Monday, July 04, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Hebrews 11:23-40

11:23 By faith Moses, having been born, was hidden [for] three months by his parents because they saw the child was beautiful and they did not fear the command of the king.

The next section of Hebrews 11 turns from Abraham to Moses. If Abraham was the father of all Israel, Moses was the great lawgiver, the one through whom God revealed the Law. Together these two were the most important of all figures in the story of Israel. 

If Hebrews was a sermon to a church in Rome, the mention of a king surely would have brought Caesar to mind. If Hebrews dates to the time just after Jerusalem was destroyed and its Jewish leaders were paraded and slaughtered in Rome, the stakes of resisting the king would be firmly in mind. In such a context, the author of Hebrews makes a crystal clear point to the audience. No matter what Caesar might do, you should be like Moses' parents, who obeyed God over earthly authorities.

Faith here is faithfulness despite obstacles. They "keep faith" with God despite earthly opposition. They trust God despite what things look like with their eyes.

11:24 By faith Moses, having become big, denied to be called a son of the daughter of Pharaoh, 25. having chosen rather to be mistreated together with the people of God than to have the pleasure of sin for a time, 26. having considered the reproach of the Christ [to be] greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward.

The message of these comments was not too subtle for the audience. Perhaps some of them were Roman citizens. Perhaps some of them came from privilege. Perhaps some of them were "sons of the daughter of Pharoah," in a sense. 

The author of Hebrews makes it clear that the best path in the long run, the right path, was the path of Moses. Moses was willing to endure persecution now, in the present, looking for a future reward. Moses figuratively endured the "reproach of Christ," although Christ had not yet come. The audience must endure the reproach of Christ literally, being willing to endure suffering for him.

There are often worldly pleasures that are very enjoyable in the moment but lead to long term pain. Having an affair may seem pleasurable in the moment, but the long term consequences are generally horrible. So the audience of Hebrews might avoid suffering by denying Christ now, but the consequences after Christ's return would not be enviable.

11:27 By faith he left Egypt, not having feared the wrath of the king, for he endured as [one] seeing the invisible.

Faith is the evidence of things not seen. Just as we believe the world was not created out of things we can see, just as Noah built an ark long before he saw rain, Moses believed in a God that he had not yet seen. He would see him forty years later, at the burning bush. But he endured in faith long before he saw him. Similarly, he could not see the promise of Israel's deliverance yet. He had to believe it would eventually come.

This statement is a little puzzling in light of the Exodus story. In Exodus 2:15, it is precisely because Pharoah is trying to kill him that leads Moses to flee Egypt. It would be easy to read the story to indicate Moses fled precisely because he did fear the king. 

On the one hand, the point of Hebrews is a matter of Hebrews. The inspired point God was making through the author of Hebrews came through the way he read the story. The original meaning of Exodus is tangential.

It is also possible the author is saying that Moses left Egypt even though the promise was that Israel would be delivered from Egypt. How could Moses be part of Israel's exodus if he was no longer around. The faith then would be the faith that he would eventually come back.

The audience may have to flee Rome. Many Christians also fled Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the Romans. You can flee in faith rather than fear. You can flee because it is not God's time to stay. 

The audience might get exiled from Rome. That would especially be something that the wrath of the Roman emperor might unleash. In that case, leaving Rome without fear of the emperor would be especially apropos.

11:28 By faith he has made the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood so that the destroyer might not touch their firstborn. 29. By faith they crossed the Red Sea as through dry land with regard to which, having made an attempt, the Egyptians were drowned.  

Moses did come back from Midian. Forty years later after God appeared to him at the burning bush. God did use Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. The night before the exodus, there was the Passover. 

The perfect tense--"he has made the Passover"--is fascinating. The Passover and Moses are not merely figures from the past. The Passover "stands made." It continues to this day. Moses continues to this day in the heavenly city. The inauguration stands written in Scripture. The author sees these events through the eyes of a Scripture whose message continues regardless of the figures in history who are mentioned. Melchizedek continues to have "no end of life" because he never dies in the text.

The audience is sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. The destroyer will not touch them in the judgment. Even if the Romans threaten persecution, their superior worldly power does not promise them victory any more than the Egyptians were certain to win against Israel. With God on their side, the Israelites escaped through the Red Sea on dry ground, while the Egyptian army drowned.

 11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, having been surrounded for seven days. 31. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who disobeyed, having received the spies with peace.

Leaving the Pentateuch, the author moves into the book of Joshua. From an earthly standpoint, it might have looked like Jericho was unassailable. With God on their side, Israel prevailed. Faith was the substance of an outcome that was hoped for. 

Rahab stood on the side of those who seemed vulnerable to the powers of the city. The audience, if in Rome, might have to choose whether to stand on the side of individuals pursued by the Romans. Playing it safe now would not lead to happy consequences later when Christ returns in judgment. Rahab bet on Israel and Israel's God. So the audience should persist and stand with Christ.

11:32 And what yet am I saying? For the time will fail me telling about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, both David and Samuel and the prophets...

At this point the style of the example list changes. Instead of going into detail about a prominent hero of faith like Abraham or Moses, the author starts to list the names of individuals whose stories the audience likely knew from Scripture. Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah are all from the book of Judges. David and Samuel are chiefly from the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. A close examination of their stories can reveal some less than godly elements, but it is the ideal version of these individuals that Hebrews has in mind, the version some of us learned in Sunday School as children.

There is a name for the literary device used here. It is called "praeteritio." You say that you are not going to talk about what you then go on to talk about.

One of the most striking aspects of this verse is the fact that the author identifies himself with a masculine singular participle--"Time will fail me telling." In Greek, you must choose a gender and number for the word telling, one that goes with the word me. By making the participle masculine singular, the author indicates that he is a male.

As tiny as this grammatical feature is, it seems strong enough to prevail against interesting hypotheses that the author might be a woman. Aldof von Harnack suggested Priscilla in the early twentieth century, and others like Ruth Hoppin have more recently supported the theory. [1] However, the only likely way around the participle would be if the author were hiding her identity. Since the author and audience seem well acquainted with each other, we must conclude it almost certain that the author was a man.  

11:33 ... who through faith conquered kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34. quenched the power of fire, escaped the mouths of sword, were strengthened from sickness, became strong in war, drove away foreign armies.

The first examples the author gives involve winning on earth. They fight and win against other kingdoms, such as when Deborah and Barak defeat the enemies of Israel. They bring about the desired change for righteousness, such as when Hezekiah ends the sacrifices to other gods. They obtain promises, such as when they return from exile.

Daniel is not eaten by the lion. The three young Hebrew men are not destroyed in the fiery furnace. Elijah is not killed. Hezekiah is healed. Gideon wins. David defeats Goliath.

These examples hold out hope to the audience. They may face persecution in the days to come. But God might also deliver them from it. They might escape.

11:35 Women received their dead from resurrection, but others, not receiving redemption, were tortured in order that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36. And others received a trial of mocking and scouraging, and even of chains and jail. 37. They were stoned. They were sawed in two. They died by murder of sword. They went around in sheepskins, in goatskins, lacking, afflicted, treated badly, 38. of whom the world was not worthy, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes of the land.  

The audience, however, is not promised escape. They might not escape. Yes, there was a woman whose son was raised from the dead by Elisha. But there have been other mothers whose sons were not raised. The author likely alludes to the story in 2 Maccabees 7 were a mother loses all seven of her sons to persecution. That chapter includes the strongest anticipation of bodily resurrection of any known Jewish writing outside the New Testament. There is a tradition that the prophet Isaiah died by being sawed in two.

The mention of individuals, likely prophets, going around in sheepskins and goatskins not only has us thinking of Elijah, but of John the Baptist. It is at least possible that the author here blurs into the time of Jesus. Certainly, we know that Elijah hid in a cave. 

11:39 And these all, having been witnessed through faith, did not receive the promise. 40. God having foreseen something better concerning us, that they might not be perfected without us.

The mention of having been witnessed ends the chapter as it started. This same concept of witnessing started this example list in 11:2. This literary structure, as mentioned above, is called an "inclusio." The similar words at the beginning and end of the chapter bind the chapter together with bookends of a sort.

The heroes of this chapter were all part of the old covenant. They were prior to Jesus' death and enthronement at God's right hand. The promise was made about what Jesus would make possible and what Jesus would make happen. In 10:2 and 7:19 we learned that the sacrifices of the Jewish Law were not actually able to take away sins. They were not able to "perfect" the worshipper by cleansing their sins.

Every sacrifice under the old covenant was thus a raincheck for the one truly effective sacrifice of Jesus Christ. None of the heroes of faith in the old covenant actually received the promise, which required Christ to come. They were all looking forward to Christ and the coming unshakeable kingdom. They were not able to be "perfected" or truly cleansed of their sins without Jesus.

But now Jesus has come! Now perfection is possible. Now sins can truly be saved. They had been waiting. Now the time had come. The day of perfection had arrived for the faithful of the past and present to experience together! 

[1] Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Lost Coast, 2000). 

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, as always, for your thoughts!