During my recent course covering the book of Hebrews—while studying the well-known faith chapter, Hebrews 11—we came to the section addressing the life of Moses and a particular problem. In Hebrews 11:27 the author writes, “By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible.” This, of course, creates a problem when cross-referenced with Moses’ own account in Exodus, “Then he said, ‘Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ So Moses feared and said, ‘Surely this thing is known!’ When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well” (Exo. 2:14-15). In Exodus Moses feared for his life and fled, but in Hebrews the writer maintains that Moses did not fear the wrath of the king. How is it possible to reconcile these two passages?
The proposed solutions to this problem traditionally fall into a couple of different veins. The first emphasizes that the Exodus account records that Moses feared when he realized that his killing of the Egyptian was known rather than fearing Pharaoh himself. However, the contextual link between Moses’ fear and Pharaoh’s wrath in the two verses show the weakness of this contention. It also would appear odd to argue in Hebrews that Moses’ fleeing the country demonstrated that he was not afraid of the king. The second proposal argues that the writer of Hebrews’ reference to Moses’ not fearing the king pointed to the time of the exodus rather than Moses’ original departure at the age of 40. However, this would create a chronological problem in the context of Hebrews 11 since the next verse mentions keeping the Passover, which occurred just before the exodus. Therefore, both of these explanations have major issues.
Whenever an honest exegete comes across a situation such as this, he must examine his own assumptions to consider another point of view. Additionally, these problems usually indicate the need to reexamine the context in greater detail, looking for patterns and clues that would point toward a better explanation more consistent with all of the evidence. Therefore, the answer to this problem lies in the contextual clues provided in a chapter that seems very straightforward in its emphasis on faith. In fact, I would argue that a hyper-focus on the primary focus on faith in Hebrews 11 has prevented a deeper look at some subtleties contained within the text.
While the essentiality of obedient faith dominates Hebrews 11 in solidifying a theme developed as a component of each of the book’s major points, the author includes other recurring themes as well, weaving them together throughout the chapter as he begins his closing argument. The author began the section with a description of faith (Heb. 11:1) but then immediately followed it with a description of God’s response to such faith–His testimony to the value of their faith (Heb. 11:2). He immediately reiterated this theme in reference to Abel (Heb. 11:4) and Enoch (Heb. 11:5) as he led to his theological point regarding the purpose and nature of faith (Heb. 11:6), reenforcing this later when closing the chapter in which he included the entire list within that “good testimony” (Heb. 11:39). But when he ceased mentioning “testimony” specifically, he picked up on another theme introduced in verse one: hope. More specifically, he emphasized the hope of a godly inheritance rooted in God’s promises. He mentioned this with Noah (Heb. 11:7) but developed it extensively with Abraham as the one to whom God first made the land promise, the seed promise, and the nation promise (Gen. 12:1-3; Heb. 11:8-19). Indeed, these prove key in the description of the faith of Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (Heb. 11:11-12; 11:20-22). However, when considering especially the faith of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the timing really matters. We tend to assume that God spoke to them directly in each of these situations, but that actually misses the point. To the contrary, these men acted based upon the promises God had made to Abraham and passed on to them. They trusted God’s promises about the seed, the nation, and the land so much that they made significant decisions based upon them. In fact, the same is true of Moses’ parents who recognized that God’s promise of a great nation would be impossible if they killed off their male children (Heb. 11:23). And that leads us back to the question of Moses’ faith.
Through his parents’ faith and preparation, Moses not only was saved from death at birth but also was provided the opportunity to be nursed, raised, and therefore trained by his own mother. This faith is evident not only in the original saving of Moses’ life but also in the faith that Moses himself had as an adult. The phrase “when he became of age” (Heb. 11:24) does not mean that he finally learned about his identity once he became an adult but that he had reached the age at which he could make these decisions for himself and have them recognized as his own. His decisions included a rejection of belonging to the household of Pharaoh and a full acceptance of his heritage as an Israelite (Heb. 11:24b-25). The phrase “the people of God” itself points to his faith in the nation promise. The writer follows this with an interesting phrase considering the context—“the reproach of Christ.” A reference to God’s Anointed here seems unusual unless referring to the seed promise and how Moses valued that promise more than all the treasure in Egypt (Heb. 11:26) because it promised a greater reward—known only by God’s promise to Abraham. This then leads to Hebrews 11:27 and the original problem. We have assumed that when it says “he forsook Egypt” that this referred to his physically leaving the country, whether after the discovery of his killing the Egyptian or of his leading the Israelites out in the exodus. However, in the context of the previous verses, both chronologically and thematically, the decision Moses made to forsake Egypt was something he had determined at the same time as his other choices. Therefore, the emphasis of leaving Egypt was the choice to no longer consider Egypt his homeland but rather the land promised to Abraham. This is why it was a matter of faith. This interpretation fits the chronology of the passage, the underlying meaning of the word translated “forsook,” and the themes developed within the chapter. It gives greater context to the inclusion of the faith of Moses’ parents. And it points to the strength of his faith in God’s promises before he ever set foot on holy ground.
As we have seen, the answer to a contextual problem often lies in a closer examination of the context itself, reconsidering rhetorical themes and allowing the author’s emphasis to come forth rather than keeping it in the shadows through our own predetermined assumptions and focus. Moreover, by stepping back and then intensifying our study, not only are we more likely to solve a contextual problem, but we are also almost certain to discover how much of the text we previously neglected. It can be humbling. That is for certain. But that is not a downside to the process at all; it is one of its great side-benefits.