Heaven as the True House of God:
Intertextual Soundings in Hebrews
SBL Intertextuality in the New Testament Consultation (2008)
Before I engage the
subject at hand, I might express a slight regret that I did not fully understand
the topic for this session when I made the proposal. The predominant use of the Greek word oi]koj
in Hebrews is in reference to the household of God’s people, which Hebrews
redefines in terms of those who confess Jesus as the Son of God and who endure
to the end (e.g., 3:6). By inference,
the author seems now to include Gentiles in this house without mentioning or
feeling the need to defend such an inclusion, simply calling all members of
Christ’s household the “seed of Abraham” (2:16). Moses was also faithful in his house, the
But we must instead turn to the use of the word oi]koj in Hebrews 10:19-22:
Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the Holies with the blood of Jesus, a new and living way that he made for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and [since we have] a great high priest over the house of God, let us enter with a true heart in the fullness of faith, having sprinkled our hearts from an evil conscience and having washed our body with pure water.
Given the background in Hebrews 3 we mentioned earlier, it seems more than likely that the author of Hebrews intends a double entendre here in 10:21. Jesus is indeed a great high priest over the household of God, the people of God, the “seed of Abraham.” At the same time, the “starting sense” of the statement is surely a reference to the heavenly sanctuary, to which the author has been referring in the previous chapters.
quite clear that Hebrews does not understand the earthly sanctuary of the
Jewish Scriptures in the same way ancient
The Reconfiguration of the Tent
One of the first
things we notice when we look at Hebrews’ interaction with the houses of God in
the Jewish Scriptures is Hebrews’ complete lack of reference to the
In the end, we believe that the omission of reference to the temple fits the period not long after Jerusalem’s destruction, when some believers no doubt had some reason to reflect on—and perhaps be troubled by—the destruction of the temple. A theoretical consideration of the wilderness tabernacle held the potential to deflect concern over recent events by getting at the fundamental significance of the Levitical system, which for the author was the fact that Christ’s death was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices (e.g., 10:14). Certainly we could offer other explanations of the exclusive focus on the wilderness tent, and many have. For the moment we only note that Hebrews’ consideration of the wilderness tabernacle carried implications of obsolescence for any standing temple as well and, thus, a significant reconfiguration of the significance of those Scriptural texts relating to it.
The primary way in which Hebrews has reconfigured the significance of the wilderness tabernacle is to relegate it to the mere role of a “shadowy illustration” of the reality of atonement that took place with Christ. For the author of Hebrews, none of the sacrifices under the Levitical system were actually able to take away sins (10:2-4). The Law only involved a “shadow” of good things coming (8:1). None of the examples of faith in the Jewish Scriptures were perfected prior to Christ’s atonement (11:40). The scope of this reinterpretation of the Levitical cultus is astounding! If Hebrews were written prior to the temple’s destruction, such statements would be highly polemical and, indeed, offensive to most Jews. On the other hand, they might very well be consoling in the aftermath of 70CE.
So Hebrews says that the earthly priests served the heavenly holies “by shadowy illustration” (u9podei/gmati kai\ skia|=; 8:5). Interpreters have often taken this statement as a reflection of Platonic or Philonic influence on Hebrews and thus as an indication that the author of Hebrews saw the earthly sanctuary as a somewhat straightforward copy of a heavenly prototype (e.g., 8:5). Several decades ago, however, Lincoln Hurst made the counter claim that “[t]here is no instance in known Greek literature where u9po/deigma can be demonstrated to mean ‘copy.’” Harold Attridge thereafter did find some instances where the word means something like “likeness.” Nevertheless, we find no extant instance in the entire corpus of ancient Greek literature where the word u9po/deigma is used of a Platonic copy. The closest parallels rather point toward a u9po/deigma as an example from Scripture (so also Heb. 4:11; Cf. Philo, Her. 256).
Hebrews has thus relegated the wilderness tabernacle to the status of an example or illustration of the true tent of Christ, the heavenly high priest. The earthly sanctuary had no intrinsic significance other than as a pointer toward the true reality that was to come. Moses was, when properly understood, a witness of things that were “going to be spoken” (3:5). His significance related more to Christ than to the things he instituted in his own time. The Law included a shadow of good things “to come,” but it was not even an exact image (ei0kw/n) of these things (10:1). Even as an illustration, the Levitical system was only a shadowy one. The Levitical system and its sanctuary were not an exact representation of the reality that was Jesus’ atonement.
