25 Sep 2023

Faith Is the History of Israel, Hebrews 11

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Faith, Grace, Habakkuk, Hebrews

It is not uncommon, nor difficult to find, disparaging remarks about the character of the Hebrew Bible among those claiming to be Christian. The “Old Testament” is devoid of heart religions. The Hebrew Bible is fleshy rather than “spiritual” we find claimed. The “Old Testament” is about works righteousness we hear proclaimed. The “Old Covenant” is not about grace nor faith it is asserted. These assertions (again hardly rare) are based upon caricature and typically a deep ignorance of the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition they are rooted in fundamental misunderstandings of passages in the “New Testament.” The New Testament makes none of these claims. In fact it explicitly contradicts all of them. At root most of these caricatures are, in fact, not rooted in either Testament but centuries and centuries of anti-Semiticism.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is often near the center of such misguided claims about 76% of God’s Word. This is fascinating because Hebrews 11 is one of the most famous chapter in the Bible. But for all its fame we sometimes may not get all that is going on.

Framing Hebrews 11

Hebrews 11, like all the Sermon, is drenched in Jewishness. There are those who imagine Hebrews drives a wedge between the Hebrew Scriptures and “Today” find little support from the text itself.

The Sermonator tells/presents this portion of his sermon in a traditionally Jewish manner. Jewish traditions abound in Hebrews 11. The Sermonator simply assumes both the validity of the Story and his listeners knowledge and acceptance of that Story. That is they know the biblical story. The biblical story presented in Hebrews 11 is in fact the history of Israel. The history of Israel is, despite its ups and downs, the history of faith. That history as a whole is the counterbalance to the lack of genuine faith by the Wilderness generation (cf. Hebrews 3-4).

It is surprising, given common assumptions, that no “New Testament” personality is even on the radar screen in Hebrews 11. There is no Paul. No Phoebe. No Timothy. No Peter. There is rather a catalog of Israelites, Jews!

The Sermonator models his list/Story of Israel in the way Ben Sira did in his book we call Sirach, chapters 44-50. That is the basic frame for chapter 11. Hebrews 11 could be seen as a “Cliff Notes” version of Sirach 44-50. Ben Sira “reduces” the entire history of Israel to names (as in Hebrews 11) and reports what the God of Israel did through these names and how these names (Enoch, Abraham, David, etc) were faithful to God in their own times and circumstances. The the very manner of preaching and teaching in Hebrews is that of traditional Second Temple Judaism.

But he assumes they know stuff many north American readers will not know (for a myriad of reasons). He alludes to material that would be known to first century readers of the Greek Septuagint (the Bible he quotes). For example, “who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames” (11.33-34). Here we have a reference to Daniel in the “lions den” but also the story of Azariah and his companions tossed in the fiery furnace as told in the Septuagint. The Greek version of Daniel records a long story and prayer (of Azariah and companions). This prayer is located between 3.23 and 3.24 of the version of Daniel in modern Protestant versions. In fact we have a virtual quotation from the Greek Daniel. In the LXX there are 68 verses between 3.23 and 3.24. It says in part,

Now the king’s servants who threw them in kept stoking the furnace with napththa, pitch, tow, and brushwood. And the flames poured out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and spread out and burned those Chaldeans who were caught near the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove/quench the fiery flame out of the furnace . . .” (Azariah vv. 23-26, NRSV)

Women receiving back their dead and hiding in caves, every Jew knows these stories. And the Sermonator commends them. These are the Maccabees. Second Maccabees 7, and the entire book of 4 Maccabees, celebrates these heroes of faith who were literally ripped apart but firmly believed in the resurrection. I will not quote it because it is long. However, we can refer to the hiding in caves at the beginning of the Maccabean period.

But Judas Maccabeus, with about nine others, got away to the wilderness, and kept himself and his companions alive in the mountains as wild animals do; they continued to live on what grew wild, so they might not share in defilement” (2 Macc 5.27)

Others who had assembled in the caves nearby, in order to observe the seventh day secretly, were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves in view of their regard for that most holy day.” (2 Macc 6.11)

“during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals” (2 Macc 10.6).

