Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).

May 6: Hebrews 9:14

In the previous notes in this series, we have explored the relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. By all accounts, this association represents a certain development in early Christian thought, for which there is very little evidence in the Gospel Passion narratives. Only in the Gospel of John do we find a connection between the Spirit and the death of Jesus, and there only by way of allusion and foreshadowing. As discussed in a prior note, the Johannine presentation of the tradition regarding Jesus’ last words, and the actual moment of his death (19:30), can be understood as a reference to Jesus giving the Spirit. Similarly, many commentators find an allusion to the Spirit in the water that comes forth from Jesus’ side (19:34f, note), as symbolic of the Spirit as ‘living water’ —cf. 4:10-15; 7:37-39, and note the contrast between ordinary water and the Spirit in 3:5-8; cp. 1:26, 33.

Another possible connection is found in the use of Psalm 16:8-10 within the sermon-speeches of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts (2:25-28; 13:35), applied to the death of Jesus. It could be taken to imply that God (and His Spirit) remained with Jesus all the way through the moment of his death (and his burial thereafter). Cf. the introduction to this series, and the recent Easter Sunday article.

Apart from these indirect references, I can find only one passage in the New Testament that connects the Spirit with the actual death of Jesus—Hebrews 9:11-14, with the climactic statement in verse 14.

Hebrews 9:14

An important theme that runs throughout the letter of Hebrews is the fulfillment, in Jesus’ person, of all the sacrificial ritual previously required by God of His people (in the old covenant). In the new covenant, such sacrificial offerings are no longer required (cf. 10:9, etc), since they were fulfilled by Jesus, and he himself is the mediator of a new agreement between God and His people (believers)—see esp. 7:22; 8:6-10ff, 13; 9:1ff, 15-20; 10:16-17 (citing Jer 31:33-34); 12:24; 13:20.

The focus on the sacrificial offerings runs through chapters 7-10, with special attention given to the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16). Jesus fulfills the role of the high priest who enters “the inner (space)” behind the curtain (Heb 6:19)—that is, into the innermost shrine (‘Holy of Holies’)—to offer sacrifice (by sprinkling blood), cleansing the shrine of impurity, from the sins of the people, in the presence of YHWH (Lev 16:15ff). The sacrificial offering is burnt upon the Temple altar (vv. 24ff), as a sin offering on behalf of all the people (including the priests). In terms of the typological interpretation applied by the author of Hebrews, Jesus is both the High Priest who offers the sacrifice and the sacrificial offering itself.

The dual imagery comes together in 9:11-14, where Jesus, the High Priest, is said to have entered into the inner shrine to sprinkle the cleansing blood (of the slaughtered animal), according to the regulation laid down in Lev 16:15ff. However, the blood that he brings is his own—that is, he himself is the sacrificial offering that has been slain:

“…and not through (the) blood of goats and calves, but through (using) his own blood, he came in, on one (occasion only), into the holy (place), (hav)ing found for the ages (the) loosing from (bondage).” (v. 12)

The ‘bondage’ from which people are loosed (i.e. set free) is the bondage to sin—the Day of Atonement rituals, of course, being intended specifically to remove the effects of sin. It is a sacrificial ritual to be performed “upon one (occasion)” (e)fa/pac)—that is, one time only. After the fulfillment by Jesus, there is no longer any need for the ritual to be performed. It was fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrificial death—which involved (literally) the shedding of blood, but also the cruelty and violence of his manner of death (crucifixion) represents, in a general sense, ‘bloodshed’. On this specific Christological use of the blood-motif, cf. Mark 14:24 par; John 6:54-56; [19:34]; Acts 20:28; Rom 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; 2:13; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6ff; Rev 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11; 19:13. Outside of chapters 7-10 in Hebrews, cf. also 12:24; 13:12, 20.

The contrast between the blood of slaughtered animals, as used in the ritual, and Jesus’ own blood, is emphasized in verses 13-14:

“For, if the blood of goats and calves…(by) sprinkling (it on) the (one)s having been made common [i.e. unclean/profane], makes (them) holy toward the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Anointed (One), who, through (the) Spirit of the Ages [i.e. eternal Spirit], brought himself, without blemish, toward God, cleanse our sunei/dhsi$ from dead works, unto performing service to (the) living God?”

Verses 13-14 comprise a relatively long and complex sentence, as my very literal translation above makes clear. The complexity is due, in large part, to the considerable mixture of images and motifs which the author has brought together. This includes both the idea of the sprinkling of blood—alluding not just to the Day of Atonement ritual, but to a range of sacrificial contexts (e.g., Exod 24:8; cp. Mk 14:24 par)—and of presenting the slaughtered animal as a burnt offering (for sin, etc).

The reference to the Spirit in verse 14 is significant, and is the particular focus of our study. The expression is pneu=ma ai)wni/ou, “(the) Spirit of the Ages”, with the adjective ai)w/nio$ (“of the age[s]”) typically translated “eternal” —understood, not so much in a temporal sense, but as a fundamental Divine characteristic or attribute. It is possible to consider also that ai)w/nio$ alludes to a certain ‘timelessness’ as a characteristic of God’s Spirit.

The expression is part of a wider prepositional phrase: dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou, “through (the) Spirit of the Ages,” “through (the) eternal Spirit”. Commentators have long debated the precise significance of this phrase in v. 14; an entire monograph has even been devoted to the subject (by John J. McGrath, S.J., Through the Eternal Spirit: An Historical Study of the Exegesis of Hebrews 9:13-14 [Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1961]). The interpretive key would seem to be the parallelism with the dia/– phrases in vv. 11-12 (cf. Attridge, p. 251):

    • “through [dia/] the greater and more complete tent”
    • “through [dia/] his own blood…” (cf. above), contrasting
      not through the blood of goats…”

The Spirit represents both the location and the manner of the sacrifice. In the first instance, the sacrificial offering takes place ‘in the Spirit’ —that is, in the realm of the Spirit; in the second instance, it is offered at the level of the Spirit, in a spiritual manner. Thus, even though Jesus suffered a physical death, in which concrete and material blood was shed, he truly offered “his own blood” through the Spirit.

This is comparable to the Johannine view of Jesus’ death, in which, as discussed in prior notes, the life-giving (and cleansing) power of Jesus’ blood (i.e., his sacrificial death) is communicated to believers through the Spirit; and, indeed, we participate in, and partake of, his ‘blood’ in a spiritual manner. Cf. especially the notes on Jn 6:51-58; 1 Jn 1:7, and 5:6-8. However, here in Hebrews the focus is somewhat different. The emphasis is not on how we experience Jesus’ death, but on the death itself. Verse 14 indicates that Jesus’ death was spiritual, as much as (or even more than) it was physiological.

Perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus’ sacrificial death effected something at the spiritual level. It brought about a cleansing of sin that is realized, for believers, spiritually; for more on this, cf. again the prior note on 1 Jn 1:7ff. Specifically, v. 14 locates this cleansing in the sunei/dhsi$ of the believer. This noun is derived from the verb sunei/dw, which literally means “see together”, in the sense of seeing how things fit together, indicating a certain knowledge and awareness of the matter. The noun sunei/dhsi$ most commonly refers to a person’s self-awareness, often in a moral-ethical sense—i.e., awareness of one’s behavior and conduct, etc. It is typically translated in English as “conscience”.

The awareness of which believers are cleansed, by Jesus’ blood, relates to our religious identity—specifically, to our identity as God’s people. In the old covenant, this identity was defined principally by the Torah regulations, including those involving the sacrificial rituals. The rituals were required to deal with the reality of sin and impurity. One such ritual, alluded to by the author (in a curious fashion) in v. 13, is the rite of the Red heifer (Lev 19), which was performed in order to remove the impurity that came from being in contact with a dead body. Probably the author is alluding to this when he refers to being cleansed from “dead works”.

Now, in the new covenant, through the sacrifice of Jesus, we perform service (vb latreu/w) to God in a new way. Our minds and hearts having been cleansed from sin, through the blood of Jesus, in the Spirit, the old sacrificial rituals are no longer required. No longer are we rendered impure from “dead works”, but we are alive in the Spirit and serve a living God. As we have seen, Paul was more forceful than the author of Hebrews in defining the contrast between the old and new covenants as a contrast between “death” and “life” (see esp. 2 Corinthians 3:3, 6-7ff, 14, 17-18). However, as our author continues in vv. 15ff, he very much brings out a similar connection between the old covenant and death. The new covenant was also founded on a death—that of Jesus—but it was a death that occurred only one time (e)fa/pac), and never again.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, edited by Helmut Koester, Hermeneia commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).

April 19: 1 John 1:7ff

1 John 1:7

There are five Johannine passages where the word ai!ma (“blood”) occurs, four of which refer to the death of Jesus. We have already discussed the two of these which are found in the Gospel—6:51-58 (vv. 53-56) and 19:34—and considered the theological relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. Now it remains to examine the two passages in 1 John.