On the one hand, the author makes a statement or two that might lead one to conclude that all the parts of the earthly tabernacle had heavenly significance. Hebrews 8:5 combines Exodus 25:9 and 25:40 to speak of Moses making “everything according to the type that was shown you on the mountain.” The bulk of the citation comes from 25:40, except that the author seems to derive the word pa/nta from 25:9. One might argue, therefore, that everything in the earthly tabernacle had some correspondent in the heavenly tabernacle. The fact that the author takes the time to enumerate the elements of the tabernacle in 9:2-5 might support this fact.
However, a number of careful observations ultimately militate against this line of interpretation. First, we find no reason in Hebrews’ argument to think that the heavenly sanctuary has any kind of outer room as the wilderness tabernacle and Jewish temples did. One is certainly never mentioned. In Hebrews 9, the author strangely speaks of the two chambers in the earthly tabernacle in terms of two tents rather than two rooms (e.g., 9:2-3, 6-7). The reason becomes apparent when we get to 9:7-8. The author is interpreting the two “tents” of the earthly tabernacle allegorically in terms of the two ages of salvation history. The outer room represents “the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered that are not able to perfect the worshipper in conscience” (9:9). In other words, the outer room represents imperfection and the prevention of access to God: “the way tw=n a9gi/wn” is not apparent while the first tent has sta/sij” (9:8). The author thus gives us significant reason to disassociate the outer room of the earthly sanctuary from the heavenly tabernacle. In the author’s imagery, the outer room stands as an obstacle to divine access. In keeping with his comments elsewhere about direct access to God (e.g., 4:16; 10:19), an outer room for the heavenly tent would stand in conflict with his imagery elsewhere.
A close examination of the author’s train of thought in this passage pushes us more and more to the conclusion that he does not likely envisage an outer room to the heavenly tent. For example, we notice that while 9:2-8 divide the earthly tabernacle into two tents, the two sparse references to a heavenly tent are both singular (e.g., 8:2; 9:11). Secondly, while the author refers to the outer room of the earthly tabernacle as a3gia in 9:2, his other neuter plural references to ta\ a3gia seem more likely to refer to the inner sanctum. The phrase, “the way of the Holies,” in 9:8 must refer to the inner room given the author’s Day of Atonement imagery. And despite the immense debate over the meaning of 9:11, almost all agree that the phrase “into the Holies” in 9:12 must refer either literally or metaphorically to the Holy of Holies. Hebrews 9:24 must again refer to the Holy of Holies when it uses the neuter plural Holies again, which is noticeably in parallel to heaven itself. Given such consistent use of the neuter plural a3gia in these ways, particularly in its articular form, the most likely conclusion is that 8:2 also is thinking of the heavenly Holy of Holies when it says that Christ is a minister tw=n a9gi/wn. The full expression here is that Christ is a “minister of the Holies and of the true tent.” While it is possible that we have a mention of a part and then a mention of the whole, the phrase reads very neatly if both are one and the same, the heavenly Holies are in fact the whole of the heavenly tent.
We have thus adduced three significant reasons for thinking that whatever the heavenly tent might be, it does not consist of an outer and inner chamber. These reasons are 1) the fact that the author reflects some antipathy toward the outer room in 9:8 and allegorizes it in terms of imperfection and hindrance to God’s presence, 2) the fact that the author consistently refers to the heavenly tent by the imagery of the inner sanctum of the earthly tabernacle, and 3) the fact that while he refers to the earthly tabernacle as plural tents, he refers to the heavenly tent only twice and both times in the singular. On the whole, we find only two passages from which one might argue for an outer part of the heavenly tent. The first is 8:5 we mentioned above, where Moses is told to make everything according to the type shown him in the mountain, which might imply that the outer room of the earthly tabernacle corresponded to an element in the heavenly type. The other passage is 9:11-12, where Christ, “through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands” entered the Holies. One way to make sense of this seemingly tautological statement is to see the first part in reference to the outer tent of the heavenly sacrifice one the way to the inner tent of the latter part.
