Hebrews 11 has forty verses. Well established is the inclusio of 11:1-2 and 11:39-40, framing the chapter. Those verses speak about people being commended for faith, and the order of “faith” and “commendation” in 11:1-2 is reversed to be “commended” and “faith” in 11:39-40.
Typically in commentaries, Hebrews 11:3-38 is broken into two parts: vv. 3-31 contains all of the “by faith” statements, and vv. 32-38 provides a staccato-like list of names and miracles and sufferings culminating in a declaration that “the world was not worthy” of such saints.
The “by faith” list is interesting, though, because Hebrews 11:3-31 appears to break into three sections, all of which are inclusios.
- 11:3-7. This section begins and ends with the idea of things unseen. In 11:3 what is seen is made of out things not seen, and in 11:7 Noah is warned by God about events yet unseen. In 11:3 God makes the world, and in 11:7 Noah condemns the world.
- 11:8-22. This section begins in v. 8 with Abraham going to a place that he would receive as an inheritance, and v. 22 tells of Joseph who instructed that his bones be taken to the promised land because he too would receive it as an inheritance.
- 11:23-31. In v. 23 Moses did not perish but was hidden because his parents were not afraid, and in v. 31 Rahab did not perish but welcomed and hid spies because she was not afraid.
These three sections also cover important blocks of Israel’s history:
- 11:3-7 highlights people from Genesis 1-11
- 11:8-22 highlights people from Genesis 12-50
- 11:23-31 highlights people from Exodus – Joshua (omitting references to characters/events in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)
If we take the central section (Heb 11:8-22) and count the times “by faith” appears, the phrase is mentioned seven times (11:8, 9, 11, 17, 20, 21, 22). The middle occurrence in the central section (11:8-22) is 11:17, and it is about Abraham. In fact, in the central section of names (11:8-22), statements about Abraham take up vv. 8-10, 12, 17-19–almost half of the verses in vv. 8-22! In fact, the only other character in Hebrews 11 to be mentioned more than once with a “by faith” statement is Moses (who appears in the third section of names, vv. 23-31).
Therefore, in the central section of names (vv. 8-22), Abraham’s name is in the middle “by faith” statement, and the repetition of his name in this section shows the author’s emphasis on Abraham. But what about this middle “by faith” reference? Here is the story condensed in vv. 17-19:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
Does the middle reference to Abraham (v. 17) in the central section of names (vv. 8-22) have any distinction in the list? Yes. Certain distinctives suggest that the author of Hebrews has placed this Abrahamic story here for emphasis, and the three inclusios (11:3-7, 8-22, 23-31) and the seven “by faith” statements in the central section set up this emphasis.
- Only in Hebrews 11:17-19 is there a direct citation of Scripture in the entire chapter. There are certainly plenty of allusions to, retellings of, and interpretations of Old Testament stories, but in 11:18 the expression elalethe hoti is followed by a quote from Genesis 21:12. No such expression appears anywhere else in the list of names.
- The author may be suggesting that Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac was most important example of “by faith” obedience in the entire litany of Hebrews 11 stories.
- Emphasis on Abraham is important in Hebrews 11 because he the first “who had received the promises” (v. 17). Others after him believed the promises, but none before him (cf. Gen 1-11) had received them.
- The nature of Abraham’s faith stands out because it ascribed to God the ability to raise the dead. “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (11:19).
To sum up: if there are inclusios present in the three sections of names (vv. 3-7, 8-22, 23-31), and if the central section has a middle “by faith” statement (v. 17) about an Old Testament story told with some distinction (vv. 17-19), then with the design of the name-list in vv. 3-31, the author may have been highlighting not only Abraham but specifically the patriarch’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.
Do you think that in Hebrews 11, the author designed the name-list to highlight Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac? Do you think the inclusios I’ve suggested (vv. 3-7, 8-22, 23-31) are reasonable? Do you know anyone else who argues for them?