God is going to make things right. But he’s doing so right now, through you, if you hear this Word.
Welcome back to Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. Join us each week as two Yale Divinity School professors look at an upcoming text from the Revised Common Lectionary.
This episode, we have Greg Sterling, the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament, and Harry Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity.
They’re discussing Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, which is appointed for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, in Year C. The text is read for you by student Caity Stuart.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Harry, it’s nice to be with you today. We’re talking right now about a text that you spent a great deal of time studying, wrote a very famous commentary on the epistle. This is, of course, Hebrews 11, which is sometimes called the “hall of fame” for faith or something like that by some people popularly.
But one of the things that has always interested me about this text is that it celebrates the heroes of the Hebrew Bible and of Judaism, even past confines of the canonical texts, through the lens of faith. Do you think that’s a Christian reading of the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible? Or do you see this as being in direct continuity with that text?
Hebrews is certainly an interesting text in terms of the issue of continuity. It uses the language of the Hebrew scriptures and the image of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, as a way of thinking about the significance of Jesus. But in the midst of all of this, it’s also doing some theological reflection and innovation.
So there’s both continuity and development. And I think that’s what you get here, assuming all of these examples of virtuous behavior under the category of faith is probably a kind of Christian move. And Hebrews is probably an heir of the Pauline tradition, later church tradition, assumed that Hebrews was written by Paul, even though most people today assume it was not. Nonetheless, I think it knows something about Paul and Paul made a big deal of faith: faith, hope, and love. And that triad is something that Hebrews celebrates in the previous chapter. So, it’s doing something within a Christian framework, or framework that certainly is familiar to Christians at the first century. But what it’s doing is saying that there’s continuity between this movement and it’s Israelite predecessors and we need to celebrate that continuity.
And that certainly very definite at the end of this chapter, at the end of chapter 11. So, yeah, it’s a bit of both, I think. Faith is a category that makes an awful lot of sense in a Christian world and using it as the organizing principle here to go through a brief history of Israel is, I think, definitely a Christian move. But it’s not doing injustice to the text. It’s reading it in an interesting and creative way.
So what, what are the similarities and what are the dissimilarities you see between the way that faith was used here and how Paul might use it? It strikes me, I mean, I’m thinking about Roman 4, for example.
One of the things that Hebrews does with faith is to show it’s complexity. And it’s not to be reduced to a single matter of accepting a propositional truth. Or, abiding by the intent of Christ, however one wants to construe faith. And there’s obviously debate about that and thinking about how Paul uses it.
But note the way that Hebrews deals with things here in verse 3. It talks about by faith we understand, we understand what? A religious truth that the world as we know it is somehow dependent on a principle that’s outside of and transcends this world. So, faith is a matter of the mind it says there, but it’s very much so a matter of the heart. And one of the main things that Hebrews does with many of the examples here is to show people taking a risk and putting their trust in God and moving forward in a way that achieves results. And here we’re verging on a different notion of faith, I think, for that, the one that we often associate with accepting theological truth, it’s a matter of fidelity, it’s a matter of relationship. And Hebrews wants to say that that’s part of the mix here, too. So the complexity of faith is, I think, a very important thing that Hebrews does as it spins out this long list of examples of the virtue that people should follow.
One of the things that fascinates me about the list is that it includes women as well as men and faith can certainly be true of both. There aren’t as many women as there are men. But what do you make of the inclusion of women? For example, Sarah, in the text that we’re looking at, as well as Abraham?
Yeah, Sarah is very prominent, isn’t she? And, it’s interesting that Paul uses, in the same sort of episode the birth of Isaac as an example of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4 in particular. And he mentions Sarah along the way, but doesn’t highlight her in the way that Hebrews does. So I think Hebrews is making a very deliberate move in a tradition of thinking about Abraham as a model for Christian belief in highlighting Sarah as well. There are some interesting scholarly issues there about verse 11, where Sarah does appear, because the language used sounds a bit odd about Sarah receiving the power to procreate. And that doesn’t sound like our model of gynecology. But, actually, it’s exactly the kind of gynecological reflection you get in some ancient sources. And, so, that’s exactly what Hebrew says: Sarah shared Abraham’s faith and, by her faith, she received the power to procreate, the power to generate seed.
