Last time I mentioned that Jephthah is included in Hebrews 11’s list of exemplars of faith. I think it’s an odd inclusion, but then, the whole section regarding the figures from Judges is odd. Here it is:
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. […]
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
I skipped over verses 35-38 because the Hebrews author seems to be discussing saints and martyrs from the early Church period there. Verses 39 and 40 seem to be addressing all of the paragons that are listed in this chapter, including the judges.
Here we get the list of paragons from the Book of Judges, and it’s a strange list for sure. As I’ve mentioned before, it includes Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah. Clearly this is an abridged list, since the writer says that there’s not enough time to extort the acts of faith from every significant figure in Israel’s history, but I still find it odd who made the cut. Gideon makes sense, and so does Barak, but why are Samson and Jephthah included when Deborah was left out? I haven’t discussed Samson yet, but he’s basically the ancient version of an irresponsible fratboy, and Jephthah’s a cutthroat who murdered his daughter. In both of their stories they do accomplish some things that help Israel out, but they are rather terrible human beings.
I know the standard argument that faith is not dependent upon a person’s character, and the fact that Samson and Jephthah are awful should emphasize how God can redeem anyone for his purposes. I’ll even give that Samson has a redemptive moment at his death when he asks God to give him one last burst of strength (so he can get his revenge on the Philistines, I might add). I just don’t know what’s commendable about the faith of these two though. In a sense it’s childlike, because they trust that God can give them what they want, but what they want is still petty and destructive. I don’t see them hoping for something beyond what’s in front of them, and I don’t know what to do with that.
Perhaps more problematic for me (and this may simply be a personal problem) is the suggestion that faith is what enabled these men’s conquests. I’m currently enamored with the concept of love as a weak force that overcomes forces of power through patience and kindness. God is not interested in conquest, but reconciliation. I can understand how the writer of the Book of Judges might have seen military conquest as demonstrating exemplary faith, but moving forward into the letter to the Hebrews, when the writer had the context of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection to incorporate, it doesn’t jive so well. I don’t know how to resolve that problem, but I suspect it lies somewhere in the realm of understanding what the writer of Hebrews was trying to communicate to their audience, while contending with all of their cultural presuppositions as well.
Anyway, next week we’ll move on to Samson so we can talk about why he’s such a popular figure to turn into a Sunday school hero for children.