This passage occurred in a summer series of the Narrative Lectionary.
Summary: A common way to understand the death of Jesus is "penal substitution" whereby Jesus' suffering and death "substitute" for the suffering and death we deserved before the law. The imagery of sacrifice and Jesus' role as High Priest in the book of Hebrews often serve as proof texts of this understanding of atonement. The problem with this way of looking at atonement is that God the Father becomes seen as a God of vengeance who needs to see Jesus tortured in order to be appeased. I suggest that the atonement put forward in Hebrews, specifically chapter 2, does not support this view. Rather, it supports a more complex notion of atonement, whereby Jesus death and suffering function in different ways.
μισθαποδοσιαν ("payment" or "penalty", vs 2) The book of Hebrews makes clear that there is a consequence of our disobedience from God. However, it never suggests this consequence is physical torture. The consequence of disobedience is death. By death is I do not even mean instantaneous death, but the simply the reality of death. For example, 2:14 ascribes the power of death to the devil. But it does not suggest that someone who sins instantly dies. Rather, it describes the human condition. We are human. We are rebellious. We die. (see Genesis 3!)
Furthermore, when the anger of God does show up, it is not directed toward torturing of humans. Hebrews 3.11-4.3 is a long argument of Old Testament quotes supporting the idea that the rebellious Israelites received the punished of being barred from the promised land; likewise, we who are rebellious will not enter the (eternal) rest of the (heavenly) promised land. God's justice (and I would argue love, but that is another day) demands that the promised land is for the obedient; the old creature of rebellion must die. But God's justice is not satisfied with torture.
Clearly the book of Hebrews builds on the Old Testament imagery of sacrificing animals as a matter of atonement. Jesus stands in as the ULTIMATE sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all other sacrifices. But let us remember, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament never drew their forgiving power from the suffering of the animal. Not once does God seem interested in having an animal be tortured or mutilated. If we want to make Jesus the new sacrificial lamb (which I am fine with!), let us remember that the power of the sacrifice was not in the lashes but in the blood. (The cleansing blood imagery may present a big problem for a modern reader; fine, but the point remains; the blood, not the lashes, was where the forgiveness resided)
το ιλασκεσθαι ("one of many difficult verbs meaning expatiate, atone or something like this") We have an articular infinitive form (its own little ball of wax) of this most difficult word to translate. There is a whole cluster of words linguistically related to ιλασκεσθαι, which again means "reconcile." It is connected with animal sacrifices on the ark of the covenant that "appeased" God.
What is worth noting is that this particular verb is rarely, if ever, translated elsewhere in Scripture as "make atonement" (definitely not the NRSV "make a sacrifice of atonement.") It seems most often to simply mean forgive:
Luke 18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
Lamentations 3:42 We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.
Psalm 79:9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake.
Psalm 78:38 Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath.
Psalm 25:11 For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Exodus 32:14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
To put it another way, the verb does not mean "make a sacrifice." The Isrealites called the "ιλαστηριον", the place on the Ark of the Covenant where sacrifices went, the mercy seat. This is because they viewed it as a primary and sure place of God's mercy. But to say that all mercy demands sacrificial animals (ie, that ιλασκεσθαι means "make a sacrifice of atonement") is not the case. Scripture is filled, as I have shown, with God's mercy flowing independent of animal sacrifices and the entire temple in Jerusalem! It can still be the mercy seat, but it does not have a monopoly on mercy!
To put it simply: The NRSV inclusion of "sacrifice" here is really not helpful. Jesus' death is sacrificial, for sure, but this loads a lot into this verse.
παθημα (sufferings, 2:9) Jesus suffering and death are bound together. The Greek literally reads in verse nine, "the suffering of death." However, I want to separate out, from the book of Hebrews, Jesus death and Jesus torture. The book of Hebrews does not dwell on Jesus' gory death on the cross (it only mentions this once, 12:2). Rather, it focuses on Jesus death, like the sacrifices of the Old Testament.
What do we make of the suffering (really torture) of Jesus on the cross? I suggest that the letter to the Hebrews makes the case that Jesus suffering (and death) enabled him to stand in our place, or to use more 21st century language, be in solidarity with humanity. In short, take away the old testament quotes and some other language, this is what you are left with in this passage (2:9-2:18):
Jesus might taste death for everyone....For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all
have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them
brothers and sisters...Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity...Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect...Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
In order to reconcile God and humanity ( ιλασκεσθαι!) Jesus had to be fully human, endure temptation (2:17), endure shame (12.2) and bear the sins of the world (9.28). What does this look like? The cross depicts humanity at its worst. Jesus has been there. Suffering -- not just sin -- as a boundary between divine and human was permanently crossed.
I believe that the book of Hebrews still portrays an atonement that demands the death of the old creature before the law and justice of God. However, I think it also opens up the door to an amazingly merciful God, who totally embodies the suffering found in the human condition.