends itself as a third way between two divergent paths: either Hebrews is asserted to be of value and therefore not supersessionist, or supersessionist and therefore to be rejected as a theological resource.

These verses need not suggest a Christian polemic against Judaism, nor even, an impassioned plea to Christian ex-Jews not to fall back into Judaism. Rather, here we find an intra-Jewish debate about the nature of the covenant and the meaning of the promise, found within the Old Testament, that the covenant will be renewed.

To be faithful to the text we must allow the logic of the supplement to resonate through our interpretation as well as our preaching.


1See BAGD, 64. The translation “to choose” is used of the baby Moses, whom Pharaoh’s daughter rescued from the river after his exposure (Exodus 2:5, 10) and it carries a notion of rescue as its used in Acts 7:21.