Faith is the assurance of the things we are looking forward to, it
is the conviction of things that we do not see.
By it, by faith, the men of old gave testimony to what was to come.
By faith we understand that the ages were made by the word of God.
By faith, Abel offered more sacrifice than Cain, thorough which he
was testified to be just, since in his gifts to God he gave
witness, and dying with that faith, he still speaks.
By faith Enoch was transferred so that he did not see death, as
Scripture says,"and he was not found, for God transferred him" to
the world to come. Without faith it is impossible to please God:
one who approaches God must believe that God exists, and that He
gives payment to those who seek Him.
In faith Noah received an answer about things not yet seen, and in
fear he built the ark for the salvation of his household, and thus
condemned the world and became the heir of righteousness which
comes through faith. Noah is especially noted for his obedience to
God, in making the ark in spite of the ridicule of others: He did
all that God commanded: Gen 6. 22. Thus he condemned the world, and
became the inheritor of righteousness.
Greatest of all in faith was Abraham. In obedience to God's call he
left his homeland and relatives and set out for a place he did not
know. He became a tent-dweller as did also Isaac and Jacob, who
also inherited God's promise. Abraham looked forward to a city with
real foundations, of which God is the builder. By faith Sarah
though barren and at an advanced age, received a child, Isaac. In
this Abraham believed God. Hence from this one man, Abraham, who
was practically dead -- almost 100 years old - there came offspring
as numerous as the stars in the sky.
All of these died without seeing that which was promised realized.
They saw and greeted from far off what was to come. They were
pilgrims on this earth, seeking a lasting city to come, a better
homeland. So God was not ashamed to be called their
God. He has prepared the better city for them.
It was in faith that Abraham went up to the point of sacrificing
Isaac, even though it was through Isaac that he was to receive the
great progeny God had promised. Abraham considered that God could
even raise people from the dead. He received Isaac back from the
dead as a type. In faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau even in
respect to the things that are to come. In faith Jacob, while
dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph. In faith Joseph when he
was near to death foretold the departure of his people from Egypt,
and instructed them to take his bones with them when they would
In faith the parents of Moses hid him for three months, in spite of
the decree of the Pharaoh that all male children be killed. The
same Moses when grown, in faith, refused to be called the son of
the daughter of Pharaoh: he preferred hardship with the people of
God to the temporary pleasure of sin.
He considered the stigma that was upon the promised One greater
wealth than all the wealth of Egypt, for he looked ahead to the
future reward. It was in faith that Moses left Egypt, not because
of the anger of the Pharaoh, but because Moses saw the Invisible
God. In faith Moses established the Passover with its sprinkling of
blood to keep the destroyer from touching the firstborn of his
people when those of the Egyptians were killed.
It was again in faith that the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea
safely, while the Egyptians were drowned in it.
It was by faith, in which they marched around the walls of Jericho
for seven days, that they caused the walls of that city to fall
down. It was as a result of her faith that Rahab who had given
hospitality to the Israelite spies was saved when Jericho was
There are so many other examples of great faith: Gideon, Barak,
Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. By faith they
conquered kingdoms, established what was right, and shut the mouths
of lions. They put out the force of fire, escaped the sword, and
saw their very weakness turn to strength when they proved mighty
warriors and put their enemies to flight. Women received even dead
children back through resurrection.
Others in faith endured so much: being tortured to death, suffering
mocking, scourging, chains and prison. They were stoned or sawed in
two, were killed by the sword, they went about in sheepskins and
goatskins. They were destitute, afflicted, mistreated. The world
was not worthy of such people, as they wandered in their affliction
in mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
All these were marked by faith even though they did not see or
receive the things that had been promised. But God provided
something better, having us in view, so that they could not reach
the perfect attainment apart from us.
Chapter 11: Comments
Faith is the solid basis (hypostasis) of hope (cf. 3. 14). Faith
gives reality, hypostasis, to things not yet seen. Faith allows us
to know that this visible universe was really made out of nothing-
which calls for infinite power. For to raise something from what we
might call 3 degrees of being to 6 would be measurable power. But
from absolute zero to any degree - infinite power is needed.
Now our author goes into a long praise of those in the OT period
who were great in faith. This reminds us of Sirach 44. 1 - 50. 21.
