Archive for September 8th, 2009
For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself. Hebrews 6:13
By Himself – The second principle of rabbinic interpretation is a bit complicated, but once you understand it, you will see why many biblical passages seem to “wander” from one idea to the next. The principle of Gezerah Shavah (“equal category”) is based on the idea that similar words in different passages are connected in some way. Behind this principle is the thought that every word has been chosen by God so there are no accidental constructions. So, if God chose to use ‘ezer in Genesis 2, there must be some connection to the use of the same word in other passages of Scripture. After all, all the words come from God.
Let’s see how this principle is applied in the letter to the Hebrews. (You can find the entire section here). http://www.abu.nb.ca/courses/NTIntro/OTinNT.htm
“In Heb 6:13-14, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews explains that, in his promising to Abraham, God swore by himself, because there was none greater by whom to swear. In fact, God made a three-fold promise to Abraham after his successful testing, when he showed himself willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. The author cites only one of these three promises: ”I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you” (Gen 22:17) (6:14). He explains in Heb 6:16 that only God swears by himself, unlike human beings, who swear by something or someone greater than themselves. The author’s interest in the fact of God’s oath to Abraham stems from his interest in Ps 110:4, which he interprets messianically, of Christ, in Heb 5:5-10 in tandem with Ps 2:7: “Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’.” Implicitly, the author is appealing to the exegetical principle known to the early rabbis as gezerah shavah (“an equal category”). What is common to both passages is God’s swearing of an oath: “By myself I have sworn (ômasa)” (Gen 22:16) and “Yahweh has sworn (ômesen) and will not change his mind” (Ps 110:4). The author believes that what he can determine about God’s oath-taking from Gen 22:16-17 may be transferred to Ps 110:4 and used to interpret Yahweh’s oath to the son that he is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek in Ps 110:4. In particular, he holds that in Ps 110:4, even though this passage does not say so explicitly, Yahweh must have sworn by himself, as he did when he swore to Abraham, because there is no one greater by whom God could swear. Since God swore by himself it follows that the oath made to Christ in Ps 110:4 is certain. Thus, in Heb 6:16-17, the author’s point is that the character of God’s promise to the readers is certain insofar as Yahweh swore by himself when he swore that Christ would be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Some of the most difficult arguments to follow in Hebrew thinking involve this principle. They are difficult to follow because this is not the way Greeks think. Our Greek view of biblical interpretation usually begins with context. We believe if one passage does not share the same contextual environment as another passage, the two are not related. We think there is no necessary connection between a verse in the Tanakh about the blessing that comes with forgiveness and righteousness imputed to Abraham. But this is exactly the connection Paul makes in Romans 4:6-8. Paul uses a concept in Psalm 32 to justify his interpretation of Genesis 15. The key words (“take into account”) are connected with Gezerah Shavah. As Greek thinkers, we might see this as unfounded and forced, but for a Hebrew rabbi, it was absolutely brilliant.
What lesson do we learn? Reading Scripture requires understanding the mind of the author, not applying criteria we assume to be the only way to interpret the text. Most theological argument over interpretation begins by not appreciating the different thought patterns of the authors. Loosen up. Reconsider. Look again. Maybe the “one right answer” method just isn’t part of the plan.
Topical Index: Gezerah Shavah, principle #2, equal category, by himself, Hebrews 6:13, Romans 4:6-8