Skip to main content Accessibility help

Hebrews 12.5–13, the Wilderness Period, and Israel's Discipline*

  • Matthew Thiessen (a1)


Since the author of Hebrews locates his readers in Israel's wilderness period in Heb 3.1–4.11 and 11.8–39, the discussion of παιδɛία in 12.5–13 should be interpreted in light of early Jewish conceptions of Israel's time in the wilderness. Confirmation that this is the correct context in which to understand 12.5–13 will be found in Deuteronomy, Wisdom, Philo, and Josephus, all of whom, like Hebrews, consider endurance of the disciplinary period of the wilderness necessary in order to inherit the promised rest. For this reason, Hebrews warns of Esau, the paradigmatic example of the undisciplined person who forfeits his inheritance.



Hide All

1 Croy, N. C., Endurance in Suffering: Hebrews 12:1–13 in its Rhetorical, Religious, and Philosophical Context (SNTSMS 98; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1998) 5 (emphasis original). In addition, see the unpublished work of S. P. Logan, ‘The Background of Paideia in Hebrews’ (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986).

2 Cf., for instance, Andriessen, P., ‘Renonçant à la joie qui lui revenait…La nouvelle revue théologique 97 (1975) 424–38; Bonnard, P.-E., ‘La traduction de Hébreux 12,2: “C'est en vue de la joie que Jésus endura la croix”’, La nouvelle revue théologique 97 (1975) 415–23; Croy, N. C., ‘A Note on Hebrews 12:2’, JBL 114 (1995) 117–19; Ellingworth, P., ‘New Testament Text and Old Testament Context in Heb. 12.3’, Studia Biblica 1978 III: Papers on Paul and Other NT Authors (ed. Livingstone, E. A.; JSNTSS 3; Sheffield: JSOT, 1980) 8995; Schüssler Fiorenza, E., ‘Der Anführer und Vollender unseres Glaubens: Zum theologischen Verständnis des Hebräerbriefes’, Gestalt und Anspruch des Neuen Testaments (ed. Schreiner, J.; Würzburg: Echter, 1969) 262–81; Scott, J. J., ‘Archegos in the Salvation History of the Epistle to the Hebrews’, JETS 29 (1986) 4754; Söding, T., ‘Zuversicht und Geduld im Schauen auf Jesus: Zum Glaubensbegriff des Hebräersbriefes’, ZNW 82 (1991) 214–41; and Trilling, W., ‘“Jesus der Urbeher und Vollender des Glaubens” (Hebr XII,2)’, Das Evangelium auf dem Weg zum Menschen: zur Vermittlung und zum Vollzug des Glaubens (ed. Knoch, O. et al. ; Frankfurt: Knecht, 1973) 323.

3 Apart from Croy's monograph, this author has found only two articles that deal with Heb 12.5–13: Bornkamm, G., ‘Sohnschaft und Leiden: Hebräer 12,5–11’, Geschichte und Glaube 2. Gesammelte Aufsätze 4 (GET 53; Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1971) 214–24, and Mende, T., ‘“Wen der Herr liebhat, den züchtigt er” (Hebr 12, 6): Der alttestamentliche Hintergrund von Hebr 12,1–11; 1,1–4; 2,6–10’, TTZ 100 (1991) 2338.

4 In this way, the author is at work not merely in reporting on the world but also in producing a world which his readers are to inhabit, as has been suggested by Johnson, L. T., ‘The Scriptural World of Hebrews’, Int 57.3 (2003) 237–50 (238).

5 See Thiessen, M., ‘Hebrews and the End of the Exodus’, NovT 49.4 (2007) 353–69, for detailed argumentation. In this article I have tried to follow the counsel of Johnson, ‘Scriptural World’, 238: ‘If our question is how Hebrews imagines a certain kind of world, then we must allow our imaginations to be engaged, not by this or that part of the text, but by the composition as a whole’.

6 On Hebrews' use of Psalm 95, see Enns, P. E., ‘The Interpretation of Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3.1–4.13’, Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel: Investigations and Proposals (ed. Evans, C. A. and Sanders, J. A.; JSNTSS 148; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997) 352–63, and Flusser, D., ‘“Today if You will Listen to His Voice”: Creative Jewish Exegesis in Hebrews 3–4’, Creative Biblical Exegesis: Christian and Jewish Hermeneutics through the Centuries (ed. Uffenheimer, B. and Reventlow, H. G.; JSOTSup 59; Sheffield: JSOT, 1988) 5562.

