In Part 4, last week, we discussed the question of the author’s identification with women. Our starting point was the author’s view of women in Hebrews 11 and the list of the Heroes of the Faith. We left off before discussing Hebrews view of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.
Sarah was the first named female hero of faith. A controversy has evolved around the place of Sarah in that roll call and certain issues need to be resolved. The verse in question is Hebrews 11:11. It reads by faith Sarah herself received power to conceive even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. This verse follows three sentences is in which Abraham's faith is described like this: by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as in a foreign land. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations whose architect and builder is God.
Immediately following is the verse by faith Sarah herself... That feminine pronoun herself is intensive. What I mean is, the pronoun is unnecessary and is used for emphasis. In the most straightforward view of this sentence, Sarah is in the nominative case, that is, she is the subject. Some commentators, however, claim that Abraham is the subject and not Sarah, making Abraham alone the exemplar of faith in this series of sentences. In some translations, Abraham has supplanted Sarah as a model of faith in the text and Sarah, as a model of faith, has been demoted to a footnote.
Some have objections to Sarah as a model of faith, thinking she is not worthy or is not a logical example. Remember, we are constructing a psychological portrait of the author of Hebrews. So if Sarah is in fact a dubious example, we have to say that the author is willing to overlook Sarah's failures and see her in a favorable light. Perhaps a woman, more likely than a man, would in fact overlook Sarah's initial skepticism.
Or perhaps the author took a second look at Sarah's skepticism from a different perspective. The time has come for us to do the same. The incident we are talking about is found in the 18th chapter of Genesis. Three supernatural messengers tell Abraham that Sarah will conceive and bear a son. Sarah overhears their conversation and since she is far past the age for childbearing, she laughed to herself. But consider, no one has said anything directly to Sarah yeah. Unlike Abraham, she has had no opportunity to evaluate the authority or supernatural charisma of those messengers. In fact, Sarah was not even asked why she laughed but the question was put to Abraham why did Sarah laugh? Apparently, Sarah was finally able to evaluate the messengers and found herself in awe. It was out of her fear that she denied laughing. So then are we to dismiss Sarah as some sort of amused skeptic?
Now look at the 17th chapter of Genesis in verses 15 through 17 which reads: “God said to Abraham…” This was now not a direct message from a trio of visitors but a revelation from heaven. “God said to Abraham, As for Sarah your wife I will bless her and Moreover I will give you a son by her period I will bless her and she shall give rise to nations, Kings of peoples shall come from her.”
So, before we dismiss Sarah, who was twice blessed by God, look how Abraham responded to the promise from God. Genesis 17:17, “...then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”
We need to visualize this. When we read in verse 17 that he bowed low, we usually have the impression that Abraham was bowing in submission, humbling himself, but that is not the case. We can see more clearly what was happening from a better translation of the Hebrew which reads, “... then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself....” Abraham was bent over double because he was convulsed with laughter. Even worse, some say that he was putting on a show by bowing before God but laughing in his heart at the divine revelation.
In either case, we should ask ourselves why does the world remember Sarah's subdued laughter, of which she soon repented, fearful because she did in fact believe? And why do we hold her culpable for it while at the same time we forget that Abraham fell on his face, overcome with derisive laughter?
One commentator says, “It is a generous interpretation of the text to assume Sarah acted by faith.” But maybe this is exactly what we should add to the author's psychological profile. She has a generosity in evaluating the spiritual role of Sarah in her nation's history, seeing her intrinsic faithfulness instead of her momentary confusion and disbelief. In this case, the author of Hebrews truly is a feminist.
Abraham is said to have looked forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. In the next sentence, Sarah was enabled to found a posterity and fulfillment of God's promise. Apparently, the author of Hebrews is intentionally comparing the two. On the one hand, there was the city which had foundations which was the capital of a nation and, on the other hand, there was Isaac who was the foundation of the chosen people, the seed of Abraham, destined to be heir of the land of promise and the city which had the foundations.
Once again, and sadly, there are those translators and commentators who want to make Abraham alone as the model of faith, who want to make Abraham the focus of the story. Even going so far as to say that the promise for procreation was to Abraham and not to Sarah. Some want to say that Abraham was past childbearing years but that is just bad Hebrew grammar and it shows a shocking ignorance of human biology and physiology. Some want to read that Abraham became the father of Isaac, even though Sarah was barren.
All of this represents the basest form of prejudice and chauvinism.
There are several linguistic and stylistic problems in trying to make Abraham the subject. While we know that word order is flexible in Greek, there are certainly logical limits. Which sentence sounds smoother and more elegant? By faith he received power appropriation even though he was past the right age and Sarah herself was barren...as compared to by faith Sarah herself though barren was enabled to found a posterity. Which one is awkward and which one is elegant? It is the more elegant construct that is in conformity with the style of the Letter to the Hebrews.
Evidence for the reference to childbearing past normal age and stylistic considerations secure the place of Sarah as the subject of Hebrews 11:11 and belonging as a model of faith.
We need to envision how the author thought about Sarah and go beyond the conventional view that Sarah fell from grace by laughing at the revelation of God. The author of Hebrews knows, as all believers must know, that temporary doubt, fear, and denial can be transmuted into steadfast faith. If this were not so, what hope would any of us have on our spiritual journey?
There is another woman who is mentioned, though not by name, in Hebrews chapter 11. In 20:3, we read “by faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful and they were not afraid of the King's edict.” That story is told originally in Exodus 2:1-4. In Exodus, the mother acts alone in making the decision, preparing the papyrus basket, and placing the basket on the riverbank while the sister of the baby stood watch. In the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament, which was the Bible of the author of Hebrews, both parents are credited with hiding the baby for three months. Exodus 2:3 says, “When they could no longer hide him his mother took for him an arc and besmeared it with bitumen and cast the child into it and put it in the ooze by the river.”
It is in this chapter that we find the sympathetic reference to Pharaoh's daughter.
Why are there so many women in the 11th or Heroes of the Faith chapter in the Epistle to the Hebrews? The obvious answer is that a woman wrote it.
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