Handling "Heroes" in Hebrews 11

By Kenneth Way May. 9, 2011 8:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, New Testament, Old Testament

I can understand why the so-called “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 includes luminaries like Abel and Enoch who have untarnished records in Genesis.  I can also appreciate why imperfect people like Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses and Rahab are included among the faithful.  But what about characters like Jephthah and Samson in Hebrews 11:32?  These infamous figures from the book of Judges appear to be severely faith-challenged.  So what are they doing in this august list?

Recently I have been working on research for a commentary on the book of Judges (for the forthcoming Teach the Text commentary series with Baker Publishing Group), and it is painfully obvious that the period of the judges was spiritually a very dark time in the history of Israel.  Over the years many scholars have observed that the so-called “major” judges (in chapters 3-16) are arranged from, relatively speaking, best to worst.  Thus Othniel is the moral apex and Samson is the moral nadir.

So this brings me back to Hebrews 11.  Why in verse 32 does the author mention Gideon and Barak (who had reluctant/fearful faith) and Samson and Jephthah (who had ignorant/shallow faith)?  Wouldn’t he have done better to mention the “better” judges like Othniel, Ehud and Deborah?  Or perhaps he should have skipped over the judges altogether and gone straight to David?  I think that questions like this can be addressed by some basic principles of hermeneutics.

First, it is important to clarify that the author of Hebrews 11 is merely listing people from biblical history who demonstrated some faith.  He is not technically interpreting the book of Judges or any other specific book of the Old Testament (at least not by our modern “objective” methods).  Rather, he presumes that his audience already knows about the depressing message of the book of Judges; so he intentionally does something different.  Notice that Hebrews 11:32 actually runs some of the judges together in a litany that includes David, Samuel, and “the prophets.”  Thus, he is neither expounding on the book of Judges nor on the book of Samuel; he is merely drawing illustrations from biblical history.

Second, it is important to interpret both Hebrews 11 and Judges according to their respective messages, or “big ideas.”  This is derived from what an author says or does not say and from how the author says it.  The point of Hebrews 11 is to inspire us to grow in our faithfulness to Jesus; the point of the book of Judges is to warn us about our tendency toward apostasy (or faithlessness)!  Since Hebrews 11 has a positive objective, the author selectively includes only the positive details from people who had imperfect faith.  Judges, on the other hand, has a negative objective; so the author selectively emphasizes the negative details about Israel’s imperfect leaders. 

The “big idea” of a biblical passage also relates to theology proper.  If the ultimate purpose of the Bible is to reveal God, then our interpretations must always be “theocentric” in focus (cf., G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth [Zondervan, 2003] 98, 106).  With regard to Hebrews 11, one must read past the chapter division into the following verses where the reader is exhorted to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” and to “Consider him…so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:2-3).  The point is that one should not focus on any of the feeble “heroes” of chapter 11 per se, but rather, one should focus on Jesus.  The selected stories of faith in Hebrews 11 should be viewed as catalysts that point us to God.

Likewise, the book of Judges should not be read as an anthology of “hero” stories, unless, of course, the hero is Yahweh himself.  God is clearly the one in the book of Judges who sends oppressors, raises up leaders, sends his Spirit, and grants deliverance.  God is therefore identified in the book as the ultimate ruler (8:23) and the ideal judge (11:27). 

In light of these general considerations, I would suggest the following principles for interpretation:

  1. Avoid making any biblical character into a role model or behavioral example to follow (positively or negatively).  Whereas the human characters are incidental, God is the only “hero” in the biblical drama: He is ultimately the one who is revealed and the one who must be imitated (see J. H. Walton and K. E. Walton, Bible Story Handbook [Crossway, 2010] 13-30, 129, 131, 135, 140).
  2. Abstain from reading the book of Judges through the “lens” of Hebrews 11.  Judges has its own God-inspired message and it stands on its own two feet as Scripture.  This means that the message of Judges is understandable without the aid of Hebrews 11 (and vice versa).  We need to appreciate the distinct/different messages of the books of Hebrews and Judges.  That is to say: let Hebrews 11 be Hebrews 11 and let Judges be Judges.  We should not blend the two texts into something new which represents neither one.
  3. Don’t try to replicate the subjective method that is employed by the inspired author of Hebrews 11.  It should go without saying that we are not inspired in the same sense as the biblical authors, and thus we do not have the freedom to handle biblical texts in the same subjective manner that they did.  For example, to argue on the basis of Hebrews 11 that the book of Judges provides behavioral role models for Christians to imitate would be to put aside more objective hermeneutical methods and impose a more subjective reading on the text of Judges that ignores authorial intentions (see J. H. Walton, “Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity” The Masters Seminary Journal 13/1 [2002] 65-77). 

