Hebrews 11-12, Exodus, Judges, 1 Kings 17, Daniel
Great Lent is a time when we particularly concentrate upon the Old Testament. This makes sense, since it is a time of repentance, and St. Paul tells us to look at the Old Testament story of Israel as a way of seeing negative examples that should act as warnings for us. In particular, he refers to the rebellion of the Hebrews in the desert against God, and how they were judged for it. He then explains: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Perhaps it sounds strange to think about first century Christians and ourselves as “those on whom the end of the ages has come.” But, we know of the Incarnation of God, and have received the Holy Spirit, who is the advance sign, the down-payment, of the resurrection to come. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have a foretaste of the fulfillment of all things. And so, the apostle tells us that the Old Testament was not only written for past ages, but also written, in God’s wisdom, with us in mind—to teach us how NOT to act, for starters. Ever since the time of Jesus, too, it has been read typologically by the Church, that is, as pointing forward, like a shadow, to the reality that was to come. This was the approach that Jesus taught his disciples on the road to Emmaus, and in the upper room, and this is how New Testament books understand the Old Testament as well. Sometimes the connection with between the OT and our Churchly reality is indirect, so that the types –people, places, or things— are to be read as inverted shadows of our reality, figures of what we ought NOT to be.
But the examples are not simply negative, are they? We don’t want to be like Adam, or Eve, or Cain, as St. Andrew of Crete has reminded us in the Great Canon this week. But there is also plenty to emulate. There are people, places, and things of positive value in the OT that point directly forward to Jesus, the church, and our time. The Hebrews go through the Red Sea, and the Jordan, pointing to our baptism. Moses extends his hands during the battle, making the sign of the cross. And, says our epistle reading for this week, the OT righteous heroes exemplified faith, despite their weaknesses. They were so faithful, the passage tells us, that the world “was not worthy of them.” Here is the passage for this Sunday, which gives only selections from a very long list of heroes in chapter 11 of Hebrews and then concludes with the rest of that chapter and the first few verses of chapter 12:
By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward…. And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
So, we are given here several positive examples of heroes who witnessed to God’s truth. What is the SHAPE of the witness given by these, our older siblings in the faith?
Let’s look at those who are named. The first name we know all too well: Moses, the prophet who gave the law of God to the people, and who gave up his noble adoption to become one of an oppressed and fugitive people. So very much could be said about him, but we will notice just one curious thing: the passage tells us that he “esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” This compressed statement is difficult to grasp. Moses came long before Christ, so what can it mean?
Again, we are being asked to think typologically, and theologically. First, let’s get clear that Moses was not reproached by Christ, but that we are meant to see that he experienced the kind of reproaches that Christ did. Moses may not have known the Christ to come personally during his earthly life. However, since he appears in the Transfiguration, when he and Elijah talked with Jesus about “redemption” (Lk 9:31), and since he had visions of the LORD during his life, perhaps he glimpsed the dying and rising Messiah dimly, just as he saw the promised land from afar. But, when he gave up his privilege in Pharaoh’s court, and was prepared to take on the affliction of the Israelites, he was putting himself in the camp of Christ, that one who did not grasp at his divine status, but took on the form of a slave for our sake. Christ had heavenly treasures, and gave this all up. Moses had Egyptian riches, but knew that there was something greater. And so he became God’s spokesman, and leader of God’s people; indeed, he had the privilege of eating and drinking with the Holy One who brought them out of Egypt. In the end, he did not enter the land of Promise, but he believed God, and saw it from afar, content that Joshua should carry on the pilgrimage and receive the promise. And, after his sojourn with the LORD on the mountain top, it is probable that he hoped for something even better than Canaan.
The next four figures are less well known. They come from the book of Judges, a barren time of faithlessness in the history of early Israel. Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, for all their weaknesses, exemplified faith in the God who had led Israel, and hoped for God’s vindication of their people in hard times. Gideon called himself the least of the tribe of Manasseh, asked God’s angel awkward questions about whether God had abandoned Israel to her enemies, and eventually, struggling with his belief, obeyed God and prevailed. Barak, though doubtful at first, eventually rejoiced with Deborah over the defeat of Israel’s enemies. Samson’s long cycle of stories, and his eventual fall at the hands of Delilah, are well known, but he remains a hero who did much to bolster Israel’s faith. Jephthah was a man of difficult beginnings, rejected by his own family as a young man, but became head over Israel through his service to them. Though he did terrible things—including misunderstanding the character of God and sacrificing his own daughter because of a hasty vow—Israel was at peace under his leadership.
