The letter to the Hebrews is perhaps best known for its teachings about Jesus as High Priest, and the ending of the system of sacrifices. But it is more in the nature of a long sermon than a letter; indeed, the author characterises it as a “word of exhortation” (13:22).
Preachers, of course, regularly exhort their congregation. This section of the letter exhorts the Hebrews to love (1), offer hospitality (2), remember prisoners (3), honour marriage (4), be content (5), follow good leaders (7), not be carried astray (9), offer praise to God (15), and do good (16). That’s quite a sermon, just in 16 verses!
And, like a good sermon, there is a scripture passage to provide the basis for the sermon (13:6); in this instance, probably Ps 118:6, “with the Lord on my side I do not fear; what can mortals do to me?”. The version quoted in this sermon-letter refers to God as our “helper”, reflecting a common description of God (Ps 10:14; 30:10; 54:4; 72:12; 113:7–9; also Deut 33:7, 26, 29; Judg 6:6, 22; 2 Ki 6:27; 14:26–27; 2 Chron 14:11; 20:4; 25:8; 32:8; Neh 6:16). The fact that God helps us is a model for us to emulate, helping those in need and those in relationships with us.
Each exhortation in these verses draws on scriptural precedent. We shall consider each in turn. They provide a neat list of ten injunctions for the Christian community.
(1) The first, an encouragement to love (13:1) is, of course, a central Hebraic tenet: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5; also 10:2; 11:1; 30:6) and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18; also 19:34; Deut 10:19).
These two exhortations are affirmed by Jesus as “commandments” (Mark 12:28–34) and further refined inwards, in his instruction to “love one another” (John 13:34–35; 15:12) and also outwards, in the charge to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:43–48). Paul continues the motif (Rom 12:9–10; 13:8–10; 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:14, 22; Phil 2:2; 1 Thess 4:9–10), as does James (Jas 2:8) and the writer of 1 Peter (1 Pet 1:22; 2:17; 3:8; 4:8) and, of course, the writer(s) of the Johannine letters (1 John 3:11–18; 3:23; 4:7–8, 11–12, 19, 21; 2 John 5; 3 John 6).
(2) Hospitality (13:2) was a fundamental cultural practice in ancient Israel; there are many stories of the hospitality offered by people such as Abraham (Gen 18:1–15), Rahab (Josh 2:1–16), and David (2 Sam 9:7–13), and offered to Moses in Midian (Exod 2:15–25), Elijah in Zarephath (1 Ki 17:10–24), and Elijah in Shunem (2 Ki 4:8–17). Welcoming hospitality is commanded in relation to aliens in Israel (Lev 19:33–34) and is advocated in relation to exiles returning to the land (Isa 58:7).
Punishment for not offering hospitality is meted out to Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:1–29); the prophet Ezekiel observes that “the guilt of your sister Sodom” was that the people “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). The severe punishment inflicted on the concubine of the Levite in Gibeah (Judg 19:22–30) occurred in a situation where hospitality was offered (19:18–21) but then violated by “the men of the city, a perverse lot” (19:22).
Jesus knew the importance of generous hospitality, as is evidenced by parables relating to meals (Matt 22:1–10; Luke 14:7–14, 15–24); indeed, he advocates offering hospitality to those unable to return the offer, as required by reciprocity customs (Luke 14:12–14). One of his best-known parables explicitly commends those who offer food and drink, welcome and clothing, to those in need (Matt 25:31–46).
Jesus expects that his disciples will receive hospitality when they move from village to village (Mark 6:10–11; Matt 10:11–14; Luke 9:4–5; 10:5–11). Hospitality is often enjoyed by Jesus, at table with Pharisees (Luke 7:36–39; 11:37; 14:1), and by Paul and his companions, in Philippi (Acts 16:14–15, 33–34). Explicit instructions to offer hospitality are found at Rom 12:13, 1 Tim 5:10, and 1 Pet 4:9.
(3) The invocation to “remember those who are in prison” (Heb 13:3) recalls the Psalmist’s pleas with God to hear “the groans of the prisoners” (Ps 79:11; 102:20) and the affirmations that “God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity” (68:6) and “the Lord gives food to the hungry; the Lord sets the prisoners free” (146:7).
Prophets in the school of Isaiah declare that God has chosen his servant “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:7) and send the spirit onto the prophet “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isa 61:1). Later, the prophet Zechariah relays the Lord’s promise, “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (Zech 9:11).
(4) Instructions to “honour marriage” (Heb 13:4) reflect the central concern of ancient societies, including Israelite society, to ensure the survival of the family name and the continuation of the people. To this purpose, laws concerning marriage are provided in Exod 24:1–25:10 and Num 36:1–13. The prophet Jeremiah, writing from his exile in Egypt, encourages the exiles in Babylon to “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:6). Marriage was valued, even (especially) in exile.
(5) Keep your lives free from the love of money” (Heb 13:5) is the next command. We perhaps know this command best from the (often-misquoted) saying in a later Pauline letter, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Luke accuses the Pharisees of being “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14); the right use of resources is a fundamental teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:21) and is developed as a major thrust in Luke’s narrative of the life of Jesus (Luke 4:14; 6:20, 24; 12:15, 33; 14:13, 21, 33).
Hebrew Scripture contains regular injunctions about the just distribution of resources amongst the people, remembering especially those in the most vulnerable position in society—widows and orphans, and foreigners living in the land. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/
The Year of Jubilee, during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17) is placed within the laws outlined in Leviticus as a central feature of Israelite life. During this year, debts are to be cancelled and society is to be “reset” to ensure that those who have much will not accumulate more, and those who have little or nothing will be able to accumulate some resources. Whether this actually ever happened, or was just an ideal, is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, the ideal certainly speaks to the injunction not to be “lovers of money”.