In conclusion, I would suggest that in Hebrews 11 we have not so much the “Hall of Faith” but rather the “Hall of Feeble Faith.”  The only real “hero” in this passage is Jesus himself (Heb 12:2-3).  The point in Scripture is never that we should be like Abraham or Moses, or—God forbid!—Jephthah or Samson.  While all of these characters may have exhibited some measure of faith, the purpose is to point us to God so that we can be formed into his likeness (see Eph 5:1-2).  

So let’s not put Bible characters on pedestals or make them into role models.  Snapshots from the lives of these imperfect characters are recorded in order to direct us God-ward by showing us who He is based on what He has done in the past.  The truth is that all of us are faith-challenged and are works-in-progress (see Rom 3:4).  This is what makes “role modeling” so precarious.  The proper way to imitate a faithful saint is explained by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”  In other words, we should only be like Paul insofar as he is being like Jesus. 


  • Rodd Umlauf May. 9, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    Sometimes when we read about the lives of the Old Testament saints we do note the weakness of their faith and have questions. But as Hebrews 11:39 says, they had a good testimony of faith but they did not receive the promise of Entering God's Rest, which New Covenant saints have received, the Promise of the Holy Spirit. We have received the precious Promises and the means of Grace to live more faithfully, by the indwelling Holy Spirit; we dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem which is the Church.

    I do have a question : " Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses...." are these Old Testament saints "watching" us and aware of what's going on in our lives ? I recently read a book titled "Heaven" by Randy Alcorn. He suggests that those who are now in the intermediate state can see and hear us. That would mean for example, that Daniel "who stopped the mouths of lions" ( 11:33), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who stood unharmed and "quenched the violence of fire" ( 11:34), or the Maccabean martyrs who were "tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection" ( 11:35b; 2 Maccabees 7), can hear us and watch us. If Randy Alcorn and others are correct, doesn't that imply that I could ask Daniel or the Maccabean Martyr's, or Saint Peter for that matter, to pray for me when I have a prayer request, just as I were to ask one of my friends to pray for me ? Personally I do not seek the intercession of those in the intermediate state, but Hebrew 12: 1 makes me wonder if it would be right to do so.

  • Mike Sanborn May. 9, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    Thanks Ken. I also wonder why the author of Hebrews does not select the "better" Judges, but I guess it really doesn't matter which ones were "better" or not, since all of them had imperfect faith. I wonder if the author chose Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah because their military conquests were so miraculous - all credit to God - and in Hebrews 11:33-34 the emphasis seems to be on spectacular events. Hmm.

  • Ed Morsey May. 9, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    Well said, Ken. I'd add that Hebrews seems to have a similar objective as Judges -- warning against apostasy; but unlike Judges it provides powerful positive messages to help the believer resist temptation.

    Responding to Rodd's question: I prefer to take μαρτύρων from verse 12:1 as witnesses/testifiers not witnesses/observers. Each case is given as an example of God’s faithfulness, so man can place his hope in that unseen God.

  • Brandon May. 10, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    "Whereas the human characters are incidental, God is the only “hero” in the biblical drama: He is ultimately the one who is revealed and the one who must be imitated ..."

    If God is my hero and I am to imitate His actions, this is how things could play out:

    I am restoring a bookshelf in my garage with the garage door open. My neighbor across the street comes over to check things out. He says, "You're a Christian right? Well...I am going to sacrifice my daughter tonight. I've already made the altar and sharpened my knives and found the cord for the saws."

    I make a face like I was about to throw up...hoping he would stop, but he continued, "The part I dread is skinning her body after I slaughter her...you've seen me try and clean fish...I am no expert by any means."

    Then he asks me, "Since I know you are a follower of Yahweh too...can I get you to help me?

    "No way! I am not helping you. Why don't you just go home." I said.

    My neighbor turned around and walked back home.

    I thought about calling the police, but then I remembered I was to imitate my hero, Yahweh. Yahweh didn't stop Jepthah from doing the same thing. He sure could have stopped him, but sometimes chopping and burning your kids must just be the right way to express our faith.

    So tonight, I'll just use the earplugs I have in the nightstand for when my father stays with us. That screaming, and skinning, and sawing is bound to be louder than any amount of snoring my pops could do.

    God is my hero!

