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An Example of the Power of Faith

Sarah, the Subject of Hebrews 11:11

And by faith, Sarah, herself, a barren [woman], received power for the purpose of depositing sperm [by Abraham], even though [at] a time of mature age, since she considered faithful the one who promised.1                        —Hebrews 11:11

Introduction

This past week, I learned that my friend Juliana gave birth to her first child, a beautiful son, whom she and her husband named Filip. She had not broadcast her pregnancy (even I did not know about it), but for good reason, I think: She did not want to get her hopes too high. Her first child had died in uterus, strangled by the umbilical cord.

Several years previously, a young Korean woman in our church had miscarried her first child. The sadness in her eyes made my heart break when she told me the news.

Thinking of my own mother’s reproductive challenges, I chose to tell my mother’s story to each of these hurting women, stressing the unassailable fact that I, my mother’s firstborn child, was living proof of God’s mercy and my mother’s willingness to trust despite her despair.

As I reflect on Genesis 3:16, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe,”2 I realize that barrenness, miscarriage, and stillbirths are part of that curse; the ability to be “fruitful and multiply” would be hindered for both genders and on many levels. The same adjective in the Hebrew text describes the woman’s childbearing (3:16) and the man’s ability to produce and provide food (3:17) as “anxious toil” (‘itsevon).3

Throughout the book of Genesis, the covenant theme, which runs throughout the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob narratives, contains an element of endangerment in the form of barren wives, where the principal wife of each of the three patriarchs is childless for the majority of their marriage. This motif provides an opportunity to demonstrate God’s sovereign ability to fulfill his covenant promise of children or descendents, namely, “seed” (zera‘). In addition, it creates an element of suspense as the reader eagerly awaits the birth of the next recipient of the covenant promise.4

In Genesis 17:17 and 18:12, both Abraham and Sarah, respectively, received the promise of a son, not with sobriety of faith, but with laughter. However, while Scripture mentions Abraham’s faith specifically in 15:6, nowhere do we see Sarah associated with faith in the book of Genesis. Sarah is characterized either by her “barrenness” (15:2, 16:1), by her animosity toward Hagar (16:6, 21:10), or her laughter (18:12, 21:6). Yet, Sarah is mentioned as a model of faith in Hebrews 11:11.5 The following meta-analysis will examine the gamut of interpretations of this verse in Hebrews in order to identify the one that best fits with the biblical text.

Interpretive challenges

Each key figure in the book of Hebrews is introduced by the prominently positioned phrase “by faith” (pistei).  The form in Greek, known as a dative of agency, emphasizes faithful actions.6 Chapters 11 and 12, taken together, tell the story of faith “from creation (11:3) to new creation (12:28), from covenant (11:8–29), to new covenant (12:24).”7 Interestingly, many of those mentioned would be covenant mediators, just like Jesus.8 The faith of these individuals would center on the fact that the creator God, introduced in verse 3, is also the covenant God.

According to many commonly used Bible translations, such as the New American Standard Bible, English Standard Bible, and New Jerusalem Bible, to name a few, the inclusion of Sarah in Hebrews 11:11, along with Rahab in 11:31, seems obvious, though there are other women of faith whom some of us might like to include, had the Holy Spirit given us the chance to amend the author’s list! However, there is a longstanding debate over who is the actual subject of Hebrews 11:11: Sarah or Abraham. Notable translations such as the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and New American Bible all translate Hebrews 11:11 with Abraham as the subject, mentioning Sarah parenthetically.9

Scholars and translators opposed to Sarah as the subject of Hebrews 11:11 primarily argue for Abraham as the subject, based upon the specific use of the term katabolē sperma (depositing seed/sperm). This is a technical term for begetting children and the masculine role in procreation, which corresponds to the feminine role hypodochē, or reception.10 Both classical and Hellenistic sources attest to the use of this idiomatic phrase.11 Other scholars, such as J. Harold Greenlee, Pieter van der Horst, James Thompson, and Eileen Vennum, argue for Sarah as the subject, seeing the passage as redeeming her reputation as a model of faith.12

