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Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Spoken by Angels

The writer of the book of Hebrews indicates that the Torah was “spoken by angels.” In this teaching, D. Thomas Lancaster takes a look at first-century angelology to understand the apostolic concept of the Torah being delivered by angels and what role that concept plays in the argument in Hebrews 2.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Seven: Spoken by Angels
Originally presented on February 9, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

In last week’s sermon which I reviewed, we learned that Yeshua (Jesus) was greater than even the angels. What we didn’t learn is why that was important to the addressees of the letter to the Hebrews and why that should be important to us.

Today, we’re going to find out.

For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.

Hebrews 2:1-4 (NASB)

Here, we see another Kal va-chomer argument, from the light to the heavy. Look at this.

For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

In other words, if the word spoken by angels…what word is that? The Torah which was delivered by angels at Sinai. If the Torah proved “unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience (of Torah) received just penalty, then how” must less “will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”

This is the cornerstone of Lancaster’s sermon and we need to pay attention. I said in my first review of this series about the Kal Va-chomer argument, that if the first and lighter portion of the argument was not valid, then neither is the second, and the entire argument disintegrates.

The first part of the argument states that the Torah is “unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty.” In other words, the writer of Hebrews is telling his Jewish audience that the Torah remains valid and unalterable in their lives. The Jewish audience must have continued to be Torah observant Jews who did not question the validity of Torah. After all, if they considered the Torah alterable or invalid or obsolete as most Christians believe the writer of Hebrews is saying, then according to the argument, the heavier aspect of the statement must also be invalid or obsolete: Jesus and salvation. That doesn’t make much sense.

TorahPut in just a slightly different way, if the Torah remains valid and unalterable, how much more is the salvation of Jesus valid and unalterable. The second element in the argument does not undo or invalidate the first but rather rests upon and depends on the first element. If it doesn’t, the argument falls apart.

Christianity’s understanding of the purpose of the Book of Hebrews in general and this portion of the epistle in specific is what becomes invalid based on what the text is actually saying!

However, as Lancaster solves one problem, he introduces another.

For if the word spoken through angels…

Hebrews 2:2 (NASB)

Not only in this verse, but Acts 7:53, the words spoken by Stephen, and Galatians 3:19, which was written by Paul, both speak of the Torah being delivered by angels.

But wasn’t the Torah spoken directly by God to Moses?

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.’

Exodus 20:22 (NASB)

This is just one of a multitude of examples of God (seemingly) speaking directly to Moses words of Torah rather than having Torah delivered by angels. In fact, where do we ever see angels delivering words of Torah or tablets of Torah to Moses? Apparently no where.

Lancaster goes through a list of the various types of angelic beings, which aren’t important to present here, but he does mention one particular type of angel we need to pay attention to: the angel of the Lord.

In Genesis 18 we see three men visit Abraham at his camp. We know that these three men are really three angels. Two of them go on to Sodom but one stays behind and this is God. But how can it be God if God is infinite and a consuming fire? Just look at what He did to the top of Mount Sinai! Who or what is the angel of the Lord?

According to Lancaster, this is an angel, a created being, through which God speaks. The angel speaks the Words of God in the first person singular as God Himself, but is not God Himself, but rather a representation or extension of God, as if God were talking into a microphone and the angel were a speaker on the other end of a cable.

“Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. (emph. mine)

Exodus 23:20-21 (NASB)

In other words, when Jacob wrestles with an opponent in Genesis 32, we don’t have to drive ourselves crazy wondering if it is an angel or if it is literally God. Lancaster says, it’s the angel of the Lord, God’s created representation in our world.

And it is not and never has been a “pre-incarnate Jesus.”

WrestlingActually I find that a relief. I always suspected that at least some angels had such a function rather than an infinite, all-powerful, all-encompassing God literally intersecting with our world, He would send a representative being, like an amplified ambassador able to speak as if he were God present among us. It also is a nice response to certain Hebrew Roots commentators who turn exegesis in the Tanakh into “I-see-Jesus” whenever the angel of the Lord appears.