  • Mike Sanborn May. 10, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    Brandon, do you believe that God is morally obligated to stop whatever evil or suffering that He has the power to stop? If that is the case, then God must stop all of it, because presumably He has the power to stop all of it. But if God stops all of it, then we humans have no freedom to choose to reject God, which means no freedom to love Him.

    Ah, but Jephthah's sacrifice was so horrific! Certainly God should have stopped that! But where do we draw the 'horrific' line between evil that God should stop and evil that God should allow to preserve free will? Just how bad does something have to be that God must stop it? Perhaps you have an idea for where this moral line should be drawn.

  • Ross McPhee May. 10, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Very informative. When I read about people like Samson, or the unnamed Levite who let his concubine be raped and then dismembered her. I see these in part as examples of negative reinforcement. Is this a valid way to approach the text?

  • Brandon May. 11, 2011 at 6:15 AM

    Mr. Sanborn,

    No, I do not believe God is morally obligated to stop evil and suffering. If we all sat back, prayed, and waited on supernatural solutions, things would get ugly fast.

    However, I am thankful that there are men and women who work tirelessly to stop evil and suffering. We owe them our gratitude.

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 11, 2011 at 8:31 AM

    We were created on the "sixth day" with the animals. But we were not intended to remain sixth day creatures with the beasts. We were intended to come into the "seventh day" and enter God's Covenant and become seventh day creatures. One of the themes of the Book of Hebrews is "Entering God's Sabbath Rest"( Hebrews 3:4,5) where we rest in the Spirit and cease from living according to our animal appetites.
    God is saving us out of our animalistic sixth day state, cleansing us from our beast like condition. Those who by their own free will refuse to enter God's Rest will label themselves with the mark of their beastly nature (666).
    The Old Testament people often lived shockingly horrible lives but they had not received the Promises.
    Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest of Old Testament saints, but that the least in the New Covenant Kingdom is greater than John of the Old. The Bible says that when Jesus died on the cross , He descended into Hades to preach the Gospel to the spirits in prison "who formerly were disobedient". Even the very worst and evil people who died before the coming of Christ had the chance of embracing the Gospel.

  • Mike Sanborn May. 12, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    Brandon, You may be surprised at how many of those people who work tirelessly to eradicate evil are driven to action from their prayers with God, where they get a clear vision of the restoration, healing, protection, counsel, rescue, and reconciliation that God wants to see happen through them. You may be surprised by the countless stories of men and women who have been motivated to act based on their encounters with God in the Bible, in prayer, and through 'coincidental' circumstances that just happened to match very specific prayers.

    You also may be surprised to find out that the very concept of evil does not make sense without the existence of God.

  • Brandon May. 13, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    Prayer + Good Works = Good Works

    Bible Study + Good Works = Good Works

    Zen meditation + Good Works = Good Works

    Reading Tao Te Ching + Good Works = Good Works

    The "concept of evil" is relative to the god you believe exists.

    Flying planes into the World Trade Center by followers of Allah seems evil to Americans. Yet this evil act is in line with the actions of Yahweh's followers in the Hebrew scriptures. (Joshua 6:21)

    We call out, "Evil!...Barbarism!" when we hear of Muslim fathers who kill their daughters because of suspected sexual impurity. Then we ignore the reality that Yahweh's expectations are not any different. (Numbers 5:11-31, Lev. 24:14)

    To live in integrity, I do believe we must be diligent to address our unchosen nature, and be mindful of the damage it can cause. This is possible with or without having as our hero Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, Quetzalcoatl, or Ra.

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 13, 2011 at 10:02 PM

    Brandon does raise a fair point. The political religious evangelical right screams at all of the "horrible" surahs in the Quran, as if their Scriptures endorse a perfect morality.The Quran is tame compared to portions of Old Testament behavior. The Islamic Hadith is filled with the same types of difficult morality that the Old Testament seems to endorse. We want the Ten Commandents posted in public places, but we would be horrified if the authorities posted the biblical consequences for breaking those commandments. We have not done a good job of educating Christians why we do not follow the Mosaic Law, if we even know the answers ourselves. The liberals have tried to answer these hard questions but their answers are not the right ones, in our opinion; but at least they tried, even though they are wrong. Evangelicals seem to dodge the hard questions and give shallow answers or pretend they don't exist.
    Although I am not Eastern Orthodox, their view of Inspiration and Scripture is the only one that treats these hard questions honestly and with a reasonable explanation.

  • Brandon May. 16, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    Rodd, thanks for your comment. Is there a resource you can recommend that outlines the Eastern Orthodox view of Scripture? I may live in the buckle of the Bible belt, but that basically means we are quote miners extraordinaire. I'd love to see how EO deals with the narrative of the whole canon.


  • Mike Sanborn May. 16, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Rodd and Brandon, I agree that it may seem like a lot of Christians are dodging the issue of the Canaanite conquest, but in reality there are plenty of resources that tackle this head on. Paul Copan's "Is God a Moral Monster?" and Cowles and Gard's "Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide" are just two. Try Amazon and search for "Canaanite genocide." Rather than write an essay here I must defer to these and other books.

    Brandon, your comment that evil is relative is puzzling to me. Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to say that evil is not an objective reality and yet you also seem to be making objective moral judgments, assigning certain acts as "evil" or "damaging." From my standpoint, whenever we call something evil, and we mean objectively evil (not just my own displeasure with something), then we are saying, "That's not the way it's supposed to be." But in saying this, we are assuming that there is a way that things are supposed to be, and if that's the case, then who or what determines that? If there is no God or gods, and no one or no thing has determined how things are "supposed" to be, then how can we say that anything is "evil" or "damaging" when that is just simply the way things are? Are we not just saying that we don't like certain things - i.e. just personal preference? And if it's just a matter of personal preference, or even societal preference, then how does that affect those who have a different preference?

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 16, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    Hey Brandon,

    There is a cd course on the basic beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church ( 24 lectures I believe) which is available from "Know You Know Media". I would be willing to send you my set. As I mentioned, I am not Eastern Orthodox, but I do use "The Orthodox Study Bible" as my primary study bible because of the wonderful Christ centered study notes. Their doctrine on the Inspiration of Scripture deserves consideration, but few "Bible Christians" even know that the Eastern Church believes. I hope I am not breaking any website rules by giving out my e-mail address, but if I can send you the material I have, you can e-mail me as "Muskyboy" at "newnorth.net".

    Blessings of all things Good,

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 17, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Dear Mike,

    Thank you for the book recommendations. I have jotted down the titles and will check them out on Amazon. Personally I have worked out these issues in my own mind and found rest for my heart in the Loving Triune God; yet I am honest and admit there are difficulties and problems that I don't have answers to. Yes, I agree that the existence of evil and our sense that certain acts are evil points toward a Moral Law Giver and that He is good. The same is true with beauty. We all know beauty when we see it or hear it and that which is beautiful points to True Beauty itself, who is God.
    The trouble comes in with defining details. Here's an example: I have a good friend who believes in the Law of the Bible as he reads it literally. He believes adulterers, homosexuals, sabbath breakers, pagans, ect., should all be killed according to the Bible. He practices the dietary laws and the Old Covenant Sabbath. He has three wives and nearly 30 children. Needless to say he and I have had some pretty heated arguements, yet we remain good friends.He even wanted me to perform one of the wedding cerimonies; I declined.
    He can back up his views from Scripture, even "bashing the heads of edomite children on the rocks". My friend's hero is the violent King David, the man of war.

    What is good and right in one man's eyes may not be good in another man's eyes. Most Evangelical Christians view our dealings with Islam through Old Testamant eyes while I believe that the Gospel way of addressing the problem of militant Islam can be seen in the example of when Saint Francis journeyed to Egypt to meet with Sultan Malik al- Kamil and became a friend of the "Wolf".
    What is a Christians response to dealing with enemies, according to the Old Testament laws, or the New Moses' Law of the New Covenant, who is Christ and gives us a New Law on the Mount ?
    Why do American Evangelicals ( and Catholic lay people too) embrace Old Testament views of war, but then reject Old Testament laws on polygammy, divorce, concubinage, and the right to sell our daughters as slaves?

    Oh, I see I had a typo to Brandon. "Now you Know Media" is the company that has a cd series on the Orthodox Church's beliefs.

    Blessings of God's Beauty to both of you !


  • Mike Sanborn May. 17, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    Hi Rodd,

    Thanks for your comments. I believe that your comments lead us to the real problem here: Most people, Christian or not, do not have a 'big picture' understanding of the whole story found in the Bible, and this leads them to approach the Bible as a set of timeless rules. The Bible is not a set of timeless rules. The Bible is a story, a historical progression, of how God set out to woo the human race back into a relationship with Himself. The Old Testament Law represented one phase in this story, a much earlier phase in the development of humanity, a phase steeped in a violent, child-sacrificing, woman-degrading, polytheistic culture. During this 'childhood' phase God needed to teach and train humanity in different ways than today. Humanity has developed a lot since those times, thanks to the coming and influence of Jesus. The apostle Paul stated that the Mosaic Law was intended to be a "tutor" (a child's tutor) that leads us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Paul also states that the purpose of the Law was to show humans just how sinful we can be (Galatians 3:19; Romans 2:17-24) and to show us our absolute need for a Savior who brings rescue by our trust in Him alone and not by any "good works" we try to muster up (Ephesians 2:1-10).