Victor Hamilton, in his commentary on Genesis, acknowledges that the Lord rebukes Sarah for her laughter, but never challenges Abraham for his laughter and doubt.13 Hermann Gunkel asserts that Sarah thinks that the men (the three visitors) are joking, and they subsequently become angry.14 F. F. Bruce refers to Sarah’s “bad reputation” of faith, noting that “Chrysostom indeed, in dealing with this difficulty, suggests that her subsequent denial of her laughter was ‘by faith,’ but of course it was nothing of the kind. . . .”15 Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown characterize Sarah’s laughter as a “silent sneer.”16

Evaluation of arguments

So, who is the intended subject of the verb elaben (he/she received) in Hebrews 11:11? After evaluating the various arguments pro and con, I believe that J. H. Greenlee offers up the best solution given the existing textual evidence and its grammatical and idiomatic limitations.17

Greenlee’s highly nuanced argument best explains the grammar of Hebrews 11:11. In his analysis, Sarah is the subject of the verb elaben ([she] received power); the subject of the action of depositing seed is not stated. Greenlee explains that most commentaries assume that the “laying down of seed” is done by the subject of the verb. However, this is only logical when translated with an infinitive (as do all the translations that take Sarah as the subject, e.g., the New Living Translation’s “Sarah was able to have a child”).18 In fact, B. Gildersleeve cites numerous examples from classical Greek literature where a subject may be omitted, even though there is a sudden change of subjects.19

The main verb, elaben (she received), is in the aorist indicative, indicating summarized past action, similar to a photographic snapshot.20 In other words, all of the events that took place leading up to Sarah’s conception of Isaac are summarized in this one verb.

Since katabolē (depositing) is a noun and not a verb, “the reference is a general one, focusing on the action, not the actor. The implied actor of ‘laying down seed’ can therefore be either Abraham or Sarah even though the subject of ‘received ability’ is Sarah.”21 In addition, Greenlee argues for the implied sense of purpose or result for the preposition eis (for the purpose of), which is recognized by many standard Greek grammars.22

As a result, the testimony of Sarah’s faith, along with Abraham’s, is evidenced by the multitudes of descendents they would both have, genetically in the tribes of Israel and spiritually in all those who profess faith in Christ (e.g., Gal. 3:29). The author of Hebrews makes it clear that Sarah’s faith lay behind the verb that follows (receiving power), but what was accomplished could not have been done without Abraham (for the depositing of sperm). The writer clearly portrays Sarah not only in view of her initial unbelief when she received the news of her conception (cf. Gen. 18), but also takes into account the time it took for her to adjust to the news and overcome her unbelief.23

Opposing arguments

Proponents on both sides have asserted their arguments in various commentaries and articles. As mentioned above, the key issue is the translation of the prepositional phrase eis katabolēn spermatos (for the purpose of depositing seed/sperm) with respect to Sarah.

Since this idiomatic phrase can only be used with respect to a male subject, proponents of Abraham as the subject assert that there must be a textual issue concerning the phrase autē Sarah steira, “Sarah, herself, the barren one.” Thus, one early explanation of the “grammatical difficulty” of Hebrews 11:11 was to consider the inclusion of the phrase autē Sarah steira as a marginal gloss (added later by a scribe when copying the epistle), though there is no manuscript evidence to support this position.24

According to M. Black, autē Sarah steira is a Hebraic circumstantial or concessive clause, subordinate to the principal clause of which Abraham is the subject.25 Subsequently, this phrase is translated parenthetically by the NIV and NRSV, as “[b]y faith, [Abraham] even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father. . . .” While this argument does overcome the difficult problem of autē Sarah steira being in the nominative case (typically used for the subject of a sentence), J. Thompson argues that the highly stylized Greek of the author does not lend itself to this kind of expression.26

