Monday, December 24, 2012

G.K. Chesterton: The House of Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home. 
The crazy stable close at hand, 
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes, 
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun. 
A Child in a foul stable, 
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost -- how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.
This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

-- G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pregnant with the extraordinary

"...and Tamar ...and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of 
Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. 
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah."
(Matt. 1:3, 5-6)

Since it's the season of Advent, I've decided to pick up where I left off a few months ago and post a few things on my mind concerning the birth narrative of Jesus. A few months ago I wrote a post called "Israel's Expectation," and it was about the opening genealogy of Matthew's gospel and how his central focus in structuring that genealogy in it's peculiar fashion was to shed light upon Jesus as the promised King after a long eclipse of rightful heirs who had not been seated on the throne of David. But after reviewing that post again I noticed that I did not mention something which most commentators do. I did not mention the peculiar oddity of inserting female names into the genealogy which, at first glance, appears to be added by Matthew without any rhyme or reason. And to be quite honest, the rhyme and reason for these female names only recently dawned on me. And I don't know why it was only recently. I suppose I just held a long-time assumption that the listing of women was of tertiary importance. I vaguely remembered a couple biblical commentators mentioning a reason or two for Matthew's insertion of these four women in his listed genealogy, but I suppose I was just tired of hearing the same old pastoral explanations about how Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba were all sinners in need of grace, mercy, forgiveness, blah, blah, blah. The reason why it finally dawned on me to reconsider the importance of these listed women is because of a recent sermon preached at Christ Covenant Church of Chicago, which is the church of which my family are currently members.  I ordinarily don't take notes in worship, but when I do, I remember them for future use. And that Lord's Day I left with a rhyme and reason for Matthew's insertion of female names. And so, here I am sharing a bit of it with you all.

As I mentioned a moment ago, I sometimes get tired of preaching and teaching that's just blah. That's right, I said blah. And when I say blah, in this context I mean boring and unsatisfactory content that every Christian knows and doesn't need to be reminded of if the author of Scripture himself is not very clear about emphasizing it first. Ordinarily, pastors and teachers preach about Matthew's genealogy with lots of blah by merely focusing upon God's grace in saving sinners. Bathsheba, after all, is mentioned, and as we all know, she was a sinner; so Matthew's point in listing her within the genealogy must be to teach that God saves sinners, blah, blah, blah. Others preach blah with a reminder of God's desire to break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. After all, Ruth was a Moabite, and Matthew's point in listing her name must be to emphasize the breakdown of Jew/Gentile hostility, blah, blah, blah.  In case I haven't already made my point clear enough, below are a few examples of blah-messages from some popular Christians. Commenting on Matthew 1:5, which mentions Rahab and Ruth, the famous evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, wrote:
We note that two women are mentioned in this fifth verse: a Canaanite and a Moabitess. The Gentile blood mingled with the Hebrews strain. Our King has come to break down the partition wall. As Gentiles we rejoice in this.1
While it is true that both Jews and Gentiles have much to rejoice in now that our King has come, I don't think that was Matthew's point. Instead of focusing upon the Jew/Gentile distinction, John MacArthur prefers to emphasize that Matthew's purpose for including four scandalous women was to magnify God's grace. He writes:
Matthew's genealogy also shows the work of God's grace in His choosing to include four former outcasts in Messiah's pedigree. In a genealogy otherwise dominated by men, these women are exceptional illustrations of God's grace. ... [T]he genealogy of Jesus Christ is immeasurably more than a list of ancient names; it is even more than a list of Jesus' human forbears. It is a beautiful testimony of God's grace.2
This focus of interpretation is nothing new to the history of Christian commentators. Severus of Antioch, a fifth century founder of the Syriac Orthodox Church, took a similar route, only he emphasized Matthew's message as that of graciously cleansing and healing sinners. Commenting on Matthew's insertion of Tamar and Bathsheba, Severus wrote:
It is for this reason that in this genealogy the Evangelist mentioned in his list even those who had shocking carnal relations that were in appropriate and outside the law. For Matthew wrote with due deliberation. ...These were women with whom they became united by fornication and adultery. By this means the genealogy revealed that it is our very sinful nature that Christ himself came to heal. ...Christ therefore took upon himself a blood relationship to that nature which fornicated, in order to purify it. He took on that very nature that was sick, in order to heal it. He took on that nature which fell, in order to lift it up. All this occurred in a charitable, beneficial manner wholly appropriate to God.3
Most notable in its details is the lengthy commentary offered by D.A. Carson:
Inclusion of these four women in the messiah's genealogy instead of an all-male listing (which was customary) -- or at least the names of such great matriarchs as Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah -- shows that Matthew is conveying more than merely genealogical data. Tamar enticed her father-in-law into an incestuous relationship (Gen. 38). The prostitute Rahab saved the spies and joined the Israelites (Josh 2, 5); ...Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab were aliens. Bathsheba was taken in to an adulterous union with David, who committed murder to cover it up. Matthew's peculiar way of referring to her, "Uriah's wife," may be an attempt to focus on the fact that Uriah was not an Israelite but a Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3; 23:39)... 
Several reasons have been suggested to explain the inclusion of these women. Some have pointed out that three were Gentiles and the fourth probably regarded as such. ...Others have noted that three of the four were involved in gross sexual sin; but it is highly doubtful that this charge can be legitimately applied to Ruth. As a Moabitess, however she had her origins in incest (Gen. 19:30-37)... 
A third interpretation holds that all four reveal something of the strange and unexpected workings of Providence in preparation for the Messiah and that as such they point to Mary's unexpected but providential conception of Jesus.4
R.T. France seems to provide the most concise summary of Matthew's inclusion of the four women. He notes that:
But the four mothers selected for mention form a striking group. Probably all four were non-Jews (Tamar was a local girl, so presumably a Canaanite, Gen. 38:11, 13-14; Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite), indicating Matthew's interest in the universal relevance of Jesus' coming; and in each case there were at least suspicions of some form of marital irregularity, though all four form an impressive precedent for Jesus' birth of an unmarried mother from an obscure background.5

