The first four verses of Hebrews are one sentence in Greek, and there aren’t many sentences this good in the whole history of the world.
Just looking at the first few words in Greek, even without knowing Greek, you can see that it starts with some very long and interesting words: two four-syllable compound words built on “poly,” meaning “many.”
Polumeros kai polutropos palai ho theos lalesas tois patrasin en tois prophetais….
Aside from those fascinating first poly-words, notice the alliteration, the repetition of intial P-sounds. Five of the first twelve words begin with P: Polumeros polutropos palai patrasin prophetais…
This would obviously catch the ear of a Greek-language listener. It would be like saying in English,
With multiplicity and multiformity many moons ago, God made himself manifest to Moses and his men.
Diversely and diffusely during days of old did the deity describe and disclose himself through diviners to our dads…
Except it would sound serene and sublime, not silly and like such a stretch. So sue me, I sacrificed seriousness for syllabic sonority. But Hebrews doesn’t; it manages to get both, whether we can translate it or not.
Hebrews, I am convinced, was composed for the ear. In William Lane’s Word Biblical Commentary on Hebrews, he says “The writer skillfully conveys the impression that he is present with the assembled group and is actually delivering the sermon he has prepared.” Have you never noticed how often the author, or rather the speaker, of Hebews presents himself as talking rather than writing?
“…the world to come, about which we are speaking” (2:5)
“we have much to say about this… you have become hard of hearing.” (5:11)
“though we are speaking in this way” (6:9)
“Now the main point in what has been said is…” (8:1)
“of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” (9:5)
“What more shall I say? Time will fail me if I tell of…” (11:32)
Contrast that last bit with the very bookish final verse of John’s gospel, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The author of John knows he’s writing a book; the author of Hebrews knows he is speaking a sermon.
Throughout Hebrews, the speaker signals that he is addressing his hearers, and he avoids any words that would point to writing things down or reading them aloud. It’s all spoken word. He maintains this stance until the very end, where (according to Lane) he “expressly declares in 13:22 that his ‘word of exhortation’ has been reduced to writing. As such, it has become ‘frozen’ and available for study to a modern reader…”
Well, thank God it was frozen, and thank God it is available. Just do what you can to get into its aural character.
How? One practical application of this is that for some of your study time, you should listen to Hebrews read out loud, not just read it quietly to yourself. Of course much of the aurality of the text is lost in translation. There is Greek wordplay that we can’t reproduce in English (I wonder how other receptor-languages do with this), without sacrificing more important things like meaning and tone. But it’s no use lamenting that. And what we have is plenty: a great deal of Hebrews’ power comes straight through to an English listener in a good translation read aloud.
Another application is that we could learn a lot about sermon-writing from this sermon. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to hear some sermons like Hebrews! (See Anthony T. Selvaggio, “Preaching Advice from the ‘Sermon’ to the Hebrews,” Themelios 32.2 (January 2007): 33-45.)