7 Cf. Backhaus, K., ‘Das Land der Verheißung: Die Heimat der Glaubenden im Hebräerbrief’, NTS 47 (2001) 171–88 (174), who argues that the ‘Wanderexistenz und die bleibende Fremdheit’ of Abraham and the forefathers characterizes the existence of the people of the promise (emphasis original).

8 Although Cosby, M., The Rhetorical Composition and Function of Hebrews 11: In Light of Example Lists in Antiquity (Macon: Mercer University, 1988), argues that Hebrews 11 belongs to the Greco-Roman genre of an ‘Example List’, Thyen, H., Der Stil der Jüdisch-Hellenistischen Homilie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), is correct in arguing that the chapter is best understood as a retelling of Israel's history. Spicq, C., L'Épître aux Hébreux (Sources Bibliques; 2 vols.; Paris: Gabalda, 1952–53), arguing for a mediating position, claims that Hebrews 11 is a combination of rewritten history and an example list.

9 This connection between Hebrews 3–4 and Hebrews 11 has been noted by Johnsson, W. G., ‘The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews’, JBL 97 (1978) 239–51 (241), who argues that ‘ideas implied and inchoate in 3:6b–4:11 reach explicit expression in chap. 11’.

10 All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

11 So too, Schenck, K. L., Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Settings of the Sacrifice (SNTSMS 143; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007) 1516, although Schenck offers a considerably different account of the narrative underlying the letter.

12 Cf. Thiessen, ‘Hebrews and the End of the Exodus’, 369, and Allen, D. M., Deuteronomy and Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Narrative Re-presentation (WUNT 2/238; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 68.

13 Although perceptions of the wilderness were highly variegated in both the OT and non-biblical Jewish literature, this article is restricted to the disciplinary perception. For studies on the diverse traditions surrounding the wilderness, see, for instance, Cohn, R. L., The Shape of Sacred Space (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981) 723; Leal, R. B., Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness (Studies in Biblical Literature 72; New York: Peter Lang, 2004); Wall, L., ‘Finding Identity in the Wilderness’, Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young (ed. Sugirtharajah, R. S.; LNTS 295; London: T&T Clark, 2005) 6677; and, most recently, Najman, H., ‘Towards a Study of the Uses of the Concept of Wilderness in Ancient Judaism’, DSD 13.1 (2006) 99113.

14 Fox, M. V., Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 18A; New York: Doubleday, 2000) 152–3, argues that, in view of the parallels with Job 5.17 and Deut 8.5, Prov 3.12 was likely a common maxim. Lane, W. L., Hebrews (2 vols.; WBC 47; Dallas: Word, 1991) 2.420, notes the similar language between the two passages but does not discuss the possible significance of Deut 8.5 for Hebrews 12.

15 As Croy, Endurance in Suffering, 88–89, and deSilva, D. A., Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 448–9, have pointed out, Prov 3.11–12 clearly envisions punitive discipline. The possible influence of Deuteronomy 8 on Hebrews' understanding of Prov 3.11–12 may explain how the author of Hebrews could understand παιδɛία not as punitive but as instructional, an observation also made by Allen, Deuteronomy and Exhortation, 80. On the distinction between educative and punitive discipline, see Croy, Endurance in Suffering, and Sanders, J. A., Suffering as Divine Discipline in the Old Testament and Post-Biblical Judaism (Rochester: Colgate Rochester Divinity School, 1955).

16 According to KB, the polel of בין means ‘to take care of’, while the hiphil means ‘to teach’. Since the polel of בין is rare, it is understandable that the LXX has rendered the word as παιδɛύω. Similarly, the targumim and Sifre Deuteronomy 320 also interpret the polel of בין as instruction, although both specifically relate it to instruction in Torah.

17 See also the parental imagery of the eagle watching over its young in Deut 32.11. As Andriessen, P. C. B., ‘La Teneur Judéo-chrétienne de He I 6 et II 14B-III.2’, NovT 18.4 (1976) 293313 (298), states, ‘L'idée de l'adoption divine est particulièrement chère au rédacteur du Dt’.