The first reference comes from the opening section (following the Prologue), 1:5-2:1. The central message of 1 John (2:18-5:12) is framed by ethical-religious instruction involving the relation between the believer and sin. In these framing passages, it is recognized that believers will at times commit sin, in the sense of religious and moral failings, or lapses. The promise is that such sin can be forgiven. Here is how the author states the matter in 1:7:

“If we would walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (the) we hold common bond [koinwni/a] with each other, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

The verb kaqari/zw (“cleanse”) has ritual significance, and occurs primarily in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, and the relevant portions of Hebrews (interpreting the ancient sacrificial ritual). It occurs only here (and in v. 9) in the Johannine writings; nor is it used in the undisputed Pauline writings (but only in [2 Cor 7:1]; Eph 5:26; Titus 2:14). The author of 1 John is almost certainly drawing upon traditional early Christian language, which he accepts and utilizes, even though this ritual terminology tends to conflict with the spiritual emphasis that runs through the Johannine Gospel and First Letter.

The idea that the blood of Jesus would cleanse believers from sin ultimately derives from the role of blood in the ancient sacrificial ritual, practiced in Israel and codified in the Torah regulations. These are found principally in the book of Leviticus, the most extensive discussion on the significance of blood being found in chapter 17 (vv. 10-14). Blood symbolizes (and embodies) the life of a living being (human or animal), and, as such, serves a vital symbolic and quasi-magical role in the sacrificial ritual. We may identify three principal aspects, governing three distinct usage of blood in the ritual:

    • To represent the effectiveness of a binding agreement (covenant) on the parties involved—specifically, the covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel. This is most clearly depicted in the covenant ratification ceremony in Exod 24:1-11 (vv. 6-8).
    • To consecrate people, places, and objects, primarily for the purpose of ensuring the holiness (and purity) of all elements of the sacrificial ritual (see, for example, in Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15, 23-24; 9:9, etc).
    • As a substitutionary offering, to God, in place of the life of the individual. This relates primarily to the various forms of sin offering (Leviticus 4, 16, etc). The blood from the slaughtered animal is splashed against the altar, as a symbolic way of offering it to God (since it is not burnt with the rest of the animal).

Only the last two aspects/uses could be considered as related to “cleansing” —and the latter only in the sense of the removal (expiation) of sin and its effects. Interestingly, in the Gospel tradition, it is the covenant-ratification context that is specifically related to Jesus’ blood—viz. in the ‘words of institution’ during the Last Supper (Mark 14:24 par). And this does not specifically relate to any cleansing or to the idea of removal of sin; indeed, compare the very different context for the mention of cleansing in the Johannine version of the Last Supper (13:10; 15:3). However, it is clear that early Christians were quick to make the connection between Jesus’ blood (and his death) and the sacrificial offerings for sin; note, for example, the Matthean version of the Last Supper, with the ‘words of institution’ include the phrase “for the putting away [i.e. forgiveness] of sin” (26:28). Hebrews combines all three aspects of the ritual blood-symbolism, associating them with Jesus’ sacrificial death in chapters 910, and adding to them a fourth (mentioned in 11:28): the apotropaic use of blood in the Passover rite, as protection against death and destruction (i.e., judgment, sent by God).

How does the author of 1 John interpret and utilize this blood-symbolism? We must consider two points: (1) the Christological tradition he is drawing upon, and (2) the distinct (Johannine) theological context of his message in 1:5-2:1. First, the role and place of Jesus is referenced three ways in this passage:

    • The sacrificial power of Jesus’ blood (i.e., his death) to cleanse the believer from sin (1:7)
    • The position of Jesus alongside God the Father (in Heaven), interceding on behalf of believers (2:1), and
    • The implication that Jesus himself is a i(lasmo/$ over our sins (2:2). The noun i(lasmo/$ is notoriously difficult to translate in English, but it essentially denotes, in a religious and sacrificial context, the means by which a person appeases God, obtaining favor, graciousness, and/or mercy from Him. It effectively refers to the sacrificial offering (esp. the offering for sin).

How are these different concepts related? The last two concepts are traditional: (a) the exalted Jesus now stands alongside God the Father (at His right hand) in heaven, and (b) Jesus’ death functioned as a sacrificial offering (spec. a sin offering). The author of 1 John adopts these notions as part of the early Christian tradition and belief which he inherited. It is the blood-reference in 1:7, along with the use of the noun para/klhto$ in 2:1, that reflects the distinctive Johannine interpretation and application of this tradition.

The noun para/klhto$ literally means “one called alongside,” to offer help and assistance to someone. In the context of 2:1, Jesus is called alongside God the Father (lit. he comes “toward” [pro/$] the Father), to give help on behalf of believers. If Jesus is present with the Father in heaven, is he not also present with believers? From the Johannine theological standpoint, this is realized through the idea that there is another para/klhto$, through whom Jesus continues to remain with believers. This, of course, is the Holy Spirit, according to the teaching in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7ff), in which the term para/klhto$ (“[one] called alongside”) is used repeatedly. Though the author does not state this explicitly in 1:7ff, it is fair to assume that the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood is understood and being communicated to believers through the presence of the Spirit. This would be in accord with the spiritual interpretation of the eucharistic language in Jn 6:51-58, discussed in the previous note.

Two other aspects of the author’s statement in 1:7 indicate that the presence of the Spirit is central to his thought. First, there is the idea of “walking about” (vb peripate/w) in the light (e)n tw=| fwti/). One is immediately reminded of Paul’s expression of walking about (same verb) in the Spirit (pneu/mati [preposition implied], Gal 5:16; cf. also Rom 8:4; cp. 6:4). Beyond this, there is the Johannine use of the light (fw=$) motif, as a fundamental Divine attribute which God the Father possesses, and which is shared by Jesus (the Son). It is used as such throughout the Gospel (1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46), and similarly in 1 Jn 2:8-10. However, here in 1:5, it is presented as an essential predicate: “God is light” (o( qeo\$ fw=$ e)stin). This is comparable to other predicative statements in the Johannine writings—most notably, in Jn 4:24: “God is Spirit” (pneu=ma o( qeo/$). Some commentators might prefer to identify God’s light with His truth, but this still points right back to the Spirit, given the declaration in 5:6: “the Spirit is the truth” (to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia). This verse will be discussed further in the next daily note.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 66 (Part 2)

Psalm 66, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 1-12, discussed in the previous study) is a hymn to YHWH, in three stanzas, in which the Psalmist calls upon all people to worship and give praise to God. The emphasis is on the mighty deeds of YHWH, done on behalf of His people—particularly the Exodus event at the Reed Sea (specifically alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part (vv. 13-20) is very different. It is divided into two sections, or stanzas; here, again, the Selah [hl*s#] pause-marker is an indicator of the poetic structure. The focus is now on a individual worshiper (note the shift to 1st person singular at v. 13). The first section describes a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the earlier study).

The ritual setting fades from view in the second section, and the focus is, instead, on offering praise to God. The two aspects—sacrifice and praise—both relate to the idea that YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer—a theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms, which often are framed within the context of prayer to God for deliverance, etc.

As in the first part of the Psalm, the meter tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which is to be assumed (unless otherwise noted) in the analysis below.

Part 2: VERSES 13-20

Stanza 1: Verses 13-15
Verse 13

“I will go in(to) your house with (offering)s brought up,
(indeed,) I will fulfill to you (all) my vows—”

The setting is clear enough, as outlined above. A devout worshiper declares his/her intention to present sacrificial offerings to YHWH in the Temple (the house of God, “your house”). The noun hl*u), which literally signifies something (or someone) “going up”, usually refers to a (whole) burnt offering. The etymology may relate to the idea of making the offering “go up” (with smoke) to God as it is burnt in the altar-fire, or, possibly, to the more general concept of “bringing up” the offering to the altar (traditionally located at a high/elevated place). Regardless of the word’s etymology, the latter concept seems to be in view here—viz., focusing on the worshiper bringing the offering to God.

The offerings clearly are meant to fulfill (vb <l^v*) a vow (rd#n#) to YHWH. The idea is that a vow was made to God, to the effect that, if He answered the prayer, bringing deliverance in time of trouble, then the person would do such and such. As noted above, the theme of fulfilling a vow is relatively frequent in the Psalms (cf. the prior study on Ps 65, v. 2 [1]); often the vow is fulfilled through giving praise to God and proclaiming his greatness publicly to others (as in the second section, vv. 16-20, cf. below).

The plurals are intensive, as well as iterative; they describe the regular behavior of the righteous (who fulfill their vows), and also emphasize the generosity and lavish worship that the devout and faithful ones offer to God.

Verse 14

“that which my lips opened,
and my mouth spoke,
in the (time of) distress for me.”

Verse 14 follows conceptually (and, to some extent, syntactically) verse 13, continuing the line of thought; it could have been included with the prior verse. The six beats could certainly be treated as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; however, I feel the poetic rhythm of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon is more proper here. In the time of the Psalmist’s “distress” (rx^), he made a vow to God, that, if YHWH answered his prayer, and delivered him from his trouble, he would bring offerings to the Temple. The vow (rd#n#) designates, quite literally, a “consecrated” action. The Torah regulations regarding vow-offerings are found in Lev 7:16ff; 22:18-22; Num 15:3ff; 29:39; an entire tractate of the Mishnah (Nedarim) was devoted to the subject of vows.

