Meanings and Memes

When I lower my voice and say, “Luke, I am your father,” what do you think of? If I adopt a sophisticated tone and say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” can you immediately call out the movie? Going back a little further, if I don a black shirt and hold up a skull, can you recognize the play before I utter a word of it? All cultures have common symbols and sayings that evoke certain ideas and emotions. These symbols tend to evolve over time, but their basic intent is always recognizable even many generations later. Richard Dawkins (yes, that Richard Dawkins) called these common cultural symbols “memes” from a Greek word meaning “that which is imitated.” Let’s keep the idea of common cultural symbols in mind as we turn back to the book of Hebrews.

When you read the book of Hebrews, it’s hard to miss the constant callouts to Hebrew scripture. In fact, many modern Bibles include a slew of footnotes to guide readers back to the original sources of these near-constant quotes. For example, the first chapter of Hebrews sets up Jesus as beyond anything else we’ve ever seen— superior to the prophets, superior to the angels, yet fully sympathetic toward humanity. In establishing this theme, the writer of Hebrews not only tells us outright; the writer also quotes classic Hebrew poems and histories to reveal another subtler theme. Check out Hebrews 1:5:

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my son;
today, I have become your Father”?
Or again,
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my son”?

The first quote comes from Psalm 2, and the second from 2 Samuel 7, and both of these passages deal with the coronation of a king. As modern readers without an encyclopedic knowledge of Hebrew scripture, this subtext might be lost on us, but the original audience of Hebrews would have likely picked up on the coronation theme immediately. The passage not only establishes Jesus as superior to the things we’ve seen before; it sets him up as a just and merciful ruler unlike those from Israel’s past. The language would be simultaneously familiar and thought-provoking to the original hearers of Hebrews, and we’ll see this pattern again and again throughout the book.

Just like our culture has its common themes and images, the original audience of Hebrews did as well. So as you read Hebrews, put those footnotes to good use. Take the time to examine the older passages. Notice the themes that emerge. Put yourself in the hearers’ shoes, and the passage will likely take on new meaning for you as well.

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