They conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises

The lectionary readings for Sunday include Hebrews 11:29 to 12:2.

Verse 29 is striking. It recounts not the faith of individual persons, but of “people,” of the Hebrews, the Israelites. They are commended for exercising faith. For crossing the Red Sea, “as on dry land.”

Their crossing of the Red Sea as the waters parted for them at God’s command is one of the most remarkable things recorded in the Bible. Did it really happen?

Scholars tell us the annals of Egypt do not speak of Moses, of the enslavement of the Israelites, of the departure of the Israelites, of their pursuit and subsequent escape across the Red Sea.

Yet, the Bible treats them as real, as does the Koran (see especially Sura 26.)

What are we to make of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites?

Over the centuries, it has been taken as proof that God is a God of justice and fairness, who yet especially favoured one people group: the Israelites.

The Israelites were to be the model nation. As tomorrow’s reading tells us in Heb. 11:33, they “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice and obtained promises.” The preceding verse links these actions with individuals: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel. It also links them with “the prophets.”

The passage also speaks of another act of faith of “the people”: marching around Jericho for seven days (Heb 11:30), after which the walls of Jericho crumbled. (Curiously, it praises the faith of Rahab the prostitute, but nowhere mentions Joshua, the one through whom God gave the order to perform that act!)

I think we can safely say that everyone would think it strange and daft to be told that the way to be saved from Pharaoh and his army is to walk into the sea. And that it’s just as strange and daft to march around a city blowing horns, instead of planning strategy and practicing tactics.

The writer’s point is clear: being faithful involves recognizing “strange” and “daft” commands as the word of God and obeying them.

Are calls to do “strange” and “daft” things supposed to be common in the lives of people of faith? If not, is there any element of faith in our lives?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the definition of faith.

If you look at the entry for “faith” in a dictionary, the first definition will be something like this: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” The second will be something like this: “strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.”

I think most of what passes for faith today is doctrine, not trust and confidence. What do you think?

Where does the writer to the Hebrews go next in his letter?

In verses 34-38, he speaks of the sufferings of the faithful. Yes. Sufferings.

The writer to the Hebrews is brutally honest. He speaks of the faithful being tortured, mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two; being destitute, afflicted mistreated, wandering about.

Then, he goes on to tell his readers – including us – that we must view our ancestors, the people he mentions – as people who didn’t receive all of what was promised, because it was not yet the right time. “Something better” (verse 40) would come. It would come to us. This is what he says next, in Heb 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Do you recognize “Running with endurance, looking to Jesus,” the theme of this year’s BLC family camp?

What will we hear at camp about kingdoms, justice, promises, prophets, sufferings, joy?

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