So, Sarah is highlighted here. And, as you mentioned, there were some other women who play a significant role in this list, and that may be connected with a theory that has been bouncing around for some time that the author of Hebrews may be a woman. I’m not sure there’s strong evidence for that, but it’s an interesting bit of modern speculation that merits attention, because there certainly is attention in the text to the role of women in the history of salvation, particularly this this text. So it’s worth noting.
One of the things that’s always a challenge is how do you move from a text to the community that was reading this text or the community which the author lived? Does, in your mind, do you think the place that these women reflect what’s happening in the community of the author or the readers?
It…could. You know, we have on the issue of the role of women and the Christian community different kinds of evidence in the New Testament. We have the abundant references to women who play apostolic roles in, say, Romans 16. And in Acts, we have Priscilla or the Aquilla Priscilla seems to be the lead character there. So in the first generation of the first couple of generations of the Christian movement, women were certainly playing a very prominent role. And then there was a bit of a reaction to that and more patriarchal tendencies came to dominate the church in the next several generations by the second and third century, even though women continued to play significant roles in different ways. So, one of the things that’s happened in modern scholarship is retrieving that fact, the fact that women were so prominent in the early church and in the Pauline communities in particular.
So, the fact that they do appear significantly in Hebrews is not unique within the general Pauline orbit. And it is something to be celebrated. You know, there’s another way of thinking about moving from the text to community. We can think about it as a historical thing. What was the community like to which this text was written? And how did this text work to affect that that community? And that’s an interesting question to explore.
We can think about our own situation, too, and think about some of the imagery used in this text as a way of relating to our contemporary situation. And in verse 13, we have the situation of Abraham and his family as aliens and strangers in a land not their own. In the light of a lot of the things that have been going on in the last year or so, those categories of aliens and strangers, the ones that I think we need to take seriously and think about the ways in which we, who often don’t think of ourselves as aliens and strangers, might put ourselves in that position in order to empathize with people who are, in fact, marginalized in that way. So, this text calls out, I think, to the contemporary situation in interesting ways. Both in terms of its affirmation of gender roles and also in terms of social categories.
The social categories is really interesting because, as you know very well, Hebrews is oftentimes read against an apocalyptic or an eschatological perspective, that is present at times in the text. But I think, as you have argued, there is also, there’s another dimension to Hebrews where there’s a contrast between heaven and earth.
And in this text, in verses 13 through 16, where you were just citing, the texts you were just citing, there’s a reference to they were looking for a better country and ultimately a heavenly city. And I’m wondering how do you, how do you square the need for concern for social justice and the present, which you were just alluding to, I think quite rightly, with this concern for something that is still future?
I go back, in some ways, to Hebrews 3 and 4, and the interpretation of Psalm 95. Which says “today, if you hear his voice.” And, I think Hebrews is, is in a way, using eschatological categories, categories of hope for the divine transformation of the world at the end of time, in a way that is is typical of a lot of Christian use of those categories from the preaching of Jesus on saying “yeah, God is going to make things right. But he’s doing so right now through you if you hear this word. And so listen up and act in faith, act in love, and act in hope.” Which is what Hebrews is, is trying to inculcate. So yeah, there’s not a denial of, or repudiation of eschatological hope. But there’s the affirmation that we need to be participating in that eschatological transformation in the here and now.
Thanks for listening. And thank you, Professors Sterling and Attridge, for being with us this week.
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Chapter, Verse, and Season is a production of the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School. It’s produced by: Creator and Managing Editor, Joel Baden; Production Manager, Kelly Morrissey; Associate Producer, Aidan Stoddart; and I’m your Host and Executive Producer, Helena Martin. Caity Stuart did the transcript for this episode, and our theme music is by Calvin Linderman.
We’ll be back with another conversation from Chapter, Verse, and Season.