When preachers like Spurgeon and MacArthur emphasize the grace of God in saving sinners and breaking down the partition wall between Jew and Gentile, that's all fine and dandy, but it's probably not Matthew's reason for including the four women in the narrative. And in actuality, Matthew's genealogy does not list four women anyway. It lists five women. Mary is the fifth woman listed at the very end of the genealogy, and presumably Mary is mentioned for the same reason as the other four women. "What is that reason?", one might ask. Simply put, all five female names prepare Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience for a shockingly scandalous event governed by the very hand of God. Surely many Jews in Judea were not familiar with Mary and her personally scandalous story before Matthew addressed his gospel to them, but they would have been familiar with the scandalous speculations and traditions surrounding Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. In other words, Matthew was ready to tell the truth about Jesus' birth from a virgin woman named Mary, as well as his miraculous conception "from the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:20). But in order to prepare his audience for a magnificently true story such as this, some echoes of invaluable information from Israel's history were in order.

Tamar is the first name listed in passing, and her story is undoubtedly sad and disturbing because of Judah's sinful refusal to give his son to her in marriage that she may bear the promised seed of Abraham (Gen. 38:26). Nevertheless the promised seed was passed through the line of Judah as promised regardless of her deception of Judah and taking advantage of one of his known lusts by pretending to be a prostitute. Likewise, Rahab the prostitute has always been associated with a scandalous lifestyle because of her previous "career" in the land of Canaan. But she repented and eventually married into the house of Judah. Ruth, a widow sojourning in the land of Moab who was also scandalized because of her loss of a husband, lack of children, and complete economic poverty, had no part of the seed of David until Boaz, of the house of Judah, married Ruth and redeemed her by purchasing all the debt and inheritance of her Israelite step-family. The fourth on the list is Bathsheba. But she, of course, was originally the wife of Uriah the Hittite, as Matthew points out. King David, who owed every aspect of his life and kingdom to the Lord, stole Uriah's wife and murdered her husband, and was judged by the Lord for it. Nevertheless, such an enormous scandal among men did not hinder God's promise or providence.

Finally, the list ends with an obscure woman named Mary. Who is she? And why is she listed among the other four women?

