God Always Provides, Even in the Wilderness

I don't like it most of the time when we make odd cuts in our lectionary texts. Sometimes I get it. The gospel from Luke for this week gives us a moral that we just had last week, which the committee has wisely cut to avoid repetition this week. But sometimes it's a serious disservice. We have this habit of cutting out the cultic sections of our lectionary readings. And you can see that this week in the fact that we're only supposed to read Hebrews 13:1-8 and 15-16, but not the middle verses.

This happens elsewhere, mostly in the Old Testament readings, but of all the NT readings it is a particular problem with Hebrews—a Judean writing with strong priestly influences, and one which we have been translating against the Jews for many hundreds of years. Hebrews is mostly unreadable today, and of all of the books of the Bible, the only one that I refuse to trust in English rendering. Let me show you why, as I attempt to show you the gospel in our Hebrews passage for this week. (My own translation can be found here, and the NRSV for reference here.)

"Eat This Scroll"

In the NRSV you will find verse 9 translated as regarding food regulations not benefiting those who observe them—clearly understood by the translators as a slam against the laws of kashrut. And yet the text says nothing about laws or regulations, or the observance of them—the words involved are literally "food" (in this case meaning meat rather than bread), and the verb for "walking around." While this is clearly an analogy, and it is well to read the Hebrew legal term halakha here in the context of "walking around"—or "conducting oneself"—the context in Hebrews 13 is a warning against "elaborately decorated" and "foreign" teachings. Surely something as culturally basic as kosher eating practices is neither of these to the author or his* community!

Let's look at the statement here:
διδαχαῖς ποικίλαις καὶ ξέναις μὴ παραφέρεσθε· καλὸν γὰρ χάριτι βεβαιοῦσθαι τὴν καρδίαν, οὐ βρώμασιν, ἐν οἷς οὐκ ὠφελήθησαν οἱ περιπατήσαντες.

[teachings elaborately-decorated and strange/foreign do-not be-carried-away-by; (for) good by-grace to-be-stabilized the heart/mind, not by-food/meat, by which not they-benefited the ones-walking-around-in-the-past]

"Do not be taken with elaborate and foreign doctrines, because it is good for one's mind to be confirmed by grace, not by food by which those who went before us did not benefit."
Here "food" is certainly an analogue for doctrines, and the implied "eating" the action of receiving them. The proper function of a doctrine is to confirm or strengthen the mind, by setting it on a firm foundation—the verb bebaioō in this verse is related to the noun basis, which you should also recognize in English. This is one of the basic (no pun intended) themes of Hebrews: the setting of a firm foundation for faith, by which the audience is to be strengthened so that they may trust in God.

Faith and Hunger

One of the constant scriptural images on which the author relies is that of the people, freed from captivity in Egypt, wandering in the desert under Moses. This is the textbook bad example. These people were not properly grounded, and did not trust God. And for their hankering after elaborate and foreign food, and the security it represented—the readily available garlic and watermelon and cauldrons of boiled meat and suchlike that they ate in captivity, never having to be hungry—that entire generation died in the wilderness, leaving their children to inherit the promise.

God provided food for them in the wilderness, certainly, but nothing elaborate—only, to borrow from verse 5, what was to hand: manna and quail. Simple food, and the same every day. Food that required trust, because it never came in abundance, but it always came. Food that was provided by God, and obligated its recipients to God—the textbook definition of "grace." The food of the Egyptians enslaved their minds, and brought them no benefit in the end—nothing but quite literally "walking around" until they died, never being allowed to settle in the land. Only reliance upon God's grace saved their children from this fate.

Christ, too, is the same every day. Simple food, neither foreign nor elaborate, but reliable. Infinitely reliable, in fact, as the author assures us—the same not only "yesterday and today," but also "into eternity."

The Priestly Provision

And surely it is relevant to the author's intention that the word for "food" in verse 9 is "meat" rather than "bread," because he goes on to speak of the sacrifice of animals—in this case animals whose meat may not be eaten. In this case, animals sacrificed as offerings for sin, whose blood is used by the high priest in the sanctuary, but whose bodies are to be completely burned outside of the camp. This is unusual, as a class of sacrifices, because the priests do survive by eating what is offered to God. The sacrifice is performed, and those who serve in the priestly vocation are permitted to eat of what remains. (This is, in fact, the intended way that Israel is to support the priestly sect, because in their devotion to the work of the worship of God, priests are not permitted to perform any other useful work to feed themselves.) But wholly burnt offerings are given entirely to God, and nothing of them that remains is permitted to be used for any purpose.