Time does not permit a thorough response to these objections, which I have made elsewhere. For now I will simply note that the author of Hebrews did not likely invent the particular combination of the pa/nta of Exodus 25:9 with Exodus 25:40, since the same form of citation is also found in Philo. Indeed, the author may have a more extensive allegorical interpretation of the parts of the tabernacle. It just does not appear in the argument of Hebrews. 9:11-12 is a chiastic sentence of some length, and the phrase “through the greater and more perfect tent” is at far enough remove from the main verb “he entered in” that it is possible that they do not relate to each other in a crisp progression of thought. As we will see in a moment, the author flows so easily from one figurative sense of the earthly sanctuary to another, that we probably should not push too literal a logic on a statement like this one. In the end, a modal sense to the first phrase, Christ entered the Holies by way of the greater and more perfect tent, perhaps best accounts for the train of thought.
So one aspect of the author’s shadowy re-appropriation of the Pentateuchal sanctuary is his relegation of its outer chamber as strictly a symbol of this age. A second reconfiguration is to combine all the diverse sacrificial operations of the Levitical cultus into one shadowy correspondent to the one, truly effective sacrifice of Christ. The imagery of Hebrews 9 amalgamates a number of different sacrifices from the Jewish Scriptures and contrasts them en masse to the one sacrifice of Christ, thereby implying that Christ has now rendered all the different kinds of sacrifices found throughout the Pentateuch obsolete. Whether it is the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (9:7), or the red heifer (9:13) or hyssop ceremonies for cleanness (9:19), or Moses’ inaugural cleansing of the wilderness tabernacle (9:19), Christ’s one sacrifice has not only made any further sacrifice unnecessary. Christ’s sacrifice is the only one of these sacrifices that actually has worked in cleansing a consciousness of sin (cp., 10:1-3; 9:14).
Further, it seems likely that for the author, the earthly sanctuary itself does not ultimately even point to a structure in heaven. If we are looking for a literal correspondent to the heavenly tabernacle, heaven itself would seem to come closest, as Hebrews 9:24 hints: “Christ did not enter into handmade Holies, antitypes of the true Holies, but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God on our behalf.” We can see how this might be the case, not only given that the heavenly sanctuary has no outer room, but also since both Philo and Josephus attest to the idea of the cosmos as the truest temple of God. The reconfiguration of the wilderness tabernacle as a pointer toward the truer temple of the cosmos was thus a pattern of thought ready at hand for the author to use.
In the end, however, the author of Hebrews pushes us to see his heavenly tabernacle as something even more subtle than a metaphor for heaven itself where God’s throne is located. Hebrews 9:23, for example, speaks of a need for the heavenly tabernacle to be cleansed with better sacrifices than those used to cleanse the earthly one. This statement is odd in the least. Since the heavenly tent is not of this creation (9:11) and is something the Lord pitched rather than mortals (8:2), how is it that it needs cleansed? The observation that the author is thinking in parallel to the inauguration of the earthly sanctuary alleviates some of the tension (9:18-22), but it does not resolve the issue completely. Indeed, this image seems incredibly damning to any literal interpretation of the heavenly tabernacle. If the heavenly tabernacle is some literal, apocalyptic temple, surely the author is at least being metaphorical when he speaks of its cleansing!
This passage more than any other pushes us to see the heavenly tabernacle in Hebrews most fundamentally as a metaphorical construct rather than a literal structure or place. Even if heaven itself is the most literal correspondent to what the author had in mind, the heavenly tabernacle ultimately is not simply some heavenly version of the earthly tent. The heavenly tabernacle is part of a broader metaphor of Christ’s high priesthood that is meant to contrast as a whole with the “many and various” components of the Levitical cultus. What generates the concept of a heavenly tabernacle in the thought of Hebrews is not some precedent in Platonism, apocalypticism, or Hellenism, although the author may draw from one or more of these. What really drives the heavenly tabernacle concept is the need to have a new covenant “space” in which Christ can offer his superior sacrifice.
In the overall metaphor of Christ’s high priesthood, the heavenly tabernacle represents the space where true atonement takes place in contrast to the superficial cleansings of the Pentateuchal tabernacle. From a slightly different metaphorical perspective, Christ’s ascension into heaven is understood to be his entrance into such a heavenly Holy of Holies. But these are distinct metaphors built on slightly different precedents, and the author creatively integrates the two. For example, the author seems careful not to say that Christ took blood into the heavenly tabernacle in 9:14. These two metaphors clash significantly when the author speaks of the inaugural cleansing of the heavenly tabernacle. From the perspective of the one metaphor, it makes perfect sense to speak of inaugurating the heavenly tabernacle with better sacrifices than those Moses used. But considered from the perspective of the other metaphor, the idea of heaven itself needing cleansing seems highly problematic if we push the concept very far at all.
Hebrews 10:20, which we mentioned at the beginning of our study, confirms the author’s metaphorical penchant with regard to the heavenly tabernacle. In the context of this verse, the author encourages the audience to approach God’s throne of grace because they have boldness to enter into the Holy of Holies “with” the blood of Jesus. Then comes the verse in question: this entrance is something “that [Jesus] has inaugurated for us as a new and living way through the veil, that is, his flesh.” The most obvious way to take the grammar of this verse equates Christ’s flesh with the veil. Not only is katape/tasma the closest potential antecedent, but sa/rc is in the genitive case in agreement with it. While it would be more theologically convenient to see Christ’s flesh as the way rather than the veil, o9do/j is in the accusative case and thus is not the likely antecedent.
The idea of Christ’s flesh as a veil through which brothers may pass into the Holy of Holies is clearly metaphorical. It would be inappropriate either to press the imagery too far or to try to use this particular metaphor as the key to the heavenly tabernacle argument in the previous chapters. The verse simply reminds us that the author is swimming around a key concept and that these metaphors are not ends in themselves. The author’s ultimate purpose with regard to these images is to bolster the confidence of the audience in the atonement provided by Christ vis-à-vis the Levitical cultic system. The images themselves are somewhat fluid and are ultimately means to an end.
We find, therefore, that the author has reconfigured the sanctuary houses of God in several radical ways. He does not even mention the two temples of the Jewish Scriptures, the Solomonic and the second temple built by Zerubbabel. The wilderness tabernacle serves as a surrogate for any such earthly structure, including the Herodian temple of the author’s day. The significance of that wilderness tent moreover becomes entirely symbolic. Its sacrifices are ineffectual and serve only as shadowy illustrations of the reality that is Christ’s death for sins. Even the heavenly tent, for which the earthly tent serves as an antitype, is not a literal structure in heaven for the author. Its most literal correspondent is the highest heaven itself, where God is. Yet at times we must push beyond even heaven itself to see the heavenly sanctuary as a part of an even broader high priestly metaphor, in which it serves somewhat abstractly as that “space” in which the death of Jesus on the cross is offered for sins. It is no wonder, then, that the reference to the “house of God” in Hebrews 10:21 can blur into a double entendre for the people of God. The entire re-appropriation of the Pentateuchal house is metaphorical in nature.
Echoes of Destruction
One of the arguments often made against a post-70 date for Hebrews is the idea that the author surely would have mentioned the destruction of the temple to reinforce his argument. Luke Timothy Johnson puts it this way: “one would think that some reference would naturally be made, not to a covenant growing obsolescent and a cult being ineffective, but rather to a cult proven to be broken and a cult demonstrated by God’s action as a thing of the past.” It would go well beyond the scope of this paper to mount a full argument for such a date. We will merely mention in response to Johnson that his comment assumes that the destruction of the temple would be an argument for some further point that the old covenant is no longer in force. We would argue the opposite, namely, that the author argues that the “old covenant” is no longer in force to help the audience cope with the more fundamental datum, God’s allowance of Jerusalem and its temple to be destroyed. Mention of the temple’s destruction would not be an argument the author fails to mention but the fundamental exigence of the sermon, known to all.
It is possible,
however, that the author does allude to the destruction of
author thus uses the story of Abraham’s sojourning in a foreign land as an
allegory for the current existence of the audience in this world. The heavenly city that God has prepared shows
up in Hebrews 12:22-23, where the author now draws on the Sinai story of Exodus
(12:18-21) as an antitype of the new covenant assembly to which the audience
belongs. “You have come to
harder to find clear echoes of
However, deSilva’s reading is not at all necessary and is in our opinion anachronistic. Several authors after 70CE did speak of the sacrificial system in the present tense, which negates our common sense on how the author might word things after the temple’s destruction. We also recognize in this particular case that the author was not so much addressing the time of the audience as the fact that sacrifices never stopped throughout “biblical history” as found in the Jewish Scriptures. Would the sacrifices throughout the time of the old covenant not have stopped a long time ago if any of them had actually taken away sins? No, God instead prepared a body for Christ (10:5). The setting of the comment is thus the time before Christ far more than the time of Hebrews’ writing.
If Hebrews were written not long after the temple’s destruction, a number of comments and uses of Scripture would likely echo various aspects of this event. For example, Hebrews 12:4-13 urges the audience to “endure leading to discipline” and quotes Proverbs 3:11-12. If Hebrews were written after the temple’s destruction, we can imagine that the audience might hear these words as thinly veiled admonition in light of the disgrace and discouragement that not only non-Christian but Christian Jews as well must have endured in its wake. “Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered” (5:8). So ought the audience to endure the Lord’s discipline as training.
The potential metaleptic carry over would be even more ominous in the light of the author’s citation of Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses. We already encounter the author’s use of one Greek version of this text in 1:6, where it may very well carry with it the overtones of coming judgment and vindication from Deuteronomy 32:43 (LXX). Intriguingly, the author draws on this passage twice again in Hebrews 10:30 and 31: “‘Vengeance is for me, I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’” The first is from Deuteronomy 32:35; the second from 32:36. What is interesting about these citations is that the author applies them to believers who turn away from the living God (3:12), who “fall away” (6:6), who thus “continue to sin after receiving a knowledge of the truth” (10:26) and sell their birthright (12:16). The author thus turns a passage in Deuteronomy about the vindication of God’s people and the judgment of their enemies into the potential judgment of failed believers and, just perhaps, a thinly veiled explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (cf. Matt. 22:7).
a similar series of quotations from the same passage in Hebrews 2:13: “‘I will
put my trust in him’ and ‘Behold I and the children God gave me.’” The first is based in Isaiah 8:17 (LXX) and
the second in 8:18. In Isaiah, the
context leading up to these verses speaks of the disobedience and hardness of
God’s people (8:11-12; LXX). 8:14-17
speaks of the house of Jacob in Jerusalem lying in a trap, many falling, and
God having turned his face from the house of Jacob. It is at this point that we hear the words
Hebrews quotes, now put on the lips of Christ.
If Hebrews were written after the destruction of
In the preceding minutes we have tried to do two things. First, we have tried to show how Hebrews has reinterpreted various Pentateuchal Scriptures relating to the wilderness tabernacle in the light of its author’s theology. What in the Jewish Scriptures are literal depictions of literal structures that were actually thought to effect good relations and reconciliation with YHWH are now reconfigured as symbolic and allegorical pointers toward a new reality. That reality is of course the definitive atonement provided by Jesus Christ. The earthly house of God is now understood as a shadowy illustration of the true house of God, the heavenly one. This heavenly tent corresponds most literally to heaven itself, where God’s throne is and to which Christ ascended through the heavens. But in many respects the author’s metaphorical appropriation of the wilderness tent uses language that makes it a somewhat abstract “space” where Christ’s death on the cross truly atones for sins.
final part of our presentation then looked for possible echoes of the destruction
 I have argued elsewhere that this fact pushes the date at least a little later than Paul and fits better with a predominantly Gentile rather than Jewish audience, especially since Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2 is applied universally (especially Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Settings of the Sacrifice [Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007), *. Of course we would not base these conclusions solely on 2:16.
 Interpreters who take the heavenly sanctuary to be the people of God**
 Famously, Manson***
 Cosmology and Eschatology, ***.
 name some***Gelardini, code language, simply theological
 The Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Background of Thought (SNTSMS 65; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990), 13.
 The Epistle to the Hebrews
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 219 n.41: Ezekiel 42:15 (LXX) and
 Interestingly, the author locates the altar of incense in the Holy of Holies as opposed to the outer room as in **.
 There is some debate over what it might mean for the first tent to “have standing,” ranging from those who see an allusion to the destruction of the cosmos to those who argue that it is an idiom about the status of this present age.
Philo: Somn. 1.215; Spec. 1.66; Mos. 2.88; QEx.
 Cf. Hurst, Background, 38-40.
 William G. Johnsson suggested this verse was a clear indication of the author’s “spiritualizing” intent (“The Cultus of Hebrews in Twentieth-Century Scholarship,” ExpTim 89 [1977-78]: 104-8, esp. 107). I would prefer to say a tendency to take it metaphorically.
 I am assuming that the author of Hebrews is male given the masculine, singular participle in 11:32 by which the author self-identifies.
 Hebrews: A Commentary (
Richard Hays argues in a forthcoming piece originally presented to the 2006
Hebrews and Theology conference at
 Perseverance in Gratitude: A
Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (
Josephus, Ap. 2.77. See also Ap.
 Going with both possible connotations the word paidei/a could have.