Tribalism – Hebrews 6

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The author calls for the readers to grow in the purposes of the kingdom of God in renewing the cosmos, about which they had become dull in understanding. This dullness puts them in danger of undervaluing what lies ahead for them, becoming tired in their persecution, and returning to the safety of their former security, accepted by their tribal rulers.

They are warned not to go back to their Jewish foundational teachings, rejecting the fulfilment the teachings are pointing to, a new inclusive, non-tribal family in Christ. The foundational doctrines mentioned (repentance from dead works, washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection, eternal judgment) are all Jewish distinctives, that set them apart from their gentile neighbours.

We just have to read Jonah’s “repentance” prayer in Jonah 2 to see his disdain for gentile people, wishing for their demise in their “dead works” (idolatry) and not their renewal. Paul, in Romans 2, also depicts the pride and hostility that divided the Jews from their gentile neighbours in those days.

However, the author of Hebrews 6 wasn’t just warning the Jews about going back to Jewish ritual observances. The text isn’t against the ritual depictions that point to Christ, whether in Judaism or Catholicism. He wasn’t calling the Jews to forsake their temple observances, synagogues, or Jewish culture.

This warning was about going back to a Jewish tribalism and rejecting the people of God. It was about returning to a hostility against God’s people. That is, Hebrews 6 is to be read in the wider context of that day. By this time, in the days of James, Jerusalem had strong allegiances with Rome, especially with Nero, in regard to the systematic persecution and killings of members of the church. We saw this hostility building in all the churches Paul birthed, where Jewish members were trying to expel gentile members from their inner circle. This was the number one problem Paul faced, and the main reason he received so much persecution.

It boiled down to the financial control of Jerusalem and its immense wealth from their temple customs. They could not share this, but had to keep it under their own control, pretending they were the custodians of the true faith, the pure race, by expelling others. To think that Paul was making friends of their enemies, the gentiles, and sharing his table with them, seeing them as equal in God’s kingdom, was completely intolerable. This called for violent opposition.

Therefore, in returning to Jewish tribalism, the people would be returning to hostile relationships with the family of God, just to save their own skins. This is the historical situation that Hebrews 6 was addressing. It wasn’t the Jewish customs the author was against, but the claim to exclusivity, through which other members of God’s family were rejected and kept out of a family of mutual care and love. It would be the same with our arguments with Catholics. It isn’t our differences that are usually the main problem, but our pride, our claims to exclusivity, which we use in excusing ourselves from not treating each other as neighbours, even as brethren, in love. The same goes for all those church traditions we like to despise, not just the Catholic ones.

The author continues by showing the hostility his readers would be returning to. He said it would be impossible to renew them to repentance since they would be “crucifying Christ again.” This passage doesn’t mean that if they fall away, God would not accept their repentance a second time. We know God isn’t like that. He always accepts our repentance, whether it is from Nineveh, King Manasseh, or anyone else, much to Jonah’s displeasure! “Whom he hardens, he hardens,” doesn’t mean God precludes a person’s repentance, but that he may use their non-repentance for good. This is what he did for Israel. He used their self-hardening to save the world.

However, what the author of Hebrews 6 was speaking about, was people leaving the shared table of mutual care, and going back to a hostile relationship, which would push out the poor, the foreigner, the homeless, the sinner and the sick. This was the meaning of “crucifying Christ again.” Christ was rejected and then killed as a “sinner,” so if we return to a life that treats others this way, it’s the same thing as doing it to Christ. Jesus said, that if we treat the poor this way, then this is how we are treating him.

The text uses the word, “crucifying”, present tense, continuous. This is how the English Standard Version translates it. So, it isn’t that God rejects anyone who wants to repent again. Rather, it means that anyone who is living in this state of hostility towards the weak of our society, can’t be renewed to repentance while their heart is in this state of self-hardening. It means that if we treat the poor with contempt, then our heart hardens to the love of Christ which can transform us.

“Crucifying Christ” again means building the walls that the cross tore down. This is how Paul explained it in Galatians. If Peter rejected the gentiles, then he was rebuilding the walls of division. As Galatians said, this was rejecting the command to love our neighbour, putting others behind the walls of poverty and isolation, rather than bringing to them the love that heals. It’s like what Jesus said, if we don’t forgive others, then we won’t be forgiven ourselves. We can’t forgive ourselves. We are locked in a prison of hatred that we have built with our own hands. God didn’t do it.

Then the author speaks of the renewing of the land. This means the land of Israel which, as Isaiah 9 says, was to be renewed by admitting gentile into joint communion, by burning the implements of war, the wall of division. This land theology is temple theology. It means a new land in which people dwell in harmony, in restoring relationships, in the presence of God and his love. This is the final temple we see in Revelation 21-22. This is the land Israel were called to build by admitting and loving their enemies.

Then the author speaks of the good fruit the farmer expects, which Isaiah 5 says is justice to the poor. “And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Jesus spoke of this mission to renew the land, when he cleansed the temple, saying it was to be a house of prayer for the gentiles. Their mission was to take justice, in terms of inclusion and the love of God to their neighbours, thus bringing the land/ temple presence of God to the world.

If the people fell back to tribalism, they were dull of hearing, sluggish in their faith, not understanding the meaning of their foundational doctrines of faith, which is to renew the cosmos in a new family of neighbour care.

Finally, in Hebrews 6, the author appeals to the covenant of Abraham. We know of a surety that God is building one new family from all nations, just as he promised to Abraham. This, not tribalism, is the purpose of God in the days Hebrews was written. Therefore, we should accept this faith of Abraham, in Christ, and accept our neighbour, knowing that even in the persecutions this will bring, we have a strong consolation from God himself. This is the meaning of their foundational doctrines, as Jews, a new cosmos, a new land, that receives and heals the world.

The “falling away” is to deny this family that Christ redeemed, and to live in a self-centred privatism, maybe even still calling ourselves “Christians.” Wherever the powers of the Holy Spirit and world to come are seen in action in the book of Acts, his activity is always joining new members to the family, which is growing in tribal and social diversity, undoing the isolation, segregation and displacement the empire was bringing to the world. To deny the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ, was to walk away from this family and build the tribal/ sectarian walls of oppression once again.

If the previous chapter, Hebrews 5, is about what Christ has done as our priest, to break down the walls between us and other members of one family through his cross, then Hebrews 6 is about the same matter of one family, through the perspective of the work of God’s Spirit bringing us together, by being giving in grace equally to us all.