Study of Covenant in Hebrews 9

Did the Author of Hebrews Change “Covenant” to “Last Will and Testament”?

by Tim Hegg

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We all have to admit that our understanding of what the Bible says, and what it means, has been greatly affected by the English translations we read. Since most of us are not able to read the Scriptures in their original languages,1 it stands to reason that our understanding of the Bible’s message will be based on the English translations we read. This is not all bad! Many of our modern translations are the product of diligent scholarship by competent scholars, and therefore faithfully represent the meaning of the original biblical texts. Still, translations are translations. Regardless of how carefully a translation is made, the theology, social background, and world-view of the translators will inevitably find their way into their translation. This has always been the case, because it is the nature of language itself. Even the early translations of the Tanakh into Greek (Lxx) and Aramaic (Targumim) clearly manifest this phenomenon. And so do our modern English translations.

However, God’s kindness is demonstrated in that He has providentially preserved the Scriptures in their original languages, giving us the ability to return to the words as they were originally given.2 The ancient record of God’s verbal revelation remains in our possession as the unchanging standard against which translations may be accurately evaluated.

But understanding the author’s intended meaning at any given place in the sacred text requires diligent study and effort. Being separated from the original writings by time, language, and culture, we must strive to understand the historical, linguistic, and sociological factors that gave meaning to the words of the biblical authors in their time and setting. Failing to do so almost inevitably yields poor or even erroneous interpretations (as well as bad translations) of the biblical text. Most devastating is the naive approach that presumes to read the Bible as though it were written in our own era, forgetting that the world of the ancient Near East was, in many ways, vastly different than our modern Western culture.

The Problem in Hebrews 9:15–17

When we turn our attention to the book of Hebrews, and to chapter nine in particular, we are presented with some clear difficulties. One in particular is the the fact that the author appears to misunderstand the very nature of covenant in ancient Israel. It appears to us, as we read our English Bibles, that he3 considered the ancient covenant God made with Israel at Sinai as a “last will and testament,” rather than as a binding agreement between two parties. And as we consider the manner in which a “last will and testament” works in our times, we know that it does not become active until after the one making the will has died. In fact, this appears to be the very point our author wishes to make. Reasoning that the New Covenant was also a “last will and testament,” he teaches that Yeshua had to die in order for it to be activated, since an inheritance is not distributed until after the testator has died.

But everyone knows that the Sinai covenant was not a “last will and testament,” nor is the New Covenant. Was the author of Hebrews entirely unaware of what a covenant (בְּרִית, berit) was in the Tanakh? Was he ignorant of the Torah’s description of the giving of the Torah at Sinai and Jeremiah’s explanation of the New Covenant? Or had he entirely reinterpreted the covenants of the Tanakh as a Greek “last will and testament” in order to advance his own theology? Reading our English translations, it might appear that the author of Hebrews was very confused.

Hebrew 9:15–17 (NIV)

15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. 16 In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, 17 because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.

But let’s take a closer look.

The Context of Hebrew 9:15–22

By the ninth chapter, the author of Hebrews has already described the exalted position of Yeshua as a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (ch. 7), and thus as superior to the Aaronic priesthood in terms of obtaining eternal redemption.4 While the Aaronic priesthood was able to mediate on behalf of Israel in terms of the earthly sanctuary, they were unable to affect an infinite and eternal redemption, since that was not their task. If the heart of the sinner was to be cleansed, something that would be required for the establishment of the New Covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), then One greater than Aaron would be needed (9:9, 14). This One is, of course, the Messiah, Yeshua. Once again, our author contrasts the holy and appointed tasks of the Aaronic priest with that of Yeshua, a priest after the manner of Melchizedek. In 9:1, he writes, “Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary.” Note well that the word “covenant” is not in this verse (which is why some translations put it in italics). It was added by the translators, as it was in 8:13. In fact, the author’s point in this text is not to contrast the covenants, but to compare priesthoods: The earthly priests and their service with Yeshua as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. So we should understand the opening words of this chapter this way: “Now even the former priesthood had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary.” His point is that if we study the priestly regulations and duties given to the Aaronic priesthood, we will discover God’s paradigm of redemption itself which would ultimately be fulfilled in the work of Yeshua as the greater High Priest.

