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"He took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham" or "He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham" in Hebrews 2:16?

Hebrews 2:16 in the KJV says:
  • "For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham."
Hebrews 2:16 in the NASB, agreeing with the ESV, NIV and others, says:
  • "For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham."

The KJV margin provides the alternative translation, "Gr. hee taketh not hold of Angels, but of the seede of Abraham he taketh hold."  This is the literal translation of the Greek.  The word in question, "επιλαμβανεται", literally means to "take hold".  That this is the literal translation is not in dispute.  The dispute concerns what is meant by "taking hold" of the seed of Abraham.

The NASB, ESV, NIV and others translate "επιλαμβανεται" dynamically as "give help".  Sometimes επιλαμβάνομαι  is used to portray a person helping another person by "holding" or "catching" him (see Matthew 14:31 and Mark 8:23).  However, επιλαμβάνομαι can also be used to portray a person causing harm to another person by "taking" or "catching" him (see Acts 16:19 and Acts 18:17).  The context determines whether επιλαμβάνομαι has the connotation of "giving help".  Επιλαμβάνομαι does not always mean "give help".

The KJV translated "επιλαμβανεται" itself literally but supplied a few words in italics to make sense of the phrase (italics in the KJV indicate words that were supplied by the translators).  According to the KJV, the meaning of the verse is that our Lord Jesus Christ took on the nature of man (i.e. frailty, mortality) rather than the nature of angels (i.e. strength, immortality).  The KJV rendering can be justified by the context of the passage at Hebrews 2:14-18:

14  Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15  And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16  For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. 17  Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. 18  For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.

Verse 14 focuses on the nature of man, which is being made of "flesh and blood".  Verse 14 says our Lord took part of that nature.  Verse 15 mentions the "fear of death" of man, which points to the mortal nature of man.  These two verses establish two traits of man that are not shared by angels: 1. composition of flesh and blood; and 2. mortality.  It is in this context that verse 16, according to the KJV, emphasizes that our Lord verily took on him the nature of man instead of the nature of angels.  Our Lord could have experienced death only if he had verily taken on the nature of man.  Appearing to humanity in a theophany (as an angel of the Lord) would not have sufficed.  Herein lies the importance of verse 16 as rendered in the KJV.  Verse 17 follows by saying it behoved our Lord to "be made like unto his brethren".  Verse 18 refers to our Lord's suffering and temptation leading to death (verse 14), which suffering and temptation are unique to the nature of man.  The KJV rendering of Hebrews 2:16 fits the context which is about the necessity of our Lord's experience of death.