Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2
Last week’s lectionary text included an introduction to the topic of faith (Hebrews 11:1–3) and some of the early exemplars of it (11:8–16). This week’s reading contains the final few examples (11:29–38) and the overall conclusion to the discussion of faith (11:39–12:2). This “hall of fame of faith” does more than describe what faith is; it also illustrates what faith requires. Faith is active and demanding. Faith may make one an alien in one’s own land. Faith leads to suffering and therefore requires endurance. Faith is not for the faint of heart, as we will see in our text for this week.
The lectionary skips over the author’s commendation of Abraham and Moses in Hebrews 11:17–28. One feature of the author’s treatment of Moses’ faith is important for this week’s lectionary text, however. According to the author, Moses’ faith was not just dynamic and active; it was also subversive and costly. The faith of Moses’ parents causes them to disobey the edict of Pharaoh and keep their son hidden. Moses’ faith, when he comes of age, compels him to “share ill-treatment with the people of God.” In a bold, christological re-reading of the biblical tradition, we learn that Moses’ faith compelled him to consider the “abuse suffered for the Christ” to be of greater value than the “treasures of Egypt” (11:26). Like his parents, he disregarded the orders and anger of the king by leading the people out of Egypt (11:27).
In Hebrews 11:29–31, the author continues listing specific figures from Israel’s history. With the mention of Rabah and the spies (11:31), the author’s survey takes us to the cusp of the Israelites’ entrance into the promised land. Then, the author fast forwards to the periods of the judges (Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah) and of the united kingdom (David, Samuel, and the prophets) in verse 32. The passing mention of these names suggests that similar stories of their active, subversive faith could be added if only there was enough time.
Although the examples in verses 33–38 are more general, they are not fully anonymous. Ancient and modern interpreters have detected a number of potential allusions. Starting in the fourth century, marginal notes attempting to identify the figures alluded to in verses 33 and 34 begin to be integrated into the text itself.1 The figures mentioned in verse 32 likely correspond, at least in part, with the experiences enumerated in verses 33 and 34.
Rhetorically, verses 34–38 build toward something of a climax in verses 39–40. The literary artistry of the author is on full display in these verses. The author combines short sentences and clauses that have significant alliteration and assonance in Greek. The repetition of the “e” sound dominates, thanks in part to the augments required of the aorist verbs. This, along with the preposition en and similar participial forms give the Greek phrases a rhythmic, staccato structure.
The list of hardships becomes more intense and violent in verses 36–37. The unnamed faithful face not only political or cultural resistance; they experience violence, flogging, and imprisonment. Others experienced death in frightful ways. The Greek word translated “sawn in two,” only appears here in the New Testament, and there is only one occurrence in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Amos 1:3). It is possible that the author and maybe the audience were aware of traditions that maintained that Isaiah died in this manner (see The Ascension of Isaiah 5). The final phrases in verse 37 about “destitute, persecuted, tormented” people aptly describes Elijah and Elisha, but it may also apply to any who experience hardship and poverty because they refused to compromise on their convictions.
The concluding statement in verse 38 that the “world is not worthy of such people,” is a fitting summary of the anti-social faithfulness endorsed throughout chapter 11. The phrase does not imply a strict cosmological dualism between the “evil” of the world and the perfection of heaven or the ideal world. Instead, “world” here denotes the cultural and political status quo. By critiquing and refusing to conform to the world’s demands, the faithful turn themselves into wanderers, refugees seeking the city promised and built by God.
For the first hearers of Hebrews, this would normalize their own experience of persecution and hardship as a result of their faithful allegiance to Jesus and the community gathered in his name. But the author goes further. Although held up as models of faithfulness, they did not receive the things that they were promised. Far from an indication of failure on their part or God’s, the author insists this makes room for the audience. The author states that “God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:40). The logic of the chapter demands the reverse as well: the audience, and subsequent generations of Christians, are not “made perfect” without the earlier exemplars of faith. The identification of the exemplars as members of the “great cloud of witnesses” in 12:1 vitiates against Christian supersessionism.
The author’s hortatory conclusion in 12:1–2, marked by the conjunction toigaroun, depends on the demands of faith described in chapter 11. The author rightly describes the challenge facing the audience as an agōn, a struggle. This Greek word does have an athletic connotation, as indicated by the translation of the NRSV (“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”). But this is not the only possible connotation of the noun, which can also describe a struggle or fight more generally. The allusions to warfare, violence, suffering, and martyrdom in 11:32–38 illustrate why endurance (hypomonē) is required to complete the task facing the audience. The literary context indicates that their agōn is no easy jog; instead, it is something that will demand all of their efforts, will require suffering, and may lead to the loss of life. But they can find encouragement in their struggle since they are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses enumerated in chapter 11.
Such an understanding of agōn is confirmed by the reference to Jesus in 12:2. Jesus also faced a life-or-death struggle. He too demonstrated endurance on the cross and disregarded its shame. The author names Jesus both the “pioneer and perfecter” of faith. The context indicates that Jesus is more than an object of faith; rather, his faithful response to God in the face of the cross provides the consummate example of the faith celebrated in Hebrews 11 and demanded of the audience.
- See Lane, Hebrews, 385.