Well, apparently Mary is mentioned because she too has a story which can be viewed as providentially scandalous in the eyes of Israel. Mary, after all was a virgin (1:23), and Joseph knew that he was not the father of her child (1:18-19). But nevertheless, instead of making up a story to deceive the public -- like a claim that Joseph was Jesus' biological father, or that Mary really had an affair with another man -- Matthew simply highlights Mary's story with the shocking truth that Jesus, the promised King and Messiah, was anticipated as being providentially scandalous in the eyes of the public too. But just as the other four women are only mentioned in passing to highlight this general notion of scandalized providence, so Mary is mentioned only briefly for the same reason. In fact, the focus of the genealogy and birth narrative in Matthew's gospel has more to do with Joseph and his legal adoption of Jesus, the son of Mary, than it has to do with Mary herself. The mention of all five women in the genealogy is to intentionally associate them all together with regard to the promised Kingly seed that God began fulfilling with Abraham and then afterward through the line of Judah.

Surely God's sovereignty and God's grace in saving sinners is in the background of Matthew's mind when recording this historical narrative. But that's in the background of all Scripture, and it's not something explicitly emphasized by Matthew, so I recommend using caution with that kind of exclusive emphasis while interpreting the genealogy. The most natural interpretation of selecting five scandalously providential women together, and placing them within the grand opening of Matthew's gospel, is to prepare Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience for a story that is pregnant with the extraordinary.

1.  Charles Spurgeon, The King Has Come [New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987] p. 16

2.  John MacArthur, The Genealogy of Grace, Notes from a sermon preached on Oct. 14, 2009.
3.  Thomas Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1-13 [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press 2001] p. 6
4.  D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984] p. 66
5.  R.T. France, Tyndale Commentary Series: Matthew [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1985] pp. 73-74

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Earth felt the wound

I recently started studying John Milton's classic work, Paradise Lost, in detail, and today I came across that famous depiction of the Serpent tempting and deceiving Eve to eat of the fruit forbidden by God in the Garden. Perhaps there is no more vivid scene in the history of poetic literature which portrays the subtlety of Satan at his best; and so I had to share:
...the Tempter, all impassioned, thus began: 
O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving Plant, mother of science, now I feel thy power within me clear; not only to discern things in their causes, but to trace the ways of highest agents, deemed however wise. Queen of this universe, do not believe those rigid threats of death: ye shall not die. How should you? By the fruit? It gives you life to knowledge; By the threatener? Look on me; me who have touched and tasted, yet both live, and life more perfect have attained than Fate meant me, by venturing higher than my lot. Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast is open? Or will God incense his ire for such a petty trespass? And not praise rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain of death denounced, whatever thing death be, deterred not from achieving what might lead to happier life, knowledge of good and evil; Of good, how just? Of evil, if what is evil be real, why not known, since easier shunned? God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just; Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed: Your fear itself of death removes the fear. Why then was this forbid? Why, but to awe; Why, but to keep ye low and ignorant, His worshippers? He knows that in the day ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear, yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then opened and cleared, and ye shall be as Gods, knowing both good and evil, as they know. That ye shall be as Gods, since I as Man, internal Man, is but proportional meet; I, of brute, human; ye, of human, Gods. So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off Human, to put on Gods; Death to be wished, though threatened, which no worse than this can bring. And what are Gods, that Man may not become as they, participating God-like food? The Gods are first, and that advantage use on our belief, that all from them proceeds: I question it; for this fair earth I see, warmed by the sun, producing every kind; Them nothing: if they all things, who enclosed knowledge of good and evil this tree, that whoso eats thereof, forthwith attains wisdom without their leave? And wherein lies the offense, that Man should thus attain to know? What can your knowledge hurt him, or this tree impart against his will, if all be his? Or is it envy? And can envy dwell in heavenly breasts? These, these, and many more causes import your need of this fair fruit. Goddess humane, reach then, and freely taste!  
Paradise Lost by William Blake, 1808
He ended; and his words, replete with guile, into her heart too easy entrance won: Fixed on the fruit she gazed, which to behold might tempt alone; and in her ears the sound yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned with reason, to her seeming, and with truth: Mean while the hour of noon drew on, and waked an eager appetite, raised by the smell so savoury of that fruit, which with desire inclinable now grown to touch or taste, solicited her longing eye; yet first pausing a while, thus to herself she mused: 
Great are thy virtues, doubtless, best of fruits, though kept from man, and worthy to be admired; Whose taste, too long forborn, at first assay gave elocution to the mute, and taught the tongue not made for speech to speak thy praise: Thy praise he also, who forbids thy use, conceals not from us, naming thee the tree of knowledge, knowledge both of good and evil; Forbids us then to taste! But his forbidding commends thee more, while it infers the good by thee communicated, and our want: For good unknown sure is not had; or, had and yet unknown, is not had at all. In plain then, what forbids he but to know, forbids us good, forbids us to be wise? Such prohibitions bind not. But, if death bind us with after-bands, what profits then our inward freedom? In the day we eat of this fair fruit our doom is we shall die! How dies the Serpent? He hath eaten and lives, and knows, and speaks, and reasons, and discerns, irrational till then. For us alone was death invented? Or to us denied this intellectual food, for beasts reserved? For beasts it seems: yet that one beast which first hath tasted envies not, but brings with joy the good befallen him, author unsuspect, friendly to man, far from deceit or guile. What fear I then? Rather, what know to fear under this ignorance of good and evil, of God or death, of law or penalty? Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine, fair to the eye, inviting to the taste, of virtue to make wise: What hinders then to reach, and feed at once both the body and mind?  
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate. Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat, sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe, that all was lost. Back to the thicket slunk the guilty Serpent. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Points of difference