The noun rx^ literally denotes something “tight” or “narrow”, as in the English idiom “in a tight spot,” or “to be in a bind”. Many Psalms are framed as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance from suffering or distress, danger and attacks from enemies, etc.

Verse 15

“(Offering)s of fatlings I will offer up to you,
with (the) rising smoke of rams—
I will offer up bull(s) with goats.”

Here the noun hl*u) (and the related verb hl^u*) seems to have in view the aspect of making the smoke (of the burnt offering) “go up” to God; the parallel noun tr#f)q= specifically denotes the rising of the fragrant smoke. The offerings of fat/plump animals (fatlings), of rams, bulls, and goats, taken collectively, are certainly lavish, and are here comprehensive in describing the kinds of offerings brought forward by the righteous. The generosity of the worshiper is also being described.

Metrically, this verse is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon.

Stanza 2: Verses 16-20
Verse 16

“Come (and) hear, and I will recount,
(to) all you fearing (the) Mightiest,
that which He has done for my soul.”

The second section returns to the thematic setting of the earlier hymn (vv. 1-12), calling on people to hear of the great deeds of YHWH, and so to give Him the worship and praise that He deserves. In the hymn, the focus was upon what God has done for the Israelite people as whole; here, it is on the individual righteous one (the Psalmist)—that is, what God has done for him (“for my soul”). YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, delivering him in his time of distress. Every one who fears God, utilizing the adjective ar@y` (“fearing”) as a substantive adjective characterizing the righteous—i.e., “(the one)s fearing” God—will respond with praise to the Psalmist’s report (“I will recount [vb rp^s*]…”).

This initial verse is, taken loosely in its meter, a 3-beat tricolon.

Verse 17

“Unto Him (with) my mouth I called (out),
and sounds (of praise were) under my tongue.”

Here, the Psalmist describes his own praise that he gives to YHWH. This praise should be understood as parallel to the sacrificial offerings in section 1—both are offered up to God, as fulfillment of vow, following an answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. For a musician-composer, of course, an offering in music and song is particularly appropriate.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 124) in reading <mr as a plural form (= <ym!or), related to Ugaritic rm (“sound [of music]”). Probably, <mr here is meant as a parallel to the ritual offerings “brought/sent up” in section 1 (vv. 13-15); the root <wr has a comparable denotation “rise/raise (up)”, and can, in a context of religious worship, can refer to exalting/praising God.

Verse 18

“If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart,
my Lord would not have heard (me).”

The context makes clear that God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer. This is an indication of the faithfulness and loyalty of the Psalmist. There may be a dual-meaning to the language in line 1 (involving the verb ha*r* and the preposition B=):

    • “If I had seen trouble in my heart”
      i.e., if there were any wicked or mischievous tendency visible or present in his heart
    • “If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart”
      i.e., if he had carried a wicked intent, meaning that his apparent righteousness would have been a sham

The noun /w#a* fundamentally means “trouble”, often as a characteristic of the wicked—i.e., one who is out to cause/make trouble. There is no such wicked tendency or intent in the heart of the Psalmist, which is a sign that he is faithful/righteous, and so YHWH answers his prayer; if it were otherwise, God would not “hear” him when he prays.

Verse 19

“(But) surely (the) Mightiest has heard me,
He has been attentive to (the) voice of my prayer.”

This verse simply confirms what was implied in v. 18, and what was already confirmed by the context here in the Psalm—namely, the YHWH has heard (and answered) the Psalmist’s prayer. The noun hL*p!T= is a common Hebrew term denoting a prayer or petition made to God; it is relatively common in the Psalms, with nearly half of the Old Testament occurrences (32 of 77) found there.

Verse 20

“Blessed (be the) Mightiest,
who has not turned away my prayer,
nor His goodness (away) from me!”

The meter of this verse is irregular, as a 2+3+2 tricolon, to match the 3+2+3 tricolon in v. 15 at the end of the first sections; such irregular tricola more commonly occur at the close of a poem (or stanza). Because God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, that means He has not “turned (away)” (vb rWs) from it. The noun ds#j# in the third line means “goodness” (or “kindness”); however, as I have mentioned repeatedly in these studies, it often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in relation to a covenant bond, such as between YHWH and His people. When YHWH answers the prayer of His loyal servant, providing protection and deliverance, He is fulfilling His covenant obligation, and is thus demonstrating faithfulness/loyalty to the bond. By not turning away the Psalmist’s prayer, God has not turned away that covenant-loyalty; indeed, YHWH is ever faithful to the binding agreement, and so is worthy of blessing and praise.

Dahood (II, p. 125) offers a different reading of the final word ytam (MT yT!a!m@, “from me”), vocalizing it yT!a@m!, as a verbal form denominative of ha*m@ (“hundred”), and thus meaning “do (something) a hundred times”. The final line would then read something like: “and (so) I declare His goodness a hundred times!” Cp. Psalm 22:26 [25], where Dahood finds the same denominative verb, in a similar context.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 51 (Part 2)

Psalm 51, continued

As previously discussed, this Psalm may be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9], cf. last week’s study) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

Part 2 (vv. 12-21 [10-19])

Verse 12 [10]

“A clean heart may you create for me, Mightiest,
and a sound spirit make new in my inner (parts).”

The opening couplet of the second stanza has a 4-beat (4+4) meter. It establishes the theme for the second part of the Psalm: the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin. Here we may properly refer to the New Testament (Pauline) idiom of a new creation, since the verbs ar*B* (“create”) and vd^j* (“be new,” Piel “make new”) are used in tandem. There is a formal parallelism at work in the couplet:

    • A heart | clean | may you create
    • A spirit | firm | may you make new

The verbs are imperatives, but when addressing God in this context, they are clearly petitionary: “may you…” The passive (Niphal) participle /okn, used as a verbal adjective, is a bit difficult to translate, since the root /wK has a relatively wide semantic range. The parallel with rohf* in the first line suggests that a purity of spirit is view; however, given the fundamental meaning of the verb /WK, a translation something like “well-founded” would not be far off the mark. For poetic concision, I have rendered it “sound” (= “firm, fixed”) above.

Verse 13 [11]

“May you not throw me out from before your face,
and (the) Spirit of your holiness, do not take it (away) from me!”

The meter in this second couplet is irregular, overweighted as 3+4. In such instances it is often better to treat the verse as a triad, with an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet; however, here the parallelism of the lines is better served by retaining the longer 3+4 format:

    • Do not throw me out from before (you)
      • your face (i.e., Presence)
      • your holy Spirit
    • do not take away from me

The same basic petition is being made, but from two different directions or perspectives; the negative particle (la^) governs the two-fold petition, giving it a negative formation. The Psalmist asks that it should not happen:

    • that he be removed from God’s presence (His face) /
      that God’s presence (Spirit) be removed from him

The “face” and Spirit of YHWH both refer to His manifest presence and power. The literal expression in the second line is “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but it corresponds precisely (in our idiom) to “holy spirit”. For more on this verse, in the context of Old Testament teaching and tradition on the Spirit, cf. my earlier study.

Verse 14 [12]

“May you return to me (the) joy of your salvation,
and (with) a willing spirit take hold of me.”

This verse builds upon the previous couplet, focusing on the effect of YHWH’s presence and power upon a person. That it has been missing for the Psalmist is indicated by the use of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”), here in the Hiphil, i.e., “make (something) turn back, make (it) return”. What has been missing, specifically, is the joyful experience of the salvation YHWH provides. The noun uv^y# here could also be rendered “safety” or “security”, referring to the protection provided by YHWH according to the binding agreement (covenant) He has established with those faithful/loyal to Him. Sin disrupts the covenant-bond, and removes the obligation for God to protect and deliver His vassal.

A second effect is that God’s Spirit transforms the spirit of His servant, turning it into a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit—so that the Psalmist might remain faithful to YHWH of his own accord, never again acting rebelliously to break faith with God. Here the Psalmist asks specifically that YHWH would “take hold of” him (vb Em^s*) with His holy Spirit, so that his own spirit might be changed (made new, v. 13 [11]) and strengthened.

This couplet returns to a 3-beat (3+3) meter, as if poetically resolving the tension (expressed metrically) built into the previous couplets.

Verse 15 [13]

“I will teach your ways (to those) breaking (faith),
and (those) sinning might (then) return to you.”

The vow or promise given here alludes back to the idea of a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit in the previous verse, since the nouns hb*yd!n+ and hb*d*n+ can be used in the religious context of a voluntary gift or deed offered to God. Here the promise involves teaching the ways of God (as expressed primarily through the regulations and precepts of the Torah) to other sinners, those who are currently acting rebelliously and breaking faith (vb uv^P*) with YHWH. Following the ways of God means being faithful to the covenant bond (the Torah representing the terms of the covenant).

