Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hebrews 9:23 Really Bothers Me

After publishing my recent book, I am of course in need of a hiatus from Hebrews and am off to different research projects, particularly my Christian Moses stuff.  But when I return to Hebrews--and I shall return--it will likely be because of Hebrews 9:23, a line that has bothered me every time I've read it.  Quoting from the RSV:

"Thus it was necessary for copies of the heavenly things to be purified by these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these."

Before this in chapter 9, there is a conflation of several sacrificial rites from the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) to the blood used to establish the covenant (Exod. 24:6-8), etc.  These rites established and purified the earthly sanctuary (the copies of heavenly things).  But that is not the part that bothers me; it is the second phrase.  While the better sacrifices refers to Jesus', why, oh why, would the heavenly things / heavenly sanctuary need to be purified at all?  Is it impure, defiled in some way?  If so, how might one defile the heavenly sanctuary?  Is it due to human defilement?  Or, perhaps, angelic defilement?

One could argue that it is inaugural purification (inaugurating the new covenant in the way Moses did the old); I am not remembering off the top of my head, but I think this position is favored by Erich Gräßer and several of his followers; it does, indeed, have some benefits.  Its simplicity is attractive.  On the other hand, Hebrews still seems to associate the inaugural blood with purgative rites, ridding one of sin.  Moreover, it seems to me that this phrase is encapsulating: that is, it is referring to all the rites just mentioned and not just the inaugural one.

Or one could argue that it somehow relies upon what Jacob Milgrom has pointed out in his famous article "The Priestly Picture of Dorian Gray": the magnetic character of sin and how the Day of Atonement and other ceremonies have a predominate function to purge the sanctuary of people's sin.  Could the people's sins be, likewise, affecting the heavenly sanctuary, which, as the heavenly sanctuary, needs a greater sacrifice to purge it?

Or, a combination of both.

Or...something else.  Indeed, while I address this verse in my book, I don't think I've found an adequate answer.

I at least see a conference paper in my future on this question, and then we'll see from there.


Rebecca said...

It's from a much later text, but there is a passage in Hekhalot Rabbati that says that the angels must purify themselves in rivers of fire when they return to heaven after interacting with human beings who are impure due to menstrual blood, seminal emission, and other sources of impurity. Could there be some idea of reciprocal pollution in Hebrews?

Jared Calaway said...

Maybe. I wonder if there is something in 1 Enoch that might relate at least in a general way.

James F. McGrath said...

I find an answer that I believe was offered by Gordon Wenham to be helpful. The earthly sanctuary was purified from the sin and uncleanness of the people to allow the holy deity to dwell in their midst. Jesus is depicted in Hebrews as leading the way for people to enter the celestial holy of holies. And so it would be purification from those same human contaminants, so as to allow human beings to enter the heavenly presence of God.

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks James. That sounds very close to Milgrom's theory for Leviticus (and see further Jonathan Klawans book on sacrifice and the temple). And that is where I had mostly leaned in my book. But I am not sure I have seen any other ancient source where the heavenly sanctuary has been, in fact, contaminated by humans.

That is, as you said, the earthly sanctuary needs to be routinely purified to maintain the divine presence among the people, but we usually assume that God perpetually remains in the heavenly temple (God is already there; human beings are not). So it does make sense to find works where the human beings need to be purified before entering the divine presence in the heavenly temple (to rid of their sin and ritual impurities), but I just don't recall where the heavenly temple itself would have had to go through any such process.

Ultimately this theory has to assume either that human beings' sins (while on earth) not only contaminate the earthly sanctuary but also the heavenly sanctuary (that is quite some powerful sin), or, perhaps, we are dealing with impurity of a different sort altogether (e.g., angelic sin). Or different types of sin affect different sanctuaries? Sins of the body the earthly; sins of the conscience the heavenly?