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Heroes of the Covenant: Adam through Moses

Faith-Hero Texts in Ben Sira and Wisdom in Comparison to Acts 7 and Hebrews 11

As could be expected with any culture that carries a rich blend of oral and written

tradition, the Second Temple period religious literature features extensive hortatory

works exploring the heroism and faithfulness of the Jews ʼ forebears. While other works

certainly bear evidence of its influence (1 Maccabees, Tobit, 1 Esdras), this type of

expression shows up most strongly in the wisdom literature of the Inter-testamental era.

It also appears in Stephen ʼ s speech before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 and the exhortatory

“hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. Given the close resemblance of these texts to two

significant New Testament passages, an exploration of their function, theology, and

direction may give us insight into the minds of Stephen and the author of Hebrews and

what they sought to convey in the early days of the Church.

Because of the apparent connections these texts have with covenant, wisdom,

and teachings regarding the same, the scope of this paper will be limited to the broad

foundations of covenant in Jewish understanding — a span that stretches from Adam to

Moses. While other covenants, like those with Aaron, Phinehas, and David, are certainly

significant to Jewish thought, they are not as influential within the realm of interaction

between Ben Sira, Wisdom, and the New Testament texts. Additionally, the hero text of

Wisdom only goes as far as Moses and to go further would dilute the attention that it

merits in this study. It is the author ʼ s hope to discuss the basic contents of the texts,

their respective theologies, and in what ways they interact. An analysis of this

interaction — whether it be positive, negative, or simply co-existent — ought to provide

insight into the relationship between the observant Jewish traditions, particularly those

of the Diaspora, and the Nazarene sect that emerges in the first century converting

Jews and Gentiles throughout the Roman world to the God of Israel.

Text Descriptions

Ben Sira was penned in Hebrew in the early second century BC, before the

Seleucid god—agenda was manifested in Antiochus IV (Kee xxi). Its author is named as

Joshua ben Sira, a Palestinian scribe, likely in the region of Jerusalem. He was

evidently a supporter of the Oniads, and his wisdom was translated into Greek by his

grandson for Jews living in Egypt. The text seeks to provide devotional and hymnic

literature to the observant Jew who is committed to the study of Torah and the Prophets

(Sirach Prologue).

Coming from a fairly similar perspective, Wisdom presents from a diaspora

perspective, the fruit of wisdom and righteousness, most likely in the first century BC.

For all its Jewish teaching, it betrays and incredibly Hellenistic style in its didacticism

and exaltation of the spirit—like wisdom over the material world and its inhabitants.

Wisdom, within the text of this book, is the mediator between God and men (Kee xx).

Acts 7 is part of a larger work in Luke ʼ s two—part history of Jesus and his

disciples. The whole of the text is a Hellenistic Jewish believer ʼ s diatribe before the

Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. This believer, Stephen, was among the chosen first deacons in

Jerusalem, and his speech betrays an intentional Diaspora style with early Jewish—

Christian teaching. The events of this chapter are likely within the first fifteen years after

Jesus ʼ ascension. Key to the text, however, is the activity of God as far more

determinative in covenant history than the activity of men.

In a similar vein, Hebrews 11 is part of an epistolary sermon, particularly in the

exhortatory segment. Traditional Christian hermeneutics has sought to argue that

Hebrews is an anti—Judaism polemic, but another paper by the author has put forward

the suggestion that Hebrews sets up the contrast between the Mosaic and New

covenants not to diminish the Sinai covenant, but to make use of its goodness and

grace, to put forward revelation rather than replacement. 1 The purpose of the text in

Hebrews 11 is to establish a basis for inspiring Diaspora Jewish believers to endure

persecution and remain faithful to the New Covenant.


The text of Ben Sira has, by far, the most extensive listing and description. The

whole of his text is contained in Sirach 44:1-50:21, naming more than two dozen

individuals (with a collective acknowledgment of the judges) from Adam to Simon ben

Onias. References to those heroes from Adam to Moses, however, are contained within

44:16-45:5 and 49:14-16 and these include Adam, Seth, Enosh, Enoch, Noah, Shem,

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.