The first model of faith is Abel, who offered a sacrifice that God
accepted. It was not the type of material offered that made the
difference. Through Isaiah, and other prophets, God so often
complained about the old Jewish sacrifices, even though they
offered the very things He had commanded. But it was because, as He
said in Is 29. 13: "They honor me with their lips, but their hearts
are far from me". That is, the interior disposition, which is
basically obedience to the will of God, is what is necessary. A
faith that merely believed the words of God would not qualify, it
had to be a faith that obeyed. Such was the obedience of Jesus,
such must be the interior of all sacrifices that are to please God.
On faith of Abraham see also comments above on 3. 16-19.
Abel still speaks in that his example of obedience in faith is
still what God calls for.
The faith of Enoch was so great that God "took him". Our Epistle
understands this to mean Enoch was taken up by God without dying.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word used her in saying God took him is
laqah. The same word is also used in the remarkable line of Psalm
49. 15: "God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, He will
take me (laqah)." The same verb is also used when God took Elijah
to heaven: 2 Kgs. 2. 9-10.
In Sirach 44. 16 we read of Enoch: "While living among sinners, he
was beloved to God. He was taken so that wickedness might not
change his understanding, or guile deceive his soul."
In three books of Jewish intertestamental literature, Enoch is
pictured as receiving special revelations. All three of these books
can be found in J. H. Charlesworth (ed. ). The Old Testament
Pseudepigrapha (Doubleday, NY 1983, I. 5-315. The little Epistle of
Jude in v. 14 says that Enoch prophesied that the Lord would come
with all His holy ones around Him (taken from 1 Enoch 1. 9). The
2nd century B.C. Jubilees in 4. 17 says Enoch was the first to
learn writing and knowledge and wisdom. Such a statement of course
is in line with the schematic and artificial picture of the
development of civilization in Genesis chapter 4.
In Apocalypse/Revelation 11 there is a strange prophecy of two
witnesses, whose names are not given. Many conjectures have been
made about them, all rather loose. Some think the two who are to
come before the end are Enoch and Elijah.
Noah also walked with God, and was pleasing to Him, when God said
He regretted making our race -- an anthropomorphism of course. God
ordered Noah to make an ark - the dimensions would be about 440 x
73 x 44 feet, a large vessel. We can imagine the ridicule Noah had
to take from others while it was being built, far inland. But in
faith he went ahead, trusting in God's word, and obeying - for
faith includes obedience as well as belief/trust. Genesis 6. 22:
Noah did all that God commanded him.
The wisdom books of the OT see wisdom in Noah: Wisdom 10. 4 and
Sirach 44. 17-18.
Probably the greatest of the examples of faith is
Abraham. He went forth "in obedience" to a place he did not know:
11. 8. The mention of a land that he did not know evokes the
thought of a city yet to come, of which Hebrews 13. 14 speaks: "We
have here no lasting city but we are looking for one that is to
come". Did Abraham know of the eternal vision of God to come in the
future life? In general, the Israelites seem not to have known that
clearly before the time of the persecution by Antiochus IV c. 170
B.C. But there are occasional passing references that seem to carry
this idea, such as Psalm 49. 15, cited above: "God will ransom my
soul from the power of Sheol, He will take me (laqah)." We noted in
speaking of Enoch that this same verb laqah speaks of God taking
Enoch, and taking Elijah. Psalm 73. 23 says: "Being with you, I
desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God
is... my portion forever, (le olam). Psalm 17. 15 seems to have a
similar idea. And if -- though so many reject it - we accept the
revisions of about 30 Psalm lines proposed by Mitchell Dahood, in
the introductions to his three volumes on the Psalms in Anchor
Bible, we will find still more evidence. And of course Jesus
Himself in replying to the Sadducees cited a line from the burning
bush passage: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God
of Jacob". And He added: "He is not the God of the dead but of the
living." The reasoning of Jesus is of course valid in itself. But
it need not be true that all the Israelites picked up the same
implication. However, Abraham may have known, and in view of his
special relation to God that seems likely.
Verse 11 presents a problem from its odd grammatical structure: "By
faith - Sarah herself being sterile - [He:Abraham] received power
in the conception of seed, and [this] beyond the right age [for
conception] since he [she] considered Him faithful who gave the
message." The problem is that Sarah laughed in Genesis 18. 12, and
18. 13-15 seems to say she laughed in disbelief, not in joy. The
looseness of the homiletic genre of Hebrews could let us say that
this refers to the faith of Abraham, or that the author lets his
fancy play loosely. But if we accept the reading of some
manuscripts - used in our version above - then the words "Sarah
being sterile" are grammatically only an aside, so that Abraham is
the subject of the sentence.