B. Metzger argues that autē Sarah steira should be taken as a dative of accompaniment or association (autei Sarah steirai) based upon the United Bible Society committee’s consensus that the iota subscript (a tiny, shorthand form of the letter iota) was omitted in an uncial script (one written in all capitals).27 This would result in the translation “[b]y faith, he [Abraham], together with barren Sarah, received power. . . .” The 1996 New Living Translation takes this reading, highlighting their equivalent roles in their act of faith, adding “Sarah together with Abraham. . . .” In addition to the fact that uncials did not include iota subscripts, indicating the dative singular, until the seventh century a.d., at present there are no significant uncial manuscripts of any date that support this conclusion.28 Further, J. Thompson highlights the fact that the early church fathers, despite the obvious lexical difficulties of this passage, never acknowledged nor proposed the datival reading.29

Lastly, W. Lane also acknowledged that autē Sarah steira could be taken as a dative of advantage, rendering this translation: “It is by faith, to the benefit of Sarah herself, that he [Abraham] received power. . . .”30 This reading focuses on Sarah’s barren condition. As E. Vennum reminds us, Abraham had eight sons by three different women: Ishmael by Hagar (Gen. 16:15), Isaac by Sarah (Gen. 21:2), and six additional sons by Keturah (Gen. 25:1).31 While it is true that Sarah benefits profoundly by having “received power for the purpose of depositing the seed,” nonetheless, this rendering is rejected on the unlikelihood of the dative reading.

When the phrase autē Sarah steira is not the issue, proponents of Abraham as the subject will argue that, since Abraham is the subject in verses 8–10, and he is clearly the implied subject of verse 12, then it logically follows that he must be the subject of verse 11 as well.

As J. H. Greenlee points out, even with Sarah as the subject of verse 11, Abraham’s faith is still in view. In fact, as a result of Sarah’s parallel act of faith, Abraham does become the father of a great multitude (11:12).32 Interestingly, arguments comparing Hebrews’ Moses sequence (11:23–28) with this passage are not very strong; Moses is clearly the main character from Exodus to Deuteronomy; however, in the Abraham story in Genesis (ch. 12–25), Sarah figures prominently in several scenarios (Gen. 12:10–20, 16:1–6, 18:9–15, 21:1–7).

While other scholars, in addition to Greenlee, have put forth arguments in favor of Sarah as the subject, they have generally been weak.33 However, a highly creative argument was put forth by P. van der Horst, centering on the common belief in both Jewish and Hellenistic circles that a woman also had “seminal emissions.” Thus, eis katabolēn spermatos could be ascribed to Sarah if the writer of Hebrews was aware of the widely current “double-seed” theory of procreation, which was developed and discussed in philosophical circles throughout the Hellenistic period.34 This would allow for the literal translation “for the purpose of depositing sperm [herself].” Given the high probability that the author was an educated individual, it is very possible that he or she was familiar with this medical and philosophical view of procreation. However, since the idiomatic phrase is attested in both classical and Hellenistic sources as referring to the male role in procreation, it is highly unlikely that the author was referring to female “seminal emission.”35

Faith tested and proven

These parallel acts of faith make sense in light of the Genesis text, especially when we take the promises of Genesis 17 and 18 together. The faith of Abraham and Sarah would require trusting in the God who can bring life out of “death.”36

Abraham and Sarah left home and country for a future promise of land and descendents. After Abraham and Sarah take the fulfillment of the second part of that promise into their own hands in Genesis 16, God returns to Abraham in Genesis 17 to clarify that Sarah would be the mother of the promised child (17:16) and adds that kings would descend from each of them (17:6, 16). And what is Abraham’s response? He falls on his face laughing (17:17).

Yet, in the very next chapter, the three visitors inquire directly of Sarah (18:9) and, subsequently, the Lord makes the very same promise in Sarah’s hearing (18:10). Up to this point in the Genesis account, God has been speaking only to Abraham, yet it becomes necessary for God to speak to Sarah’s doubts and frustration because of her acute barrenness (18:11–15).