18 Leal, Wilderness in the Bible, 137. So too, Cohn, Shape of Sacred Space, 15, who states that for Deuteronomy ‘the forty years in the wilderness was a necessary stage in the molding of the people’.

19 Cf. Allen, Deuteronomy and Exhortation, and Steyn, G. J., ‘Deuteronomy in Hebrews’, Deuteronomy in the New Testament (ed. Menken, M. J. J. and Moyise, S.; LNTS 358; London: T&T Clark, 2007) 152–68.

20 Larcher, C., Le Livre de la Sagesse ou la Sagesse de Salomon (3 vols.; Etudes Bibliques 1; Paris: Gabalda, 1983–85) 1.141–61, argues that Wisdom was written after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 47 bce, while Winston, D., Wisdom of Solomon (AB 43; Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) 20–5, has argued that it was written at the time of Caligula (37–41 ce). Although Georgi, D., Weisheit Salomos (JSHRZ 3.4; Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1980) 394–7, has argued that Wisdom was written in Syria during the second century bce, his position has garnered little support.

21 Enns, P., Exodus Retold: Ancient Exegesis of the Departure from Egypt in Wis 10:15–21 and 19:1–9 (HSM 57; Atlanta: Scholars, 1987). See also Peerbolte, B. J. L., ‘The Hermeneutics of Exodus in the Book of Wisdom’, The Interpretation of Exodus: Studies in Honour of Cornelius Houtman (ed. Roukema, R.; CBET 44; Leuven: Peeters, 2006) 97116.

22 Cf. Exodus 15. For other biblical passages that refer to this event and call the behaviour of the people into question, see Num 20.2–11; Deut 6.16; 9.22; LXX Pss 94.8–9; 105.32.

23 As Cheon, S., The Exodus Story in the Wisdom of Solomon: A Study in Biblical Interpretation (JSPSS 23; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997) 32, notes, Wisdom ignores or reinterprets the clear statements of Exodus regarding the guilt of the people in complaining against God.

24 Peerbolte, ‘The Hermeneutics of Exodus’, 100.

25 Peerbolte, ‘The Hermeneutics of Exodus’, 100, who reads Wisdom against the backdrop of Egyptian idolatry and not overt persecution. In contrast, Cheon, Exodus Story, 125–49, believes the historical events behind what the author views as God's discipline is the Alexandrian pogrom of 38 ce. Peerbolte's reading has the benefit of linking the use of exodus traditions with Wisdom's strong polemic against idolatry, while Cheon's reading makes good sense of the emphasis on discipline by placing it within the context of Jewish suffering in Alexandria.

26 Although even within the context of Deut 8.5 mention is made of the food and clothing God provided for the people while in the wilderness (8.3–4).

27 All translations from Philo are taken from Colson, F. H. and Whitaker, G. H., Philo (10 vols.; LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1929–62).

28 While Deut 8.5 and Prov 3.11–12 are not explicitly linked in any other extant Jewish literature from the Second Temple Period, they are linked in later rabbinical literature. Cf. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh 10 and Sifre Deuteronomy 32.

29 Croy, Endurance in Suffering, 113. This accords with Philo's argument that the Law was given in the desert because God needed first to purify Israel (Decalogue 10–13). On the basis of this, Mauser, U. W., Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (SBT 39; Naperville: Allenson, 1963) 54, argues that Philo sees the wilderness ‘as a training field on which skills are developed which are necessary for the establishment and administration of a sound national life’.

30 All quotations from Josephus are taken from Thackeray, H. St. J. et al. , eds., Josephus (10 vols.; LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1926–65).

31 A similar view of the wilderness as a place of testing and training is found in the later rabbinic commentary on Exodus, Mekhilta de Rabbi-Ishmael. Cf. Mekhilta, Beshallah 1: ‘“of the wilderness”, indicates that it was for the purpose of refining them, as it is said: “Who led thee through the great and dreadful wilderness”, etc. (Deut. 8.15); “by the Red Sea”, indicates that it was for the purpose of testing them, as it is said: “And they were rebellious at the sea, even at the Red Sea” (Ps. 106.7)…’, and Mekhilta, Vayassa' 1: ‘Hence what must be the meaning of “And there He proved them”? There God tested Israel’. Quotations are taken from Lauterbach, J. Z., Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (3 vols.; Philadelphia: JPS, 1933) 1.174 and 2.94.