At the end of the last post I promised an explanation for a very different translation of Hebrews 9:16-18. But what I did not present in the previous post was a modern english translation with which to compare it. And so, in order to help facilitate a clear difference between the two translations, I will post my translation side by side with the ESV translation.
16  For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.  18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.  (ESV) 
16  For where a covenant is, it is necessary that the death of the covenant-ratifier be brought forward. 17  For a covenant is confirmed upon dead bodies, otherwise it is not valid at all while the covenant-ratifier is alive.  18  Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. (My translation)
The differences ought to be apparent right away. The ESV assumes that the author has shifted away from his previous discussion in verse 15 about a "covenant" and is now interested in toying with a bit of word-play by introducing the concept of a "will" into the discussion before reverting back to the discussion of a "covenant" in verses 18 and 19. As I mentioned in previous posts (here and here), my translation assumes that the author has not shifted away from the discussion of a "covenant" at all, and is not talking about a "will" or "testament" at all either.

Also, based on the assumptions of the ESV translators, verses 16 and 17 are interpreted as though Jesus is the "one who made" this alleged "will", and therefore, in order for the "will" to go into effect, Jesus has to "establish" it by dying. But my translation does not speak about "establishing" (phero) the death of Jesus at all. Instead, my translation offers the more common and literal interpretation of the verb phero as meaning "to bear", "carry", or "bring forward" a thing. This is why my amplified translation in previous posts inserts the words "be carried." As David Allen has noted, the meaning of phero in Hebrews 9:16 "can be interpreted in three different senses: (1) in the sense of "offering" within a sacrificial context; (2) "to be represented," or (3) in the sense of "bringing something forward."1 After this, Allen notes carefully that the Greek word phero is never found extra biblically in relation to "will" or "testament."

Also, the clause in verse 16 which mentions "the one who made it" (ESV) is translated less literally than my version. The Greek is tou diathemenou, which uses the possessive definite article alongside a person who is literally "covenanting" or "ratifying a covenant". The same exact words in Greek are used in verse 17 (but with a different conjugation) where we find the ESV mentioning (again) "the one who made it" (ho diathemenos).  David Allen comments on the significance of this repetition:
That the articular participle ho diathemenos can be translated as "covenant-sacrifice" or "covenant-ratifier" rather than the "one who makes a will/covenant" would open the door for the meaning of a covenant being inaugurated by means of a sacrificial death.2
What we see then is that it's certainly plausible, if not probable, that the author was expressing a very common fact about priestly service and worship in the old covenant tabernacle, namely that the "death" of the "covenant-ratifier" must be "carried" or "brought forward" into the presence of God. Under the old covenant law, the worshiper brought animal sacrifices forward. And after the worshiper died representatively through means of animal sacrifices, those dead victims were then carried on behalf of the worshiper by a mediating priest into the very presence of God.

