James Swetnam, «The Crux at Hebrews 5,7-8», Vol. 81 (2000) 347-361
Heb 5,7-8 is a classic crux. It is not clear, as the text seems to say, how Jesus could beg to be freed from death and then be heard `although He was son'. Further, it is not clear how Jesus could `learn obedience from the things He suffered' since Hebrews pictures Him as antecedently ready to do God's will. The present paper reviews some of the principal suggestions which have been made and makes its own: that the Sitz im Leben of Jesus' plea is the cross, and the words refer to Ps 22 which Jesus cites in Matthew and Mark. In the context, reference to the psalm is taken by bystanders as an allusion to God intervening through Elijah to save Jesus. Hebrews understands Jesus' citing the initial verse of the psalm as an agreement to all that the psalm implies, i.e., as an implicit petition to die. Further, the main verse alluded to in Ps 22 seems to refer to the tôdâ which Jesus celebrated with His disciples, and this explains how He could `learn' obedience: He learned by experience the benignant effect of obedience to God.
The tôdâ ceremony was a type of thanksgiving offering associated with a bloody sacrifice. Both bloody sacrifice and tôdâ ceremony are offered by someone who has escaped from the danger of death, serious illness, or life-threatening persecution. An essential element is a hymn of thanksgiving which serves to recall the salvation achieved. The tôdâ ceremony involves such a hymn of thanksgiving plus the offering of leavened bread, and it can involve a cup of wine which serves as the ceremonial proclamation parallel to the bread which is the ceremonial meal. The Psalter indicates that the tôdâ had an importance difficult to exaggerate in the religious life of Israel. In Israel, the official post-exilic cult, with its sharp distinction between priests and laity on the basis of a profound concept of holiness, became increasingly a matter for the priesthood, whereas private devotion was largely determined by the tôdâ45.
Although the tôdâ piety was at home in the private sphere, its horizon was not confined to the individual. For the tôdâ-community always represented the whole of the true Israel (for example, cf. Ps 22,24). With the advent of apocalyptic theology tôdâ-piety was able to open itself to an eschatological perspective. In Ps 22 the petitioners experience of sufferings which are mortal can be seen to be raised up to the level of the experience of sufferings which are primordial. By analogy, salvation sweeps away all historical limits to salvific events and becomes a sign of the eschatological arrival of the Kingdom. Tôdâ-pietys basic experience of death and redemption took on, in the perspective of apocalyptic, the dimensions of an absolute, and salvation from death led to the conversion of the world, to the participation of the dead in life, and to the eternal proclamation of salvation (Ps 22,8-32)46. (Note the occurrence of kingdom basilei/a in v. 29.)
The cry of Jesus at Mt 27,46 and Mk 15,34 in which He cites the opening verse of Ps 22 is designed to indicate not that God had abandoned the petitioner, but that salvation through death Jesus death is the occasion for the arrival of the Kingdom of God as interpreted in Ps 22. Abandonment by God is a common theme in