As the author has already said, Christ is our great high priest, who sanctifies the people using the blood of the sacrifice. And as he is himself the sacrifice, it is fitting that he should have been taken outside the walls of the city in order for his body to be disposed of. The disgrace that clings to the body of Jesus in his crucifixion is connected to the body of the whole burnt offering for the author of Hebrews. And we share in this, as those who go outside of the walls, outside of the camp with its tent that holds the sanctuary, for the disposal of this body. We are reproached with the reproach that clings to Jesus. We are sanctified only by the sacrificial actions of our high priest. We are the people on behalf of whom the sacrifice has taken place, those outside.

Something unique here: we are not anywhere in this text called to eat of the body of Jesus, much less drink the blood. The eucharistic meal seems to be entirely alien to the author of Hebrews. It would be an unthinkable travesty, which is weird to basically the rest of the New Testament writings. Unthinkable, to consume the blood that Torah commands is not to be consumed at all, because it is used for purification. Unthinkable also to eat the body of Jesus, who was entirely devoted to God as a sacrifice. So the reproach that clings to us in this text is not the condemnation applied to those who eat of what may not be eaten. Instead, the author tells us that it is the reproach borne by the people of God, who have no city, no temple, for whom the tabernacle in the wilderness is a better image—likely because the Temple mount had been razed and the people scattered away from what had been promised them.

We are those outside, those who can only hope in the promise, those who can only trust God in the wilderness—but not for all that a people without a priesthood. Not, for all that, a people left with no recourse to God. God has provided for us, in Christ, and Christ will never pass away. Christ cannot be razed to the ground. It's not for nothing that the author connects Christ and the hope of Zion, of Jerusalem-upon-the-Heavens, of the city of God that has not been truly destroyed, but has ascended and will return again.

The Life of the Faithful

What of the moral exhortation, then, which is basically all we have left in the lectionary once this has all been excised? It is exhortation to be this people, to be the people for whom God has provided, and to trust in what has been provided. To love both our own, and the strangers in our midst, because we are not self-sufficient, and God works through strangers. We are not to forget this—and as we remember it, we are also to remember those who are subject to enslavement and evil in this world. We are enslaved with them, and they belong to this same body with us. We are also to be satisfied with what God provides. We are not to sell ourselves or one another for profit, whether sexually or non-sexually. We are not to chase after what God has not given us, whether we seek it in the bodies of our fellow human beings, or in money, or in any other idolatrous pursuit. All of these things leave us stained by guilt, marked with the consequences of our sins. Sex is no different than any other human pursuit, and the author of Hebrews lumps it in accordingly. In the end, all of these things demonstrate that we do not, in fact, trust in God as we wander in the wilderness.

But all of this is why—beyond, over, and above every other form of compensation for sin that we have ever used or will ever attempt—God has given us Jesus Christ. We may have no temple, no tabernacle, no sanctuary, no priesthood of our own left to us—but we have been given what is not merely a compensation for that loss, but a true and superior replacement that no one can destroy. The Temple mount may lie in ruins, with a Roman garrison stationed over it, but the author of Hebrews assures his audience that Rome has not won. They may wander in the wilderness, but God has neither surrendered them nor deserted them. And so of course we should not seek to be stained by our own guilty sins—they do no good to us, and certainly do no good to our neighbors and the strangers in our midst. But neither should we despair over them as though they marked us permanently.

Ethics, as always, is possible because our salvation has been achieved for us, already and incontrovertibly, by God. It is simply the effort we make to live out the gospel truth of that fact. And in the process of living out our lives, we demonstrate our trust in God by approving of what God has provided us, and thanking God for it, and being good to one another and to all our fellow human beings—whatever their situations. We do this because we have no need to worry or fear for ourselves. God has fully provided for us in Christ, and will never abandon or forsake us.



* Note: I do keep saying "he" and "his" for the author of Hebrews. This isn't default chauvinism on my part, but a choice. The more I read Hebrews, the more it appears to me that the education that produced this text was priestly and Judean, even if it came from a Pharisaic background—none of which can be said of Priscilla. It is not a Pauline text, or a Gentile one. And if it is a first-century Judean text, focused on adapting its literacy in the priestly traditions to new situations, I find it next to unthinkable that the author was a woman. If you want better examples of female authorship, I suggest starting with Mark, and reading it through the work of Joanna Dewey.

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