The next two men in the list are associated with the monarchy, and much better known. There is David, the man after God’s own heart, who also came from humble beginnings, and who did great things, including singing psalms to God—but even he sinned, in stealing the virtue of Bathsheba, and murdering her husband to cover it up. From his devotion, and his weakness, we have inherited Psalm 50, said every evening, and especially poignant during Great Lent: “Take not your Holy Spirit from me, but renew in me a right heart, O God!” It was he who wanted to build the Temple, a house for the LORD, but instead the LORD made of him a whole household, for the Messiah Jesus was his greatest son, and the LORD incarnate. And Samuel is listed after David, though comes before him chronologically. This great priest, chosen before his birth, and even in his youth hearing the voice of God, was the one who anointed both Saul and David, and who was God’s spokesman to Israel. Yet he had clay feet: he was indulgent towards his sons, who misused the holy things of the tabernacle.
Finally, the passage mentions “the prophets” in block, all of them. We will focus on Daniel and Elijah, whose stories this passage recalls with a few words. Daniel “stopped the mouths of lions,” of course. But consider his full story: he was faithful to God in a hostile environment, refusing to worship idols like those around him, and eating only the food that a Jew was called upon to eat in that time, because of the OT laws. This faithfulness brought the wrath of the king upon him, but he still clung to God’s word. And so God showed him mysteries of what was happening in the world, and what would happen— mysteries that pointed forward to Christ himself, and to the resurrection. He never saw that day, but trusted in what the angel showed him.
Then the passage fastens particularly upon Elijah, though he is not named. How do we know? Because it speaks about “women who received their dead back”—surely we are led to remember the interaction between Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth, a Phoenician enemy of the Lord, whom the LORD called to nurture Elijah during the famine. In this story of Elijah, we see many things—that God can use even a supposed enemy, a Phoenician, to nurture His own; that God cares for even those who do not know God; that the woman, honest and humble about her own sins, was rewarded for her care for a prophet of God; that Elijah’s God is the master over life, and can raise the dead. The Church fathers considered this widow to be a type, or shadow, pointing to the Gentiles, who would be reclaimed for God by someone even more powerful than Elijah—by Jesus Himself and by his apostles, working in his power!
All these figures, even Moses, who was afraid to speak in public, are not the kind of people we associate with heroism. They are, in some ways, valiant, and are sometimes seen to perform miracles with the help of God. But they are also notable for their weakness. It is not because of their strengths, but because of their faith, that is, their dependence on God, and because of their hope (clinging to His promises), that they endured various terrible circumstances for the sake of what was to come. And their patience, in some ways, must continue as they call out under the altar with other martyrs: it is God’s will that they wait for us to inherit the kingdom together with them. As Hebrews puts it, “they will not be made perfect, or whole, or mature, without us.” OT righteous and NT believers, we are the same family!
What is the content of their hope? Jesus is that hope, though most of them didn’t have an inkling, and even the prophets among them did not know Him in the flesh. They obtained some of what God had promised, but the better resurrection to come will only become theirs along with us. God takes them, warts and all, and responds to their faith in His character and hope in His promises. In Christ, we are one family.
When Jesus met a Gentile centurion who believed His word, He exclaimed that He had not found faith like that in all Israel. Certainly there were vices and vile actions seen in these heroes, vices which we have escaped; after all, we have had a better foundation, and have been entrusted with the full counsel of God in Christ. But I suspect that if most of us were to compare our dependence and trust in the LORD with that of Moses, Gideon, Barak, and all the rest, we would not measure up. Like St. Paul, God made them strong in their weakness.
In this season of Lent, we have an opportunity to learn a deeper dependence upon God. When we do without, we discover that our REAL and LASTING food is Christ Himself; when we give to those in need, whether in money or in time, we can aim to do it gladly, not worrying about what we will miss when we give what we have away; when we read more deeply in the Scriptures and the Old Testament, we can do so, trusting that Jesus told us the truth when He said that humankind is to live by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. May our time in the Old Testament remind us of the faith and hope exemplified by these men and women—of whom the world was not worthy, and whom the Father will make worthy to shine, with the Son, in all eternity!