While the list of accomplishments and stories attached to their names vary a

good deal, the dominant characters in this segment of Ben Sira ʼ s are Enoch, Noah,

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. And why are these men held up? In principle, there

are three themes that dominate Ben Sira ʼ s understanding of them: they enjoyed

covenantal access to God, were faithful in upholding the law, and lived honorable lives. 2

In fact, with the exception of Enoch, the reader familiar with the Old Testament will note

that all of these men play significant roles in the unveiling of covenant and redemptive

history. What comes out of Ben Sira ʼ s heroes, then, is an apparent Jewish

understanding of covenant and its development throughout history.

1 Ketter, David. “Hebrews 12:18—29 as Torah Discourse: Intertextual Analysis as an Interpretive Aid.” Geneva College. May 1, 2009.

2 The reader would do well to note the similarity of these values with Avot 1:2 where the world is said to be sustained by three things: Torah, worship of God by his people, and deeds of kindness.

Wisdom 10 has a relatively short list comparatively. Featuring seven actual

heroes, Wisdom tells the narrative of history from Adam to Moses in relation to Lady

Wisdom and tracing her relationships with these men from Adam, to Noah, Abraham,

Lot, Jacob, Joseph and concluding with Moses. Apart from the mention of Lot, it is

relatively easy to see the covenantal connections these men have. What is more

interesting, however, is the progression of relationship that is portrayed. Adam, Noah,

Abraham, and Lot enjoy the evident protection of Wisdom from their own sins and from

the sins of others. Moving forward, however, Jacob and Joseph are not only protected,

but enjoy actual prosperity due to Wisdom ʼ s patronage. The text concludes, however, by

placing Moses as the one who is possessed by Wisdom (10:16). From the perspective

of this progression, it is when the people of God are led by the one embodied by

wisdom that the presence of God is enjoyed in its fullness.

Likewise, Stephen ʼ s speech in Acts 7 emphasizes a progression the begins with

Abraham and then passes to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Further reading of Acts

7 would reveal that Stephen ʼ s list only reaches its theological climax during the Israelite

monarchy, it finds its literary climax in Moses, who is the recipient of an elaborate

depiction. What dominates the progression for Stephen is moving from the call of God

to Abraham towards the fruition of covenant relationship most clearly demonstrated in

obedient walking with God (for Stephen, in contrast to the Temple as a visible

expression of fellowship with God). While that works in progression pointing to Jesus, it

is Moses, from the literary standpoint, who best exemplifies what Stephen is

aggressively illustrating as a positive covenantal relationship with God.

Next to Ben Sira, Hebrews 11 has the most to offer regarding the number of

heroes, particularly the range that has been chosen for this paper. The author of

Hebrews chose to begin with Abel and then moves on to Enoch, Noah, Abraham,

Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. The author of Hebrews is unique in two

respects for all of these texts: he is the only one to include Abel and the only one to

include a woman (later in the text, he will also mention Rahab). Like Ben Sira, Hebrews

also lacks any notion of a diachronic progression. It does, however, highlight particularly

covenantal figures once it has moved beyond Abel and Enoch. As the text bears out, the

driving force for the author of Hebrews is the presence of faith in each of these

individual ʼ s lives. Their faith is the basis of their inclusion, not on its own, but on the

basis of what it enabled to do as they walked with God in obedience.

Two Types of Text: Diachronic Progression & Covenant Heroes

Based on the texts themselves, it can be seen that these samples evidence two

different types of texts. Wisdom 10 and Acts 7 provide a diachronic progression, rooted

in some sort of covenant-based theology, of heroes leading to a particular climax. Ben

Sira and Hebrews 11 showcase heroes who display values most significant for the

author and connect those values to covenant, to establish it as essential to belief and

practice. While one may attempt to deal with all of these taken together, the analysis of

types allows us to see where the hero text is a technique (diachronic progression) and

where it is a theological necessity (covenant heroes). To clarify, what the author of

Wisdom does will give us insight into Stephen ʼ s approach and methodology, but offers

nothing regarding his theology. By contrast, Ben Sira and Hebrews, if they interact, are

part of a significant conversation within the age of Second Temple Judaism.