The next point of difference between translations is in verse 17, where we find the ESV talking about a "will" that only "takes effect" at "death". My own personal opinion is that this is a horrendously inaccurate translation of the original Greek text. First of all, there is no word for "only" in the Greek text. Therefore, to talk about something taking effect "only" under certain circumstances is to exaggerate the author's point. Secondarily, I don't believe the author is talking about a will again. He's talking about a "covenant." Thirdly, the text does not mention a time of "death" at all. The Greek is epi nekrois, which literally says "upon dead [bodies]". The word for "dead" here in Greek is plural in number. Again, Allen's comments are helpful:
The Greek phrase epi nekrois, "when somebody has died," is difficult to interpret. Literally the entire clause reads: "for a covenant/testament is confirmed upon dead [bodies]." The phrase epi nekrois should not be translated "at death" as is often the case since there is no evidence for this..."3
In conclusion, it is plausible, if not probable, that the author is describing a theological fact taught by the Law itself, namely that "a covenant is confirmed upon dead bodies." This is why he can follow that statement with further clarification about the worshiper failing to ratify the covenant in a valid manner if he does not confirm his own death upon dead animal victims slain and "carried" on his behalf. The worshiper cannot draw near to God without a sacrifice for his own sins, and if he does not offer what the laws of the priesthood prescribe, then he must present himself spotless before God (which is an impossibility). His covenant is not valid if he does not do what the Law prescribes and illustrates.

"Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood." What follows verse 18 is an example from Exodus 24:1-2, where Moses sprinkles the blood of a slaughtered animal on behalf of Israel at the very beginning of their inauguration into covenant with God as a priestly nation. Is it merely a coincidence that the author continues the connection between Israel as a nation of priests and God inaugurating his covenant with them?

1.  David L. Allen, New American Commentary: Hebrews [B&H Publishing Group: Nashville, TN; 2010], pp. 481
2.  Ibid., pp. 479. A few paragraphs after making this statement, Allen attempts to offer a neutral opinion concerning the the conflict that ensues among scholars, saying "It is questionable whether the author intended this much symbolism behind his words." He then says that those who insist upon identifying the human worshiper with "animal sacrifices which usually accompanied the inauguration of a covenant, may be straining the author's language...". 
3.  Ibid., pp. 481

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Brought forward

In the previous post I began to provide a rationale for an alternative translation to Hebrews 9:16-18. And in two posts before that (here and here), I provided an outline of the literary structure of the very center of Hebrews. In this post I will be building off those three successive posts, attempting to provide some more support for the translation below and it's importance in context.

Again, my own formal equivalency translation is as follows:
For where a covenant is, it is necessary that the death of the institutor be carried. For a covenant is established upon dead victims, otherwise it is of no strength at all while the institutor is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.

A more literal translation would be as follows:
For where a covenant is, it is necessary that the death of the covenant-ratifier be brought forward. For a covenant is confirmed upon dead bodies, otherwise it is not valid at all while the covenant-ratifier is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.

My own amplified translation is as follows:
For where a covenant is, it is necessary that the death of the institutor [of the covenant] be carried [by a priest].1 For a covenant is established over dead [animal] victims, otherwise [the covenant] is of no strength at all while the institutor is alive. Therefore not even the first [covenant/priestly ministry] was inaugurated without blood.

Saint Augustine once commented on these passages, and his interpretation was that the "likeness" of "Christ's death for us" is presented here. But this "likeness" to which he was referring was "the old covenant, in which the death of the testator was prefigured in the sacrificial victim."2 No scholar to my knowledge denies that in these passages (i.e. Heb. 9:16-18) the author of Hebrews is leading his audience to see "Christ's death for us". All scholars interpret these passages in a way which illustrates Christ as the one who dies as a sacrificial victim in order to bring about the change of law "necessary" (Heb. 7:12) for the old covenant to become obsolete (Heb. 8:13).  But instead of interpreting Heb. 9:16-18 as an illustration of the priestly ministry and it's essential sacrificial system which must necessarily fade away once Christ offers himself as a living sacrifice for sin in the the "true tabernacle" (Heb. 8:2; 9:11), many scholars treat these passages as a direct reference to the literal death of Jesus. Allegedly, Jesus had to literally die (as a sacrifice for sin) in order for some figurative "will" or "testament" to go into force.

But is this really what is going on?  And what does it even matter if it's not?