There is a bit of wordplay here that can be lost in English translation. In the previous verse, the Psalmist asked that God “return” the joy of salvation to him; now he promises that he will respond by causing other sinners to “return” to God—the same verb (bWv, “turn [back]”) being used in both instances.

Verse 16 [14]

“Snatch me away from blood, O Mightiest,
(you) Mighty (One) of my salvation,
(and) my tongue will ring out your justice.”

In this verse, the Psalmist makes yet another promise, framed conditionally—on the condition that YHWH rescue him (lit. snatch him away, vb lx^n`) from “(shedd)ing of blood”. The plural noun <ym!D* (“bloods”) is used in the Old Testament as a specific idiom (difficult to translate into English) referring to the shedding of blood. It can be used for violence (and wickedness) generally, even if no blood is actually shed. Here there are two possibilities: (1) it can refer to sin and wickedness, or (2) it can refer specifically to the guilt (from sin) that leads to death. Probably the latter is in view.

A 3-beat couplet (lines 1 and 3 above) has been expanded into a triad, including a short 2-beat middle line, emphasizing the Psalmist’s praise of God, the very thing that he promises to do if YHWH delivers him from death (“my tongue will cry/ring out [vb /n~r*] your justice”).

According to one line of interpretation, the Psalmist has experienced illness, which he understands as punishment for sin that he has committed. This generally fits the context, though the specific sense of physical suffering (from illness or disease) is not as prominent in this Psalm as it is in other prayer/petitionary Psalms we have studied. If he is praying to be delivered from death (cf. on the use of the word <ym!D* above), this would give some added weight to the idea that the Psalm involves a prayer for deliverance (healing) from sickness.

Verse 17 [15]

“My Lord, may you open (up) my lips,
and my mouth will bring out front a shout (to) you.”

This verse (another 3-beat couplet) builds upon the idea of giving praise to YHWH in v. 16 [14]. If God delivers him (from death), then the Psalmist promises to praise Him; yet, even so, he asks further that YHWH “open up” his lips (i.e., inspire him) so that he will be able to present a proper “shout” (hL*h!T=) of praise. The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil stem) literally means “put in front, bring out front”. This is one of numerous references or allusions in the Psalms to the idea of musical/poetic inspiration, with the source of the inspiration being God Himself (His Spirit).

Verse 18 [16]

“For you do not delight (at all) in (ritual) slaughter,
and should I give (you) rising (smoke) you would not be pleased.”

The rhythm of this (slightly irregular) 3-beat couplet is a bit difficult to render into English. However the poetic parallelism of thought is clear and direct enough. It repeats some of the prophetic themes we saw expressed in Psalm 50 (cf. Parts 1 and 2 of that study), downplaying the importance of the sacrificial offerings. This message does not necessarily mean that one can (or should) forego the performance of the sacrificial ritual; rather, it emphasizes that the heart and intention of the person making the sacrifice is far more important. Simply fulfilling the ritual duty, while one’s heart remains unfaithful and rebellious, actually makes a mockery of the Torah regulations. This is clearly stated in the next verse.

Verse 19 [17]

“(The) slaughterings of (the) Mightiest (are) a broken spirit—
a heart broken and crushed, Mightiest, you will not despise.”

The powerfully concrete language used in this couplet tends to be lost in conventional English translation. It is important to preserve the fundamental meaning of the noun jb^z#; typically translated “sacrifice,” it literally refers to the slaughter of an animal (in a religious/ritual context). But what the Psalmist states here, most strikingly, is that the kind of slaughtering YHWH truly wants is not the cutting up of an animal, but the breaking apart of one’s spirit. That is to say, one should offer up one’s own spirit—one’s very own life and being—as a sacrificial offering. Two passive participles are used (as verbal adjectives) to express this, from the verbs rb^v* (“break [apart]”) and hk*D* (“crush”).

A broken and crushed spirit (j^Wr = heart [bl@]) refers both to an attitude of repentance and the experience of suffering. YHWH treats the animal sacrifices, in and of themselves, as worth nothing; however, the sacrifice of one’s own heart and spirit—that He does not treat as nothing (vb hz`B*, i.e., belittle, despise). On the contrary, a faithful/loyal heart is of the utmost importance to God, and part of this faithfulness is the willingness to make right the covenant bond when it is broken by sin. The process of making things right involves both repentance and the endurance of punishment (i.e., suffering) at times.

The expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of the Mightiest” means: sacrifices that one should offer to God, that are acceptable to Him.

Verses 20-21 [18-19]

“May you do good, by your pleasure, (to) ‚iyyôn,
(when) you build (the) walls of Yerushalaim;
then you shall delight (in) slaughterings of justice—
(the) rising (smoke) and (the) whole (offering)—
then they shall offer up bulls upon your place of slaughter.”

The Psalm comes to a close, somewhat curiously, with this pair of couplets (the second couplet being expanded into a triad), focusing rather abruptly on the city of Jerusalem. Commentators tend to regard it as an editorial appendix, whereby the original Psalm came to be adapted into a wider communal context. A number of Psalms show similar signs; once these compositions came to be utilized, on a regular basis, in a communal and ritual setting, it is not surprising that such minor additions would develop within the text.

The individual petition has shifted to a petition by the entire community of Jews (or Judeans) longing for a restoration of their holy city and its Temple. This clearly indicates an exilic (and probably post-exilic) setting. While this focus on communal and national restoration is secondary, it is not at all inappropriate from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition. Indeed, there is a close connection between individual sin and that of the community, and also between individual and national repentance.

It was, after all, the sins of individuals which led to the guilt and punishment of the entire community (of Judah and Jerusalem), culminating in the Exile and destruction of the Temple. Correspondingly, repentance will lead to the rebuilding of the city and Temple; once that happens, ritual sacrifices can again be offered to YHWH. The expectation is that, after the experience of suffering, the people will come to offer these sacrifices with a new and transformed heart, loyal to the covenant with YHWH, and thus the offerings will be acceptable to Him.


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 1)

Psalm 50

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPse (vv. 3-7); 4QPsc (vv. 14-23)

This is the first of 12 Psalms attributed to [s*a* (“Asaph”), the others being Pss 73-83. According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22.

The prophetic role of Asaph (and his sons) is noteworthy, given the fact that Psalm 50 is itself a prophetic oracle. Though in Jewish tradition the Psalms were often regarded as inspired prophecy (with David as a prophet, etc), this is one of the only Psalms which has the form and style of a prophetic oracle. Even if Asaph was not the actual author/composer, due to the prophetic character of the Psalm it was natural for it to be attributed to him, and it may reflect his style.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a fairly consistent 3-beat (3+3, occasionally 3+2) couplet or tricolon (3+3+3) format.

The Psalm opens with a dramatic introduction (vv. 1-4), followed by an introductory address (vv. 5-6) that sets the stage for the oracle that makes up the remainder of the composition. It is a judgment oracle, delivered against the people of Israel/Judah as a whole, similar in tone and theme with prophetic passages such as Isa 1:2-20ff. The oracle itself has two parts:

    • Part 1 (vv. 7-15): Diatribe on the uselessness of sacrificial offerings when wickedness is present and prevails among the people.
    • Part 2 (vv. 16-23): The accusation against the wicked ones in Israel

Introduction (vv. 1-4)

Verse 1

“Mighty (One) of the Mighty (one)s (is) YHWH!
He spoke and called (forth the) earth,
from (the) rising of (the) sun unto its going  (down).”

This opening verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The first line reflects the character of this introduction as being in praise of YHWH as Creator and King (and Judge) over all. To say that he “called” (vb ar^q*) the earth alludes to His creation of the universe (“heaven and earth”) through the spoken word (Gen 1:1ff)—i.e., he called it into being. It also refers to his role as King over the universe, exercising control over it each day.

Verse 2

“From ‚iyyôn, (the) completion of (all) beauty,
(the) Mightiest (One), has shined (forth).”

This couplet picks up from the motif of the rising sun in v. 1, describing YHWH as the true Light shining forth. He shines “from Zion”, referring to the symbolic and ritual location of His throne in the Temple sanctuary. YHWH Himself is the “completion of beauty” (yp!y) ll^k=m!), but this expression could also apply to His Temple-dwelling on Zion.

Verse 3

“Our Mighty (One) will come and will not be silent,
a (raging) fire before him devours,
and around him a fierce (storm) is swirling.”

This is another 3-beat tricolon, using the imagery of storm-theophany to describe the approach and (manifest) presence of YHWH. Quite often in Old Testament tradition, including many passages in the Psalms, El-Yahweh is associated with the storm, much as was the case with Baal Haddu in Canaanite religious tradition; there are numerous similarities between YHWH and Baal in this regard, which helps to explain the fierce opposition to syncretistic adoption of Baal-worship among Yahwists in Israel.

