People of the Past as Encouragement for Today – Hebrews 11:4-40

Last week we looked at some introductory material to the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. Today we will spend some time exploring a few of the examples listed. Hence, there will be no detailed explanation of all the verses.  
The first example in the list is Abel. Though the Genesis account does not explicitly say what the author of Hebrews is affirming, it becomes clear that it still holds true. Some see God’s “rejection” of Cain’s sacrifice in the difference of material offered but the “difference was not in the substance of the sacrifices (Gn. 4:3–4), but in the attitude of the two brothers (as implied in Gn. 4:4–7)” (Peterson, in loc.). The LXX reads “Did you not sin when you offered [your sacrifice] correctly, but did not divide it correctly?” (ouk, ean orthōs prosenegkēs, orthōs de mē dielēs hēmartes?)
We wonder why the author chose Enoch given how little is mentioned of him in the OT (v.5)? The LXX has “he pleased God” instead of “he walked with God” in Gen. 5:24. In Jewish apocryphal literature and the tradition of the rabbis he was a predominant figure and in some tradition he was given a position of a mediator between God and man (Hughes, 457). Maybe our author was arguing against such notions and clarifies that he was taken up because he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Thus the author further stresses the faith-theme of this chapter! “If he [our author] is asked why Enoch should be regarded as a man of faith, his answer is that otherwise God would have had no pleasure in him” (Bruce, 286). But he did please God by his faith.   
Noah is another example. Through his obedience in constructing the arch he saved his family and condemned the world. Noah became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith in the sense that his righteous behaviour (Gn. 6:9; 7:1) was clearly shown to be the outworking of his faith. (Peterson, in loc.). It is thus his obedience to the Lord which is equalized to faith (a theme we have already stressed in chapters 3-4).

Abraham’s faith becomes the center of attention in verses 8-19. One wonders though how Sarah is praised for her faith when the Genesis account (18:12) indicates the opposite? The problem here lies actually in the Greek text of Hebrews where the syntax could either read “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (ESV) or “By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he receivedthe ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy” (NET). As the NET suggests then Abraham would still be the subject.
Moses. Interestingly, in Exodus 2 only Moses’ mother is mentioned as hiding him (v.23). Thought the Genesis account only mentions the mother, this does not necessarily indicate that the father after he took his wife (Ex. 2:1), left the house and was never seen again. Stress is laid on the mother in the Genesis account, on both – father and mother (parents) – in the account at hand. Note however that the LXX mentions both father and mother – a tradition the author is surely following (Lane, 369).

In verse 26 we read, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ…” How does Moses have knowledge of Christ at that time? Bruce comments that “[t]he identification of Christ with his people is noteworthy. The words which the God of Israel put in Moses’ mouth when he went to Pharaoh to demand his people’s release, ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn’ (Ex. 4:22), are as applicable to Jesus personally as they are to Israelcorporately” (311). The author may have thought not of the person Christ (as in the title referring to Jesus) but as The Anointed One and seeing Israelrepresented in this phrase.

[Though we cannot go into detail, a question is how we understand so called theophanies (appearance of God) in the OT. If we take John 1:18into account, it may well be that Moses was conversing with the second person of the Trinity and thus knew Christ. But this is, as so many things, of major debate.]

In verse 27 another interesting fact is mentioned about Moses. It says: “By faith, he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger…” that seems contradictory to Exodus 2:14, “Then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘What I did must have become known.’” This observation is right, it seems contradictory. Many commentators also struggle with this. Some actually see that contradiction and conclude that therefore the exodus of the Israelites and not the flight to Midian must be in view of the writer.

Bruce (313) rightly objects to this that this would then be out of chronological order to v. 28 where we read about the inauguration of the Passover – which came before the exodus. Further, in the Exodus account of the exodus, fear does not come into play since the Pharaoh urged the Israelites to get out of his country (Ex. 12:31ff.).

Lane suggest that the key to the interpretation of this passage is (in connection to the fearlessness of his parents v. 23 which is also not mentioned in the OT account) the overcoming of fear by faith.

Moses did express fear when he knew his violent action had become public knowledge (Exod 2:14), but by faith he overcame his fear of reprisals and left Egypt, finding in faith a substantiation of hopes as yet unrealized and events yet unseen (v 1).” He then remarks, “The emphasis upon faith overcoming fear is indicative of the pastoral intention of the writer in bringing this example before the community he addressed.” (375)  

Why would the author choose to include Rahab (v. 31)? Rahab is the only woman mentioned by name (besides Sarah in close association with Abraham) in this chapter. The story of Rahab is closely related to the fall of Jericho, since she is the one offering shelter to the spies of the Israelites. Though man and woman do have different roles in society, culture as a whole and so forth, “in the sphere of faith there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28)” (Hughes, 503).

Maybe the author included her in this list to demonstrate the sufficient grace of God who could even save a harlot (cf. James 2:25). Rahab was not an Israelite but through her faith was incorporated in the people of God. And see how wonderful God is that she is even in direct line of Jesus our Messiah (cf. Matt 1:5f). Moffatt has a very interesting insight, he writes, “Even Jewish priests were proud to trace their descent from Rahab; her reputation stood high in later tradition, owing to the life followed this initial act of faith” (184).

In verses 32-38 the author gives a list of examples of people of faith: four judges (Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephtah), one king (David), and Samuel with the prophets.
“Who through faith conquered kingdoms” – Joshua, David
“Enforced justice” – Judges, Samuel
“Obtained promises” – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, and more (the entire nation of Israel)
“Stopped the mouths of lions” – Samson, Daniel 
“Quenched the power of fire” – Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace
And so forth
Let us take a brief look at verse 39-40 (especially the clause “apart from us they should not be made perfect”) before we conclude this post. The author oftentimes used the word perfection in the sense of “bringing to fullness” or “making fit for an office.” Silva writes: “This eschatological interpretation of perfection in terms of fulfillment (though not to the exclusion of the cultic interpretation) both yields an excellent sense and results in a more consistent use of the word-group in Hebrews” (68). If such is the case then the clause in the passage at hand talks about “the blessings of the Messianic era and of the new covenant” (Peterson, in loc.). It is through God’s gracious providence “that their enjoyment of perfection through Jesus Christ would only be together with us. The writer’s point is to stress the enormous privilege of living ‘in these last days’ (1:2)… The ultimate benefit of Christ’s work for us is a share in the promised eternal inheritance” (idem.). The perfection talked here of is the final establishment of God’s kingdom with His people!
In times of struggle and persecution we have to hold on to our faith, which is grounded in Him who is faithful. If the people of old were able to persevere (without the indwelling of the Spirit) how much more can we? This was just a brief look at chapter 11, yet we do hope and pray that it will speak to us as far as it rightly handles the word of Him who is faithful and who strengthens us on our paths.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47B. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Silva, Moises. “Perfection and Eschatology in Hebrews.” Westminster Theological Journal. 39.1 (Fall 1976): 60-71. 

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