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God’s Word for You

Hebrews 11:11,12

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, December 12, 2014

11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

If you compare the text here from the 2011 NIV with an older NIV or another translation, you will see that there is a difficulty here. Who is the subject of the verse?

The older NIV has:

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.

For our purposes, I will comment as if Abraham is still the subject of the sentence, because that is how the author continues in verse 12. For an explanation of the difficulty, you might want to read the note below.

Abraham’s family was miraculous. It wasn’t possible for him to have a child with Sarah, although after Sarah died, he had more children with his second wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1). But he was able to have a child with Sarah through the grace of God. In this way, Isaac’s birth foreshadowed the birth of Jesus, because the pregnancy of Isaac’s mother should not have been possible, but God made it possible. So it was with Jesus. His mother Mary was not yet married to her husband, and so they had not slept together as husband and wife yet. So when the Holy Spirit caused Mary to become pregnant (Luke 1:35; Matthew 1:18), Joseph knew that the child was not his, and had to be reassured in a dream that Mary had not been unfaithful to him (Matthew 1:20). Mary’s virgin pregnancy was an even greater miracle than Sarah’s barren pregnancy.

Another way that the birth of Isaac foreshadowed the birth of Christ is expressed in verse 12. Isaac was the beginning of a long list of descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Abraham might have been thinking of physical descendants—and the Jews, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites and other descendants of Abraham did become as countless as the sand—but we Gentile Christians are spiritual descendants of Abraham. We would not care a whit about any physical descent from Abraham if he were simply the spiritual father of all who are saved—because that it the most important connection anyone has with father Abraham. The Jews connected themselves to the faith of Abraham and Isaac through circumcision. But our brotherhood with Isaac is the brotherhood of faith.

And so it is with the birth of Jesus. Jesus had no physical descendants at all and yet we are all connected to Jesus by faith and through baptism rather that circumcision. We are all Jesus’ brothers and heirs of eternal life. His miraculous birth began his humble days in our human flesh. He took up our humanity to be lifted up for our sins. But then he was raised, exalted, and ascended, all to his glory and the triumph of his ministry. All praise to him, now and forever. Amen.

NOTE: The text of Hebrews 11:11 is a challenge to translators and interpreters. I offer the following observations with the caution that many readers may not find them helpful.

Πίστει καὶ αὐτὴ Σάρρα στεῖρα δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας, ἐπεὶ πιστὸν ἡγήσατο τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον·

This is the Greek text. I will explain each word or phrase individually below. Translations differ partly because of variations in certain manuscripts (whether στεῖρα steira, “barren” belongs) but mainly on the basis of understanding the phrase “enabled to become a father” (δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν).

Πίστει (pistei) “By faith” Here the dative case shows the means by which the following was accomplished.

καὶ (kai) “and, also.” Connective conjunction. Greek requires a conjunction in most sentences (the lack of one is usually significant). In this case, the use of kai rather than a more ordinary de (δὲ) indicates that there is a new thought here in some way.

αὐτὴ Σάρρα στεῖρα (aute Sarra steira) “Sarah herself (being) barren.” This appears to be a parenthetic phrase rather than the subject (see the next phrase). Each of the three words is in the nominative case, and although the nominative normally shows the subject of a sentence, I take this as a parenthetic nominative (similar to the nominative absolute), which would be translated as I have it in quotes above.

δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν (dynamin eis kataloben spermatos elaben) “(he) received the power to lay down seed (semen).” This phrase is never used of a woman, but only of a man. This is the compelling reason to take the whole section with Abraham as the subject rather than Sarah, and to understand the “Sarah clause” as something we would put in parenthesis.

καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας, (kai para kairon helikias) “even though he/she was past the age of childbearing.” Both Abraham and Sarah were past the age of childbearing. They did not arrive in Canaan until Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65, and Isaac was not born until considerably later. Although Eve continued to bear children at least until 130 (Genesis 5:3), we are specifically told that Sarah was past her time.

ἐπεὶ πιστὸν ἡγήσατο (epei piston hegesato) “because he/she considered him faithful.” The verb hegesato is a disappearing form in New Testament Greek, a middle (rather than active or passive as in English) indicative. This is only because the verb is, as we say, a deponent form, falling into this older form as it was still used even though the Middle voice was falling out of use. Note that the subject of this verb could be either masculine or feminine, since the form would be identical either way, just as in English we cannot tell if “considered” should have a male or female subject unless it is provided by the context.

τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον· (ton epangeilamenon) “the one who made the promise.” Aorist adjectival participle, usually translated “the one who…” In this case, the verb is based on the word angello “message” from which our word “angel” comes into English. This was an epi-angello, a “promise,” which is a specific kind of message.

Professor Moulton’s translation of this passage agrees with the one I have adopted: “By faith, even although Sarah was barren, [Abraham] received strength for procreation” (A Grammar of New Testament Greek Volume IV p. 112).

There are times when our sinful condition prevents us from fully understanding the inspired message handed down from God the Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t diminish the value of the message. May God forgive our sins and weaknesses, and give us enlightenment, even as he has given us pardon and peace.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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