In the most famous chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find a litany of Israel’s faith heroes, punctuated by the repetitive phrase “by faith” (Heb. 11:1-38). This rhetoric device drives home the unmistakable theme of the chapter and creates the strong impression that faithful heroes are plentiful in Israel’s past. Chief among those heroes are Abraham and Moses, but brief attention is also given to the actions of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, and Jacob.
But in Hebrews’ gallery of faithful champions are women to be found? Most certainly they are, although they receive less of the spotlight. Their presence is sometimes only implicit, and they are often anonymous. For example, the people who passed through the Red Sea included a large number of women (v. 29). The judges and prophets mentioned in verse 32 might have called to mind Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Miriam (Exod. 15:20), and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Anonymous women are mentioned in verse 35 as having “received their dead by resurrection.” The capstone of the litany lists a variety of acts of sacrifice and endurance, most of which surely would have involved women (vv. 35-38).
In all of chapter 11, only two women are mentioned by name. Rahab is mentioned in verse 31 and commended (cf. James 2:25) for her faithful act of hospitality and protection of the spies. But the most tantalizing reference lies in Hebrews 11:11: “By faith he [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised” (NRSV). The peculiar mention of Sarah seems to be an aside, a parenthesis, even though it is hard to see how Abraham’s “power of procreation” meant much without her. (The New International Version similarly marks off the Sarah clause with dashes.)
The matter becomes more complex when one examines other translations, for example, the Revised Standard Version, which offers this translation: “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” Several other translations make Sarah the subject of the sentence: the King James Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, and the New American Standard Bible. Why do two of the most popular English translations (NRSV, NIV) disagree with a host of others about the grammatical subject of this verse? Whose faith is being commended: Abraham’s or Sarah’s? And why cannot the experts agree on such a fundamental question?
At the root of the translation problem are intricacies both of the Greek text and of ancient understandings of reproduction, chiefly the latter. Several important Greek manuscripts lack the word “barren” (steira), and textual scholars consider it a very difficult decision whether the word belongs in the text or not. Hence, the word is absent from the RSV, but present in the NRSV.
But the more important question concerns the clause containing the main verb. Here we find an expression that might be rendered, “received power for the laying down of a seed” (katabolē spermatos). The expression is regularly used of the male’s role in begetting, not of the female’s role in conceiving. But this is problematic in a sentence in which, from all appearances, Sarah is the grammatical subject. Of course, Abraham could be carried over from the previous verse, but this requires some explanation of the presence of Sarah.
At least two interpretive options make possible the construal of Sarah as the subject of Hebrews 11:11. First, it is not at all clear that the expression “laying down a seed” cannot be attributed to the woman. Mary Rose D’Angelo points out that Numbers 5:28 in the Septuagint uses an analogous expression. There, it is declared that a woman who “has not defiled herself and is clean . . . will be able to have children.” The latter part renders the Greek ekspermatiei sperma, literally “she will emit a seed.”1 Studies of ancient medical and philosophical texts have confirmed that the woman’s role in reproduction was often understood in this way. Greek, Roman, and Jewish authors frequently wrote of the woman’s contribution as involving a seed. This “double seed” theory, i.e., that both the man and the woman contributed semen, was widely held in the Hellenistic era. Hebrews 11:11 may reflect this idea.2
A second possibility is that the words, “laying down a seed,” may be metaphorical. The standard New Testament Greek lexicon suggests this possibility: “[Sarah] received the ability to establish a posterity.”3 Both key terms are often used figuratively, and the following verse in Hebrews emphasizes the multitude of Abraham’s descendants. As P. W. van der Horst and others have concluded, the author of Hebrews seems to have meant just what he said.
Thankfully, the Today’s New International Version (TNIV), the revision of the NIV, has rendered this verse properly: “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.” Moving from parenthesis to grammatical prominence, Sarah thus becomes a recipient of God’s empowerment and a faith champion who trusts in the divine promise.
- Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Hebrews,” Women’s Bible Commentary, expanded ed., ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 365.
- The technical data can be found in P. W. van der Horst’s article, “Sarah’s Seminal Emission: Hebrews 11:11 in Light of Ancient Embryology,” in Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Essays in Honor of Abraham Malherbe, ed. David L. Balch, Everett Ferguson, and Wayne A. Meeks (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1990), 287-302; and the more popular version in Bible Review, “Did Sarah Have a Seminal Emission?” (February 1992) 35-39.
- W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingirch, and F. W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 515.