As I have argued in previous posts, a "will" or "testament" is not in view at all in these verses. Instead, I contend, the author is illustrating the way in which a covenant was ratified under the old priesthood and ministry, which foreshadowed both the work of Jesus as a sacrificial victim and the Priest who mediates between God and man (i.e. God and the covenant-ratifier). At first glance the difference might appear to be too nuanced, leaving the bottom-line of the author's argument to be that someone needs to die in order for the covenant to be ratified (or the "will" to go into force). But I am arguing that there is a major difference between the two arguments. And I'm not quite sure why many scholars consider the translation of this passage to be a moot point.

Why should we not consider it to be a big conceptual difference if the old covenant Scriptures, especially God's Law given to Moses (which is what the author of Hebrews is using throughout chapter nine to illustrate his point), don't ever describe priestly duties or sacrificial requirements in terms of a "will" or "testament"? As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no theology of "will-making" or "will-keeping" in the Mosaic law. But there are a lot of illustrations about "covenant-making", "covenant-ratifying", and "covenant-keeping". My own personal view is that if the theology of "covenant making" and "covenant ratifying" is understood within it's old covenant context of priesthood and sacrifice, this will help broaden our understanding of the "covenant" in the book of Hebrews. I do not personally believe that the bottom-line of the author's argument in Hebrews 9:16-18 is that Jesus died to inaugurate a necessary transition from an old "covenant" to a new "covenant." I do adopt that basic terminology, but I do not adopt many modern conceptions about the author's own use of that term. My understanding is that the bottom-line of 9:16-18 is that worshipers under the old covenant were required to ratify their covenant with God by offering the death of an animal as a substitutionary sacrifice, and that the earthly ministry of the Levitical priesthood was the only mediator between the death of that substitutionary victim and the worshiper. This is what the Law of God prescribed, and so this is what I believe the author of Hebrews is utilizing to prove his point. And so, by extension, because the Law required an earthly priesthood to bring forward the blood of animal victims into the presence of God, once Jesus enters the "true tabernacle" with His own blood (of which the earthly tabernacle was just a "shadow" and it's priestly ministry a "parable" according to 8:5 and 9:9), and offers it, and is received by God as satisfactory, there must of necessity be a transition from an old covenant priestly ministry to a new covenant priestly ministry. But it is precisely at this point that modern translations of Hebrews 9:16-18 are not able to make a direct connection between priesthood and covenant, which is what I firmly believe the author of Hebrews is describing all throughout chapters 8 and 9.

All throughout the book of Hebrews, the author is not addressing some broad, sweeping change to God's "covenant" as it pertains to the means by which sinners "get saved" (e.g. the old covenant was salvation by law, but the new covenant is entirely of grace; the old covenant was based on works, but the new covenant is based on faith, etc.,). Instead, upon closer examination, what we find is that the author is addressing a specific change to God's "covenant" as it pertains to it's essential identification with Israel as a kingdom of priests. In other words, the author is addressing a specific change of priesthood and the essential ministry with which it is identified. Moreover, he is arguing that the Law itself anticipated this and taught this inevitable change in various ways, teaching the eventual necessity of changing from a continual sacrificial offering to the once-for-all-self-sacrifice of Jesus, from priests after the order of Levi to Jesus after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. chs. 5-7), from Moses and Aaron, Israel's Apostle and High Priest, to Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1). In summary, this letter of Hebrews is about the royal priesthood of Israel as God's adopted "son" being lead to Jesus, the true Son of God, of which their priestly ministry and "sonship" was but a foreshadow. Unfortunately this necessary connection between "covenant" and "priestly ministry" becomes skewed in Hebrews 9:16-18 once the translation of a "will" or "testament" is applied.

As a matter of fact, as soon as the word diatheke (which is the Greek word for "covenant", but translated as a "will" or "testament" in 9:16-18) enters into this letter of Hebrews, it functions within a context that is completely oblivious to the need for a "will" or "testament" to come into force. And as the author's discussion of diatheke continues from one thought to another, from chapter to chapter, the context still remains oblivious to any need for a discussion about a "will" or "testament." The first place diatheke is used in Hebrews is in 7:22, and the author begins a discussion about Christ becoming the guarantee of a "better covenant". But notice carefully that the context refers to a change in the law pertaining to the old covenant priestly administration. In the very next verses of chapter 7, verses 23 and 24, the author argues that "The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently because he continues forever." The discussion of a "better covenant" never shifts away from that contextual understanding of priestly administration.

