Monday, December 29, 2014

The Ark of Hebrews

The New Testament document known as the Letter to the Hebrews has both an unknown author and unknown audience. Its content is fascinating if not bewildering, and its reading of scripture is as aggressive as the NT gets. The letter is obsessed with priesthood, but does not mention the Eucharist directly, despite its appeal to the sacrifice of Christ as messianic priest par excellence (Psalm 110), "in the order of Melchizedek." The Catholic reading of the letter, by directive of Nostra Aetate and other pronouncements, must veer away from notions of supersessionism or abrogation of the 'old' covenant, though the letter seemingly invites (if not exhorts, cf. 13:22) the reader to such conclusions (8:13). I would propose that the letter, far from a supersessionist document, is all about continuity; even its technique is at play with time and space.

Perhaps the first clue that the letter is up to something extraordinary is its retelling of the Abraham story.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. [Heb. 11:17-19, NIV]

The letter retrojects faith in the resurrection onto the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham, through reason, knew Isaac would be restored to promise. "Figuratively," Isaac was resurrected from the dead to more life (not unlike the Johannine Lazarus) by the staying of Abraham's hand by the Angel. This spectacular anachronism certainly bends time toward the sacrifice on Calvary, and the time of that sacrifice toward the sacrifice on Moriah (Gen. 22:2). Typologically, there is a laying atop of the NT sacrifice upon the OT, but allegoresis is not hierarchical, and its alterations are not paradigmatic, but syntagmatic. Hence, supersessionism need not be the effect here,  but democratic simultaneity and continuity. Time, bent and twisted as it is in this letter, imposes no superiority of later occurrences over previous ones.

The most telling clue in the letter that turns it away from abrogation of the old Law is its play with matter and space as it retrojects the Eucharist into the Ark of the Covenant.

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.  A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. [Heb. 9:1-4, NIV]

The "consecrated bread" in v.2 signals the Eucharistic element of v.4, "the gold jar of manna." There is no tradition apart from the letter itself that locates either the jar of manna or the staff of Aaron in the Ark. Neither Exodus, 1 Kings, nor Numbers (cf. 17) permits the tablets of the Law to have any company in the Ark; but this letter would have the 'manna' already in the Ark as a type of the Bread of Life, the bread of the Last Supper and on the Road to Emmaus.

The letter's deconstruction and reconstruction of the past does not have the effect of abrogation or supersessionism, but rather an effect of an allegoresis of surfaces in which neither past nor present dictates pride of place. The rod of Aaron is shown not in apostasy, but "budded," in the bloom of living faith, and a validation and continuity of priesthood into the 'New' Covenant. Jesus and his singular, priestly sacrifice on Calvary, does not place the Old sacrifice under erasure, but, if 'erasure' is a theme of the letter, it is an erasure that insists on whatever is underneath to come through quite clearly.

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