Her response is similar to Abraham’s, only she laughs to herself (18:12). G. Wenham offers a graceful explanation for Sarah’s response, writing, “Sarah laughed not out of cocky arrogance but because a life of long disappointment had taught her not to clutch at straws. Hopelessness, not pride, underlay her unbelief. Her self-restraint in not openly expressing her doubts and the sadness behind them go far to explain the gentleness of the divine rebuke.”37 So God’s promise sets the date of fulfillment in a year’s time (18:10, 14), which means Sarah will be pregnant soon. He came directly to the woman whose threadbare faith had broken, and eventually restored her faith by his faithful promise and action (Gen. 21:6–7).

Significantly, the Hebrew verb stem switches when God reiterates his creation mandate to Abraham. At first, God had commanded, “You will be fruitful,” (e.g., Gen. 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1; peru using the Qal stem, denoting simple action by the subject). However, in Genesis 17:6, God states, “I will make you fruitful,” (wehifrethi; also in 17:20), using the Hiphil or casual stem. God declared himself as the agent of procreation when nature refused to cooperate. Human agency would not be enough to fulfill God’s covenant promise (cf. Gen. 16:1–4). This is the God Sarah and Abraham considered “faithful” (pistos).

Though Abraham and Sarah would eventually receive the promise of a child, neither Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, nor Jacob would inherit the promised land of Canaan during their lifetimes (11:13), nor see a multitude of descendents “as numerous as the stars” (cf. Gen. 15:5, 22:17).

Application then and now

The Jewish Christians who comprised the initial audience of the book of Hebrews, the literal descendents of Abraham (Heb. 2:16), were the product of Abraham and Sarah’s exemplary faith. Familiar with the Genesis account, these Jewish Christians would have realized that Sarah’s faith won out over her earlier despair. From the author’s point of view, it could be said that Sarah was saved from the danger of apostasy by her faith in a God who is faithful.

Sarah’s perseverance in believing God, coupled with Abraham’s faith in leaving his home to sojourn in a land he would not possess in his lifetime (Heb. 11:8–9) and willingness to sacrifice his only son and heir (11:17–18), all at God’s command, demonstrates that both Sarah and Abraham trusted in a God who could “raise the dead” (11:19). This farsighted faith is what the author of Hebrews was encouraging his readers to cultivate through discipline and perseverance (Heb. 12).

The barren-wife motif from Genesis would become evident again in the gospel accounts, with which these second-generation Christians would be familiar. In the New Testament, we see the same miraculous faith in Elizabeth, who was old and barren, and yet gave birth to a son.38 Moreover, in Luke 1:37, the angel gives Mary assurance of the miraculous nature of her conception by telling her that “nothing is impossible with God” (cf. Gen. 18:14). The account of Abraham and Sarah might have served as a reminder of the miraculous and divine birth of Jesus Christ, their superior high priest in heaven (e.g., Heb. 10:12).

In the context of the entire chapter, the author has “run the gamut of human experiences to show that faith can triumph in any circumstance. Those who pass through such experiences are called upon to demonstrate patient endurance.”39 We are heirs to the same promises God made to Abraham and all of the men and women of faith in the Bible. As Paul encourages us, we are to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Living the Christian life is to emulate that patient endurance.

Therefore, in Hebrews 11:11, we see that the text does not require any emendations in order to make sense of the author’s meaning. Through faith and unity of purpose, God was able to use Abraham and Sarah to bring about his grand plan of salvation, which would culminate in the miraculous birth, suffering death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, our high priest who sits at the right hand of God.

The author makes it clear that Sarah’s faith lay behind God’s actions. However, what was accomplished could not have been done without Abraham, as her partner in faith. This not only served as an encouragement to the readers of the book of Hebrews, but encourages every Christian to persevere in faith—first, because God is faithful, and, second, because nothing is impossible for him to accomplish, if it is his will.