In describing the duties of the Aaronic High Priest, our author focuses upon the Day of Atonement, the one time each year when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place. Some have been concerned about our author’s description of the Most Holy Place (vv. 3–4):

Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant;

At first it looks like he is mixed up here as well! Everyone who has read the Torah5 knows that the golden altar of incense is not in the Most Holy Place, but just before the veil, in the Holy Place. This is obvious from the fact that the altar of incense is used every day (e.g., Exodus 30:7), while the High Priest goes into the Most Holy Place only once a year (Leviticus 16:2), so it is impossible that the altar of incense could have been in the Most Holy Place.

The key to understanding our author’s words is to recognize that the golden altar of incense is always connected with the ark of the covenant, for it is said to be placed “in front of the mercy seat that is over the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 30:6, cf. 40:5). This vital connection between the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant is clearly stated in 1Kings 6:22—“… He (Solomon) also overlaid with gold the altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary.”6 The golden altar belonged to the Most Holy Place, because its placement in the Holy Place was directly in front of the ark, with the veil separating the two. The idea that the golden altar belonged to the Most Holy Place emphasizes that its primary function was in relation to the ark of the covenant, which is particularly seen on Yom Kippur when its coals and incense were taken into the inner sanctuary by the High Priest. In fact, the author of Hebrews carefully reproduces the language of 1Kings 6:22 by writing: “…the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense.” Earlier, in v. 2, he utilized the preposition “in” (ἐν, en) to note the location of the menorah and the table of the bread of the Presence in the outer sanctuary. But in regard to the altar of incense, he utilizes the verb “to have,” (rather than the preposition “in”) when connecting the golden altar and ark of the covenant to the Most Holy Place. By doing so, he conveyed the language of the Tanakh which consistently connects the altar of incense with the ark of the covenant: the altar of incense belonged to the Most Holy Place.

Furthermore, the Greek word our author used, which nearly all the English versions translate as “altar,” is θυμιατήριον (thumiaterion), the same word used in the Lxx to denote a censer or pan used for burning incense (2Chronicles 26:19; Ezekiel 8:11; 4Maccabees 7:11). Some have argued that the censers were made of bronze, not gold, and that therefore a “golden censer” could not be what our author has in mind.7 However, though the Torah does indeed mention censers made of bronze (Exodus 38:3; Numbers 16:39), these are specifically said to be the utensils of the altar of sacrifice (the brazen altar), not the altar of incense which was overlaid with gold. In fact, we do find that golden utensils connected with incense existed in the Tabernacle, for in the dedication of the altar, each tribe presents incense in golden dishes (Numbers 7:14ff). Moreover, in the historian’s account of the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and his commander Nebuzaradan, we read: “The commander of the imperial guard took away the censers (הַמַּחְתּוֹת, hamachtot) and sprinkling bowls—all that were made of pure gold or silver.” So in Solomon’s Temple there were censers made of gold.

What is more, our author’s perspective, that a golden censer was used for taking the coals into the Most Holy Place on Yom Kippur accords with the rabbinic tradition:8

Every day he [the High Priest] would scoop out the cinders with a silver fire pan and empty them into a golden one. But today [Yom Kippur] he would clear out the coals in a gold one, and in that same one he would bring the cinders into the inner sanctuary. (m.Yoma 4.4)

The author of Hebrews, rather than being “mixed up” about the Tabernacle and Temple service, is extremely accurate, utilizing language that directly corresponds to the wording of the Tanakh when describing the golden altar of incense as belonging to the Most Holy Place. This vital connection between the altar of incense and the Most Holy is seen by the fact that a golden censer is taken into the Most Holy on Yom Kippur, something corroborated by the Sages as well.

Having described the manner in which the High Priest and his service on Yom Kippur foreshadowed the priestly work of Yeshua, our author goes on to show how Yeshua accomplished everything necessary for the realization of the New Covenant (9:15–22). But does he portray each of the covenants of the Tanakh as a “last will and testament” as our English versions suggest? Once again, looking more closely at our author’s words reveals an entirely different message.

Diatheke (“covenant”) in the Book of Hebrews

The Greek word diatheke (“covenant”) is found 17 times in Hebrews, comprising over half of its occurrences in the Apostolic Scriptures (33x). Leaving aside for the moment the use of diatheke in chapter nine, we see that in 7:22 Yeshua is the guarantor of the better covenant. In 8:6 and 12:24, Yeshua is noted to be the mediator of a better covenant, that is, the New Covenant. And in 13:20, our author speaks of the “blood of the eternal covenant.” Four times the word diatheke is found in quotes from the Tanakh (8:8-10; 10:16). In each of these, the word diatheke bears its common meaning as a translation of Hebrew berit (“covenant”), that is, a binding agreement between two parties, and not the Hellenistic sense of the word as “last will and testament.” A “last will and testament” needs neither a guarantor nor a mediator. This, in itself, should cause the interpreter some pause, who thinks diatheke has taken on a different meaning in chapter nine.

