Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

From the Holy to the Most Holy Place: The Period of Hebrews 9:6-10 and the Day of Atonement as a Metaphor of Transition

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

From the Holy to the Most Holy Place: The Period of Hebrews 9:6-10 and the Day of Atonement as a Metaphor of Transition

Article excerpt

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The Day of Atonement is one of the most conspicuous OT rituals to be referenced in the central section of the Letter to the Hebrews (8:1-10:18) and plays, certainly, an important role in it.1 Almost all scholars agree that the imagery of the Day of Atonement is used in typological fashion to explain Jesus's death on the cross as a sacrifice that provides forgiveness. Paul Ellingworth, for example, comments that Hebrews' author concentrates in the Day of Atonement "all his thinking about sin and forgiveness under the old covenant."2 Nevertheless, Harold W. Attridge has warned that "the application of the model of the Yom Kippur ritual to the death of Christ in Hebrews is a complex and subtle hermeneutical effort."3

The difficulties include, in the first place, an incomplete typology. For example, Azazel is not mentioned.4 Affliction of the soul, an important element of the celebration of Yom Kippur, is also absent; instead, the atmosphere that surrounds Jesus's entrance is that of feasting and rejoicing.5 It is argued that this absence is because Hebrews focuses on the blood ritual of the Day of Atonement and not the whole feast. However, Jesus's sacrifice is also described in terms inconsistent with that blood ritual. First, the author departs from the language of the LXX to describe the manipulation of blood by the high priest on the Day of Atonement: the blood is not "sprinkled" on the sanctuary but "offered" (9:7).6 Second, when the sprinkling of blood is mentioned, it has to do not with the Day of Atonement but with the inauguration of the covenant (9:15-23).7 Third, the sacrifices of ... (male goats) were not offered on the Day of Atonement.8 Fourth, the purification of sins is effected before Christ's entrance into the most holy place (e.g., Heb 1:3; 9:7), which "turns upside down Leviticus 16, where the entry is the precondition for the purification sprinkling."9 Fifth, when Jesus's death is described as a purification offering (Heb 9:11-23), the author of Hebrews follows a typology that conflates "Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16), the Red Heifer (Numbers 19), the institution of the covenant (Exodus 24), and the ordination of the priests (Leviticus 8)."10 Finally, in this and subsequent sections, the author of Hebrews does not use the Day of Atonement as the primary typology for Jesus's death; instead, it is the ratification of the covenant that plays that role (Heb 9:15-23).n In fact, Jesus is described mainly as the mediator of a new covenant (7:22; 8:6; 9:15), and his sacrifice is referred to primarily as the "blood of the covenant" (10:29; 12:24; 13:20).

The question is, then, how do we explain, on the one hand, the pervasive nature of the imagery of the Day of Atonement in this central section of Hebrews but, on the other hand, account for the inconsistencies in the Day of Atonement typology for Jesus's death on the cross? I suggest that in Heb 9:6-10, by means of a period as a rhetorical device, the author of Hebrews defines the role that the imagery of the Day of Atonement will play in his argument. In other words, this passage functions as a programmatic statement. The exegetical difficulties of this passage have distracted scholars from giving due weight to the rhetorical function of this long period for the rest of the argument.12 It is concluded that Hebrews' author primarily intended the Day of Atonement not as a typology of Jesus's death but as a "parable" or illustration of the transition from the "current age" and its old covenant into the "age to come" and its new covenant. This, I hope, will make possible a new assessment of the imagery of the Day of Atonement and Jesus's sacrificial death in Hebrews 8-10.

I. THE DAY OF ATONEMENT

AND THE PERIOD OF HEBREWS 9:6-10

The Period as a Rhetorical Device

The first unambiguous reference to the ritual of the Day of Atonement in Hebrews is found in 9:7. …

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