Commentary on Heb 11:1-7
We have come to the end of our current readings of the Creation and Fall narrative from Genesis and we conclude the week with a passage from Hebrews which affirms that it was their faith, trust and confidence in God which guided the good people of those early days.
The whole chapter (our reading only has the first seven verses) paints an inspiring picture of religious faith, firm and unyielding in the face of all obstacles. “These pages rank among the most lofty and eloquent to be found the Bible.” The three examples given today are taken from the first nine chapters of Genesis.
The author gives the most extensive description of faith provided in the New Testament, though his interest does not lie in a technical, theological definition. In view of the needs of his audience he describes what authentic faith does, not what it is in itself. Through faith God guarantees the blessings to be hoped for from him, providing evidence in the gift of faith that what he promises will eventually come to pass (1). Because they accepted in faith God’s guarantee of the future, the biblical personages discussed in vv.3-38 were themselves commended by God (2). Christians have even greater reason to remain firm in faith since they, unlike the Old Testament men and women of faith, have perceived the beginning of God’s fulfilment of his messianic promises (39-40). (New American Bible)
The reason for this emphasis on faith is that the Jewish Christians, the ‘Hebrews’ to whom the author is writing have become discouraged because of persecution. He now emphasises that it is only what is future and what is invisible that gives them hope. The examples taken from the lives of Old Testament saints are meant to give them courage and illustrate how faith is the source of patience and strength.
The reading opens with a description, rather than a proper definition, of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. Later, this verse was adopted as a theological definition of faith. It is a matter much more of deep trust in God rather than the holding of religious ‘truths’. Again, faith is not just something subjective. Although what is believed in cannot be seen, the unseen realities are tested and ‘proved’ by experience. And the examples given here are such experiences.
It is faith that helps us realise that the visible world is truly the work of the invisible word of God, “what is seen was made from things that cannot be seen”. In our own lives, we will find that when we commit ourselves totally to the vision of Christ, it brings a deep satisfaction and sense of peace into our lives, even when external circumstances may be difficult.
In the second part of the reading, three examples are mentioned as examples of deep faith: Abel, Enoch and Noah.
The first example is Abel. “By faith” Abel offered a sacrifice which was more pleasing to God than Cain’s. It was a sign of Abel’s righteousness that God accepted his offerings. In fact, the Cain and Abel narrative in Gen 4:1-16 does not mention Abel’s faith. It does say, however, that God “looked with favour on Abel and his offering” (Gen 4:4). The author of Hebrews understands God’s favour as having been activated by the faith of Abel and not simply because of what he was offering, although there does seem to be, in this period, a bias for the agricultural over the pastoral, fruits of the earth rather than animals.
Abel died at the hands of his jealous brother yet, because of his faith, he still speaks to us. Genesis quotes God as saying that the blood of Abel “cries out to me from the soil” (Gen 4:10) but the author of Hebrews is more probably saying that the repeated story of Abel provides ongoing witness to faith.
Next, we have the example of Enoch. Enoch is a character whose name occurs in a genealogy of the generations from Adam to Noah (Genesis ch. 5). He was the son of Jared and father of Methusaleh, legendary for his long life of 969 years. We know practically nothing else about Enoch except that he lived to be 365 years. He is distinguished from the other patriarchs in several ways: his life is shorter but his years number those of the days in a solar year, he therefore attains a perfect age and he “walks with God”, as Noah did. But then “he was no longer here, for God took him” (Gen 5:24). In the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) we also read: “Enoch walked with the Lord and was taken up that succeeding generations might learn by his example” (Eccl 44:16). Like Elijah, he vanishes mysteriously, carried off by God.
The clear implication is that he did not die in the usual way but, like Elijah (2 Kings 2:11ff), was taken alive to the presence of God. Hebrews says that, before he was taken, there was clear evidence that “he had pleased God”. This expression follows the Greek translation of Gen 5:22, which in the Hebrew reads “walked with God” – but the meanings can clearly be the same. God is surely pleased with anyone who walks with him.
Because of his friendship with God (not otherwise described here or elsewhere in the Bible) and also by reason of his unusual disappearance from the earth, Enoch’s reputation was great among the Chosen People, particularly in the two centuries just before the coming of Christ. He was held up as a model of piety and certain apocryphal books bear his name.
The author then comments that without faith it is impossible to please God. For, anyone who wants to approach God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. The faith that is essential for our salvation has two objects: belief in the existence of one personal God, who by his very nature cannot be seen, and belief that God will reward all effort spent in searching for him. This is, as we have said, much more a question of surrendering to the God we cannot see than simply stating a conviction that he exists. The Greek word for ‘faith’ is pistis (pistis) which basically means ‘trust’.
Lastly, Noah, warned by God about events not yet apparent, trusted, put his faith, in God’s word and built the ark to save his household. In doing so, he condemned the rest of the unbelieving and corrupt world and became an heir to the righteousness that follows faith.
Let us pray that our faith too may grow stronger and stronger that we may be ever more open to God’s working in our lives. May he help us especially to see him at work in times of pain and difficulty.