So, for those who have experienced the grief and pain of miscarriage or infertility, Sarah stands as a model of faith in the face of despair. Whatever the individual circumstances or outcome, God is faithful. Sarah did receive the physical and spiritual power to become the mother of many children, natural and adopted.

Epilogue: my mother’s story

The story of Sarah in Genesis 18 and significance of her faith hits close to home for me as a woman and a child.

My parents married later in life. Like most married couples of their generation, and perhaps especially because of their age, they wanted to start a family right away. For my parents, and particularly my mother, this would prove to be a heartbreaking emotional, physical, and spiritual challenge.

Though able to conceive, due to a particular hormone imbalance, my mother’s body was not able to form the placenta, which allows the fetus to remain within the uterus. Subsequently, my mother miscarried five times, consecutively. While her sixth pregnancy did progress, the child, a boy, was stillborn prematurely.

My mother recalls being at the altar rail, receiving communion one Sunday shortly after this traumatic event. She told me that she was so sad and depressed that she was unable to get up and walk, experiencing a type of psychosomatic paralysis. She felt as though God were punishing her. My own mother’s thread of hope and faith was about to snap!

Providentially, my mother’s obstetrician was not only a man of faith, but on the vanguard of reproductive medicine. She recalls him asking her: “Do you think God is punishing you?” Sadly, my mother responded, “Yes.” Not only did her obstetrician disavow her of this lie, but he continued to encourage her when she found herself pregnant yet again! He was able to provide my mother with the hormone therapy needed so that her body could form the placenta. Her doctor was as invested in her success as she and my father were and monitored her pregnancy carefully.

Despite the added trial of severe toxemia and months of bedrest, eventually, my mother was able to bring her first child to term: a daughter—me! She was thirty-six, considerably older than most mothers in the early 1960s.

I am certain God was present when they decided to name me after our Lord Jesus and his mother: Christine Mary. Subsequently, my parents were blessed to witness the birth of two more children, both of them sons—a reflection of the Trinity, indeed. To God be the glory!

