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Covenants and Wills (Heb 9:16-17)
I received this question a while back, and it turns out to be a fascinating exercise in exegesis. In fact, after reading the literature, I had to call my good friend George Guthrie, a Hebrew’s specialist, to make sure I was understanding the issue.
The fun part is that the Greek is, shall we say, “atrocious,” “convoluted,” or perhaps I should say, “not quite clear.” As a result, it becomes an exercise in exegetical method. So hold onto your hats.
διαθήκη has two basic meanings in BDAG. It is the technical term for a last will and testament. It is also the NT translation of the Hebrew בְּרִית, “covenant.”
A quick search of διαθήκη in the NIV shows a uniform translation as “covenant” throughout, except for these two verses, where it is “will.” This is perhaps surprising since the NIV (and any dynamic translation) is not overly concerned with concordance, using the same English for the same Greek. So the fact that it is uniform elsewhere is striking.
But then you check the ESV, which does value concordance, and you find that the only time it doesn’t use “covenant” is Gal 3:17 (“law”) and our two passages. So there is something going on in our passage that is somewhat unusual.
The plot thickens when you look at the overall context. In 9:1–10, the author is arguing about the superiority of the new covenant. In three ways, he establishes the inferiority of the old covenant: place (tabernacle); established by the blood of animals; sacrifices are repeated annually. In contrast, the new covenant is superior (9:11–10:18)because it was accomplished in the heavenly tabernacle, was through Christ’s blood, and was offered once for all. So the overall context is one of the covenant. So what are two verses on human wills doing in the passage?
The standard argument is that the author is arguing by analogy. Having mentioned an inheritance, he talks about human wills not being valid until there was a death. “For where there is a covenant, it is required that the death of the one who made it be established. For a will takes effect only when a person has died; it cannot possibly be valid so long as the one who made it is still alive” (vv 16-17, NIV). The will belongs to “the one who made it.” Hence, the translation “will” and not “covenant.” (There are of course other reasons, but you can read the commentaries for yourself.)
The problem, though, is that it is hard to see how an analogy of a will helps the argument. The overall argument is certainly about the covenants. And just as importantly, the next verse draws a conclusion form vv 16-17. “Therefore (ὅθεν) not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (v 18, NIV). So are we still are talking about covenants?
When you get into the Greek, you see that it is not as clear and the translation suggests. For me, seeing “the one who made it” clearly indicated a human will, since the argument for “covenant” requires “the one who made it” to be the animal. But look at the Greek.
Ὅπου γὰρ διαθήκη, θάνατον ἀνάγκη φέρεσθαι τοῦ διαθεμένου· διαθήκη γὰρ ἐπὶ νεκροῖς βεβαία, ἐπεὶ μήποτε ἰσχύει ὅτε ζῇ ὁ διαθέμενος.
Word for word: “For where [there is] a covenant, [it is] required [that the] death of the one who made [τοῦ διαθεμένου] [it be] established. For a will takes effect [βεβαία] only when a person has died [ἐπὶ νεκροῖς]; it cannot possibly be valid so long as the one who made [ὁ διαθέμενος] it is still alive.”
τοῦ διαθεμένου certainly does not have to be personal; “the one who made it” is interpretive. “A person has died” is an interpretive translation based on the substantival use of νεκροῖς. In other words, there is nothing in the Greek that requires that which dies is a person; it could just as easily be the animal.
I could go on an on, but I encourage you to get a commentary and read it. The fact is that the translations all have to be interpretive. Only the NASB and KJV keep it “covenant/testament.”
What I find so fascinating here is that you have to carefully weigh your different principles of exegesis. What is most important? Concordance? Immediate context? General context? Consensus among commentaries and translations? I called George because I found myself disagreeing with his commentary (I liked “will”), but it didn’t take long to see his argument. Now I look at, say, the NLT, and I ask you, “Does this make sense at all?”
“Now when someone leaves a will, it is necessary to prove that the person who made it is dead. The will goes into effect only after the person’s death. While the person who made it is still alive, the will cannot be put into effect. That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal.”
To me, “that is why” makes no sense. I can’t see a correlation between the first two verses and the latter if the author is discussing a human will.
So have some fun with this one. Go word for word through the Greek and see how interpretive any translation must be. And then ask yourself what makes the best sense in the flow of the argument, and why an argument based on the superiority of Christ’ blood over animal blood would have anything to say about a human will. Here are George’s arguments in his commentary.
“Regarding 9:16–17, two main lines of interpretation have been followed among commentators. (1) The first suggests the author crafts a play on words, in which the word normally translated “covenant” in Hebrews (diatheke), following from the reference to “inheritance” in verse 15, should be understood as meaning “will” or “testament.”10 This view has as its cornerstone the reference to the ratifier’s death in verses 16–17, suggesting that covenants are not established by the death of those who make them. Rather, wills go into effect only when the one who made the will dies.
"(2) The other position, the one adopted in this commentary and taken up most rigorously by Westcott and Lane, points out that the interpretation of diatheke as “will” in verses 16–17 is out of step with the immediate discussion. In context the author focuses on the old covenant sacrifices (vv. 12–14) and the establishment of the old covenant through sacrifice (vv. 18–22).11 These explain the reference to the ratifier’s death as symbolically realized in the death of the sacrificial victim. By this interpretation, verses 16–17 proclaim simply that someone (represented by the sacrificial victim) had to die in order for the covenant to be established. As Lane points out, these verses
"explain why Christ had to die in order to become the priestly mediator of a new covenant. The ratification of a covenant required the presentation of sacrificial blood (cf. v. 18). Such blood is obtained only by means of death. Christ’s death was the means of providing the blood of the new covenant. His sacrificial death ratified or “made legally valid” the new covenant promised in Jer. 31:31–34.12.
"This reading of Hebrews 9:16–17 in terms of sacrifice squares perfectly with what follows in verses 18–22, which relate Moses’ inauguration of the Sinai covenant with sacrificial blood (Ex. 24:3–8)."