This faith resulted in the start of a progeny as numerous as the
stars, even though Abraham's body was "practically dead". He was
99. But for a man of that age to sire a child need not be a
miracle. Again, we have homiletic genre at work.
But again we note the stress on the faith of Abraham being shown in
obedience. Genesis 26. 5 focuses again on this: where God tells
Isaac, because Abraham obeyed my voice... .
This idea that we are on a pilgrimage to our true city was picked
up in Christian thought": cf. Phil 23. 20 and 1 Peter 1. 17 and 2.
11, and the opening lines of First Clement: "The Church of God in
exile in Rome to the Church in exile in Corinth... ."
The notion of being in exile or only sojourning is emphasized in
Then our author returns to Abraham and praises his faith in the
sacrifice of Isaac. He points out that God had promised to make
Abraham the father of a great people through Isaac, but then God
told Abraham to sacrifice that same Isaac. How old was Isaac at the
time? There is no indication here or in Genesis. Some rabbis think
Isaac was old enough already to have children. Josephus
(Antiquities 1. 227) thought he was about 25. But there is nothing
in the text to indicate this, and the example of faith is far more
powerful if we think Isaac was only a boy at the time. The fact
that Hebrews 11. 19 says Abraham reasoned that God could bring
Isaac back from the dead would tend to indicate that Isaac was
quite young then. Need we suppose that Abraham really did think of
a possible resurrection then?. It is not necessary, in view of the
looseness of the homiletic genre. Again we need to recall the
question of whether Abraham knew of the future vision of God, which
we discussed above. It seems that the Israelites in general did not
yet think of a possible resurrection. But that is unclear.
It is a contrast with the known thought of St. Paul that our author
here uses the sacrifice of Isaac as an example of faith. Paul in
speaking of Abraham in Romans 4 and Galatians 4 did not mention
this episode. We may conjecture the reason was to avoid giving a
handle to the Judaizers that he was speaking of a work, not just of
But the fact that Hebrews does uses this instance, whereas in the
uncontested Epistles of Paul, it is not used, could perhaps be one
indication that Hebrews might not be from Paul himself. But that is
quite uncertain, and there are also indications in the opposite
Even if Paul had used this instance he would not have meant that
such a good work was earning salvation. In Romans 6. 23 Paul makes
clear: "The wages of sin [what we earn] is death; the free gift of
God [what we do not earn] is eternal life." So we could sum it up
in the words of a student, speaking of salvation:
We cannot earn it, but we can blow it. That is, obedience is
required (cf. Romans 1. 5), but that obedience does not earn
salvation. Rather, the lack of it would earn punishment.
Later on the Jews often appealed to the sacrifice of Isaac as a
means of atonement. That was part of the reason why the Targum on
Isaiah 53 distorts it so greatly, making the meek lamb into a proud
conqueror. This is admitted by some fine Jewish scholars today: cf.
H. J. Schoeps, Paul, The Theology of the Apostle, (Westminster,
1961, p. 129) and Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context (Fortress,
Phil, 1984 p. 190) and Samson Levey, The Messiah. An Aramaic
Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974, p. 152,
In Leviticus Rabbah 29. 8 the author prays that when the sons of
Isaac are wicked, may He remember the binding of their father
Our author here, in 11. 19, speaks of Abraham receiving Isaac "as a
type", a prophecy in action. Many Fathers, e.g., St. Irenaeus 4. 5.
4 says that Isaac carrying the wood was a type of Christ carrying
His cross. Cf. also Genesis Rabbah 56. 4 on Gen 22. 6. Clement of
Rome, in 31. 3 says that Isaac gladly was brought as a sacrifice,
and Josephus Antiquities 1. 232 has the same thought. Receiving
Isaac back, from what seemed certain death, But the type is more
likely a prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ. This might be
in mind in John 8. 56: "Abraham rejoiced to see my day.".