(6) By contrast to the other items in this list of ten, the exhortation to “be content” (Heb 13:5) might well reflect a more hellenised outlook on life; this specific injunction is found in the much later writings of Ben Sirach (Sir 29:23; see also 26:1–4).
(7) The writer encourages the Hebrews to remember their leaders, consider their way of life, and “imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). This is not specifically and distinctively Israelite, for all cultures have leaders; yet the long story of Israel is shaped by the various leaders who are in place, who lead the people through key moments. Early on, there is Moses, leading the people out of Egyptian bondage and through the long wilderness wandering; then Joshua, leading the people into Canaan to take the land; Deborah, leading the people against the forces of King Jabin of Canaan; and Nathan and David, steering the people towards a unified and prosperous kingdom.
The story continues with Nathan and Solomon, consolidating that prosperity and expanding the reach of the kingdom; Josiah and Huldah, confronting the entrenched idolatry and social inequity of the nation, and effecting a thoroughgoing reformation and renewal; Ezra and Nehemiah, leading the people back into the land, rebuilding structures and renewing the covenant. And throughout all of this story, the leadership of the prophets was significant at key moments. The example of such leadership is central to the sagas retained and retold in the scriptures of the Israelites.
(8) “Do not be carried astray by all kinds of strange teachings” (Heb 13:9) perhaps reflects something in the situation of the people to whom this “word of exhortation” was sent; if so, it reflects a situation which is echoed in other New Testament letters (Gal 1:6–9; 2 Cor 11:3–4; Col 2:20–23; 1 Tim 1:3–7; 6:3–5; 2 Tim 2:23–26; 3:6–9; Titus 1:10–12; 3:3; 1 Pet 2:25; 2 Pet 2:15–16).
Paul specifies that the Corinthians were “led astray to idols” (1 Cor 12:2), and this is the sense in which the word is used regularly in Hebrew Scriptures. Moses, in his Deuteronomic reworking, warns the people of Israel, when they observe the wonders of the heaven, “do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them” (Deut 4:19; see also 13:13; 30:17).
The psalms lament that people have gone astray and do not do good (Ps 14:3), for they “go astray after false gods” (Ps 40:4) and, says the Lord, “they do not regard my ways” (Ps 95:10); they “go astray from my statutes” (Ps 119:118), they have “gone astray like lost sheep” (Ps 119:176). Indeed “the wicked go astray from the womb, they err from their birth” (Ps 58:3). Thus, as the proverb states, “the way of the wicked leads astray” (Prov 12:26).
Many prophets note the straying of Israel. Hosea declares that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (Hos 4:12), Amos observes that Judah “has been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked” (Amos 2:4), Micah decries “the prophets who lead my people astray” (Mic 3:5), while Ezekiel muses, “will you defile yourselves after the manner of your ancestors and go astray after their detestable things?” (Ezek 20:30)
Deutero-Isaiah exposes the follow of idol worship, in that idols cannot see or understand (Isa 44:18), and so for the one who worships such an idol “a deluded mind has led him astray” (Isa 44:20). Isaiah accuses both Egypt (Isa 19:13) and Assyria (Isa 30:28) of having been led astray; Deutero-Isaiah then accuses Babylon of having been led astray (Isa 47:10), whilst also confessing that in Israel “all we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa 53:6).
Jeremiah reminds the people of when the prophets of Baal led them astray (Jer 23:13, evoking the story of Elijah told at 1 Kings 18) and echoes Deutero-Isaiah in claiming that “my people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray” (Jer 50:6), while Ezekiel notes that “the consecrated priests, the descendants of Zadok, who kept my charge, who did not go astray when the people of Israel went astray” will be the priests to take charge of the new temple he foresees (Ezek 48:11).
So the command not to be carried astray clearly reflects a regular refrain from Hebrew Scriptures, as do many of the other injections in this chapter of Hebrews, as we have noted.
(9) A later exhortation in this list, to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb 13:15) is also a fundamental teaching in Hebrew Scripture. The psalms, of course, are replete with indications of the praise given to God: “in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you” (Ps 22:22; see also 9:2; 35:18; 43:4; 119:7; and see Exod 15:2; Isa 25:1; Sir 51:11, 22; and at the close of the Prayer of Manasseh).
The instruction to “praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings” (33:2) is echoed in Ps 43:4 and expanded in Ps 150:1–6. Many later psalms beginning with the exclamation, “praise the Lord!” (106:1; 111:1; 112:1; 117:1; 135:1; 146:1; 147:1; 148:1; 149:1; 150:1), whilst some end with the same exclamation (105:45; 106:48; 115:18; 117:2; 135:21; 146:10; 147:20; 148:14; 149:9; 150:6).
(10) Finally, towards the end of the list, the instruction to “not neglect to do good and to share what you have” (Heb 13:16) evokes God’s lament, reported by Jeremiah, that God’s people “are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good” (Jer 4:22; see also 13:23). Isaiah instructs the people, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17) and that instruction is repeated in a later period by Ben Sirach (Sir 12:1–2, 5; 14:13) as well as in some of the psalms (Ps 34:14; 37:3, 27; 51:18). The psalmist also reflects that is it in the nature of God both to be good and to “do good” (Ps 119:68).
The many fundamental scriptural exhortations that are collated in this passage thus combine to demonstrate that the church, at its best, can be a community of mutual support, care, and assistance. That is what the author of this “word of exhortation” wishes to convey from the saints in Italy to those unnamed saints who receive this communication.
If these saints remain faithful in all of these ways, they continue in obedience to the Lord who, as scripture attests, is “my helper”. Keeping faithful to the ways of this God will ensure that “I will not be afraid; what can anyone do to me?“ (Ps 118:6, quoted at Heb 13:6).