    Thus, we cannot go to any passage in the Old Testament and simply assume that it is a timeless rule to be applied in the same way today. We need to see the Bible as a story, not as a rulebook. It's a love story of a stubborn, adulterous wife (us) being relentlessly pursued by her unbelievably loving and ever-devoted husband (God).

  • pf May. 17, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    Ken, there is only one logical solution to this issue: I think you and the author of Hebrews would diagree about what constitutes a hero. We might find a man who sacrifices his daughter as repugnant, but the people who wrote about Jepthath had a different world view. To them, he was great.

    Another issue in this thread is whether God is responsible for the bad in the world. At churches, we praise god for blesing, but then we say that suffering is part of his plan to correct us. But that makes no logical sense.

    People, if you give him credit for the good, logically he is responsible for the bad. If he isn't responsible for the bad, then he deserves no credit for the good things. If he can provide good things, but doesn't, then he is to "blame." Any other position is logically inconsistent. It's like we accept someone who flips a coin and says, "heads I win, tails you lose."

  • pf May. 17, 2011 at 2:24 PM

    Mike Sanborn: You win the prize for orthodoxy, but what a load of baloney.

    If the people in the OT were so barbaric, it was because that's the way god told them to be. Who ordered them to commit genocide and take rape women as war spoils and killed babies and created rules regarding the oppression of women (and many other things too terrible to mention)? God did.

    Now to be clear, I don't believe any deitiy tells people to do such things. But if you believe the bible is true, then you must believe that the barbarism of the people stemmed from their beliefs, and not that god had to put up with evil people.

    And historical progression, me eye. Look, there are all sorts of terrible things in the scriptures. One way to look at it is as a complex set of developing hermeneutics that god gradually revealed himself over time to people as they were ready. So why he couldn't have told people from the start that women should be equal? I just said it with no trouble at all. Why didn't god say that to Moses?

    Or one can see that people wrote books that reflected their primitive cultures and they ascribed those primitive ideas to a deity.

  • Alice C. Linsley May. 17, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    I'm EO. There is not a uniform Eastern Orthodox approach to the canon. In fact, the Orthodox don't agree on the canonical books and the order of the books. For example: the Book of Enoch is highly regarded among the Copts, but most Orthodox ignore it.

    The Orthodox Study Bible notes do not reflect the range of interpretations found among the Church Fathers on various topics. I use it also, but alongside the Jewish Study Bible and The Jerusalem Bible.

    I've addressed this question in reference to Genesis here:

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 17, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Hello again Mike,

    I'd say I am pretty much in full agreement with you on your last post to me.
    I believe God to be a Father who is reconciling His broken family back to Him. The accounts in Genesis definately reflect His children in their infancy stage and there is a maturing in the historical progression through the rest of the OT in which a wise father grows up his children.
    Although we don't understand everything, there is great wisdom in a father allowing his children to suffer, just like a coach puts his athletes through suffering so that they can gain the prize in the end.
    God does allow the bad to nurture us toward perfection. Jesus suffered horribly, but when Judas betrayed Him with a kiss, Jesus called him "friend". It is my enemies who hurt me and cause me pain that I should see as friends because it is through them that I can attain "True Joy"; the attitude of not being angery or hateful towards others even when they inflict me with arrows from the devil.

    pf is honest and has wrestled with the hard questions and his septical viewpoints are somewhat reasonable. However, there is much more to the gramatical historical reading of the text. If Scripture was intended to be read only on the basic "plain meaning of the text" then I think I might share his pessimistic tone. But what about all of the typological meaning that is fulfilled in the Life of Jesus on page after page after page in the Old Testament stories ?
    Its not just getting lucky here and there with a type that can be manipulated this way or that. No, there is a typological and allegorical thread that binds the whole Bible together and proves to me that there is a One Divine Hand behind the scenes guiding the free authors who collected the oral traditions which were then written down. The Scriptures give evidence of human authorship with all of its beauty and excellance but also its problems and difficulties; and when one sees the deeper prophetic nature of the Scriptures, I for one am sure that these accounts of God's dealings with His family are Inspired ( although I might define "Inspired" differantly than the average Evangelical). One example among thousands, how would we explain that the temple priests sang Psalm 30 on the morning of Jesus' resurrection ? Is that a chance happening ? ( read psalm 30 to get my point) Well, maybe, its change if it happens just once or twice but the Scriptures are loaded with OT types that are fulfilled in Christ. Prophecy is the typological interpretation of history and the OT is loaded with typological allegory that points to Jesus Christ. There is no way that Bible is merely a human book which records man's quest for God. It is God's hand in the life of His frail and flawed Children drawing them unto Himself through His Son, our eldest Brother.
    Blessings of Peace,