32 On the issues surrounding this scriptural quotation, see Ellingworth, P., The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 648.

33 Presumably the author uses Prov 3.11–12 and not Deut 8.5 since the Proverbs citation can be used as a direct exhortation to his readers, and thus the author can ask: ‘Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?’ Cf. Bornkamm, ‘Sohnschaft’, 223, who states that the author uses the citation ‘als Gottes eigenes Wort an den Frommen’, and Johnson, L. T., Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 320, who says that ‘the author contemporizes the passage: it does not simply speak to ancient students of the sages. It speaks for God, who now addresses the author and his hearers as “sons” ’. This is part of a larger trend throughout the letter, as noted by Johnson, ‘Scriptural World’, 240–1. The only commentators who have detected the influence of Deut 8.5 on Hebrews 12 are Spicq, L'Épître aux Hébreux, 2.391, and Allen, Deuteronomy and Exhortation, 79–82.

34 This accords with Johnson, ‘Scriptural World’, 239, who argues that ‘the composition reveals an extraordinarily comprehensive and thorough reader of the Greek translation of Torah known as the Septuagint (LXX). The author's liberal use of citation and allusion suggests a confidence that the composition's readers share some degree of that competence’.

35 Johnson, ‘Scriptural World’, 241.

36 Although he does not see the connection between Deuteronomy's account of the wilderness generation as a period of discipline where the people of God were trained for entrance into the land of promise, deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 445, understands the discipline of Hebrews 12 as training for the kingdom.

37 See, for instance, 1QS 8.13–16, where the community will separate itself from the wicked by entering the מדבר; and 1QM 1.2, where the community members (the sons of Judah, Levi, and Benjamin) are referred to as those exiled to the wilderness (גולת המדבד). Talmon, S., ‘The “Desert Motif” in the Bible and in Qumran Literature’, Biblical Motifs: Origins and Transformations (ed. Altmann, A.; Studies and Texts III; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1966) 3163 (63), rightly states: ‘Ultimately the “desert” became the locale of a period of purification and preparation for the achievement of a new goal. This goal is the conquest of the Holy Land…’ Cf. also Bernstein, M., ‘4Q159 fragment 5 and the “Desert Theology” of the Qumran Sect’, Emanuel: Studies in Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, and Dead Sea Scrolls in Honor of Emanuel Tov (ed. Paul, S. M. et al. ; Leiden: Brill, 2003) 4356, and Schofield, A., ‘The Wilderness Motif in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, Israel in the Wilderness: Interpretations of the Biblical Narratives in Jewish and Christian Traditions (ed. Pomykala, K. E.; TBN 10; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 3753. Similarly, the wilderness as a period of testing and preparation can be found in NT literature outside of Hebrews, in particular, Jesus' temptation, for which see Stegner, W. R., ‘Wilderness and Testing in the Scrolls and in Matthew 4:1–11’, BR 12 (1967) 1827, and Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness, 62–149.

38 Lane, Hebrews, 2.424, suggests that καὶ ζήσομɛν (12.9) evokes the covenant blessings of Deut 30.11–20, where obedience leads to life in the land. This allusion would again strengthen the author's effort to demonstrate that his readers are in the wilderness period.

39 Apparently the author does not think that death has ended the wilderness period for previous generations, since he states that those who had gone before would not be perfected apart from the recipients of the letter (Heb 11.40). Johnson, Hebrews, 316, rightly states of the great cloud of witnesses: ‘[T]hese witnesses themselves need the present generation to complete the race if they are themselves to be perfected’.

40 Cf. Jer 6.24; Ecclus 2.12; 25.23. If Ellingworth, Epistle to the Hebrews, 657, is correct that the author is alluding to Isa 35.3 (ἰσχύσατɛ, χɛῖρɛς ἀνɛιμέναι καὶ γόνατα παραλɛλυμένα), then exodus imagery is again evoked (cf. Isa 35.1, 6). As noted above, in discussing the events at Marah, Philo states, ‘many people are very quickly fatigued and fall, thinking labour a terrible adversary, and they let their hands fall out of weakness (αἱ χɛῖρɛς ὑπ' ἀσθɛνɛίας), like tired athletes, determining to return to Egypt to the indulgence of their passions’ (Prelim. Studies 164). Thus, like Heb 12.12, Philo also places drooping hands in the context of the exodus where they signify the danger of falling back from entry into the land of promise.

