Commentary on Heb 3:7-14
As we have seen, one of the reasons for the writing of this Letter was to forestall the difficulties that some of its target audience, a community of Jewish Christians, were having in accepting Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord. Today’s reading is a warning not to fall into the unbelief of which the Israelites were guilty of in the past. A large part of the reading is taken up with a quotation from Psalm 95:7-11 which is also the Responsorial Psalm for today’s Mass.
The author calls for a firm faith in Jesus. He bases his warning on the experience of Israel during the Exodus. In the Old Testament, the prophets (especially Isaiah) used the Exodus as a symbol of the return of Israel from their exile in Babylon. In the New Testament, the redemptive work of Jesus is seen as a new exodus. Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem for his suffering, death and resurrection is described as a “going out” (Luke 9:31) and similarly for his followers who are called “go out” from a life of slavery to sin and unbelief.
So the author quotes from Psalm 95, which deals with a time during the long Exodus journey through the desert where the people were guilty of hardness of heart, of refusing to trust in God’s care for them, even though “they had seen my works for forty years”. The story is told in Exodus 17 and in another form in Numbers 20. The incident took place at Massah and Meribah. ‘Massah’ means ‘place of testing’ and ‘Meribah’ means ‘place of quarrelling or rebellion’.
The incident arose when the Israelites found themselves in a place where there was no water. They began to complain and abuse Moses for bringing them to such a place where there was only the prospect of dying of hunger and thirst. In complaining against Moses, they were also, in effect, complaining against God. Although angry with the people for their lack of trust, Yahweh tells Moses to strike a rock and water comes out from it. In the version of the story in Numbers, the focus is on Moses himself. He struck the rock not once but twice and this was taken as a lack of faith on his part. He was punished by dying before his people reached the Promised Land.
The readers of this Letter would have been very familiar with this story and with the Psalm and the implication is that, if they continue in their unbelief, a similar fate awaits them.
“Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion… ‘Rebellion’ is actually a Greek translation of the place name ‘Meribah’.
“…as on the day of testing in the wilderness.” ‘Testing’ translates the Hebrew name for ‘Massah’. The event took place, as we saw, at Massah and Meribah.
And, because of their behaviour, “They will not enter my rest.” In the original psalm this referred to Canaan as Israel’s final resting place after their long trek. The ‘rest’ into which Israel was to enter was only a foreshadowing of that rest to which Christians are called. In tomorrow’s reading, we will see the deeper understanding of that ‘rest’.
In the final sentences, the author turns directly to the ‘Hebrews’ and warns them against similar forms of unbelief and turning away from the “living” God. To call God “living” means that he reveals himself in his works. Instead they are to be an encouragement to each other “as long as it is called ‘Today'”, so that none of them may be deceived by the allure of actions which are, in fact, sinful and wrong. “Today” indicates that it is still the day of God’s grace and an opportunity to express our trust in God. It will not last forever. The day of reckoning will come and then it will be too late. God is to be found, loved and served in the Now.
In a final lovely remark he reminds them that they have become “partners of Christ” and he begs them to hold on to the strong faith they had at the beginning of their conversion.
The reading touches on three periods: the rebellion of the Israelites against Moses and Yahweh in the desert, the weakening faith of the Jewish Christians to whom the sermon was delivered and, finally, our own experience now. The advice of the reading is as relevant to us Christians today as it was to the Hebrews for whom it was written.