The storm-imagery also relates to YHWH speaking (“He will not be silent”), since, in ancient Near Eastern thought, thunder was considered to be the “voice” (loq) of God. Here, however, the focus is on the fire that appears before YHWH, coming from in front of His face, and the devastating winds “swirling/whirling” around Him. The destructive character of these storm-phenomena reflects the judgment that will be brought against the wicked.

Verse 4

“He will call to the heavens from above,
and to the earth, to judge His people.”

This call to the heavens and the earth (i.e., the two main parts of the universe) reflects the “covenant lawsuit” genre, seen most notably in the openings of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and the oracle in Isa 1:2-20ff. It was customary in the ancient Near East to invoke God (or the gods) when establishing a binding agreement (covenant) between two parties, calling on the deities to be a witness to the agreement and to bring judgment/punishment in case the terms of the agreement are violated. In the monotheistic context of Israelite culture, the only Deity to call upon is YHWH, except that, in the case of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, He is one of the parties involved; therefore, “Heaven and Earth” are called upon to be witnesses instead.

The judgment-setting of the oracle here would indicate that heaven and earth, having witnessed the covenant, are being called upon now to give testimony against Israel (“His people”). In any case, they are taking part in the proceedings.

Introductory Address (vv. 5-6)

Verse 5

“Gather His loyal (one)s to Him,
(those) having cut a binding (agreement)
(made) upon a (ritual) slaughter.”

The poetic form is difficult to discern, the lines of these introductory verses (to the oracle) reading more as prosody than poetry. I have rendered v. 5 here as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon.

The y– suffixes should probably be read as reflecting the third person (rather that 1st person) singular (cf. Dahood, p. 307). This is not entirely uncommon in Old Testament poetry, where archaic features in the language are often preserved, causing certain confusion for later copyists.

The adjective dys!j* properly means “good, kind”, but frequently connotes (and denotes) loyalty, when used in the context of the covenant (as here). There may be a certain biting irony to the term; since the setting is an oracle of judgment against Israel, it might seem strange to call the people “loyal”. However, it is presumably used here in the more general sense of those who are bound by the covenant, who have been—and, more importantly, should have been—loyal to it.

The mention of “(ritual) slaughter” (i.e., sacrificial offering) refers primarily to the sacrifices which took place when the covenant was established (and ratified). This scene is described in Exodus 24. In Near Eastern tradition, such a binding agreement was often accompanied by the ritual cutting up of an animal; this is the background (and fundamental meaning) of the expression to “cut” (vb tr^K*) an agreement. At Sinai, the offerings had several specific purposes, including the ritual use of the blood (vv. 6-8), at which point the people affirmed their loyalty to the terms of the covenant, and a ritual meal (v. 11) to mark the ratification of the agreement.

Verse 6

“And (the) heavens shall put His justice out front,
for (the) Mightiest—He (is the) Judge.”

As noted above, the heavens (and earth) will give testimony in this courtroom-scene against Israel. Since heaven and earth were called on as witnesses to the covenant (cf. the tradition in Deut 32:1, etc), they can testify to how Israel had agreed to the terms, binding themselves to it; having violated the agreement, YHWH is perfectly in His rights to call for judgment/punishment to be brought against Israel. As it happens, YHWH is not only the plaintiff in the case, but is also Himself the Judge (fp@v)). Dahood (p. 307) would read fp^v=m! yh@l)a$ (“Mighty [One] of justice”) instead of fpv) <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One] [is] judge”), dividing and vocalizing the words differently from MT.

The Oracle, Part 1 (vv. 7-15)

Verse 7

“Hear, my people, and I will speak,
Israel, and I will repeat (it) against you,
(for the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One am) I!”

The oracle proper begins here in verse 7; it is now YHWH who is speaking, as the plaintiff in the “covenant lawsuit”, bringing the charge, the accusation, against His people Israel. The wording in the first and third lines frames the case, alluding to the very covenant bond that Israel has broken. By referring to Israel as His people (“my people”), and to Himself as their God, YHWH is affirming the central tenet of the covenant, going back to the time of Abraham and the Patriarchs.

The verb dWu literally means “repeat”, but it can be used in the sense of giving testimony (i.e., repeating what one has seen or heard). Here it has the broader meaning of the case that YHWH is presenting in the courtroom (before Himself as Judge).

Verse 8

“(It is) not over your slaughterings (that) I accuse you,
or your (offering)s going up continually in front of me.”

In verse 5 (cf. above) the sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, jb^z#) which established/ratified the covenant was mentioned. This reference, however, also serves the dual purpose of introducing the theme of sacrificial offerings that dominates the first part of the oracle. Here YHWH states that the problem is not related to any failure on Israel’s part to perform the sacrificial offerings required by the covenant. Indeed, even as they faithfully fulfill this ritual aspect of the binding agreement, they violate it, most egregiously, in other ways.

Verses 9-11

“I would not take from your house a bull,
(nor) goats from your enclosures;
for to me (belongs) every living (thing) of (the) thicket,
(the) beasts (are) on (the) hills of (the) Mighty (One),
and I know every flying (creature) of the mountains,
and every(thing) moving (in the) field (is there) with me.”

In the first couplet, YHWH points out the relative insignificance of the animal sacrifices per se, by declaring that He really has no need for those offerings. The reason is then stated in the final four lines, a pair of couplets with a chiastic conceptual structure:

    • to me belongs
      • every living thing of the forest
        • beasts of the mountains
          • (they belong to the) Mighty One
          • and I know them (all)
        • flying creatures of the mountains
      • every moving thing of the field
    • is with me (i.e. belongs to me)

This reflects, again, the place of YHWH as Creator and King over all the world (cf. the introduction, vv. 1-4, above). Since every animal in the world belongs to Him, clearly He does not need the relatively few animals, from the houses and stalls of the Israelites, that are offered as sacrifices. Moreover, since He already possesses a multitude of living animals, of what real value are those slaughtered animals?

A minor textual note: In the second line of v. 10, the correct reading is almost certainly la@ yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of [the] Mighty [One, i.e. God]”) rather than MT [l#a* yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of cattle [?]”); cf. Psalm 36:6. Dahood (p. 307f) would retain the final pe of MT [la and attach it as a prefixed conjunction (P^) to the following verb. Unfortunately, this verse is not preserved in the surviving Qumran manuscripts (cf. at top above).

Verses 12-13

“If I were hungry, I would not say (that) to you,
for (all that the earth) contains and its fullness (belongs) to me!
Would I (then) eat (the) flesh of (your) bulls,
or drink (the) blood of (your) goats?”

This is another way of YHWH stating that He has no actual need for sacrificial offerings. One basic concept in ancient sacrificial ritual was that the offerings provided a kind of nourishment for the deity (or for the spirits of the deceased, etc). In the case of the whole burnt offering, the entire animal was turned into smoke which then rose (lit. went up, hlu) to God in heaven; with such offerings, in particular, God could be seen as consuming (eating) the animal.

However, YHWH states rather bluntly that, even if He were in need of nourishment (“hungered,” vb bu^r*), it would hardly be necessary for Him to tell human beings about it. After all, every thing that the world contains (i.e., the term lb@T@)—all life and produce coming from the earth—belongs to Him, and He can take of its life-essence (for nourishment) anytime He wants.

All of this colorful polemic simply serves to devalue the importance of sacrificial offerings in and of themselves. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophet writings, perhaps the most famous example being found in Isa 1:12-15.

Verse 14

“(Instead) ‘slaughter’ to (the) Mightiest a declaration,
and fulfill for (the) Highest your promises (to Him).”

Much more important than sacrificial offerings are the things which a person declares to God, reflecting one’s personal character/integrity and the intention of one’s heart. The same verb jb^z` (“slaughter”) is used provocatively here; instead of cutting up an animal, it is more important to cut a declaration to God. This is the general significance of the word hd*oT, something which a person declares or confesses—viz., of one’s faith in YHWH, devotion to the Torah, including repentance and confession of sin, etc. The sacrificial offerings are just a small part of this wider portrait of covenant loyalty; without a true declaration, from the heart, fulfilling the letter of the ritual law is of little consequence.

Similarly the word rd#n# refers to something that a person promises (to God). It can involve a specific vow or obligation, but may also be understood in the broader sense of what every Israel promises in terms of being devoted to YHWH and faithful to His covenant. The verb <l^v* (“fulfill, complete”) can be used in the ritual context of the sacrificial offerings, but here its wider meaning is in view: fulfillment of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 15

“And (then) call on me in (the) day of distress,
and I will pull you (out) and you will be honored (by) me.”

If a person does what YHWH commands in v. 14, then the covenant bond will be fulfilled. This means that God will, in turn, fulfill His covenant obligation, which includes providing protection in time of danger (“[the] day of distress”). The faithful vassal can also expect to receive blessing and honor (dbk) from his Sovereign. I follow Dahood (p. 308) in parsing yndbkt as a passive (Pual) verb form, which is much better suited to the context of the line, referring to what YHWH will do for His faithful servant.