Lancaster provides numerous other proof texts to support his commentary, and you can listen to the full recording to get all of his references.

I will say that Lancaster also mentions that the concept of the angels giving the Torah was very popular in the first century, as evidenced by how well read the Book of Jubilees, which supported the angelic giving of Torah, was among Jews of that period.

All this may sound strange and even alien to us, but Lancaster says it made perfect sense to a first-century Greek-speaking Jewish audience. We can’t judge these things by the context of 21st-century English-speaking Christians living in the United States of America. We have to get into the heads and comprehension of the original audience. Otherwise, we’ll come up with some pretty goofy conclusions.

But what does this have to do with the Messiah being superior to the angels? It seems applied to our Kal va-chomer argument. If Messiah is superior to the angels and the angels gave the Torah, then what the Messiah gives must be superior as well. No, I didn’t say what the Messiah gave replaced the Torah, just that it held much more weight, and to extend the metaphor, the message of Messiah rests on the foundation of the Torah.

Think of it this way.

At Sinai, Moses went up the mountain. He acquired the Torah in the realm of angels, descended and gave the Torah to human beings.

Messiah went up into the Heavenly Court, the realm of angels, at the ascension. When he descends, he delivers the Messianic Era of peace and complete knowledge of God to human beings.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)

Lancaster didn’t use this scripture in his sermon but I think it makes sense. The New Covenant doesn’t undo any of the older covenants or “unwrite” any of the specific content. It actually amplifies the older covenants, reaffirms them, and makes it more possible for Judah and Israel (and the people of the nations who are grafted in through faith in Messiah) to “know God” in a more fulfilling way than even the great prophets knew God, and the law, the Torah will be written on all their hearts.

Lion of JudahThat’s the Messianic Era. We have just barely tasted the first fruits of that New Covenant. Most of those promises have yet to be fulfilled. Messiah’s work is not finished, otherwise why return and why is the gospel message all about the coming of the Kingdom rather than just a plan of personal, individual salvation for specific human beings?

The New Covenant is wholly dependent upon the older covenants. If any of the older covenants cease to exist, the fabric of the New Covenant unravels and falls to dust and Judah, Israel, and the people of the nations who cleave to the God of Israel have no hope.

But if the Torah is true and valid and reliable, how much more true and valid and reliable are the Messianic promises and the coming of Moshiach?

What Did I Learn?

I did hit something of a wall or contradiction. Probably just a misunderstanding on my part (and I’ve made mistakes before in this review series). If the argument is that Messiah is greater than the angels who delivered the Torah, but was specifically the angel of the Lord, God’s personal angelic representation, if you will, who delivered the Torah to Moses, then does that mean the Messiah is greater than the angel of the Lord?

I don’t know if the question even makes sense, depending on how you view Trinitarianism, but it’s what popped into my head as I was listening to the sermon, so I thought I’d share it with you.

I didn’t read through each and every transaction Moses had with Hashem in the Torah, but I suspect that we may encounter some difficulties in determining on some occasions exactly who is addressing Moses. Is it the angel of the Lord, or the Lord? Does God never speak directly to Moses? Is it always an angel? I don’t know. The suggestion offered by Lancaster seem to bear further scrutiny, however.

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On Fire

Below, this glimmer of a soul craves to return to her primal essence above. She yearns with an obsession beyond reason, as metal is drawn to a mighty magnet, as a flame yearns its own extinction—for she knows full well she will be nameless there once again.

Trapped within the fetters of time and space, body and persona, her yearning swells to its bursting point, generating a fierce power. The power sparks and flames. Her thirst intensifies; it cannot be quenched.

Such is the divine plan. Now you must harness the power. With it, you can transform an entire world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Glimmer Yearns”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

That sounds almost like certain eastern religions which suggest that when a person dies, their soul returns to the “universal consciousness”, surrendering any sort of individual identity. Christianity is fairly certain that “in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:35),  and they (we) are pretty sure that in some sense, we will still be the people we are now, though “we can no longer die and we’ll be like the angels” (Luke 20:36). But was the Rebbe (as interpreted by Rabbi Freeman) being literal or figurative?