Diachronic Progression in Faith-Hero Texts

Wisdom 10 and Acts 7 present a diachronic progression of heroes driven by their

respective themes. In Wisdom, Lady Wisdom as the mediator between God and his

people drives the development, moving from a role of protector, to patron, and reaching

a fulfilled role as possessor. Wisdom is thus connected to covenant in that, as covenant

becomes more specific and further revealed, the more intimate Wisdom ʼ s role becomes.

So, Moses ʼ role as a hero is dependent upon the covenant that was revealed through

him and, due to his covenantal status, he is possessed by wisdom.

Stephen ʼ s speech and development are driven by the manifestation of God ʼ s

presence. In other words, Stephen ʼ s concern is the unmediated relationship between

God and his people. Working from Abraham, Stephen begins with the call and

revelation of God with the introduction of covenant. When he progresses to Joseph, the

emphasis is on God ʼ s personal faithfulness to Joseph and divine maintenance of the

Abrahamic covenant. Highlighting the contrast, by moving next to Moses, Stephen

develops the contrast of Israel ʼ s lack of concern for God ʼ s covenant with God ʼ s own

powerful actions through Moses, who is the faithful servant par excellence. And with

Moses, the visible demonstration of God ʼ s presence in the midst of his people arrives,

even as the people move further away from his covenant.

The technique of diachronic progression has two key qualities: foundation on a

Second Temple Jewish form of covenant theology and a notion of God ʼ s proximity to his

people. As the covenant is revealed more, God ʼ s imminency increases to the point of

drawing near to his people. The vehicle for this is the faith-hero, who interacts with or

receives some measure of the force or value that makes this possible. Thus, in theory,

any force could be used within the scope of this covenant-revealing divine imminency

that shows up in Wisdom 10 and Acts 7. It may be that technique is the same basis for

what is seen in other portions of the New Testament in a less developed form. 3

There is no way to conclude the origin of Stephen ʼ s technique. It may be derived

from Wisdom, or it may have developed from sources independent or prior to Wisdom.

What we can conclude from the texts, however, is that Second Temple Judaism, at least

in some segments of the Diaspora, has some concept of covenant theology and a well-

developed theology of God ʼ s imminence and presence with his covenant people.

Beyond that, there is nothing to be gained from these texts taken together.

Covenant Heroes as Theological Vindication

As noted, what occurs in the texts of Ben Sira and Hebrews 11 is far from being

mere technique. Instead of imposing values or ideas upon the heroes, Ben Sira and the

author of Hebrews take elements from the stories of heroes as vindication for their

theological teaching. For Ben Sira, the three-fold ethic of Torah, worship, and good

deeds is central whereas the author of Hebrews is arguing for the supremacy of faith. Of

all the heroes they name from Adam through Moses, the only ones they do not share

are Adam, Seth, Enosh, Shem (who are only mentioned in passing in Sirach 49:16),

Abel and Sarah (who are unique to Hebrews 11). Thus, their respective litanies involve

Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses and these men are central to

their understanding and proposed direction for Judaism. As goes covenant, so goes the

people of God, and these authors both understand that.

3 Romans 4, Galatians 3, 1 Peter 3, and 2 Peter 2 particularly show this by using Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and Lot in a construct dealing with covenant revelation and God ʼ s identification with his people.

