In Part 3, last week, we asked if the author of Hebrews possessed a feminine mind. We concluded that she did. This week, we embark on the question of the author’s identification with women. We want to look at Hebrews and see if women of faith in their role in religious history are acknowledged and, by implication, their equality before God. Our starting point is the author’s view of women in Hebrews 11 and the list of the Heroes of the Faith.
A quick look at the 11th chapter shows two women, Sarah and Rahab, mentioned by name among the faithful. Then there is a curious reference to women who received their dead by resurrection. At the end of the chapter, the author states that, despite the merit of all the faithful ones, their faith along with ours had not yet been perfected in Jesus. So, the women who received their dead by resurrection were not women of the New Testament times but of the Old Testament.
Some cannot be mentioned by name because their names are never recorded in Scripture. Nonetheless, two specific women are referenced: the widow of Zarephath, whose son was restored to life by Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24, and the Shunammite woman, whose son was resurrected by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:18-37. The author of Hebrews speaks of the faith of these two women, a faith which enabled these miraculous events to take place. If a man were telling the story, it would be reasonable to expect that the story would be told in a very different way, with Elijah and Elisha being the protagonists who did miraculous things by their faith.
As a matter of fact, a man did tell the story. His name was Sirach and his story is in the Apocryphal book named Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. In Sirach 48:4-5, we read: “How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds. You raised a corpse from death and from Hades by the word of the Most High.” As for Elisha, we are told by Sirach, “Elisha performed marvels with every utterance of his mouth. Nothing was too hard for him and when he was dead his body prophesied.”
The author of Hebrews was familiar with the roll call of heroes of faith and Sirach/Ecclesiasticus because it was part of the Greek Septuagint. In fact, Hebrews follows right along with Sirach/Ecclesiasticus with mention of Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. But while Sirach mentions Abraham, he does not name Sarah and, while he praises Joshua, he does not name Rahab. By contrast, the author of Hebrews only alludes to Joshua but does not name him, naming Rahab instead for her role in helping Joshua’s spies. There is a reference to Rahab in James 2:25 in which Rahab is described as “justified by works in saving the spies.” However, in Hebrews, there is a little bit of a different story.
Hebrews reads: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient because she had received the spies in peace.”
Clement of Rome twice stated that Rahab acted through faith in 1 Clement 12. He adds a new element to Rahab spiritual discernment by saying not only faith but prophecy is found in the woman.
It can be argued, and it has been argued, that the inclusion of Rahab, a harlot, as a hero of faith is a bit far-fetched. But there she is in the 11th chapter and the author of Hebrews placed her there.
Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, and other rabbinic writers, did not regard Rahab as a prostitute but rather as an innkeeper. In fact, there are several manuscripts that have mentioned Rahab the so-called prostitute.
Rahab may, in fact, have been a respectable innkeeper because the Hebrew word zona (זוֹנָה) can also be translated as innkeeper and we favor that translation because of Rahab’s personal qualities. So, we believe Rahab managed an inn and was welcoming to the travelers there but this carries no more stigma then any hostess would carry.
As for Rahab's personal qualities, she not only believed in God but had spiritual discernment to perceive divine leading regarding the Israelite mission.
Also, Rahab is named by Matthew as the wife of a leading member of the community. All of this is inconsistent with the tradition that Rahab was a harlot. But in any event, through faith and repentance, her life was touched and changed by the divine drama in which she played so prominent role.
Sarah, the widow of Zarephath, the Shunammite woman, and Rahab are not the only women mentioned in the 11th chapter of Hebrews. There are others, although their presence is not immediately obvious.
One woman referenced was Judith, found in the Apocrypha, who was called a person who “won strength out of weakness became mighty in war and put foreign enemies to flight” in Hebrews 11:34. Judith, a devout woman, beseeched God in prayer for strength to defeat the Assyrians. She prayed, “give to me a widow the strong hand to do what I plan” in Judith 9:9. Her valiant deed was the killing of the Assyrian general Holofernes, killing him by the sword.
Another woman referenced is Esther, following Judith, with such terminology as perfection in faith, and this is reminiscent of the writing in Hebrews. In Hebrews 11:34, it talks about one who escaped the edge of the sword. In Esther 4:11, we are told that there was no escape for anyone who approached the King unbidden. And yet, Esther did escape the sword.
We also find in Hebrews a certain imitative language from the apocryphal book 4th Maccabees. 4th Maccabees, in all likelihood, was the last book in Priscilla's Bible. Such language as “they went about in skins of sheep and goats, they wandered in dense mountains and in caves” is an echo of 2nd Maccabees 10:6 which reads: “they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.”
The book of 4th Maccabees is concerned with praise for a mother and her seven sons who underwent martyrdom rather than renounce their faith. These sons were encouraged by their mother to hold fast to their faith and they were tortured and killed for it. The author of Maccabees wrote, “they vindicated their nation, looking to God and in during torture even to death” in 4th Maccabees 16:10.
Sound familiar? It sounds like Hebrews 12:4, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
Just as these witnesses persevered in their faith, looking to God and resisting to the point of shedding their blood, we also are to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who endured the cross.
So, we have identified the following women in Chapter 11 of Hebrews: Sarah, Rahab, the widow of Zarephath, the Shunammite woman, Judith, Esther, and the mother of those seven sons.
But we need a good long look at Sarah. That follows next week.
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