I like the imagery in Judaism that we are like sparks thrown off the Divine “fire” so to speak, who all long to return to our source. We struggle to rise to heaven while our human existence chains us to earth. But is being “chained” such a bad thing? After all, it is by the will of God that we are here in the first place. If all we want is to “go to heaven,” why are we on earth? Rabbi Freeman says this about exile:

There is nothing larger than a mitzvah. There is nothing more powerful than Torah. When you are occupied in these things, the whole world becomes your servant, there but to stage your actions.

This seems to say that our real “power” isn’t in the heavenly realm but where we are right here and right now. While we can certainly obey all of the mitzvot related to worshiping God when our “spark” is united with His “fire,” how can we serve God in obedience in all of the commandments related to helping other human beings? We only have the power to serve others, to “feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, invite a stranger into our homes, clothe the unclothed, and look after the sick” (Matthew 25:34-36) while in our lived, earthly existence. Only here, as the Master taught us, can we truly do for him by doing for the very least of his servants.

Although traditional Christianity doesn’t believe in the existence of souls prior to conception and birth, some traditions in Judaism do. We can borrow something from this picture and from Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on the nameless to illustrate a point.

High upon her precipice, the soul is nameless, for she has no form—she will be whatever she must be.

Peering below, beneath the clouds, she perceives a faint shimmering of her light in the deep, wet earth. There she finds form, and she calls it a name, and she is called when that name is called, for she says, “This is me.”

But it is not her. It is only a faint glimmering of her light within the frame of a distant world.

I recently told someone that the tales of the Chasidim don’t speak to me of literal facts and events, but of moral and spiritual principles, acting as a guide to some of the deeper things of God, which are hidden in my soul. Perhaps we can see some of the teachings of the Rebbe in this light as well. If Jewish wisdom seems elusive to you, rest assured that you are not alone. Yet it’s not always about finding the right answers, but discovering one really good question and the spending the rest of your life asking that question and attempting to penetrate the mystery of God.

The Tzemach Tzedek, zt”l, was respected throughout the Jewish world as a great scholar who was very astute. Even when asked the most difficult questions he always explained the subject in a manner to which the questioner could relate.

When a group of anti-semites approached the Czar of Russia—a consummate Jew-hater in his own right—and quoted strange-sounding parts of the Talmud taken out of context to convince him that it should be banned, he felt that they were likely right.

Not surprisingly, when the Tzemach Tzedek visited the Czar, the ruler brought up these many questions. “There is so much that sounds impossible in the Talmud. For example, in Bechoros 57 we find that a certain bird lays an egg which completely destroyed 60 cities and three hundred cedar trees. How can this be anything but nonsense?”

As usual the Tzemach Tzedek had a good answer. “As Your Majesty knows, a recent edict enacted was that no Jew may live within a certain distance from the border. Now, I am very respected amongst the Jewish people and am relied upon to publish only sensible things. If I were to write that with one dollop of ink His Majesty eradicated these cities—which were mostly Jewish—people will understand exactly what I mean. But later generations may not fathom how a few drops of ink can accomplish such a feat. Nevertheless, since I am well known, they will give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I mean something sensible although they don’t understand it and it sounds strange. Similarly, the sages of the Talmud meant something which may well be inscrutable now, but was understood by their generation and certainly has an important message.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Hidden Message”
Bechoros 57

We don’t always understand God. We don’t always understand ourselves. When on earth, we seek to fly back to Him. When in heaven, we long to serve Him on earth. We are a people caught in-between and a bridge between God and the world. We can only be who we are and serve Him as He desires by being a flaming span between the Divine celestial fire above and the mundane earth beneath our feet. We are Jacob sleeping at the foot of the ladder watching the journey of angels. We are also the angels. We are also the ladder.

nightsky1

The Author

In the BeginningWhen someone asked the Radvaz, zt”l, why the Torah lacks vowels he gave an interesting response.