The apparent anti-sacrifice polemic in this first part of the oracle, as in prophetic passages such as Isa 1:12-15 (cf. above), may lead one to assume that fulfilling the Torah regulations regarding the sacrificial offerings is unnecessary and can (and perhaps even should) be abandoned. This would, however, almost certainly reflect a misunderstanding of the polemic. The point is, that a person can fulfill the ritual obligation without possessing a heart that is truly devoted to God. Especially for the rich or well-to-do in society, offering up an animal to the priesthood, in fulfillment of the ritual requirement, does not involve any real personal sacrifice. It can be done easily, in a half-hearted manner, or with wicked/impure motives. This is primarily the aspect of the sacrificial ritual that the Prophets are roundly condemning.

We will discuss this further when we examine the second part of the oracle in next week’s study.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).

March 22: Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7

Hosea 6:6

This note is included as part of the current series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. The statement in Hosea 6:6 is of considerable significance, even if it plays only a minor role in the Gospel Tradition. It represents a marked trend in early Christianity—one which, it may be said, goes back to the teaching of Jesus.

The saying (or sayings) of Jesus that quotes part of Hosea 6:6 is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, where it occurs twice (9:13 and 12:7). There is every reason to think that it originally circulated as a separate saying, which was then added by the Gospel writer to the two Synoptic episodes, being generally appropriate to the context in each case. For some reason, this saying, with its citation of Hos 6:6, was only preserved in a line of tradition inherited by Matthew (so-called “M” material). Here are the two versions of the Matthean saying:

But (as) you are traveling, learn what (this) is: ‘I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter’ —for I did not come to call just (person)s, but sinful (one)s.” (9:13)

But if you had known what (this) is— ‘I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter’ —you would not have sought justice against (one)s (who are) without (any cause) to be questioned.” (12:7)

The core saying (in bold above) has been adapted slightly to the context in each episode. While it is certainly possible that this reflects Jesus’ actual usage of the Scripture in the historical setting, the lack of any such citation in the parallel Synoptic versions makes it much more likely that an independent saying of Jesus has been added (by the Gospel writer) to the scene in each case. There is, however, no a priori reason to doubt the authenticity of the saying (with its citation of Hos 6:6).

The portion of Hos 6:6 cited (in Greek) by Jesus in the Gospel is identical to the LXX translation:

e&leo$ qe/lw kai\ ou) qusi/an
“I wish (for) mercy/compassion, not (ritual) slaughter”

In the original Hebrew this is:

jb^z` al)w+ yT!x=p^j* ds#j# yK!
“For I delight (in) ds#j#, and not (ritual) slaughter”

The Greek emphasizes the will (wish) of YHWH, while the original Hebrew properly involves that which pleases or delights Him (vb Jp^j*); it is a subtle, but significant difference. On the other hand, the Greek noun qusi/a corresponds precisely in meaning with Hebrew jb^z#—literally, “slaughter”, but often in the technical sense of ritual slaughter (that is, of a sacrificial animal for an offering). An altar is literally the “place of slaughter” (j^B@z+m!), though it came to be used in a general sense for any altar, even when there was no slaughtered animal involved. Here, the noun jb^z# stands as a shorthand reference for the entire sacrificial ritual—the cultic system of offerings made at the Temple (and earlier shrines).

I have left the noun ds*j* temporarily untranslated above. It is the key word in the passage (6:4-6). In order to understand the verse properly, we must view it within the context of this passage:

“What shall I do to you, Eprayim?
What shall I do to you, Yehudah?
(For) your ds#j#, like a cloud (at) day-break,
and like (the) dew (fall)ing in the (early morn),
is (always) going (away).
Upon this [i.e. for this reason] I cut (them) with (my) spokesmen,
I (have) slain them with (the) utterances of my mouth—
my judgment goes forth like (the) light (of the sun)!
For I delight in ds#j#, and not (ritual) slaughter,
and knowledge of (the) Mightiest, (far) from (the) rising (smoke of) offerings!”

YHWH is speaking here; and, if vv. 4-6 is to be associated directly with the prior vv. 1-3, then God is responding to the declared intention of the people that they will “turn back to YHWH” (v. 1) and will “pursue the knowledge of YHWH” (v. 3). Here, he addresses both the northern kingdom (Ephraim) and the southern kingdom (Judah)–i.e., the people of Israel as a whole. In spite of their words (in vv. 1-3), history has demonstrated that their ds#j# is like a passing cloud or the morning dew, which only stays for a brief time and then goes away.

The word ds#j# covers a relatively wide semantic range, and is rather difficult to translate consistently in English. The fundamental meaning is something like “goodness, kindness”; however, quite often in the Old Testament, the word relates specifically to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel. In such a context, it connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”; in keeping with the basic meaning, we might capture this nuance by translating ds#j# as “good (faith)”. For the sake of a smooth translation here, and yet one which accurately interprets the sense of the passage, let us insert “loyalty” for ds#j# above. Verse 4 then would read:

“What shall I do to you, Eprayim?
What shall I do to you, Yehudah?
(For) your loyalty, like a cloud (at) day-break,
and like (the) dew (fall)ing in the (early morn),
is (always) going (away).”

In other words, His complaint is that the people’s loyalty—to Him and to the covenant—is only passing; it tends not to last. And it has been their lack of loyalty, their violations of the covenant, that has led YHWH to bring judgment upon them, at various times throughout their history. Often this judgment was announced through His chosen spokespersons (<ya!yb!n+, i.e., “prophets”); such messages “cut” the people, but was only a precursor to the actual killing blow when the judgment truly struck. The bright and shining character of God’s judgment, “like (the) light” of the sun, goes out in truth and justice to all people, seeing (and revealing) all things. No wickedness can be hidden from the light of YHWH.

This brings us to the climactic lines of verse 6. Again, substituting “loyalty” for ds#j#, these read as follows:

“For I delight in loyalty, and not (ritual) slaughter,
and knowledge of (the) Mightiest, (far) from (the) rising (smoke of offering)s!”

Loyalty to YHWH, along with “knowledge of God”, is here contrasted with the slaughter (jb^z#) of sacrificial animals, and the smoke that rises (hl*u*) when they are offered up on the altar. In other words, loyalty to God takes priority over performing the sacrificial ritual. The force of this contrast is captured by the prefixed preposition /m! in the second line. I have rendered the preposition quite literally above, as “(far) from”. This can be understood in a negative sense (i.e., “instead of, rather than”), or a comparative sense (“more than”). In the first instance, we would give a conventional translation of the line as “and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”; in the second instance, it would be “and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings”. The negative aspect is to be preferred.

This verse is part of a long line of prophetic messages that emphasize the importance of a person’s intention and overall behavior, rather that the simple matter of whether they fulfilled the required ritual. Performing the ritual (e.g., offering the sacrificial animal) could be done, according to the letter of the Law, without any real faithfulness or devotion to YHWH. This was all the more striking—and worthy of condemnation—when the same person who fulfilled the ritual requirement engaged in unethical, immoral, or impious behavior in other matters. Such superficial (and hypocritical) observance of the Torah was condemned by the Prophets in the harshest terms. Among the more notable passages are Isa 1:11-15; Jer 6:19-20; 7:8-11ff; Amos 5:22-24ff.

It is possible that Hos 6:6 may be echoing one of the earliest examples of this prophetic theme: the oracle of Samuel (addressed to Saul) in 1 Sam 15:22-23, which begins:

“Is there delight for YHWH in (the) rising (smoke of) offerings and slaughtered (animal)s, as much as (in) hearing (the) voice of YHWH?”

Then comes the key declaration:

“Hearing (is far) from (ritual) slaughter (in being) good [i.e. hearing/obedience is better than sacrifice]…”

Loyalty (ds#j#) to YHWH and His covenant could well be summarized as “hearing [i.e. listening to] the voice of YHWH”.

Returning the LXX translation, it is notable that ds#j# is typically rendered as e&leo$ (“mercy, compassion”), even though this does not seem to represent the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew. In any case, it is the aspect of mercy/compassion that Jesus emphasizes in his use of the verse.

As the saying is applied in the first Synoptic passage (the call of Levi, Matt 9:9-13 = Mk 2:13-17; Lk 5:27-32), it relates to the objections that some Jews had to Jesus dining with “toll-collectors and sinners”, which could be seen as a violation of the purity/holiness standards of the Torah. The Synoptic narrative concludes with the double-saying of Jesus in Mk 2:17 par:

“The (one)s being strong have no business with [i.e. no need for] a healer, but (only) the (one)s having (an) ill(ness); (so) I did not come to call just (person)s, but sinful (one)s.”

The “just/right” ones (dikai/oi), from a traditional religious standpoint, are those who faithfully observe the Torah; while the “sinners” are those who ignore or fail to observe the Law. In socio-religious terms, this latter category covered a wide range of persons, including many from the lower (and poorer) segments of society, as well as members of certain professions (like toll-collectors), and virtually all Gentiles (non-Jews). Jesus’ declaration makes clear that his mission is aimed at all peopleespecially those who fit into this broad category of “sinners”.