By faith Isaac blessed both Jacob and Esau,"even in regard to
things to come." This is said even though in Genesis 27. 39 the
blessing given to Esau is much less, and seems not to refer to
heavenly things. This will cause us to consider a problem when we
reach 12. 16-17. Here in 11, Hebrews is intent on showing the faith
of Isaac. Later, in 12, Hebrews will want to warn readers of how
easily they might fall into apostasy.
Next is Joseph, who showed such faith as to accept an Egyptian
prison rather than violate the command of God by consenting to the
wicked wishes of the wife of Potiphar.
Moses of course is specially great. His parents, in faith, hid him,
and by putting him in a basket on the Nile tried to keep him from
the drowning ordered by the Pharaoh (Exodus 1. 22). Later, when
Moses grew up in the royal palace, he could have stayed, but in
faith he preferred to join his own oppressed people. He considered
the temporary enjoyment of sin - living in the royal house -as
nothing compared to the future reward (here we recall the problem
of how much of future reward was known to Israelites in general and
at that time; though Moses, a special personality, may have seen
more, even as some Psalm authors seem to have done: please recall
comments above in this chapter on Abraham looking forward to a
better city. Our Epistle adds that the he though the riches of
Egypt less than the reproach of the Messiah: here, remarkably, the
Epistle seems to identify the Hebrews with the graces of the
Messiah to come - even though we cannot be sure how much they may
have understood of a future Messiah at this time. It is usually
said that a vision of a coming Messiah did not come until during
the time of the kings. Yet the Targums see the Messiah as early as
Genesis 3. 15 and Genesis 49. 10, as does also in Numbers 24. 15-
17. On perceptions of Genesis 49. 10 also by rabbis cf. Samson
Levey, The Messiah An Aramaic Interpretation (Cincinnati 1974, p.
8. and Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context (Phila, 1984, p. 242).
Even the Targum Onkelos, which is so restrictive in its messianic
views (probably a result of late revisions by rabbis), still sees
the Messiah in Numbers 24.
This faith of Moses is probably also intended as a help to
Christians tempted to falter in the time of our Epistle.
In faith Moses left on the Exodus, not as though fearing the
Pharaoh, but sustained by seeing the Invisible One. Did Moses ever
have the beatific vision? Many commentators have thought so. But
they seem to have forgotten Exodus 33. 18-23 where Moses asked to
see God, and was allowed only to see Him from behind, from a cleft
in the rock (even though Exodus 33. 7-11 had said he spoke to God
face to face - meaning, as directly as we speak to another human).
He did have a direct encounter with God at the Burning bush - and
later too - as a result of which first encounter the rabbis,
following Philo( Life of Moses 2. 14, 68, held that Moses
thereafter never again had sex with his wife - interesting
comparison with the wretched idea of those who think Our Lady,
after 9 months direct contact with God, would have sex many times -
and contrast with Joseph also. Even Luther and Calvin believed in
the perpetual virginity, which so many today reject.
Moses also showed faith in the institution of the Passover, which
objectively looked forward to the great Passover sacrifice of
Jesus, even though we have no means of saying Moses was enabled to
really foresee that.
Faith again was clear when Moses stretched his hand over the sea,
and caused it to open for the Israelites, and then to close on the
troops of Pharaoh (on problems in the account in Exodus of this
crossing, Cf. Wm. Most, Free From All Error, Libertyville, 1990,
Moses himself was not permitted (Dt. 32. 48-51) to enter the
promised land- for just one sin at the time of the temptation at
Massah and Meribah: Numbers 20. 12 and 27. 13-14. But his successor
Joshua did enter it. By faith he caused the walls of Jericho to
fall down, using means that seemed hopelessly ineffective, having
the Israelites march around the city seven times, and then giving a
Strangely, even recent publications seem not to know of the major
work of Bryant G. Wood, in Biblical Archaeology Review of March-
April 1990 where he shows that K. Kenyon was in error in not
finding walls there of a suitable date for Joshua's exploit (that
even the great Kenyon could make such a mistake is supported by a
report in BAR of March-April, 1988 by Yigal Shiloh who found
remains in Jerusalem which Kenyon had said could not be found).
Next, remarkably, Rahab the harlot is praised for her faith: she
received the Israelite spies who came to look over Jericho, and
then hid them, with the promise they would not harm her home when
they would take the city: Joshua 6. 1-25 and James 2. 25. It is
even likely that this Rahab is the one mentioned in the genealogy
of Jesus in Matthew 1. 5. Cf. also First Clement 12. 7.