He said, “To understand this we must realize why the angels asked God not to give Torah to mankind, since they wanted God to give it to them. Moshe refuted them with an apparently simple reply, ‘What does it say in the Torah? Do not kill; do not commit adultery. Can angels murder? Is it possible for an angel to commit adultery? Why, then, do you need the Torah?’ ”

He continued, “Not surprisingly, the angels conceded this point. What is strange is what they had in mind in the first place. It seems clear that the angels had a very different way to read the Torah. When read in this manner it had much to teach them, and they wanted it so that they could receive it in the manner suited to them, on their level. Our sages tell us that the entire Torah is formed of Divine Names. The angels wished to read it spiritually at one time without interruption. In this manner, the Torah makes up one long name of God.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
No Wasted Letter
Menachos 87

Sometimes I think the Torah has a life of its own. It’s certainly easier and reasonable to think of the Torah as a document that we can examine and learn from, much like any other document. On the other hand, the Torah is also the foundation of our understanding of God, the Prophets, the Writings, Israel, and the Messiah. We cannot simply treat it as if it were a good book on philosophy. Then, there are its mystic properties, such as how the Torah was with God when He created the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. –John 1:14

Reading John, the Torah does have a life of its own and a human life at that. No wonder the Angels were fascinated (though, it’s likely that the Radvaz, zt”l did not have Jesus in mind when he wrote his commentary).

The Torah seems to exist in a sort of “multi-dimensional” state, operating differently depending on who is using it and how it is being used. We very much can treat the Torah, and indeed, all of Holy Scripture, as a document to be examined and learned from. I recently reviewed an analysis of the Great Isaiah Scroll recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls near the ruins of Qumran, and what scholars Steven Lancaster and James Monson reveal about the Messiah is fascinating.

But however illuminating a rational and literary approach to the Torah may be, there is so much more to be discovered if you just change your angle of approach, as the Radvaz, continues to state in our “Story off the Daf”:

“Moshe explained to them that this is not the purpose of the Torah. The point of the Torah is for us to fulfill its material reading, by keeping mitzvos: eating kosher, avoiding non-kosher, and the like. Since there are many ways to read the Torah it is obvious why it is written without vowels or notes—to leave it open to an infinity of possible readings.”

The Radvaz concluded, “This also explains why the oral Torah was not recorded within the body of the Torah itself. It also explains why some stories or statements appear unnecessary while other essentials are virtually left out. This apparent discrepancy is because the Torah has many levels. Believe me, there is not one superfluous letter in the entire Torah. Place this principle before you always and you will always succeed.”.

The Torah is an enormously flexible resource that serves different purposes and has different meanings depending on its audience and its context. I have sometimes wondered why the Torah seems to include information that doesn’t make sense or why other information that would seem absolutely vital to know was “omitted”. God is unchanging but He is also infinite. There is no limit to His being and ultimately, no knowing His objective essense and thus, He can and must contain everything. Since the Torah has to be accessible by human beings, it must be finite which limits what it can contain, but by the explanation presented on the daf, we see that the Torah was created in a manner that conceals how versatile it actually is. We can read the Torah year after year, study the Oral Traditions and the commentaries of the sages, and yet never grow tired of how it speaks to us of things even Angels want to know.

The Word of God calls to each of us in a unique way. Each man or woman hears something different and we respond to the Torah as who we are at the moment we’re listening. A year later, the Torah speaks the same words again, but what we hear is different because the Torah was designed to reach us in a different way as we change and grow.

I am not the same person today as I was a year ago. What the Torah of Moses and the Spirit of God whisper to me out of Heaven captures me in a different way each time I hear it. I don’t always understand what He’s trying to say, but as I draw nearer to God, it becomes impossible for me not to strain my hearing and strive to perceive every word, every sound, and every breath, as one might listen to a lover whisper secrets in the night.

Listening to God through His Torah and His Spirit tells us how to order our lives and more. As we draw closer to Him; as we draw closer to the One who loves us without limit, bit by bit, He shows us the inner nature of the author of our souls.

People think the Torah is all about laws and customs and quaint stories, with a mystical side as well.

In truth, the Torah is entirely spiritual. But when you cannot perceive the spiritual, all you see are laws and quaint stories.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“More Than Stories”
Chabad.org