Notes

  1. Author’s translation.
  2. NIV, emphasis added.
  3. ןוֹבצָּע̣­-the root is the verb ‘tsb (בצע), meaning “to hurt, pain, grieve.” Clearly, from a parent’s point of view, the miscarriage of a child or the inability to have children can be a great source of grief. See The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999, 780–81.
  4. Victor H. Matthews, Old Testament Themes (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2000), 12.
  5. James Thompson, “Was Sarah a Believer? Reflections on Hebrews 11:11,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, vol. 2, ed. C. D. Osburn (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1995), 317–18.
  6. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 163–65.
  7. N. T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 128.
  8. Noah enters a covenant with God in Gen. 9:1ff, Abraham in Gen. 15:7ff (renewed with Isaac in Gen. 26:3–5 and with Jacob in Gen. 28:13–15), Moses in Exod. 20:1ff, and David in 2 Sam. 7.
  9. Paul Ellingsworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 586. According to Ellingsworth, scholars from Chrysostom, Oecumenius, Theophylact, and Calvin, to more contemporary scholars such as Delitzsch, Westcott, Peake, Moffatt, Spicq, Theodorico, Montefiore, etc., supported the traditional view, taking Sarah as the subject. Scholars arguing for Abraham as subject include Attridge, Bruce, Metzger, Lane, and Ellingsworth, among others.
  10. W. Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 [hereafter BDAG]), 515. Cf. Thompson, “Was Sarah a Believer?” 319.
  11. Classical and Hellenistic sources referenced in BDAG and J. Thompson include Philo, De Op. Mund., 132; De Eb., 211; De Cher., 49; Plut., Mor. 320b; Ps-Lucian, Amor. 19; Galen, Aphorism 4, 1, XVII/2, 653 K; and Epictetus, Diss. 1.13.3.
  12. Articles by J. Harold Greenlee, Pieter Van der Horst, James Thompson, and Eileen Vennum are among those found among contemporary scholarship of the past 20 years. Each will take a different tack, which is discussed within this article.
  13. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18–50 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 13. F. F. Bruce makes the same observation in n. 95 in The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 294–95.
  14. Hermann Gunkel, Genesis, trans. M. Biddle (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997), 197.
  15. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 294. Bruce cites Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews, xxiii, ed. Philip Schaff, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 14 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 471.
  16. R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 156.
  17. J. Harold Greenlee, “Hebrews 11:11—Sarah’s Faith or Abraham’s?” Notes on Translation 4, no. 1 (1990): 37–42. Greenlee rejects the United Bible Society committee’s decision to retain steira in the NA27 biblical text. He believes it to be a scribal emendation to make it clear why it was by faith that Sarah could conceive. The participle ousa was added later to make a smoother reading. See Greenlee, “Hebrews 11:11,” 40–1. Either way, Greenlee’s overall conclusion best addresses the grammatical structure of the entire verse.
  18. Greenlee, “Hebrews 11:11,” 40. Translations that make Sarah the subject include the ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NJB, NKJV, NLT, and RSV, where the phrase eis katabolēn spermatos means that Sarah received the power “to conceive.”
  19. Basil L. Gildersleeve, Syntax of Classical Greek from Homer to Desmothenes: First Part, the Syntax of the Simple Sentence Embracing the Doctrine of the Moods and Tenses (New York, N.Y.: American Book Co., 1900), 36. Gildersleeve cites passages from Antiphon, Xenophon, and Thucydides, among others. He states, “So free is the Greek in its omission of the subject that there is often a sudden change of subject without further warning.”
  20. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 555.
  21. Greenlee, “Hebrews 11:11,” 40. Greenlee cites Lightfoot as the only commentator to make the same proposal. This is predicated on taking the meaning of the preposition eis as “with reference/respect to.” This would then allow Abraham to be the subject of “laying down seed.” Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1976), 224.
  22. For example, see Wallace, Greek Grammar, 555, and A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919), 594–95. And so Greenlee proposes the following “interpretative paraphrase”: “(Not only did Abraham act by faith, but) by faith even Sarah herself received ability with respect to the laying down of seed (in her body by Abraham) even though she was beyond the normal age (for child bearing), since she considered that he (God) who had promised was faithful.” Greenlee, “Hebrews 11:11,” 41.
  23. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today, 211. It has been noted above that the use of the aorist indicative gives a “snapshot” of past action.
  24. This is a turn-of-the-century idea offered by F. Field, Notes on Translation of the NT (Cambridge: University Press, 1899), 232, as well as H. Windisch, Der Hebräerbrief, HNT (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1931), 101, and G. Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the ‘Corpus Paulinum,’ Schweich Lectures, 1946 (London: The British Academy, 1953), 16, 170.
