Perseverance and Hebrews 6: The Midrash Solution
(Hebrews 6:3-9 with Numbers 13-14)
In the United States, many people who had at one time professed allegiance to Jesus Christ have turned away from their previous commitment. We refer to a person who once knowingly professed the faith — but has since renounced it — as an “apostate” (from the Greek, “one who stands away” from what he once professed). Theologically, how do we account for apostates?
Most of us would agree that people who deny Christ (whether they once professed Him or not) are lost. But what route did these apostates take to earn this “lost” label? Do genuine believers always persevere in their faith? Is our assurance of salvation merely tentative — subject to revision? Bible-believing Christians are divided over this issue. For many, the text of Hebrews 6:3-9 is a deciding factor, and there are certainly a number of interpretative routes we could take.
An Important Perspective
I would like to demonstrate that interpreting this passage from a Midrash perspective clarifies the controversy. By Midrash, I mean that the writer to the Hebrews is intentionally and consciously drawing principles from Old Testament texts, in this instance Numbers 13:1-14:45. He applies the principles of this text to a current (somewhat parallel) problem within the Hebrew congregation, the result being Hebrews 6:3-9.
Since most Jews had memorized the entire Torah and were fluent in the rest of Old Testament, I would argue that the original readers of Hebrews understood this clearly.
If we demonstrate that Hebrews 6:3-9 is derived from Numbers 13-14, we have significantly increased the context of Hebrews 6. By looking at the combined contexts, we can determine if the apostates of Hebrews 6 were likely genuine believers or if they were tag-alongs, merely associated with God’s people but never personally regenerate.
Much of the Book of Hebrews is one Midrash after another (you might recall my previous article on the Melchizedek Midrash). The early chapters quote one OT verse after another, so we are not left to guess.
The writer initiates a Midrash on the wilderness wanderings in chapters three and four, leaves it in five, and returns to it in chapter 6.
Summarizing Numbers 13-14
In Numbers 13-14, the Lord instructs Moses to send out 12 spies to case out the Promised Land. They sample and bring back its produce. Sadly, 10 of the spies lack faith and therefore advise the people against attempting to conquer Canaan. Two spies (Joshua and Caleb) admit that the task is challenging, but they affirm that the land is an amazing land and that God is an amazing God. Through faith in God, they can conquer the land.
The people choose to disbelieve that God will honor His promise and they side with the spies who have determined to pull back from Canaan. God becomes angry and Moses pleads with the Lord to be gracious.
God determines not to strike the people, but condemns them to wander for 40 years in the wilderness without a home. The younger generation and those who trusted in God (like Joshua and Caleb) would enter the Promised Land in time; the rest would die in the wilderness as a judgment.
Upon hearing this, the people realized they had aroused God’s anger and contemplated the severity of His discipline. They pretended that their distrust of God was just a minor fluke, and they determined that, upon further consideration, they would attack Canaan.
Moses warns them that if they do, God will not protect them. It was too late; the die had been cast. There was no opportunity for repentance; the wrong could not be righted.
Comparing Selected Texts
Let’s look at selections from Numbers 13-14 (my suggested “mother text”) and compare them to portions of Hebrews 6 (my suggested Midrash) to see if they indeed line up. You must be the judge.
Numbers 13:23, 27-28 And they came to the Valley of Eshcol and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they also brought some pomegranates and figs… And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. “
Hebrews 6:4-5 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come…
Numbers 14:1-3 passim, Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! …Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
Numbers 14:21-23 passim, …none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.
Numbers 14:39-45, When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” But Moses said, “Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah.
Hebrews 6:6-8 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Numbers 14:29-30, “your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun…”
Hebrews 6:9, Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.
Since the Tribe of Levi sent no spies, and since they appeared to be more faithful, they were apparently excluded from the “under twenty” curse. It is natural to understand Numbers 14:30 as including ellipsis from verse 29, which would carry the qualifying thought over into verse 30. In other words, it could be understood as “…not one who have grumbled against me shall come into the land…”
So there was a faithful contingent, Joshua, Caleb, the Levites, and those who were over 20 but did not grumble against the Lord.
Putting It All Together: My Conclusions
1. Hebrews 6:3-9 is based upon a history lesson from Numbers 13-14. In my judgment, the Hebrews text truly is a Midrash, and earlier references to the wilderness wanderings in Hebrews fortify this conclusion (see 3:7-4:11). The writer to the Hebrews has the wilderness wanderings in mind.
2. In the case of the Children of Israel, they were enlightened by God’s Word and saw God work miracle after miracle, witnessing His power. They ate the manna. Yet the evidence suggests the majority were not truly regenerate.
In their hearts, they wanted to return to Egypt (Numbers 14:4), and they wanted to worship foreign gods (Numbers 25:1-3). Earlier they even coaxed Aaron to construct a golden calf in Moses’ absence (Exodus 32:1-4). They secretly retained their idols, as is suggested even at the end of Joshua’s life, when he admonishes them to “ …put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:23).
If the reader believes that the children of Israel who behaved in this way were not true believers, then it is reasonable (or at least logically possible) to assume that the people to whom they are compared — the apostates mentioned in Hebrews 6 — were never truly regenerate either.
Even if one chooses another interpretation, it seems to me that we have to concede that this interpretation is at least viable.
3. Both the Israelites in Numbers and the apostate of Hebrews 6 had seen God’s power via miracle after miracle. God’s Word enlightened both groups. Both witnessed God leading His people. Both tasted the “produce” of the age to come, whether the fruit of Canaan or the work of the Spirit Who previews what is to come. Both preferred to return to their former status. And both groups are doomed to judgment and beyond repentance.
4. Instead of viewing Moses as God’s appointed deliverer, the unbelievers came to view him as a false leader — although they had trusted him at first. They wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb (and probably Moses, too) in Numbers 14:10 and appoint another leader. In Hebrews 6:6, the apostates were essentially agreeing with those who crucified Jesus, that he received the just punishment for falsely claiming to be the messiah and lead people astray through his sorcery.
Both groups were mistaken; the children of Israel continued to whine against Moses, but they had to continue under his authority, like it or not. So one day the apostates will join the rest of creation and confess, “Jesus is Lord.”
So what happened in Hebrews 6? If we add Numbers 13-14 to the context, it seems that the tares sowed among the wheat proved themselves tares.