It is in this context that Matthew inserts the saying-quotation of Hos 6:6, at 9:13a, in between v. 12 and 13b. The addition of this saying has the effect of broading the scope of Jesus’ teaching, making the point that Jesus’ mission takes priority over observance of the Torah.

This becomes even clearer when we consider the use of the Hos 6:6 saying in the second Synoptic passage: the Sabbath controversy episode of Mark 2:23-28; Lk 6:1-5. In Matthew, this is found at 12:1-8. Again, the citation-saying is inserted into the middle of the traditional episode, before the climactic declaration: “So also the Son of Man is Lord even of the Shabbat” (Mk 2:28 par). This is a striking statement, with a two-fold meaning: (a) a human being (son of man) is lord over the Sabbath (and not the other way around), and (b) Jesus, specifically, as the Son of Man, is Lord over the Sabbath. In other words, Jesus has authority over the Sabbath (and its regulations), with the implication that following him (and his mission) takes precedence over observing the Sabbath regulations.

Matthew’s version adds an additional illustration involving the service of priests in the Temple (v. 5). In their role as priests, such persons are able to do things (work) which would otherwise be considered as a violation of the Sabbath regulations. In that regard, their Temple service takes precedence over the Sabbath laws. How much more, then, does service to Jesus take precedence; as he declares in v. 6: “(one) greater than the Temple is here”.

These examples from Matthew’s Gospel illustrate how Hosea 6:6, interpreted in the context of Jesus and his ministry, became part of an early Christian tendency to relativize the importance of observing the Torah regulations—especially those involving the sacrificial (Temple) ritual. I discuss the entire subject at considerable length in the series “The Law and the New Testament”. Special attention should be given to the articles on “Jesus and the Law”; in the introductory article of this set, you will find, I think, the critical question of Jesus’ relationship to the Torah well summarized.

January 11: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

“Upon the morrow he looks (at) Yeshua coming toward him and says: ‘See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world!'”

The first part of this verse was discussed in the previous note. It remains to examine the declaration by the Baptist in 29b:

i&de o( a)mno\$ tou= qeou= o( ai&rwn th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou
“See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world!

The interpretation of this saying involves determining the meaning and context for two expressions:

    • “the lamb of God” (o( a)mno\$ tou= qeou=)
    • ” the (one) taking up the sins of the world” (o( ai&rwn th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou)

The first expression “Lamb of God” is so familiar as a Christian title for Jesus, it may be surprising to learn that it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the parallel references in John 1:29, 36. Elsewhere, the idea of Jesus as a lamb only appears in 1 Peter 1:19 and in the book of Revelation (29 times), although there the word a)rni/on (diminutive of a)rh/n) is used. a)mno/$ occurs only twice in the New Testament outside of John 1:29, 36 (in Acts 8:32 [quoting Isa 53:7], and 1 Peter 1:19). There are three primary images associated with the Lamb (a)mno/$) relevant to the context here:

1. The Lamb as a symbol of innocence and meekness (in the face of suffering). This actually reflects two themes: (a) the gentleness/innocence of the lamb, often contrasted with the wolf (Isa 11:6; 65:25); and (b) the helplessness of the lamb (Isa 40:11; Luke 10:3, etc), especially as one led for slaughter (Isa 53:7; Jer 51:40). The use of a)mno/$ in Isa 53:7, would especially come to mind for early Christians, for it was a passage applied to the suffering and death of Christ from the earliest time—it is read/quoted in Acts 8:32, and note the silence of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate in the Passion accounts (Mark 14:61; 15:5, and par.).

2. The Sacrificial (Passover) Lamb. a)rni/on (or a)rh/n) is used in the LXX for the burnt offering (Lev 1:10) and for the Passover lamb in Ex 12:5; whereas a)mno/$ is used for the daily offering (Ex 29:38-39) and for ‘guilt’ / purification offerings in (Lev 14:10; Num 6:12). So, a)mno/$ here would better fit the idea of sacrifice for ‘sin’ or sacrifice in general. However, the Gospel of John makes frequent use of Passover motifs and symbols, including an explicit identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36. The Passover Lamb also seems to be in mind with the use of a)mno/$ in 1 Pet 1:19.

3. The Conquering Lamb (of Judgment). This is an important theme in the book of Revelation (from the same author and/or community as the Gospel): Jesus is not only the “lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12; 13:8, “blood of the lamb” in 7:14; 12:11), but also is exalted/worshiped as the Lamb in Heaven (Rev 5:6-12; 7:9-10, 17; 14:1ff, etc.); included within this motif is the Lamb as a conquering figure in the eschatological Judgment (6:1, 16; 17:14, etc). The book of Revelation uses a)rni/on instead of a)mno/$, but, as seen above, these words are relatively interchangeable.

Now the theme of (eschatological) Judgment was central in John the Baptist’s preaching, much more than Christians today may wish to admit (cf. Matt 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-9, 17; and the central citation of Isa 40:3/Mal 3:1 in Mark 1:2-3 par.). It is certainly possible that he (perhaps moreso than the Gospel writer) has this association in mind—as a possible parallel, cf. the Testament of Joseph 19:8 (which may however be a Christian interpolation).

In my view the second image above (that of the Sacrificial Lamb) is most directly applicable in Jn 1:29. However what of the other expression “the (one) taking up the sins of the world”?

“The sins of the world” (th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou) is fairly straightforward, as it reflects closely the idea that Jesus acts on the behalf of the sins of (many) people (cf. Matt 1:21; 13:41; 26:28; Mark 2:10; 3:28; Lk 11:4; 24:47; Jn 8:24; 15:22, 24; 16:8-9; 20:23, etc. and all pars.). In the Gospel of John there also is a frequent association of “the world” (o( ko/smo$) with darkness, evil, and sin (Jn 1:10; 3:17-19; 7:7; 8:23; 9:39; 12:31; 14:17, 19, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8, 11, 20, et al.), which may be responsible for the unique expression as it stands here. The more difficult point of interpretation is in the use of the verb ai&rw, which has the primary meaning “take up” —here o( ai&rwn (“the [one] taking up…”). This can be understood in one of three ways:

    • “taking up” as in lifting, bearing, carrying—the emphasis would be that the Lamb takes up or carries the (burden of) the world’s sins. Language involving “lifting” or “raising” occurs often in the Gospel of John, including use of the verb ai&rw; see for example in context of the Good Shepherd parable(s), Jn 10:18, 24. This motif would better apply to the Day of Atonement than Passover, but it could be understood from the standpoint of vicarious sacrifice in general. Jesus is “lifted up” on the cross as the slain Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36 (cf. also Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34).
    • “taking up” in the sense of taking away—i.e., forgiveness. This is no doubt the most common understanding of the expression here; however, “forgiveness of sin” as such is normally expressed with the verb a)fi/hmi (“send [away] from” or “let [go] from”) or the noun a&fesi$ (“release”)—cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9; 3:28; 6:12, 14-15; Matt 9:2, 5-6; 12:31-32; 26:28; Lk 24:47; John 20:23; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43, etc.
    • “taking up” as taking away, but in the sense of removing or destroying sins—i.e. esp. in the (eschatological) Judgment. For something of this idea, see Matthew 13:41, which is reasonably close to the scene of Judgment in John’s preaching (Matt 3:12; Lk 3:9, 17); that the Baptist himself understood this in terms of an (imminent) eschatological Judgment seems clear enough from Lk 3:7. See also in this regard the ethical saying of Jesus to “cut off” the cause of sin (Mk 9:42-47 par., again in the context of the Judgment). In other words, the Johannine image of Jesus as savior of the world (John 3:16-17; 4:42; 6:33; 12:47, etc) involves not just forgiveness, but destruction of sin. This is the two-fold aspect of (the coming) Judgment (and wrath of God): salvation and destruction—see Jn 3:17, 19; 7:7; 9:39; 12:46-47; 16:8-11.

Perhaps the soundest guide to interpretation of the expressions in Jn 1:29 come from the closest parallel, namely 1 John 3:5:

“and know that this one [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might take up/away [a&rh|] sins; and in him there is no sin”

for which there is a parallel, explanatory statement in 1 John 3:8b:

“and unto this the Son of God was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] the works of the Accuser [i.e. Devil]”

In other words, “taking away sins” is connected with “dissolving the works of the Devil”. In 1 Jn 3:5 we also have mention of Jesus’ sinlessness, which can be understood as a parallel to the (Passover) Lamb without spot or blemish (cf. 1 Peter 1:19 [a)mno/$]).

For several references and observations in these note on John 1:29-34, I am indebted to the discussion in R. E. Brown’s classic Commentary (John 1-12, Anchor Bible vol. 29, 1966, pp. 58-67).

