Hebrews is a rather interesting book. While it does not have the rather complex (and the often deliberate, author-induced) convolutions of the book of Revelation, it can be a mind-bending work for exegetes. For starters, it is a forgone conclusion now that we may never know the author of Hebrews. Yet, we know that whatever the author’s identity may be, he was a highly educated individual, a fact evinced by the sophistication in his Greek and style.
Let us review what we know about the narrative content of Mark 11. The author sets up the chapter with Jesus’ Messianic entry into Jerusalem. This procession ends in a quite underwhelming manner as Jesus entered the temple late in the evening to observe the operations of the temple. As Brown puts it, the closure “is a surprisingly pedestrian finale to Jesus’ messianic action of riding up to Jerusalem on a colt in symbolic fulfillment of Zech 9:9” (82). Before Jesus would have another chance in the temple, he cursed a non-defective tree en route. In the temple, Jesus disturbed the typical daily operations by overturning tables and restricting movement in some parts of the temple. While doing all this, he alluded to two major Old Testament prophets. Later on the same day, Jesus left the city, and the disciples noticed that the cursed fig tree had withered. In reply, Jesus says (11:22-25):
The work of Esther Miquel with which we have extensively interacted already explained much of Mark 11, but there yet remains some knotty portions of Mark 11 requiring text-faithful explanations. In his contribution to the issue, J.R.D Kirk stresses the importance of bringing the full context of Markan Jesus’ Old Testament allusions to bear on one’s reading of Mark 11. While aggressively disturbing the typical temple operations, Jesus taught the audience by combining two references from the Hebrew Bible when he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark 11:17). The referenced Old Testament passages are Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. Kirk warns against reading these citations in isolation from their respective broader contexts. Instead, he argues that if one reads those citations of Jesus as a Tanakh-literate first century Jew would have done, one could understand the portions of Mark 11 that seem problematic.
As mentioned earlier, Esther Miquel believes that Jesus was so infuriated with how he found the affairs of the temple that he wanted it to cease to exist. Following Jesus’ evening trip to the temple (Mark 11:11), he cursed a fig tree on the next morning for not being productive. Later, when Peter points out to Jesus that the tree has withered, Mark seems to depict Jesus as explaining the phenomenon as an answer to a prayer (Mark 11:20-25), the prayer being the pronouncement, “May no-one ever eat fruit from you again.” That Jesus directed this curse-prayer against the temple and its leadership is clarified by his invitation to his audience to have a similar faith in God: “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them” (24; emphasis added). The demonstrative, this, is literally referring to the mountain on which the temple was situated. In other words, this Markan prayer is specifically about the destruction of the temple, and not a universal formula for Christians to ask whatever they want from God. Miquel is worth quoting in some detail (149):
Having demonstrated that the Gospel of Mark (and all bible books) is a piece of intelligent writing involving careful human writer decisions featuring some literary techniques of the day, we are now ready to wrestle with some issues with the fig tree story.
Here is Mark 11:11-14,
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. The next day, as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
This portion is the first half of the fig tree story since Mark inserts the story of Jesus’ aggressive act in the temple into the narrative beginning from the next verse. Mark prepares the readers for an intercalation with the words, “And his disciples heard it” (11:14; emphasis added). He resumes the fig tree story with these words, “In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered…” (11:20-21; emphasis added).
We modern readers tend to read the gospel books as pure history. But the authors typically explicitly tell their immediate readers the goal for writing, and this goal often is not about writing a history of Jesus and his deeds. Except for Luke, which claims to provide an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) of the life and acts of Jesus, no other gospel book comes close to laying claim to being primarily an exercise in history-writing. John says that Jesus did other things which he did not include in his gospel account for reasons he did not tell us, but then adds that the portions he included were chosen so that his First-Century readers may “believe that Jesus is the messiah” (John 20:30-31). Thus, it would seem like John was more interested in doing apologetics than merely retelling the deeds of Jesus. Precisely because these authors were often not merely interested in history-writing, they often took the liberty to transpose units of stories as they saw fit for their literary goals. For instance, an attentive reader would be quick to recognize some minor variations in the withered fig tree story as told by Matthew and Mark (John and Luke do not mention the story). I should add, this literary practice was not unique to the Gospel writers. This was a common and acceptable practice of the time. See Michael Licona’s critical work Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?
Romans 9:22 is a reference to Pharaoh: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” When one reads the account in Exodus, one sees that Pharaoh had several opportunities to release God’s people. Repeatedly, Pharaoh hardens his heart. God slowly increased the punishment on Egypt, bringing on ten plagues on the land (and against specific Egyptian gods) and each time warning Pharaoh beforehand of the consequences of his arrogance. Eventually, having gone past the point of return, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to prepare for destruction. We stress that Pharaoh had opportunities to change his mind, and had he done so, the outcome would be different for him. Paul, nevertheless, seems to have dulled the distinction in the original narrative as he stresses the outcome of a hardened heart. It is tempting to read “prepared for destruction” and “prepared for glory” fatalistically.
Having given an example of God’s sovereign election for a “positive” cause, Paul is about to cite a different example—one that has proven very problematic:
“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
Chapter IX of Romans is by far the favourite passage for deterministic theology. Many readers of the book of Romans tend to assume that this chapter is discontinuous with the previous portions. Scholars have observed the artistry in Romans chapters 9-11. Paul in these passages combines caution, skill, care, and love for his own people to ensure that he not only get to his readers’ minds but also their hearts. The resulting piece of literature in many places is, therefore, dense and requiring utmost care to unpack. This passage is notoriously complex and difficult, and this partially explains why people read it and go away with different understandings. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that a careful analysis can yield much fruit. I also suggest that we read this hard passage in the light of clearer relevant passages of scriptures. Above all, we should read this passage, keeping in mind the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ.
Pharaoh readily comes to mind in his encounter with Moses when God hardens his heart. The reference in Romans 9 is understandably often used in deterministic reasoning, and I shall address that shortly. For now, the concern is with a passage in 2 Thessalonians that says that God sends people a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie (2:11). To prepare for our discussion of Romans 9, here is a relevant point to make: Scripture teaches that God can “harden” people’s hearts. As it should be obvious by now, however, we must be careful to delineate the boundaries and understand the nature of such an act. It seems like God hardens people’s hearts when they get to a point of no return—that is, when such people get to a point when they will never believe even if given eternity to choose. Also, there appears to be distinct forms of hardening described in scriptures. There is a kind carried out by God and another by individuals against God. Besides. it also seems like a hardening of heart may be temporary. We shall address some of this later under the treatment of Romans 9. For now, however, here is the relevant passage in full: