Thursday, October 21, 2010


You know those times when you're reading a familiar passage of the Bible and all of a sudden you stop short and think, "Um . . . when did that get in there?" Something strikes you a different way, or you're reading a different translation so an aspect of what's written becomes more apparent or something?

Yeah, well, that happened to me yesterday.

Hebrews is a potentially confusing book of the Bible. Probably particularly to those of us who are not ethnically Hebrews. I like to think I have a pretty good handle on the Old Testament, and I think my "handle" on it is probably better than a decent number of Gentile Christians', but I'm still not Jewish, nor do I know many Jewish people, and I can't very well pretend I am or do.

However, I do have this Bible . . . the Complete Jewish Bible. It's part translation and part paraphrase and you can read about the philosophy behind it on the website, but I guess what I'm getting at right now is that, because it's been translated/paraphrased by a Jewish person, there are occasions where I have a minor epiphany that has more to do with a Jewish worldview peering through the words than simply the fact that the words are slightly differently ordered than the NIV/NRSV/KJV conglomeration of words I imbued as a child. Then again, surely I've read Hebrews in this version before . . .

Yesterday I was reading Hebrews 4 (all ensuing Biblical quotations will be from the CJB unless otherwise noted). "Therefore," it begins, "let us be terrified of the possibility that, even though the promise of entering his rest remains, any one of you might be judged to have fallen short of it."


The writer of Hebrews has just been using the account of God's "resting" on the seventh "day" after creation as a picture of His promise for all of us. Said writer is warning his (or her!) readers not to ignore God's voice if they hear it, and so miss out on His "rest," like the ancient Israelites did when they doubted Him in the desert. So now here's this injunction to be terrified in case you miss out. I'm going to be honest and tell you that the first, not very politically correct, thought that entered my head was, "Okay, so there are some verses in this book that make 'works theology' seem pretty biblical!" I guess what I meant is, this verse in this translation makes it sound an awful lot like you have to try to earn your own salvation.

Of course, this verse sounds a little different in, say, the NRSV: "Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care than none of you should seem to have failed to reach it." Seem to have failed, huh? What does that even mean? That makes it sound like the whole thing is about appearances.

The next verses completely turn the "works theology" around, though: " . . . for the Good News has also been proclaimed to us, just as it was to them. But the message they heard didn't do them any good, because those who heard it did not combine it with trust. For it is we who have trusted who enter the rest" (4.2-3). Ohhhhh.

This is one thing I really like about the CJB. It never uses the word faith, which I feel is one of those words which has been spiritualised to the point of being well-nigh meaningless. Any time another translation would say faith, the CJB says trust. So . . . those ancient Hebrews didn't "enter God's rest" because they didn't trust Him. They didn't trust He was going to get them through the wall of giants and . . . so He didn't. Not until the next generation, anyway.

The thing that really jumped at me yesterday, though, was verses 9-11: "So there remains a Shabbat-keeping for God's people. For the one who has entered God's rest has also rested from his own works, as God did from his. Therefore, let us do our best to enter that rest; so that no one will fall short because of the same kind of disobedience."

"Rested from his own works." I've read this chapter so many times, and I think I've always thought, "Yeah, yeah . . . Sabbath rest, a Jewish concept . . . good symbol for Heaven . . . " I never until yesterday saw this passage as talking about the here and now. Because of Jesus, our great High Priest/Mediator between us and the Father (a concept which the Hebrews-author will talk about at length shortly), we can rest from our "works" as God rested from His. At most I saw it as an injunction to take time off every seven days. But this passage does exactly the opposite of defend a view of salvation in which we have to purchase our own by our own good works (including, maybe, taking time off every seven days? Which I still think is a valuable practice, regardless). It clearly says that the only thing we have to do is trust. Trusting implies resting. That resting trust is the keeping of the Sabbath that the writer is talking about here.

The disobedience that causes us to fall short is our own works. As any good born-again evangelical will tell you, you can't do enough good works to get to Heaven, or to get in good with God. If that's what we're trusting in, there will be no rest at all, and we will certainly fall short of the rest. That kind of lifestyle is completely opposed to rest--antithetical to it. It's not so much that God shuts us out of His promise, as that we shut ourselves out.

Why is it so hard just to trust Him and rest?


Annelise said...

Amazing translation of that passage and thoughtful analysis. Thanks, Jenn!

K. said...

Hi Jenn,

I'm just now catching up with your blog cause I was guiding and missed all of the action :)
Yesterday in our bible study group somebody noted that the word that we translate as faith in Hebrew always means faithfulness which is a slightly different shade than trust but close I think: still something you do instead of something you think. It makes a lot of sense to me (though I know Hebrew I never thought about it). Abraham's faithfulness to God became his righteousness. If you call that "Catholic" (or Jewish, for that matter :)) remember that James says that faith has to show in real life. Or faithfulness or trust. It is like 'love is something you do'.
I really like the idea that it says that there still is a reason to celebrate shabbat, instead of thinking about heaven and eternal rest. I never read it that way! I like that reading a lot better than the reading of one group of tourists who thought they don't have to rest at all (to take a day off) because they already rest in the Lord. It sounds nice but I am still tired after working a full day, resting in the Lord and all.
Reading it again I still think it is a difficult passage. But thank you for making me read it again!

Jennwith2ns said...

Thank YOU, Mom!

Krina--thanks for your thoughts. That's interesting to know that about the word for "faith." I think that's what "faith" in English used to mean, but now it's just kind of an esoteric and/or intellectual exercise. Maybe David L Stern chose "trust" because he thought it got at it a little closer, even if we don't have exactly the right word in English. Is it closer to "trust AND trustworthiness"?

I probably shouldn't've said the thing about "Catholic." (In fact, I have now edited it out of the above post.) It's a stereotype, but I suspect it doesn't accurately represent their theology of salvation any better than the English words "trust" or "faith" represent the intent of the word in Hebrew. I guess what I was getting at was the idea that, although faith without works is, in fact, dead, works without that trusting and trustworthy faith are also dead. The faith in the saving work of Christ is what saves us, and the works are the demonstration of that faith.

Jeff said...

Wow. I think I'm going to have to go back and read this again. Very interesting stuff.
One of the things that strikes me, now, as I contemplate all this is that resting in this way is about trusting that what has gone on before is sufficient. For example, when God rested on the 7th day, when of the things he was doing was announcing that he'd done everything he needed to do on those first six days, there wasn't any left over items on his divine to-do list.

Jennwith2ns said...

I like that thought, Jeff. Do you think sometimes we assume God's got stuff left on His to-do list because we often do? And do you suppose we often do because we procrastinate instead of setting aside time for intentional rest?

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