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 3)

Exodus 24:1-11

In Parts 1 and 2 of this article, we examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called the “account of the agreement” (tyr!b=h^ rp#s@ s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb hj*v*) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (tyr!B=) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (hl*u), ±ôlâ) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew <l#v# (šelem, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. eaten by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun jb^z#, verb jb^z`), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diaqh/kh] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb hz`j* in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). By proceeding with a study of the remainder of the book of Exodus, one can see how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Instruction, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

July 20: Hebrews 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29

Hebrews 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29

When we turn to the letter to the Hebrews, we find a number of references to the Spirit. For the most part, however, these are traditional in nature (cf. the notice in 3:7 on the Spirit-inspired character of the Scriptures), and not nearly as prominent or significant as one might expect in a theological writing of this sort. The lack of emphasis on the Spirit may simply be a reflection of the overwhelmingly Christological thrust of the letter; even so, if Paul (for example) had authored a similar work, the Spirit surely would have featured much more prominently. In particular, there is little or no mention of the idea, so frequent elsewhere in the New Testament, of believers being “in the Spirit” —that is, united with Christ (and God the Father) through the presence of the Spirit. The closest such reference in Hebrews is in 6:4, where believers are described as those

“…(hav)ing been (en)lightened, (hav)ing (both) tasted the heavenly gift and (hav)ing coming to be holders with (one another) of (the) holy Spirit”

The idiom of believers holding the Spirit together with one another certainly captures the essential idea of being united in the Spirit. The emphasis is on the initial experience of salvation (conversion), which entails acceptance of the Gospel, trust in Jesus, confirmation in the baptism ritual, and the presence of the Spirit. The author does not develop the idea any further. However, earlier in the letter (2:4), mention is made of the activity of the Spirit among believers, through miraculous and powerful “signs and wonders”, referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of things (i.e. ‘gifts’) distributed (merismoi/) among individual believers and congregations (cp. Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 12-14).

The four remaining references to the Spirit are contained within the “New Covenant” exposition in chapters 9-10. The bulk of Hebrews (3:1-10:25) expounds the central theme that believers in Christ are living under a new covenant, and that all the forms of the old covenant are replaced (and fulfilled) in the person of Christ. The author of Hebrews declares, even more forcefully than Paul does in his letters, that the old covenant has completely passed away, and is no longer in effect for believers. This is very much part of the early Christian eschatological worldview—that this “New Covenant” marks the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the new. For more on this aspect, cf. the article on Hebrews in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

In particular, Hebrews focus on the ritual dimension of the old covenant, as embodied in the Temple cultus—that is, the sacrificial offerings, and the priesthood that administered them. Interestingly, Hebrews never refers directly to the Temple itself (referring instead to the older tent [skhnh/] shrine or ‘Tabernacle’), nor does it make use of the early Christian tendency to interpret the Temple in terms of Jesus’ own person/body. Instead, the author utilizes the simpler contrast between the physical Temple on earth and the (spiritual) dwelling of God in heaven. Christ is identified, not with the Temple, but with the priesthood (spec. the High Priest) that offers sacrifice in the Temple sanctuary. The two main sections which describe Jesus as a (High) Priest are Hebrews 4:14-5:10 and 6:20/7:1-10:18; cf. the earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Hebrews follows a well-established line of tradition in understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrificial offering. The author draws upon two principal types of sacrifice: (1) the offering which took place at the ratification of the covenant (Exodus 24:3-8), and (2) the sin offering at the ‘day of atonement’, when the High Priest would also enter the innermost part of the shrine (Leviticus 16). According to the Last Supper account, Jesus himself alluded to these same two sacrificial traditions, associating them with his own death (his “blood”). Thus, the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that marks the beginning of a “new covenant” is rooted in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:22-25 par). The author of Hebrews does not contribute anything new in this regard; rather, he develops and expounds a set of ideas and associations that were already well-established in early Christian belief.

The references to the Spirit in chapters 9-10 are interesting in the way that they punctuate the exposition, following two parallel lines of thought; this may be summarized as follows:

    • The Spirit’s declaration of the new covenant (9:8; 10:15)
      • The role of the Spirit in establishing the new covenant (9:14; 10:29)

The first line of thought draws upon the traditional association of the Spirit with prophetic inspiration. This association came to be applied, in Jewish thought, specifically to the inspiration of the Scriptures—the Torah (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Psalms (cf. the earlier note on Nehemiah 9:20, 30, etc). The New Testament authors generally assume the Spirit-inspired character of the Old Testament Scriptures, referring to it a number of times, in passing, without any real need to comment on the matter further or to develop the theological basis for the idea. There is a clear example of this in Heb 3:7 (cf. above), and another allusion here at 9:8:

“…the holy Spirit making clear by this (that) the way (into) the (holy) of holies had not yet been made to shine forth, (while) the first tent was yet holding (its) standing [i.e. while it still was standing]”

The “this” (tou=to, in italics above) refers to the Torah regulations related to the sanctuary of the earthly Tent (Tabernacle) and Temple, summarized in vv. 1-7 as part of the “first (covenant)”. This idea expressed in v. 8 is that, through the inspired account of the Tabernacle/Temple ritual in the Scriptures—including the inspired source/nature of the building plan itself (Exod 25-31)—the Spirit has revealed the limitations of the old covenant, which are to be fulfilled in the new. This is part of the wider exposition in the section, whereby Christ’s sacrifice both completes, and takes the place of, the sacrificial offerings made in the Tabernacle/Temple complex.

More than this, the wording of verse 8 implies that the Spirit also reveals, at the same time, the perfection of the new covenant. The Spirit makes known to believers the truth that Jesus’ sacrificial death opens the way (o(do/$) for us into the holiest place—the innermost shrine where God himself dwells. This is but a step removed from the idea expressed in Ephesians 2:18 (discussed in a prior note), that in the Spirit we, as believers, hold the way leading toward God the Father (cp. John 14:6).

Moving ahead to 9:14, the author refers to the role the Spirit played in the sacrifice of Christ, which both brought cleansing from sin (for believers) and established the new covenant. Acting as High Priest, Jesus made the sacrifice (in his own blood) “through (the) Spirit of (the) Age(s)” (dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou). The expression “Spirit of the Age(s)” was unusual enough that it prompted scribes to alter it to the more familiar “holy Spirit” (with a(gi/ou instead of ai)wni/ou); however, the reading with ai)wni/ou is almost certainly original. The adjective, difficult to translate literally in English, is often rendered as “eternal”, which tends to capture the general idea, if not especially accurate as a translation. The ai)wn– concept in the New Testament relates fundamentally to the Jewish and early Christian eschatological worldview, with the distinction between the current Age and the new Age to come. It also corresponds to the term <l*ou in Hebrew, which typically signifies either the distant past or the distant future, with the presence and power of God encompassing both (i.e. ‘eternal, eternity’). In the context of the exposition here in Hebrews, the distinction is between the earthly sanctuary, which is temporal in nature, and the heavenly sanctuary, which is eternal. The Spirit, of course, belongs to the heavenly sanctuary, where God himself has his dwelling.

The further associations of the Spirit with cleansing (vb kaqari/zw) and life for the dead, are well-established in Christian thought and tradition, as we have seen these notes.

At 10:15, the Spirit again declares the New Covenant (cf. above on 9:8), this time citing the famous prophecy of Jeremiah 31:33-34 (vv. 16-17). The declaration effectively brings the long exposition (of chaps. 3-10) to a close, concluding with a blunt restatement of the fundamental argument—namely, that the old covenant (with its sacrificial ritual) has come to an end for believers in Christ (v. 18). The sacrifice of Christ did away with the need for any further sacrificial ritual.

The reference to the Spirit in 10:29 properly belongs to the exhortation section that follows (10:26-12:13), but one which builds upon the New Covenant exposition of chaps. 9-10. After all, if there had been serious consequences for transgressing or rejecting the old covenant, how much more so is it now in the case of the new. This is the thrust of the warning in vv. 26-31, stated clearly enough in verse 29. In the old covenant, the person who sinned willfully and deliberately was “cut off”, and could not be restored to God (as part of his holy Community) through sin offering. So it is also in the new covenant, according to the author of Hebrews. A person who continues in blatantly sinful behavior, after coming to faith in Christ, will face the same Judgment as the wicked. They are said to be “trampling the Son of God under (foot)” and “bringing (it about)” that the “blood of the covenant” is treated as something “common” (i.e. profane), and not holy.

Moreover, the person who so violates the New Covenant is said to “bring injury (up)on the Spirit of (God’s) favor”. It is a rejection, not only of Jesus Christ (the Son of God), but one which brings insult and injury (vb e)nubri/zw) to God’s own Spirit. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ famous (and much-debated) saying on the “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Mk 3:28-29 par); on which, cf. my most recent discussion. The expression “the Spirit of favor” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ xa/rito$) is unusual (and unique in the New Testament), but clearly the term xa/ri$ (“favor”) refers to God’s favor—that is, the favor he shows to his people (believers). This means, primarily, the favor he shows in bestowing his Spirit upon us. The gift of God’s Spirit, of course, cannot be separated from the work of Jesus Christ and our trust in him, as is apparent from the strong Christological context of these references in Hebrews. Even though the author never develops this sense of the role of the Spirit in and among believers, he clearly accepts (and assumes) it as part of the early Christian worldview.