Many more examples can be provided. The Hebrews Preacher believed these heroes were worthy of note. In fact were not only stories of incredible bravery, but faith rarely found on earth. Far from disparaging Israelite faith, the Hebrew Preacher is exuberant in praise, “the world was not worthy” of them (11.38). When the Hebrews Sermonator read the history of the “Old Testament” and even Second Temple Judaism rather than the derision found in many “Christian” caricatures, he was in reverent awe! It makes me wonder if we have ever “heard” Hebrews at all.

The story alluded to in 11.17-19 is called “The Akedah or “The Binding” [of Isaac]. The story of course can be found in Genesis but it populates Jewish literature before the time of Hebrews in powerful ways. It is discussed in the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Jubilees, and in 4 Maccabees among other places. It remains to this day an important part of Jewish liturgy.

Hebrews 11 makes more sense when we have this information. These examples are illustrative and not exhaustive. This, I want to stress, was not specialized information in the first century but rather common knowledge to virtually everyone in the first century. The stories and the texts just mentioned were well known.

History of Faith

But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.

(Habakkuk 2.4, LXX quoted in Hebrews 10.38)

Quite literally at the head of the “Hall of Fame of Faith,” the Sermonator quotes his Hebrew Bible in the Greek Septuagint. He quotes Habakkuk 2.4, the same text Paul also quotes (Galatians 3.11; Romans 1.17) to prove just the opposite the claims of those in the opening of this blog. Living by faith is the essence of covenant God has with Israel that the Preacher is saying is being renewed through the Priest-King Jesus. (On Habakkuk see Struggling for Faith: Thoughts on Habakkuk).

FAITH. Hebrews 11 puts to bed the common notion that people in the so called “Old Testament” did not live by faith. The entire history of Israel, whom the author calls “the people of God” (v.25) and the shorter form “the people” (v.29). The phrase in the long form and short form is very powerful descriptor of Israel that frequents the LXX. It is another way of referring to “God’s house” (3.2,5,6).

Abraham and Moses dominate the history of faith in Hebrews 11. God is “not ashamed” to be known as “their God” (v.16), that is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or the God of Israel. Moses is a model of faith. The Exodus and Passover are both prominently matters of faith (11.28, 29). Moses, the Sermonator has already informed us, that Moses was “faithful in all God’s house” (3.2,5). The sermon compares Jesus to Moses. This is a huge point often overlooked. “He [Jesus] was faithful to the one who appointed him, JUST AS Moses was faithful in all God’s house” (3.2). Jesus is worthy of more honor than Moses (v.3) but the Sermonator does not minimize Moses in order to exalt Jesus. His rhetorical strategy is that more great things you can imagine for Moses the more you can for Jesus. Jesus is exalted by his comparison to Moses. There is not an ounce of polemic against Moses.

These heroes of the Hebrew Bible (and the Maccabees in the Greek Bible/LXX) are in the same “house” as we are. But they have been waiting in faith to be made “perfect.” Their God, has not made them “perfect” apart from us (vv. 39-40). The people of faith will reach the destination together.

Hebrews as a whole, and Hebrews 11 in particular, puts needed brakes on many caricatures that are perpetuated about Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures. The Sermonator knows his Bible better than many do today. Despite the fact that “first covenant” [Mosaic one] was broken (8.7), the Sermonator still insists that the basic history of Israel is that of Faith and Grace. In fact, their faith is exactly the same as our faith.

Further, the Sermonator claims there is faith even in places we might not see it. Samson? Jephthah? They, in the story pale in comparison to Moses, but the Sermonator claims they are in the story of faith. Our faith.

The next model of faith, after chapter 11 closes, is that of Jesus himself (who as we recall from chapter 3 is compared to Moses). Here Moses will lead deliver “the people” from the Destroyer and Jesus will lead us to the city of God (12.2ff). But it is remarkable no apostles, no Mary, etc. It is the history of Israel in Hebrews 11.

What a great chapter in the Sermon to the Hebrews. It shows us the single great story of faith in the story of the Bible. The Preacher in Hebrews, far from imagining his congregation as falling away, considers them as part of the great victorious story of faith. “[W]e are not among those who shrink back and so are lost but among those who have faith and so are saved” (10.39, NIV, etc).

Related Articles

Hebrews: Common Assumptions, Uncommon Surprises

Jewish Traditions & Hebrews 11: A Lesson in Authorial ‘Givens’

Jesus’s Sacrifice of Prayer in Hebrews

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