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 17, 2011 at 7:28 PM

    Hi Alice,

    Thank you for the link to the very interesting article and comments on Genesis. You mentioned the Jewish Study Bible....I just bought one about a month ago. I'm not much of a fan of the Documentary Hypothesis which the editors of that Bible hold to, but I am willing to lend the liberal point of view my ear to provoke me to think. I like the N.E.T.S as well ( A New Translation of the Septuagint).

    Since you are EO, maybe you could recommend something to Brandon regarding his request of me since you would know better than I. The cd series I refered to was by Dr.Peter Bouteneff, Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and Executive Secretary for Faith and Order at the World Council of Churches.

  • Alice C. Linsley May. 18, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    Peter Bouteneff has a series on "How the Church Fathers Understood Genesis" which can be heard here:

    The documentary hypothesis has problems. I've addressed this here: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2010/01/documentary-hypothesis.html

    DH is another approach of mostly Jewish scholars to make sense of the Hebrew Scriptures. It isn't easy to make sense of them when you refuse to see that the Son of God is writ large from Genesis to Malachi.

  • Brandon May. 19, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    Mr. Sanborn,

    Yes, I am aguing that evil is relative.

    If you were to take your Bible, your bulletin from Sunday's service, your haircut, a photo of your baptism, and your understanding of salvation...take it in your time machine and go back 800 years...visit with the church authorities and tell them you are a Christian...then wait...and be burned at the stake as a witch.

    Times change. "God" changes. The Church changes. "Evil" changes.

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 19, 2011 at 2:30 PM


    Do you believe that benevolence and malevolence are relative ?
    Is love and selfishness relative ?
    Do I have a moral duty to will the highest good in the life of neighbor in order to promote my neighbor's well-being and avoid willing actions of self interest which would lead to the misery of my neighbor ? Do you believe that natural law is relative ?

  • Seth Omans May. 19, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    I think the law of gravity is relative.

  • Brandon May. 19, 2011 at 7:00 PM


    Yes...it is obvious to me that our definitions of good and evil are defined differently depending on the time one lives and the culture one lives in. That is why I used the illustration of being burned at the stake by Christians for being a Christian.

  • Mike Sanborn May. 19, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    Pf, I'm sorry but you are clearly ignorant of the barbarism that existed among the Canaanites. Archaeologists have uncovered jars stuffed with the bones of infants that were tossed in the fires - thousands of these jars. The history of humanity is not pretty. A good research project for you would be to compare Deuteronomy with several other books of laws and/or accepted cultural practices of those times in the societies around the Jews. And check out the laws on women - they are actually about protecting women if you read them carefully.

    Pf, you also clearly overestimate the ability of human beings to do good. Even when we clearly know what is the good that we should do, we rarely actually do it. Do you drive faster than the speed limit? Do you ever lie? Do you always do the loving thing? No, none of us does, but we know that we should. God cannot change our hearts instantaneously - it takes time, just like it takes children (and adults!) several years to change.

    Brandon, you really need to stop making moral judgments if you believe that good and evil are relative. You have pulled the rug out from every value judgment that you have espoused here. All you are sharing are your feelings, and those are not compelling to those who happen to feel differently. We have no common ground to discuss good and evil because you are basically saying there is no ground.

  • Brandon May. 20, 2011 at 5:49 AM

    Mr. Sanborn,

    Yes, you and I do make moral judgments about good and evil. But, I have used a couple of illustrations to show that what we deem evil today, at one time in history it was deemed good. That is where the relativeness comes in. This type of shifting morality may be difficult for us to admit, but it is reality.

    You have already said in a previous post that the Bible is not a set of timeless rules. That is all I am trying to say as well.

    Also, please understand that I am not a naive skeptic. I have preached the "No Good Without God" message from the pulpit countless times. I am guessing many people commenting here have spent more time responding to a blog post than they have spent preaching in the open air. That is not the case with me.

    I come to my positions not out of ignorance but out of years of education, contemplation, reasearch, prayer, and wrestling with what is religious myth and what is reality.