  25. Matthew Black, “Critical and Exegetical Notes on Three New Testament Texts, Hebrews xi.11, Jude 5, James i.27,” in Apophoreta; Festschrift für Ernst Haenshen (Berlin: A. Töpelmann, 1964), 41ff.
  26. Thompson, “Was Sarah a Believer?” 328. See also n. 20.
  27. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York, N.Y.: United Bible Society, 1994), 602.
  28. James H. Moulton and Wilbert F. Howard, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1920), 84. By the Hellenistic period, the iota subscript had become a device of Byzantine and medieval orthography to distinguish between the nominative and dative singular. This forms the basis for the United Bible Society committee’s conclusion. However, as no manuscripts are yet available with the dative case (autei Sarah steirai), this is currently an argument from silence; the external evidence does not support this reading.
  29. Thompson, “Was Sarah a Believer?” 328.
  30. William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1991), 345, citing P. Andriessen, En lisant l’Épître aux Hébreux: Lettre au R.P.A. Vanhoye, Professeur à l’Institute Biblique Pontifical sur l’interprétation controversée de certain passages (Vaals: Abbey St. Benedictusberg, 1977), 50–52.
  31. Eileen Vennum, “Is She or Isn’t She? Sarah as a Hero of Faith,” Daughters of Sarah 13, no. 1 (1987): 6.
  32. Greenlee, “Hebrews 11:11,” 38.
  33. (1) Eis katabolēn spermatos means that Sarah received the power “to conceive.” This translation (with slight variation in vocabulary) is used in the ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NJB, NKJV, NLT, and RSV. According to Lane, this presupposes that this idiom is an abbreviation for the phrase eis sullēpsin katabeblēmenon spermatos, which means “for the reception of the semen which has been deposited.” Thompson asserts that this was the predominant traditional understanding of the ancient church. However, grammatically, translating this phrase with an infinitive does not fit the grammar, since the phrase eis katabolēn spermatos consists of a preposition and two nouns and is a stock idiom describing the male role in procreation (Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 345). Lane cites J. Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1924), 171, and C. Spicq, L’Épître aux Hébreux (Paris: Gabalda, 1952–53), 2:349. Also noted by Thompson, “Was Sarah a Believer?” 319. (2) Eis katabolēn spermatos means that Sarah received the power “for the establishment/foundation of posterity.” This reading, unfortunately, attributes a misleading usage of a stock Hellenistic idiom, which would be uncharacteristic for such a skilled rhetoritician as the author of Hebrews. Interestingly, this translation is not found in any modern translations currently in print. However, it should be noted that the “depositing of sperm/seed” (the idiomatic translation) does “establish posterity.” Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 345. (3) Given the plethora of bold metaphors used throughout Hebrews 11 alone (e.g., Abel “still speaks,” 11:5; Noah warned about “things to come,” 11:7; Moses suffered “the afflictions of Christ, 11:26), Thompson argues that, in the same way, “Sarah metaphorically “received the power to deposit seed.” Thus, eis katabolēn spermatos is used metaphorically of Sarah’s ability for “the establishment of posterity” (as noted above in #2). Thompson notes that katabolē is used elsewhere in Hebrews (4:3, 9:26) to mean “foundation.” Thompson’s argument has merit, since an idiom can be used metaphorically. However, his argument does not adequately explain the grammar of the text. Thompson, “Was Sarah a Believer?” 328.
  34. Pieter W. van der Horst, “Did Sarah Have A Seminal Emission?” Bible Review 8, no. 1 (1992): 39. According to van der Horst, the “traditional theory” was that the woman was simply a receptacle for the offspring the male would beget; she contributed nothing to the makeup of the embryo. By the third century b.c., the discovery of the ovary altered the theory of procreation to where they were “regarded as receptacles, or containers, for the female sperm and were called testes!” The “double-seed” or “double-emission” theory helped to explain the issue of heredity, which the traditional theory did not (p. 36, citing Needham and Hughes, History of Embryology [London: Abelard-Schuman, 1959]). In addition, these theories were not discussed in medical circles alone, but in philosophical circles as well. See van der Horst’s discussion on pp. 36–37. Based on his analysis, the rabbinic view was heavily influenced by the Hellenistic theory (via their cultural milieu), not by exegetical analysis of the biblical text (p. 39).
  35. For an extensive discussion and analysis of authorship, see Ellingsworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 3–21.
  36. This is not only a reference to the birth of Isaac despite Sarah’s barrenness (Gen. 18:10–15, 21:1–7), but the faith and trust of Abraham in offering up Isaac in obedience to God (Gen. 22:1–18, Heb. 11:17–19).
  37. Gordon Wenham, Genesis: 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2 (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1994), 48.
  38. Luke 1:36–37, 57–66.
  39. J. Dwight Pentecost, A Faith that Endures: The Book of Hebrews Applied to the Real Issues of Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery, 1992), 207.

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