Hebrews is clearly not a letter, even in the rather broad category of New Testament letters. It has no letter greeting and is not directed to any particular church or individual. Its conclusion contains some elements typical of early Christian letters, but these seem to be added merely because they writing was circulated. Instead, Hebrews is written much more like a sermon, and is important as one of the very earliest Christian sermons on record. 1
As a Benedictine, I appreciate the fact that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews chose to rely so heavily upon the Psalms in order to show the connection between this letter and the Jewish origins of the Church. Psalm 95 is quoted numerous times in several different contexts. After making a connection between the fidelity of Jesus, the High Priest and Moses, God’s faithful servant, the author then goes on the quote from Psalm 95, but attributes the statement directly to the Holy Spirit. The importance of Not only listening to God’s voice, but responding in faith is stressed several times as the author quotes “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”. (Psalm 95:11).
The Psalms are referred to right from the start of the letter. The first text, “You are my son, this day I have begotten you” is from Psalm 2. Angels could be called, in a group, sons of God (Elohim) but never was an individual angel called a son of God as the Messiah was. In an effort to show the difference between the angels and the Messiah, the author states that when God brought His first born into the world He said, “Let all the angels of God worship Him”. This text is a variation on Psalm 97:7. Very interestingly, in the inter-testamental work, Life of Adam and Eve, in chapters twelve through seventeen, we read that satan told Adam that God had ordered him to worship him and the other angels to worship Adam, as the image of God. Some refused, and fell and became devils. Even though this account, which is not recognized as canonical, does not speak about the coming Messiah, it does say quite a bit about the the superiority which the first man (Adam) had over the angels.2
In addition the numerous references to the Psalms, the author also quotes from the Pentateuch quite a few times. Genesis 2 appears to be a favorite of the author. Chapter three of the letter makes reference to Psalm 95 and God’s wrath against those who are rebellious. The end of Psalm states that God swore an oath in his anger that those who were rebellious would never enter into His rest. Chapter four begins with a sermon about the rest which God promised. The author states that unlike the Hebrew people who had heard the original message, his audience has not been denied God’s promised rest provided that they respond, in faith, to God’s word, which they will hear “today”. For the author of Hebrews, fidelity to God’s word is not a “once for all” experience, but is a daily process of conversion. The rest, which is promised, is not something which will be experienced in this life since reference is made to the fact that if this rest was to be experienced in this life, God would not have denied this rest to Joshua and his followers in the land of Canaan. (Josh. 21:44)
The Book of Numbers is quote at least twelve times through the Letter to the Hebrews. The majority of the quotes come from chapter fourteen through eighteen which deals the peoples’ rebellion, the offerings which are to be provided to God, and the responsibilities of the priests and Levites. The author uses the “lesser to the greater” method of interpretation to make the connection between the Book of Numbers and his intended audience. As Moses, himself a servant, was rewarded for his fidelity to God so Jesus Christ, the Son of God was likely rewarded, but He was given dominion over His house, the Church, which is made up of all of us.
This same method of interpretation is used with reference to the connection the Book of Genesis and the present audience as well. In Chapter Five, verse fourteen the author makes reference to the fact that his audience still needs to be fed with spiritual milk because their lack of maturity; however, when they reach maturity, through the practice of virtue, they will be able to receive solid food. This level of maturity allows them to distinguish good from evil. This passage is in direct contrast with Genesis 2:17 where Adam and Eve gained this same knowledge, not through the practice of virtue, but through a direct act of disobedience.
Given the fact that this class is offered with a seminary context, I would be remiss if I did not make mention of the theme of Jesus, the High Priest which is extremely prominent in the Letter to the Hebrews. Chapter Seven of the letter follows this same “greater and lesser” model when referring to the difference between the Levitical priesthood and the priesthood established by Jesus. King Melchizedek is presented as a type of Christ. His names means “King of Righteousness” and his connection to the city of Salem also makes him the “King of Peace” and he is a priest forever.