    You can dismiss my thoughts, but it won't change the fact that God/"good"/the Gospel change over time.

  • Mike Sanborn May. 20, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    Brandon, your illustrations and argument demonstrate a fatal flaw. just because particular moral issues have had some divergence in thinking among societies, that does not warrant the conclusion that there is no "way that things are supposed to be." Divergent opinions do not entail that there is no right or wrong position. Your burning at the stake illustration assumes the position that burning at the stake would be a horrible evil. But is that just our current opinion? Or do you and I have a 'sneaking suspicion' that this is objectively evil no matter what society we live in? BTW, there were plenty of people 800 years ago who would have been disgusted by burnings at the stake. Would you say that Nazi Germany was no better or worse than any other society? there were also plenty of Germans who fought til the death against Hitler's evil ways.

    Sure, there have been some differences among societies, but there has also been a stunning consistency in humanity's abhorrence of selfishness, cowardice, pride, and our embracing of self-sacrifice, mercy, love.

  • Mike Sanborn May. 20, 2011 at 7:19 AM

    Brandon, one more thing: I appreciate you clarifying that you have spent years contemplating these issues. However, countless others have also spent years studying, wrestling, researching, praying, etc and have come to very different conclusions. Myself included. It's not so much the years that we put in, but it's our attitude and motivations that ultimately determine where we end up with our conclusions.

    I really hope that you continue to ponder the 'evil is relative' position, because it just is not a logically coherent position. Your premises do not support that conclusion.

  • Brandon May. 20, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    Mr. Sanborn,

    Where did the Jews go after they died as a result of "Hitler's evil ways?"

    How long will they be there?

    Will it be worse than a gas chamber? Comparable to a lake of fire?

    Listen to these words:

    "...set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them."

    "I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues."

    "...I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb."

    That is not Hitler's advice, that is Martin Luther's advice. Luther truly believed this is what God would have Christians to do. What Luther called good we call evil (hopefully).

    I agree that humanity is evolving to a place where we are more self-sacrificing and merciful. Innovation and technology have made it so we do not have to compete, fight, and kill in order to survive. Cooperation is the new tool replacing competition. (see Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civiliation)

    Unfortunately, subjective faith in various gods and reliance on private revelation inhibits cooperation and blocks the road to a comprehensive morality. Religion perpetuates the us/them divisions of our ancient ancestors rather than looking forward to a time when humanity is humanity...and we are all in it together.

    Ken, Mike, and Rodd, let me say...thanks for taking the time to converse. I promise I am not the a$$ you envision in your head. I'm just a guy who realized the worldview he'd inherited does not align with reality. I have a friend affiliated with Biola, and I knew this would be a good place to engage in some philosophical exercise. Thanks for the work out. :)

  • Mike Sanborn May. 20, 2011 at 2:02 PM

    Thanks for the discussion Brandon. I don't think you are an a$$ lol... I just think that you might need some more of these kinds of discussions :) The reason I focused on the relativity of evil is because it is absolutely foundational. You seem like a decent fellow who wants to see humanity become more moral and that's great, but the problem is that you have logically undercut your position by saying that evil is defined by us. That means that your moral outrage at Hitler and hell has no objective principle attached to it - it's just your emotional reaction. Your deep desire for a comprehensive morality has no objective truth behind it - it's just your desire. Many other people today don't have this same noble hope that you have. Instead, they want as much pleasure as they can get no matter who gets in the way. Humanity is deeply broken, as the news each day and our experience on the street can attest.

    What I hope you realize is that your moral desires are actually tied to objective realities, and that these realities have a source beyond the physical world. A world without supernatural realities cannot produce objective good or evil, because all there is would just be what it is, and there is absolutely no room for what is *supposed* to be.

    Brandon I too have had serious doubts about certain aspects of the faith that I was raised in. But through years of searching I have come to different conclusions than you have. I have continually discovered well thought-out answers to the deepest questions I have. Not only this but I have also been discovering more and more each day that Jesus is real - the specific answers to prayer are way beyond coincidence. But the real evidence is how Jesus keeps changing my heart, peeling away layers of selfishness, guiding me into new ways to sacrificially love my family, the community, and the world. I keep discovering that Jesus was right when he said, "Whoever tries to find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it."

  • Ken Way May. 21, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    Thank you all for this very engaging discussion. While it had little to do with my post, I nevertheless have tracked with you all and I appreciate the fact that thegoodbookblog has become a forum for the discussion of divergent views. While I naturally resonate with Mike's position, I welcome all of you to continue commenting in the future.

