Hebrews 11:17-29 account of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph) shows how they learnt to let go of whatever is precious to them and lean more on God. This is the process of a journey in faith, growing more dependent on God and relying less on one’s self. This type of faith also led Moses to look for a different reward than the “pleasures of sin” and forego of success here and now, looking for the invisible reward.
Abraham – Father of Faith
When God tested Abraham, Abraham was asked to give back what he was gifted. A gift he received after waiting a long time to receive it. The story illustrates in many ways a faith that goes beyond rationale and understanding. Kierkegaard on talking about this enigmatic passage, recognizes that it was not only irrational it is even morally repugnant. In this blind faith move Abraham in one way left his child Isaac with God and walked back with a “resurrected” Isaac. This is the miracle of faith that not only Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac and willing to receive him from the dead. Whereas others we read later in Hebrews “were put to death by stoning;they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword.” – v 37. This faith journey of Abraham is one of letting go of what may be precious to us and receiving what God gives to us. In that sense, there was a different Isaac that walked with Abraham from Mt. Moriah than the Isaac who walked with him up to Mt. Moriah.
The last of the Patriarchs
Hebrews’ author cherry picks certain incidents in the life of Isaac and Jacob as demonstration of faith. If we look carefully from verse 1 of this chapter, you will notice this faith is driving the faithful to let go of their skill, wisdom and even their duty to embrace a life of trust. Isaac’s story of blessing Jacob (by trickery really) over Esau and Jacob’s story of worshiping God “leaning on his staff” both demonstrate a life of surrender and life that is driven by trust instead of one’s own understanding or skill. The Genesis 27 story lays out how Isaac was tricked to bless Jacob with a blessing that was not exactly what he planned.
In talking about Jacob, the author points out how Jacob, who was man made of his own mind, skill even in fighting with God (Genesis 32:22-32) – later in his life walking with a limp learnt more to “lean on his staff” (a symbol of weakness and dependence) instead of on his own abilities. Genesis 47:31 is the verse quoted by the Hebrews’ author in the chapter that brings Jacob to a tearful fulfillment of all his dreams. (Read the exceptional commentary form Robert Alter on this passage at the end).
What do Joseph and Moses have in common?
The passage Hebrews 11:22-28 is presenting an approach for looking at Joseph and Moses who both look forward to the “exodus” event. Joseph though rich, successful and powerful was still looking ahead to the time when Israelite will leave Egypt for their own homeland, no longer as a second class citizen but a country of their own, honoring and worshiping their God.
The author quickly also acknowledges the faith of Moses’ parents, though they are rarely mentioned in much of the stories, still played a significant role. Moses’s parents saw by faith that he was no ordinary child. The author now turns to look at Moses – Israelite’s most adored prophet. The author points out greatness of Moses as something distinct from giving them the Law. The focus is on Moses’ choice to leave behind the “treasures of Egypt” and looking forward to a “greater reward.” Moses’ faith in keeping the Passover is applauded once again (Passover is explored a few times in Hebrews) as the escape from the tyranny of slavery into the Promised Land for Israel. The nation of Israel walked across the Red Sea leaving their footprints of faith, while Egypt attempting to walk fell and died as they did not walk in the same footsteps of faith.
Extra: Robert Alter’s commentary on Genesis 47:9-10 – when Pharaoh asks Jacob “How many are the days of the years of your life?” – Jacob replies “A hundred and thirty . . Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” Jacob’s somber summary of his own life echoes the kind of complex solemnity against all we have seen him undergo. He has, after all, achieved everything he aspired to achieve: the birthright, the blessing, marriage with his beloved Rachel, progeny and wealth (now). But one measure of the profound moral realism of the story is that although he gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment. From his “clashing” (Gen 25:22) with his twin in the womb, everything has been a struggle. He displaces Esau, but only at the price of fear and lingering guilt and long exile. He gets Rachel, but only by having Leah imposed on him, with all the domestic strife that entails, and he loses Rachel early in childbirth. He is given a new name by his divine adversary, but comes away with a permanent wound. He gets the full solar-year number of twelve sons, but there is enmity among them (for which he bears some responsibility), and he spends twenty-two years continually grieving over his favorite son, who he believes is dead. This is, in sum, a story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feelings of happiness at the end. “and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers” In fact, Jacob long-lived as he is, will not attain the prodigious life spans of Abraham and Isaac. At this point however, he can scarcely know how much longer he has to live (seventeen years, as it turns out), and so his words must reflect that feeling of having one foot in the grace that he has repeatedly expressed before. One should not exclude the possibility that Jacob is playing up the sense of contradiction, making a calculated impression on Pharoah, in dismissing his own 130 years as “few.” The ideal lifespan of the Egyptians was 110.