The Heroes of Hebrews 11

On the Sunday before Christmas the epistle reading takes excerpts from Hebrews 11:9-40, the great crowd of witnesses whose faith through adversity is testimony to their hope in God.  

Pamela Eisenbaum writes in “Heroes and History in Hebrews 11” (from EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURES OF ISRAEL) about the Jewish saints, who she calls heroes, whom we remember as part of the ancestors of Christ on the Sunday before the Nativity.   She argues that unlike typical Jewish thinking in which their heroes are rewarded with earthly blessings, the author of Hebrews goes out of his way to indicate that in fact the saintly heroes of the Old Covenant were not in fact rewarded for their deeds, but rather their efforts went unfulfilled in their lifetimes awaiting the complete fulfillment of all things in Christ.  She writes:

forefathers“Most of the heroes on the list have the ability to anticipate the future.  Thus, in the midst of adverse circumstances they are confident because they foresee something better. … While the heroes have faith in, or knowledge of, future rewards, their present life is without reward or recognition for their faithfulness. … The heroes of Hebrews …do not receive honor or reward or even recognition in their own lifetime.  Furthermore, the heroes are not depicted in the prime of their lives, but rather receive mention in connection with death.  In addition, the heroes of Hebrews are not recorded for their impressive accomplishments and talents.  None of the Hebrews heroes holds national office and none are said to have made a covenant with God.  …  The biographical events that the author chooses to include about Moses portray him as an orphan, a defector, and a fugitive.  Moses is not depicted as the leader of the people during the exodus.  When the crossing at the Red Sea is mentioned in 11:29, we read, ‘By faith the people crossed the Red Sea…’  Indeed, none of Moses’ actions as they are recounted in Hebrews 11 portray him as a leader of any kind. … What are missing in Hebrews’ retelling of the Moses story are all of Moses’ grand accomplishments. … Their heroism is not attributable to their achievements in their own time, but to their ability to anticipate a better time, when they will receive their reward. … The heroes of Hebrews function as seers who portend the future, but whose own heroic image is mitigated by their being part of the old world order.”

And that old world order, as Eisenbaum understands Hebrews, is passing away because the fulfillment has finally come – Jesus Christ the Lord.   And in Christ, the faith of each of the Old Covenant heroes is fulfilled – their righteousness was not rewarded with earthly benefits, but their faith in God’s plan brings them into the present and the coming of the Messiah and into the future and the establishment of His eternal kingdom.

See also my The Christian Witness B.C.