The Last Word features posts from the Talbot School of Theology faculty blog, The Good Book Blog. An extended version of this post was first published on May 9, 2011.

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?

Why in verse 32 does the author mention Gideon and Barak (who had reluctant/fearful faith) and Samson and Jephthah (who hadignorant/shallow faith)? Wouldn’the 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?

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. 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.

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 to be imitated.
  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).
  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.

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 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).

The truth is that all of us are faith-challenged and 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.