Modern translations insert the word "covenant" in eleven places between 7:22 and 9:16, and yet the actual word diatheke (i.e. "covenant") is only found in eight of those places in the original Greek text. In the remaining three places (Heb. 8:7,13; 9:1), we find the beginning of an intentional conceptual parallel between the "first" covenant and the "first" priestly administration, between the "new" covenant and the "new" priestly administration. As I mentioned a moment ago, the author's first mention of a diatheke (i.e. a "covenant") is in 7:22 and it is speaking about a change of law pertaining to the old covenant priestly administration (i.e. "ministry"). The next occurrence of diatheke ("covenant") is in 8:6, which says that "Christ has obtained a ministry (i.e. a priestly ministry) that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." Notice carefully that in the following verse, verse 7, the author begins the intentional conceptual parallel mentioned moments ago. Hebrews 8:7 says, "For if that first _______  had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second." Here, after the word "first", I have left a blank line for the purpose of showing where the author omits the word "covenant" found in modern translations. I believe the author has allowed this ellipsis, and is beginning a series of three successive ellipses, in order to help his audience make the conceptual connection themselves. In the larger context of Hebrews 8, the author has already begun a discussion about a "better covenant" in 7:22, referring to a change in priestly administration. Here in 8:6, he is discussing Christ as obtaining a priestly ministry through which which He mediates for those under the new covenant. The "first" that "had been faultless" was not simply a covenant. The author is talking about a priestly ministry under the old covenant. The first priestly ministry was "faulty," which is why the author can use the laws pertaining to it to illustrate a necessary change once the Messiah accomplishes redemption once for all.

The same is true for the other two elliptical examples. In 8:13, the author says, "In speaking of a new ______, He makes the first ______ obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." Again, one can just as easily insert the word "ministry" in each of the underlined areas, because the context of chapter eight, including the quotation from Jeremiah in verses 8-12, is describing the Lord's adoption of Israel as a royal priesthood by establishing a covenant with them at Sinai.  What I am not saying dogmatically is that the word "ministry" should be inserted in those blank spaces. The word "covenant" is the proper syntactical insertion. My point, again, is simply that the author is intentionally associating the old "covenant" with the old priestly "ministry". Beginning at 7:22, the change in covenant is conceptually parallel with a change in priestly ministry. This becomes even more obvious when we consider the way he follows 8:13 with a description of the priestly administration in 9:1, which is the third and final example of intentional ellipsis: "Now even the first ________ had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness."

Clearly, by omitting the word "covenant" in this third illustration, the author is not talking about a "covenant" in some abstract sense of "getting saved," but rather a specific covenant administration that regulates "worship and an earthly place of holiness". It's especially interesting to note that the Greek word translated here as "worship" is latreia, which refers to public priestly duties within the tabernacle.3

At the end of the last post I briefly mentioned my desire to explain the peculiar insertion of the words "be carried" and "over dead victims" into my translation (above). I will save that explanation for the next post. But for now, assuming that my translation is defensible, I hope I have shed enough light upon this subject for others to consider whether my translation of 8:16-17 (above) fits better into the broader context of Christ obtaining a priestly ministry that is better than the old one.

1.  An alternative would be to take the literal translation of "be brought forward" as a reference to the worshiper bringing his own representative animal sacrifice to the priest, who would then draw near to God by presenting the dead animal as an offering to Him. The worshiper has to bring an animal before the Lord and slaughter it representatively, because the law required the death of a substitute to "be brought forward" into the Lord's presence.
2.  Thomas Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews [Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, Il; 2005] p. 141
3.  Latreia is used throughout the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (LXX) as a reference to the public ministry of priests. Some examples of latreia include Joshua 22:27 and I Chron. 28:13. Joshua talks about performing the "service (latreia) of the Lord in His presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings." The Chronicler talks about "the divisions of the priest and of the Levites, and all the work of the service (latreia) in the house of the Lord."  In Hebrews 9:6, the author says that "the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties (latreia)."