  • Alice C. Linsley May. 23, 2011 at 4:23 PM


    I wonder if some of these heroes aren't dusted off a bit in the Babylonian Talmud? Was the author of Hebrews influenced by the rabbinic interpretations found there and which would have been known to his Jewish readers?

  • Paul O Jun. 2, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    Thanks for writing this, i think your principles are helpful. Because Hebrews accesses the narrative of Israel so often its important to identify through which means he is doing so. One lens is often through the psalms. I like to think that related to the bitter-sweet hero list (in which nobody obtains the full promise) is the echo of Psalm 89 and a garden motif found in Jesus' 'loud cries and tears' earlier in the book. Jesus fails to become davidic messiah taking rightful rule on earth in jerusalem. Instead Jesus 'endures the cross' scorning its shame and recieves the right hand of the father in heaven. it's an incredible spiritual, social and political reality, Jesus fails to uphold the violent ideologies of the 2nd temple period, while providing for us an example as God's "exact imprint" or character. This book is all about Jesus revealing the desire and intent of the father.

  • Alice C. Linsley Jun. 18, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Paul, I believe that the point and thrust of Hebrews is to confirm that in his death and resurrection Jesus is the Messianic Priest who mediates between the Father and the people.

  • Luis Nov. 21, 2011 at 2:51 PM

    I am troubled by two of the three suggestions for interpretation that Dr. Way makes in this article. To prescribe that Christians avoid making role models, or behavioral examples, out of biblical characters seems to defeat the very point of God giving us the biblical history. I suspect that what Dr. Way really wants us to do is to avoid making idols out of these "faith challenged" individuals. Also, suggesting that the book of Judges not be read through the lens of Hebrews 11 seems to amount to saying that the Bible doesn't interpret the Bible. I agree that the book of Judges is inspired and inerrant but isn't ignoring the perspective of Hebrews kind of like ignoring the Holy Spirit?

  • Ken Way Dec. 11, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    Luis: Thanks for your remarks. Like you said, we certainly should not idolize any Bible characters, but I am indeed trying to go farther by stating that we should not even view any of them as behavioral role models (positive or negative). My reason for this is precisely due to "the very point of God giving us the biblical history," which is to reveal HIMSELF. If it is primarily about himself, then our interpretation should not dwell on the character of the human players. As for your second point, I agree that the Bible certainly interprets itself, but here I am arguing that Heb. 11 is not interpreting the message of the book of Judges per se. No, Heb. 11 is offering historical examples that illustrate the author's point. And his point is not to provide a hermeneutic for us to apply the book of Judges. His point is to point us to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.

  • Lieka Apr. 11, 2015 at 3:09 AM

    I disagree completely with you about Samson. He lived in a very dark era with parents who were so ignorant about the things of God, still he had an extraordinary intimate relationship with God. He never bragged about his supernatural strength and although he had a weakness for pretty pagan women without morals, God overshadowed him time and time again to empower him even in his anger. He was a witty, clever person with a fabulous sense of humor and I think he had a pleasant personality like a ray of sunshine who could light up a room. His name means sunshine and I think this is exactly what he was like. He made mistakes like anyone of us and since no sin are bigger than the other, I can't understand people's harsh judgement on Samson. He is mentioned in Hebrews for a very good reason. He had the same kind of supernatural faith that Abraham had or Enoch or Moses or Rehab or Sarah etc. Sarah laughed in God's face, Moses was a murderer, Abraham was a liar, Rehab was a prostitute. Samson had faith beyond what is actually described in the Bible. He walked closely with God all the time in spite of the lack of spiritual support from his family and fellow tribes
    's men. God was so close to him that he had a natural faith to believe that God will empower him to overcome the lion, to lift the gates (hinges and all), to catch hundreds of foxes, to kill a 1000 men with a bone. This is the type of character that will tell the mountain to move and it will.
    I understand what you're saying, but don't degrade Samson to a nothing, or lesser judge, because God doesn't make mistakes and if the Bible is God inspired, then there is very good reason for Samson's name to be listed in the Heb 11 hall of fame.

  • Eva Scott Aug. 21, 2017 at 7:15 PM

    A book I'm reading that talks about Samson's life and how we can learn from his mistakes is: "Make Your Mark, Getting Right What Samson Got Wrong" by Brad Gray.

    The book has a lot of Biblical background and some word studies. It includes maps in the book of the places where Samson traveled. It has been fascinating so far.

    I found your site when I was looking more into Samson, because I was thinking he was in Hebrews 11. Your take on Hebrews 11 is insightful.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. It was helpful.

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