I wrote something for a Christian audience explaining Hebrews 12:18-29. It is a passage, like many in Hebrews, which can be misunderstood as anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. Actually, it is a pro-Torah message of considerable genius, as I try to show here.
Sometimes the depth of understanding and insight into the deeper meaning of the Jewish scriptures is revealed in sublime passages by the apostles. Hurried readers or readers who do not share the same familiarity with the Hebrew Bible as the apostles can easily read past the brilliance of a passage like Hebrews 12:18-29.
It is an argument of elegant genius from a Jewish point of view to compare and contrast Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, two places both real and symbolic in Jewish hopes. To compare and contrast them and in so doing to make a Jewish case for the necessity of Jesus, of faith in God’s continuing work of redemption, and of enduring through trials with faith intact is a feat of rabbinic proportions.
In any good argument, one with real meat on its bones, it is common practice to make contrasts sharp and not to go on at length with disclaimers and clarifiers. Thus, a reader might get the impression that the author of Hebrews is opposed to the meaning of Mount Sinai. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is pointing out that Mount Sinai must be interpreted in light of Mount Zion. What does all this symbolic talk of two mountains mean?
Both in its general significance and in the specific situation being addressed in the book of Hebrews, Mount Sinai stands for the very specific covenant God made with Israel through Moses. By the time of Hebrews, some schools of Jewish thought were already acting as if the Torah covenant from Mount Sinai were the be-all, end-all of God’s plan. It was as if God’s work was already done until some far distant future which the Jewish worshipper need not hope for in his or her lifetime. In other words, who needs Jesus when you have Torah?
Yet the author of Hebrews reminds his readers that Mount Sinai was not about redemption or ultimate glory. It was not about the final act of God to make people complete and to heal the world. In fact, in the pages of Torah itself, the idea that a future time of renewal and revival would be needed is made plain (see Deut. 30:1-6, for example).
Mount Zion, in the Psalms and in Isaiah, as well as other places in the Jewish scriptures, stands for something much bigger than Mount Sinai. Mount Zion is the place of good news (Isa. 52:7). Mount Zion is forever (Psa. 125:1). The Lord of Hosts will reign from there (Isa. 24:23). Mount Zion represents the full promise of God’s Presence in the world. It is the promise of God reviving and completing people, such as in the great passages about renewed hearts in Deuteronomy 30:6, Ezekiel 36:24-29, and Jeremiah 31:31-34.
This is where the author’s argument is brilliant and completely Jewish in its character. He says that his readers, who are considering abandoning faith in Jesus, would be leaving Mount Zion and going back to Mount Sinai. What will they find?
At Mount Sinai they will find the terrifying aspect of God’s standard of holiness and His power to judge those who transgress. The law without the promise is empty. The law was never meant to be taken without the promise. Mount Zion is where the law is supposed to lead. Good Jews, the author is saying, will recognize when God shows up to bring that promise. It is in the community that follows Jesus. It is not in the law of sin and death, which is Mount Sinai, but in the law of the Spirit of life (Rom. 8:2). The Jewish scriptures reveal that God’s salvation would come in the last days and blessed are those who love both mountains and bring together law and promise as God always intended.