Foundational to both of them is Enoch, who is dealt with using the same terms

(meteteqh, eueresthse) and same results, but stemming from different reasons. The

author of Hebrews presents Enoch ʼ s faith as the means by which he pleased God

(Hebrews 11:5) whereas Ben Sira holds that Enoch ʼ s example of repentance holds that

place (Sirach 44:16). While contemporary theology tends to hold these two terms in

close relationship, the nuance of repentance in Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism is

distant from our modern understanding in significant ways. To begin with, repentance

(teshuvah) had much more to do with a decisive return or conversion to full Torah

observance and faithful Jewish practice than it had to do with grief for past wrongs per

se. Repentance meant a change of lifestyle, not the acquisition of faith or trust in


All the rest continue in a series of contrasts. Where Noah was said to have been

found perfect” (Sirach 44:17), Hebrews will insist that he “became heir of the

righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7). Where Abraham is matchless and

upheld the Law (Sirach 44:19-21), he is acknowledged as an obedient servant who did

not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19). Isaac is, on the one hand, a

common recipient of the covenant with Abraham and Jacob (Sirach 44:22), but on the

other, is another of the faithful looking for the things promised, yet not receiving

(Hebrews 11:20). This trend continues in Jacob and Joseph (Sirach 44:23, 49:15;

Hebrews 11:21-22). The conflict reaches its climax in Moses, however.

Ben Sira ʼ s description of Moses is deifying in some respects, declaring that

Moses found favor with all men, was made equal with the angles of God, performed

miracles was glorified, received Torah, delivered it, and was counted, finally, among the

elect (44:23-45:5). Hebrews is a much rougher concept: Moses was hidden, saved from

death, grew up in Pharaoh ʼ s household only to reject Egypt, leave it as an exile, and

return and keep the Passover as the angel of death threatens all who are not protected

(Hebrews 11:23-28). Upholding the law and living by faith, at least as presented by Ben

Sira and the author of Hebrews, create very different perspectives of the ancient people

of God.

It would seem that the author of Hebrews very intentionally seeks to refute Ben

Sira ʼ s text, or if not the text, a sect that would speak in like-minded terms. Of course,

responsible scholarship would call that assertion into question, as it certainly depends

on an assumption of similarity between the texts and their respective intentions and

authorʼ s backgrounds. However, it would be hard to dismiss the following contrast,

which come from the preface to Ben Sira ʼ s text and the conclusion of Hebrews 11.

Sirach 44:2-7

Hebrews 11:33-39

The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people ʼ s loreʼ they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes— all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times.


through faith conquered kingdoms,

enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised

Perhaps it was the victorious return from exile the Ben Sira lived in. Perhaps a

history of Gentile oppression would have changed Ben Sira ʼ s conclusions about the life

lived in faithfulness to God. Whatever the case, two and a half centuries of history have

provided ample evidence that the life of faithfulness to God is not necessarily one of

prosperity, but of brokenness and a longing for the promises of God to be fulfilled. Ben

Sira wrote to Jews encouraging them to uphold Torah for their own benefit. The author

of Hebrews wrote to Jewish believers encouraging them to endure and hold onto what

they had come to know in Jesus, because that endurance would reap a reward greater

than Torah and Jewish piety could:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the

judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a

better word than the blood of Abel

receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 11:22-24, 28-29).


let us be grateful for


The examination of Second Temple hero texts in comparison to New Testament

texts has much to offer both in regards to literary techniques and theological exploration

and exegesis. It may be that in understanding how the Nazarene sect portrayed Old

Testament heroes as a point of comparison or contrast with other sects of the Second

Temple period, the intra-Judaism conflicts would become much clearer and the reasons

for their separation in the late first century AD come to the forefront as scholars attempt

to wrestle with a sect that seems to be at once robustly Jewish and polemically anti-


Works Cited

The Greek New Testament. Fourth Revised Edition. Ed. by Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopolous, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. Stuttgart: 1993.

The Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version. Ed. by Kee, Howard Clark. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge: 2008.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 2001.

The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Ed. by Brenton, Lancelot Charles Lee. Hendrickson Publishers. Peabody, MA: 2003.