In 11. 32 we meet a typically rhetorical bit of wording, that fits
well with the idea that the genre of Hebrews is homiletic: "What
shall I say further? Time will run out if I tell about... . ."
Our author then gives short notice to:
Gideon, who with only 300 men believed God would give him victory
over the host of Midian: Judges 7.
Barak was the commander of the Israelite army who won a remarkable
victory against Sisera, commander of the united Canaanite forces
with their 100 iron chariots: Judges, chapter 4. Actually, Barak
put his faith in Deborah, a prophetess to whom God had spoken.
Samson in his single-handed method wrought great destruction among
the Philistines - in spite of his own sins: Judges, chapters 14-16.
Jephthah commanded the Israelite Transjordanian tribes against the
Ammonites, and won a singular victory. Sadly he, in misguided
belief, sacrificed his own daughter because of an invalid, even
objectively immoral vow: Judges chapter 11.
David, strangely, is given only brief mention here, in spite of his
great dedication to the will of God in faith, except for the sad
incident with the wife of Uriah. God did say of David, in 1 Kings
14. 8 that he was a man who always did His will.
Samuel, last of the judges and great prophet, highly praised in
Sirach 46. 13-15, advisor of King Saul, had the faith to rally the
forces of his people after the terrible defeat by the Philistines
in which they even captured the ark of the covenant in which they
had put their faith: 1 Samuel chapters 3-7. Then, when the ark was
returned, Samuel did not have it brought for years to Jerusalem,
probably to show them that their faith should not rest precisely on
After that there is merely a general reference to the Prophets,
meaning most likely not the ecstatic prophets often in guilds, but
the truly great men of faith: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the
Starting in 11. 33 we meet just general descriptions of the
exploits in faith of other great persons:
Conquered kingdoms by faith: this starts with the victories over
Sihon (he had conquered much of the territory of Moab, refused to
let Israel go through his territory, was defeated by Israel), and
Og (king of Basan, defeated by Israel under Moses: Numbers 21. 33-
35. Then Hebrews goes through the period of Joshua and the Judges,
reaches a peak in David. They "did what was right" and "they gained
Closing mouths of lions by faith:This was the case of Daniel in the
lions' den: Daniel, chapter 6.
Quenched the force of fire: In chapter 3 of Daniel, Shadrach,
Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the golden image the king
had made, were put into a fiery furnace, escaped unharmed.
Escaped the edge of the sword: In 1 Kings 19. 2-18 Elijah escaped
from Jezebel; Elisha from Jehoram, in 2 Kings 6. 31 - 7. 20;
Jeremiah, from Jehoiakim, in 36. 19-32.
Found strength after weakness, overthrew enemies' camps: Gedeon in
Judges, chapters 6-7. 1 Clement 55. 3-6 tells of women who were
made strong by God;he mentions specially Judith and Esther. In
passing we note that he puts the book of Judith, which is
deuterocanonical, on the same level as that of Esther (0n this sort
of thing cf. H. W. Swete, Introduction to the Old Testament in
Greek, 1900, p. 223). And of course the exploits of the Maccabees
come to mind here too.
Women received their dead back in resurrection: Elijah restored
life to the son of the widow of Zarephath: 1 Kings 17. 17-24;
Elisha brought back to life the son of the woman of
Shunem: 2 Kings 4. 18-37.
Others tortured to death: Such as the Martyrs in 2 Maccabees, who
accepted death, looking forward to a better resurrection.
Still others experienced mockery, beatings, chains and prisons,
were stoned... . : The original readers had probably heard of cases
like these, perhaps during the persecution of Nero. They themselves
seem not to have experienced great persecution at the time: Heb.
12. 4. As to being sawed in two, there is a report in the
Apocryphal work The Ascension of Isaiah 5 that Isaiah died this way
under king Manasseh.
Our text comments that the world was not worthy of such wonderful
persons. They were approved by faith, even though they did not live
to see what had been promised, the times of the Messiah and the
eternal reward. He adds that only in company with us did they reach
perfection. We recall in this connection the common Patristic
tradition that the just who died before the death of Christ, even
if they were fully purified, were not yet allowed to have the
beatific vision (Cf. Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, I. 114).
They waited in the Limbo of the Fathers.