In chapter nine, diatheke is used seven times. In 9:4 our author writes of the “ark of the covenant” in which the “tables of the covenant” were placed. In 9:20, diatheke is found in the quote from Exodus 24:8. The remaining four times are in v. 15–17, which we will discuss below.

This quick survey of the use of diatheke by the author of Hebrews shows that throughout the epistle, he is using the word in the same manner as did the translators of the Lxx, in which diatheke translates the Hebrew word berit 270 times.9 In fact, the decision on the part of the Lxx translators, to use diatheke as the regular word to translated berit, was no doubt governed by the fact that it alone best

  1. The preponderance of evidence from extant data is that the Scriptures were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic (Tanakh), and Greek (Apostolic Scriptures). There are some historical notices among the early Church Fathers that Matthew may have been written in Hebrew (or Aramaic), and perhaps the book of Hebrews as well. The earliest reference to the book of Hebrews is found in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. vi.14) which is itself a quote from Clement of Alexandria (who lived approx. 150–220 CE), stating that the epistle “was written (by Paul) to Hebrews in the Hebrew language (which may refer to the Aramaic spoken in Judea) and translated (into Greek) by Luke” [cf. Westcott, Hebrews, xxxii). This belief, that the epistle was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek, was held fairly consistently by the medieval Western Church. However, to date, no manuscripts (not even scraps of manuscripts) of the epistle of Hebrews have been found in Hebrew or Aramaic. Moreover, modern scholars point to the fact that the grammar of the Greek in Hebrews does not suggest a translation from a semitic language, and many of the Greek compounds found in the epistle have no equivalent in Hebrew or Aramaic.
  2. The issue of scribal mistakes in the copying of the Scriptures has not undermined our ability to ascertain the original text. Through the science of language itself, and the discipline of textual criticism, we are able substantially to recover the original text of the Scriptures. In the small percentage of places where valid questions remain as to the exact nature of the text, the wider voice of the Scriptures aids us in understanding the divine message. Or to put it another way: even in those cases where one is unable to decide from the witness of extant manuscripts, the exact wording of a text, other Scriptures that speak to the same doctrine being taught in the text under study, give a clear understanding in matters of doctrine, faith, and halachah.
  3. While the authorship of Hebrews is not stated in the epistle itself, and was therefore debated since the earliest centuries (though the early Church Fathers almost universally ascribed it to Paul, demonstrated by the fact that in early manuscripts, Hebrews is included among the Pauline corpus of epistles, cf. P46 where Hebrews follows Romans), it seems certain that the author was a man and not a woman (though some scholars have suggested Priscilla as the author). In 11:32, the author writes: “And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets…,” where “if I tell” is a masculine participle, making it clear that the author was male.
  4. “Eternal redemption” (λύτρωσιν εὑράμενος, 9:12) is essentially equivalent with “eternal inheritance” (τῆς αἰωνίου κληρονομίας, 9:15), because they both envision the blessing of life in the world to come, or the blessing of redemption those who are “called” receive as covenant members. In this sense, then, the two phrases carry the sense of “eschatological redemption” or “eschatological inheritance.”
  5. Cf. Exodus 30:1–10; 40:1–5;
  6. The quote is from the NIV, which correctly renders the Hebrew וְכָל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר־לַדְּבִיר צִפָּה זָהָב
  7. See William L. Lane, Hebrews, 2 vols. in The Word Biblical Commentary (Word, 1991), 2.215; P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 311–12.
  8. Besides the quote from the Mishnah, one should also note the wording of 2Baruch 6:7 (Syriac) which includes the presence of a “golden censer” in the Most Holy Place. 2Baruch (or The Apocalypse of Baruch) is dated to the late 1st Century or early 2nd Century CE. Likewise, the Life of Adam and Eve, a Jewish pseudepigraphic work of the 1st Century CE, speaks of “golden censers” used for burning incense (33.4).
  9. Only rarely does diatheke translate other Hebrew words in the Lxx: עַדוּת in Exodus 27:21; 31:7; 39:35; מִשְׁכַן in Leviticus 26:11; דָבָר in Deuteronomy 9:5; תִּזְנוּת in Ezekiel 16:29; תּוּרָה in Daniel 9:13; חָבַר in Daniel 11:23.