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The author of Hebrews namedrops a whole lot of folks from the Hebrew Bible. If you haven't memorized all the genealogies in Genesis, then you might be feeling a little confused. But allow us to present you with our handy-dandy guide to all those biblical big wigs you might and might not know.
This dude is probably the most obscure figure mentioned in Hebrews. He's only called out twice in the entire Hebrew Bible. Once in Genesis 14 and another time in Psalm 110. In the first story, Melchizedek, who happens to be a king and priest, meets Abraham after a battle and blesses him. In return, and Abraham gives him one-tenth of everything he won in battle. (Nice tip!)
In Hebrews, the author tells his story this way:
This "King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him"; and to him Abraham apportioned "one-tenth of everything." His name, in the first place, means "king of righteousness"; next he is also king of Salem, that is, "king of peace." Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. (7:1-4)
Melchizedek might have a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance in the Bible, but he was big news in 1st-century Jewish circles. Some rabbis thought was a kind of angelic judge or even the archangel Michael. Philo, a Jewish philosopher, believed he symbolized God's word. And 2 Enoch adds more to his backstory and legend. Yup. Everyone was talking about Melchizedek. (Source, 1246)
The author of Hebrews decides to give this guy his own spin. And that spin, naturally, points to Jesus. After all, Jesus is a king who's righteous and peaceful. As God's son, he doesn't have a beginning or end to his existence. And because he never dies, he'll stay a priest forever. Like Melchizedek, he isn't a descendent of Aaron or the Levites who run the tabernacle.
Yup: according to the author, Melchizedek and Jesus are like brothers from another mother.
If we're talking big deal people in the Hebrew Bible, Moses is probably numero uno. Sure, Abraham was the first Jew and David was a mighty king, but Moses kind of takes the cake when it comes to following God. The author of Hebrews gives us the run down on him:
By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king's anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. (11:23-28)
We've all seen the movie, right? Back in Exodus, Moses went from baby-in-basket-gets-adopted-by-Pharaoh's-daughter to full let-my-people-go authority. He helped the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt and then led them right up to the border of the Promised Land. On the way there, he laid down God's law and the system of worship that was the tabernacle (and would eventually become the temple in Jerusalem). Not too bad for a lifetime's work.
Okay, so Moses is the most revered, wonderful, and amazing guy in the history of the world, right? Sure. Until Jesus came along. Our author thinks Moses is mighty fine, but he doesn't hold a candle when compared to Jesus:
Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also "was faithful in all God's house." Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God's house as a son. (3:1-6)
Did you get all that? Moses is like the head butler in God's house. We love Geoffrey, Alfred, and Mr. Carson, but they're just hanging around taking care of the house. They're not gonna inherit the family jewels one day.
Sorry, Moses. Guess it's back to cleaning heavenly toilets for you.
Also know as the father of Judaism, Abraham is the first guy in the Bible to really follow and trust in God. In return, God establishes a covenant with Abraham and all his descendants. That's the same covenant that, according to Hebrews, Jesus would make obsolete—but it was nice while it lasted.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." (11:8-12)
Translation: it's Abraham who got this whole ball rolling. Jesus came to help "the descendants of Abraham" (2:16), i.e., the Jewish people. Later, his followers decided they might want to branch out a little, but Christianity still kept some of its Jewish roots. Abraham isn't such a big deal in the modern church, but he's still there providing a faithful example for the world.
One does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (5:4)
What further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? (7:11)
Aaron was Moses's older brother, and his story unfolds throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. His little brother might get most of the fame, but Aaron was no slouch himself. He was a prophet, and God appointed him to be the first high priest while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. After that, only high priests that were descendants of Aaron could serve in the tabernacle. Since Jesus isn't a descendent of Aaron (his forefather was Judah), he gets to break this rule just a little.
Saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." (4:7)
David was a king of Israel, so you can bet people thought he was a big deal. 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles have all kinds of info about his life and reign, but the author of Hebrews is using a different source for his David quotes. Jewish tradition says that many of the psalms were written by David himself—we're getting a quote from Psalm 95 here. He must have knocked that off in his spare time.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. (11:4)
Cain and Abel are the first brothers mentioned in the Bible and they take sibling rivalry to new heights right away. In Genesis, Cain gets jealous because God likes Abel's offerings better. So…he kills him. God is not amused.
By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and "he was not found, because God had taken him." For it was attested before he was taken away that "he had pleased God." (11:5)
Enoch's got connections. Genesis explains he was in tight with God until God "took him." The author of Hebrews seems to think that means that Enoch didn't ever die. Score one for Enoch.
By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. (11:7)
Even babies know about Noah. He built an ark to save his family and a whole bunch of animals from a coming flood. The destruction of all life on planet Earth was so adorable that it would go on to become suitable imagery for any child's nursery.
Sarah herself was barren. (11:11)
Sarah didn't have her first kid—Isaac—until she was around ninety years old. Naturally, she had a good laugh when God told her she was gonna have a son. But as always, God was right.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son. (11:17)
Isaac is the son of Abraham and Sarah and the father of Jacob and Esau, but his big claim to fame is almost being killed by his dad. When God told Abraham to build an altar to sacrifice his son on, the faithful and trusting Abraham was game. Isaac was less thrilled. Luckily, an angel came down and stopped Abraham right before the knife fell.
See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (12:16)
Esau was Jacob's older twin brother, but he was regularly shown up by his little bro. One day, when Esau came into their tent after a hard day of work in the fields, he begged his brother for some food. Jacob agreed to hand over the grub if Esau would let him have all the rights of a firstborn son. Esau agreed and it was all downhill from there. The author of Hebrews thinks that Esau sold his birthright, but some people might say he was tricked out of it.
By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, "bowing in worship over the top of his staff." (11:20-21)
Jacob was the son of Isaac and the father of Joseph. In his youth, he enjoyed conning people out of God's blessing, but when he got a little older, he was the one doling the blessings out. Who can resist adorable grandkids?
By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial. (11:22)
Joseph is probably most famous for wearing around that Technicolor dream coat that his father, Jacob, gave him. Through a series of unfortunate events (as told in Genesis), Joseph came to power in Egypt, but he never forgot his home sweet home in Canaan. When the Israelites fled from slavery in Egypt, they took Joseph's bones with them so he could be buried back in his homeland.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. (4:8)
In the Book of Numbers, Joshua became the leader of the Israelites after Moses screwed up and died. He got to lead the people into the Promised Land but not before God said it was a-okay. No rest for the weary, we guess.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. (11:31)
Rahab might have been a lady of the night, but she made it possible for the Israelites to take the Promised Land. When the people were ready to fight to win the land God had given them, Joshua sent in a group of spies, and they teamed up with Rahab to hide in the city. In return, her family wasn't killed in the ensuing massacre. Some might call her a traitor, but the Bible calls her a heroine.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah […] and Samuel. (11:32)
You'd need a lot of time to cover all the exploits of these guys, but the author mentions them all in one breath. Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah were all judges together in the Book of Judges. We're gonna guess they'd give Judge Judy a run for her money. Samson is probably the most famous: he had a nice head of hair and a taste for underhanded women named Delilah. Samuel's story is told in full in 1 and 2 Samuel, but essentially, he was a prophet. He's also the guy who was responsible for hand-picking David to be King of Israel. Not too shabby.