The priesthood of Levi was an inherited office. However, the priesthood of Jesus Christ came about not through a legal concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen states, “The high priest of the Old Testament might stand amazed at the beauty of the veil, but he could not pass through it, except by blood. So with Christ, it is His own blood, not the blood of goats and calves, that has enabled Him to enter, once for all, into the sanctuary; the ransom he has won lasts forever. (Hebrews 9:12). 3
This letter is important to the Church in more than one way. First, is a completely self-contained theology of salvation in Christ. It is interesting that the document does not lay emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus or on the liturgical side of Christian life. Hebrews shows us a dimension of early Christianity that is entire centered on the death of Christ as the saving act. Second, it is important because it shows us more clearly than any other New Testament writing the extent to which the interpretation of the Old Testament played a role in the development of Christian thought. Such a role can be seen In most New Testament books, and it is important for the Christian belief in the continuity of salvation history from creation to redemption.
After discussing the old verses new sacrifice, the letter then goes on to discuss the importance of faith in 10:31-12:29. In Chapter 11 through 12:2, there is a great “cloud of witnesses” which is a veritable who’s who of Old Testament figures. Lists of Old Testament figures whose lives illustrate some virtue or quality is not uncommon, in the Jewish wisdom literature especially. One can find good examples of this in Sirach 44-50 or Wisdom 10. 4
The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) highlights Abel as an example of faith. The fact that Abel “still speaks” may be a reference to his blood crying out to God from the soil or a general reference to the example of Abel still speaking in the Scriptures. 5 The faith of Enoch and Noah are also mentioned.
The clearest example of faith in this chapter is Abraham. Even St. Paul makes reference to the faith of Abraham in his own writings (Romans 4:13-25). The example of Abraham ends with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. This is the supreme example of Abraham’s insight into the invisible world of hope. He is confronted with the promise that he would have descendents through his only son, Isaac, and with the paradoxical command to sacrifice him. Abraham could only act with the insight that God could raise from the dead.
This same insight is also given in The Last Trial, a commentary on The Akedah by Shalom Spiegel. When the question of Abraham’s motivation for attempting to sacrifice his son is raised, there is some concern that perhaps Abraham did this as a way of broadcasting his piety. Spiegel writes, “No, Abraham served his Creator out of love, with his whole heart, not with part of it—not as though in part of his heart went out to Isaac and in part yielded only out of fear of Heaven.” 6 Since Abraham gave his whole heart to God, this was reckoned to him as righteousness.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a very interesting document. As stated earlier, there is no indication that it is a letter, except for the closing (which some scholars believe may have been added later) and there is no evidence that it was actually written to for a group of Hebrews (Jewish converts to Christianity). There are references to this letter in St. Clement’s Letter to the Philippians which has been dated from around 90AD. This would date the letter as being contemporary with the Gospel of John.
The vast majority of the Church’s theology of the priesthood comes directly out of this letter. While there is no evidence that was ever an “order” of Melchizedek, the Catholic priesthood operates in the likeness of Melchizedek who offered bread and wine to Abraham following his defeat of the three kings. As we all know, Melchizedek is mentioned quite prominently in the First Eucharistic Canon (Roman Canon) which comes directly from the Church’s understanding of this letter.
Some of the more prominent themes in this letter are the person of Christ. He is understood as being greater than all of the other created beings, even the angels and was a made a High Priest by God. Another theme is the importance of faith and hope. This letter appears to have been written to people who needed to have their faith bolstered and the author does a wonderful job of showing the importance of faith throughout the Old Testament as a way of encouraging his readers to remain faithful so that they too might receive the same reward given to Abraham, Noah, Enoch, and the others.
End Notes1) MacRae, George Hebrews in the Collegeville Bible Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 1245
2) Charlesworth, J.H. The Old Testament Pseudopigrapha (NY: Doubleday, 1985), p. 262
3) Sheen, Fulton J. The Priest Is Not His Own (SF: Ignatius Press, 2005), p.35
4) MacRae, p. 1259
5) MacRae, p. 1260
6) Spiegel, Sholom The Last Trial (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), p. 12