Senses of οὐρανός, Hebrews 12:25–29, and the Destiny of the Cosmos

Abstract: Hebrews scholarship regularly includes claims that the author used the word οὐρανός in either two or three distinct senses. Most basically, it is argued that the word can refer to created parts of the cosmos or to the uncreated place where God dwells. Hebrews does indeed use οὐρανός for the location of the stars and also for the location of the divine throne. However, often scholars use these varying senses of οὐρανός to argue that the author of Hebrews had two (or three) distinct referents in mind. This is particularly important in Hebrews 12:25–29, where the οὐρανός is shaken. It is often argued that this must be the created οὐρανός in distinction to the divine or eternal οὐρανός. Such a jump from various senses of a word to distinct and separate referents for that word should not be assumed. This paper critiques this common understanding of οὐρανός and its application to Hebrews 12:25–29. I make three major arguments. First, since scholars often base their claims about the senses of οὐρανός on early Jewish background material, I too begin there, focusing particularly on early Jewish and Christian texts that include material on humans ascending into heaven. I ask whether these texts include sharp divisions between various heavens and whether they separate cosmological elements and angelic or divine elements from each other. I suggest that these texts do not indicate any ontological divisions between various entities named “heaven.” Further, some texts mix together cosmological and angelic or divine elements within heaven or heavens. I conclude that early Jewish and Christian ascent texts by default do not separate several referents for the word “heaven” that match the senses proposed by Hebrews scholars. Second, I briefly survey the ten occurrences of οὐρανός in Hebrews against this background. I suggest that the author was more interested in contrasting heaven and earth (and perhaps the highest from the lower heavens) than in separating “heaven” into distinct realms based on ontology. Third, I outline the significance of this conclusion for understanding what Hebrews 12:25–29 says about the shaking of heaven and earth. The author does not mean that some uncreated οὐρανός will “remain” while the created heavens and earth are shaken. Instead, all of heavenly and earthly space will be shaken, which requires a destruction and recreation model or a renewal model. I conclude by proposing that Hebrews 12:25–29 describes God shaking all space in the creation with his voice and preserving only what he chooses to remain.

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