41 For the textual issue surrounding this verse and LXX Deut 29.18, see Koester, C. R., Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 36; New York: Doubleday, 2001) 531–2, and Attridge, H. W., The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989) 366–8.

42 While Preliminary Studies does not refer to Esau's indiscipline in discussing Gen 27.40, as noted above, Philo does refer to Esau's disciplining by his father by being made a slave to Isaac (Prelim. Studies 175–6). Adding up all the parallels between Hebrews 12 and Philo's Preliminary Studies, we see that both have a discussion of παιδɛία in the context of the wilderness, deploy the imagery of an athletic contest, refer to drooping hands, and mention Esau as a negative example. This striking collocation of motifs in both Preliminary Studies and Hebrews raises the question of the possible dependence of the author of Hebrews on Philo, as has been argued by Spicq, C., ‘L'Épître aux Hébreux et Philon: Un cas d'insertion de la literature sacrée dans la culture profane du 1er siècle (Hébr. V,11-VI,20 et le “De sacrificiis Abelis et Caini” de Philon)’, ANRW 2.25.4 (1987) 3602–18, and has been argued against by Williamson, R., Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (ALGHJ 4; Leiden: Brill, 1970).

43 Translations of QG taken from Marcus, R., Philo: Supplement 1: Questions and Answers on Genesis (LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1953) 450.

44 The plural is used in LXX Genesis 25, although the MT has the singular בכרתו (‘his birthright’). The Israelites are the πρωτότοκα, who are delivered from the destroying angel in Egypt (Heb 11.28) and who are now in the heavenly Jerusalem (12.23). The identity of the πρωτότοκα in 12.23 has been a matter of dispute (for instance, by Käsemann, E., The Wandering People of God: An Investigation of the Letter to the Hebrews [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984] 50, who argues that they are angels), though 4 Ezra 6.58 and Jub 2.20 use a similar phrase to connote the people of God, and the previous reference in Heb 11.28 identifies the firstborn with Israel. Cf. Lane, Hebrews, 2.468–9; Attridge, Epistle, 375.

45 While rabbinic literature generally contains an equally negative view of Esau, it is striking that at least one text (Gen. R. 66.13), in contrast to Hebrews, claims that he did repent.

46 The import of this christological title is uncertain, as the monograph by Müller, P.-G., ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΑΡΧΗΓΟΣ: Der religionsgeschichtliche und theologische Hintergrund einer neutestamentlichen Christusprädikation (Peter Lang: Frankfurt, 1973), makes clear. Nonetheless, the fact that ἀρχηγοί figure prominently in OT wilderness traditions (cf. Num 13.2–3; 16.1–3; 25.1–5) suggests that Jesus should be understood as the ἀρχηγός who faithfully enters the promised rest, in contrast to the ἀρχηγοί of Moses' day who did not. Cf. Thiessen, ‘Hebrews and the End of the Exodus’, 366–7.

47 While Schenck, Cosmology and Eschatology, 23, is correct in asserting that ‘Christ's death is arguably the focal event of Hebrews’ narrative world', this does not take away from the fact that the paraenesis focuses on the less-than-triumphant experience of the readers.

48 As Lane, Hebrews, 2.421, states: ‘there is a necessary and integral relationship between sufferings and a filial relationship with the Lord’.

49 On the close connection between Jesus' sonship and the sonship of the letter's recipients, see Bornkamm, ‘Sohnschaft’, and Johnson, Hebrews, 321.

50 Allen, Deuteronomy and Exhortation, 195 (emphasis original).

51 Cf. Mende, ‘Wen der Herr liebhat’, 32–3.

52 Johnson, Hebrews, 319.

53 As Johnson, ‘Scriptural World’, 247, states: ‘Hebrews therefore successfully imagines the world that scripture itself imagines. As a result, scripture is a world in which Hebrews and its hearers can dwell’.

54 Cf. Jaeger, W. W., Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (3 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University, 1939–45).

* I am grateful to Richard B. Hays and David M. Moffitt for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this paper.


Hebrews 12.5–13, the Wilderness Period, and Israel's Discipline*

  • Matthew Thiessen (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed