And here are two final samples:
[Prayer of Manasseh]
THE TEXT IN ITS ANCIENT CONTEXT
While sharing several elements with Psalm 51, which is the most elaborate treatment of repentance among biblical psalms of an individual, the Prayer of Manasseh presents God’s capacity to forgive in even more emphatic terms. Both prayers are attributed to a king, but the contrast is dramatic: for Psalm 51, it is Israel’s archetypal king, David; for the Prayer of Manasseh, it is the archvillain of Israel’s kings. The Prayer of Manasseh begins by addressing God as “LORD almighty, God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and of their righteous offspring,” and as the Creator who has mastery over chaos, symbolized by “sea” and “abyss” (vv. 1–3). Assuming the ancient worldview that sees transgressions against God as violations of divinely established social harmony, the prayer describes God’s capacity to restore that order by destroying those who commit such violations (vv. 4–5). Yet it affirms that God is merciful beyond measure and has established an alternative means of restoring order: repentance (vv. 6–7). Claiming access to that repentance, the speaker confesses being an unworthy sinner, whose sins are “more numerous than the sands of the sea,” and who consequently is weighed down with “many an iron shackle” (vv. 8–12). The speaker then asks to be forgiven and preserved from eternal punishment by God, here named not as “God of the righteous” but as “God of those who repent” (v. 13). In support of this petition, the speaker declares that in God’s forgiving the undeserving speaker, the goodness of God will become manifest in him, who will in turn praise God continually, as do all the heavenly host (vv. 14–15).
Like a number of so-called penitential prayers from early Judaism, for example, Ezra 9, the Prayer of Manasseh would have given those who prayed it a voice with which to appeal to God as one who receives and responds mercifully to those who repent. Moreover, its implied context in the narrative of 2 Chronicles affirms that God indeed responds mercifully to such prayers. Although in many “penitential prayers” the people speak as a corporate body linked to prior generations in their transgressions, it is an individual taking responsibility for personal guilt who speaks here; the significance of this difference deserves further investigation (Newman).
THE TEXT IN THE INTERPRETIVE TRADITION
The Prayer of Manasseh had considerable influence in early Christianity but is much less conspicuous in Jewish traditions. The ancient Christian handbooks cited above place it within an exhortation to bishops to enact well their ministry of healing and reconciling of the faithful. Thomas Aquinas quoted lines 6–7a of the prayer in arguing that the sacrament of penance could be repeated (Summa Theologiae 3 q. 84 a. 10). The prayer is cited by several patristic authors in exhortations to penitence, and there is abundant evidence for its liturgical usage during the patristic period from the fifth century onward; it is included, for instance, in the liturgy of Jerusalem and in the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Mozarabic Psalters (Rose). However, it was not included among the canticles in the Roman office (1911) or the Liturgy of the Hours (1971). Some of the earliest printed German Bibles include the prayer at the end of 2 Chronicles, and although Martin Luther considered it apocryphal in his Bible, he circulated it in a variety of contexts (Bream).
THE TEXT IN CONTEMPORARY DISCUSSION
Perhaps the greatest challenges that the Prayer of Manasseh poses for modern readers concern its depictions of God’s capacity to destroy sinners in anger and of the speaker’s self-abasement. However, interpreting such portrayals within their cultural context and in light of the prayer as a whole can disabuse the reader of the assumption that this prayer addresses a misanthropic God who requires that sinful people abandon their dignity in order to gain forgiveness. Here, as in many biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts, divine anger is portrayed as erupting in response to violations of the social harmony intended by God, which includes all aspects of human behavior. Since, in the biblical view, a key purpose for which God established that harmony is to provide a place in which people can thrive in relationship to God, portraying God as angry over violations of that harmony actually affirms God’s fundamental care for humanity. At the same time, the prayer accents not the angry destruction of the sinner but repentance and forgiveness, as being the preferred means by which God allows order to be restored after it has been violated. The speaker’s claims of unworthiness and hyperbolic confessions of sin need not be taken as reflections of the speaker’s value in an objective sense. In their ancient Near Eastern context, such expressions constituted an affective mode of speaking understood to convey sincerity.
Christopher Frechette, Prayer of Manasseh, ed. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., and Matthew J.M. Coomber, Fortress Commentary on the Bible. Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 1084-1085.
Hebrews 1:1–14: The Ultimate Revelation in God’s Son
THE TEXT IN ITS ANCIENT CONTEXT
In an artfully crafted antithesis, the author opens by emphasizing the ultimacy, completeness, and finality of the word spoken by God in the Son, the word around which his hearers were shaped into a new community. This opening sentence sounds the “indicative” that underscores every “imperative” to keep giving this word its due weight and to continue to respond properly to this announcement (e.g., 2:1–4; 3:7–8, 14–15; 5:11; 12:25–29). The Son’s exalted status remains an important datum throughout the sermon, underscoring both the value of remaining connected with Jesus and the danger of dishonoring such a being. Locating the hearers “in the later part of these days” (1:2, my translation) heightens the importance of responding well. The imminence of the end, portending eternal deliverance for the Son’s loyal clients and eternal judgment for the Son’s enemies (1:13–14), intensifies the importance of the choices made in the present moment. The author’s use of Ps. 110:1 (1:3) foreshadows the author’s use of the Jewish Scriptures throughout: these texts are so completely a witness to the Son, Jesus, that they can be read to speak of events in his story prior to his birth and after his ascension (events for which there could be no human witnesses).
Hebrews 1:5–14 provides a sampling of how the author sees the “many pieces” (polymerōs, 1:1) of God’s prior words spoken through prophets (here including David, the traditional author of royal psalms such as Pss. 2; 45; and 110; see Heb. 1:5, 8, 13) coming together in the revelation of the Son. The true significance of those many “pieces” emerges as they are read as though spoken to, about, or even by the Son. The author’s focus on the Son’s superiority to angels has given rise to the mistaken view that the author addressed some heresy involving an inferior view of Christ or a strange fascination with angels. The rhetorical questions of 1:5, 14, however, presuppose agreement between the author and the recipients on these points. Angels were seen as mediators and messengers: as intercessors in the heavenly temple (T. Levi 3:4–8; Tob. 12:12, 15; Matt. 18:10; Rev. 8:3–4) and also as the couriers who brought the law to Israel (see Jub. 1:27–29; 2:1; Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). The Son will be presented throughout the sermon as a superior mediator and superior messenger, thus more to be held on to and heeded than any previous ones (see the comparisons with Moses and with the Levitical priesthood). Here, the scriptural “proof” of Jesus’ superiority to angels (1:5–14) serves to establish the premise (1:4) on which the hortatory conclusion drawn in 2:1–3a will depend.
A second major point is the unchangeableness—the constancy—of the Son vis-à-vis the mutable angels and the temporary material creation (1:7–12). The latter introduces us to the author’s cosmology, which is of great importance to the whole of his sermon. The cosmos is divided into two principal parts: the visible, material earth and heavens (skies, stars, etc.) and the invisible realm beyond creation (“heaven itself,” 9:24). The first is transitory and will eventually be removed (1:10–12; 12:26–28). The second existed prior to creation and will last forever. Everything belonging to God’s realm, therefore, is of infinitely greater quality and value than anything in the material realm—hence, “better,” because “lasting” (thematic words in the sermon). This cosmology undergirds the author’s exhortations to act with a view to keeping hold of the invisible, eternal goods that God has promised, and not to sacrifice these for short-lived relief in the present age.
Christ’s exaltation to God’s right hand carries both promise and menace (1:13–14). The author strategically frames the hearers’ consideration of their presenting challenges with the “larger” challenge: How should they respond to this Son so as to remain in his favor rather than return to the ranks of his enemies (2:1–4)?
THE TEXT IN THE INTERPRETIVE TRADITION
The author ascribed attributes of Wisdom known from Proverbs 8 and Wisdom of Solomon 7–9 (see especially 7:22, 26–27; 8:1; 9:9) to the preincarnate Son, who gives Wisdom a new face. Hebrews 1:1–14 thus became an important resource for early Christian reflection on the relationship of Jesus to God. The analogy of the relationship of “radiance” to “glory” figured prominently in discussions of the Son’s sharing in the essence of the Father (Origen, Athanasius, against Arius) and his coexisting with God for eternity: to declare that there was a time when the “radiance” was not would imply that there was a time when the “glory” was not (Gregory of Nyssa).
The comparison of the Son with the angels fed early Christian fascination with the latter. Early theologians were also concerned with how each of these statements applied to each of the two natures of Christ: the divine nature was unchanging and unending in every way; the human nature could experience exaltation to God’s right hand (Theodoret of Cyr). These readers accepted without question the Christ-centered interpretation applied to the Hebrew scriptural texts recited by the author, a mode of interpretation they embraced completely (patristic commentary on Hebrews has been conveniently compiled in Heen and Kray 2005).
THE TEXT IN CONTEMPORARY DISCUSSION
Questions abound about the integrity of biblical interpretation in the early church such as Hebrews exhibits. The author does not ground his interpretations in a consideration of the “original meaning” of many of the texts he uses and has therefore been accused of co-opting them for his own group-forming and ideology-sustaining agenda. It is worth noting, however, that his reading also reflects an implicit criticism of his own tradition. For example, his reading transcends the nationalism and the legitimation of a particular system of domination (the Davidic monarchy) inherent in the context of the royal psalms’ composition.
The author’s cosmology also raises questions. Is it, as many since Bultmann would aver, a relic of a more primitive stage in human thinking? Or does it represent, conversely, a persistent and needful challenge to contemporary philosophical materialism, as well as its practical manifestations in contemporary priorities and practices?
There are strong trends in contemporary scholarship that resist making Jesus more than human. This author’s assertions about the “Son” and his place at God’s right hand could again seem to reflect a more mythologically driven understanding of the man Jesus. The author will go on to speak about Jesus’ complete humanness with the same energy as he speaks of Jesus’ proximity to the divine. The fundamental connection between reflecting God’s image and being truly human (Gen. 1:26–27; Heb. 1:3) may lead Christians to reexamine the author’s language from the point of view that Jesus is the Human One (the “son of man”) par excellence, the one in whom the image of God is seen fully and without distortion. Jesus reminds his followers of what it means to be human and to show God’s image in one’s being and doing, as well as revealing something important about the character and commitments of God. Readers may also appreciate the politically subversive overtones of speaking of Jesus as “Son of God” in an environment in which the emperor Tiberius, for example, was named “son of the deified Augustus.” The author again is seen to address and oppose the sort of mythic language that legitimated domination systems in favor of an alternative vision of how the divine reaches into and nurtures human community.
David A. deSilva, Hebrews, ed. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., and Matthew J.M. Coomber, Fortress Commentary on the Bible. Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 627-629.