Repentance in Heb 12:17

It has been pointed out to me that Michael Patton recently had an interesting blog post about the possibility of Esau repenting in Heb 12:17. It can (and should first) be read here. He cites a number of different English translations. I will only quote two of them here to give different perspectives:

NJB: As you know, when he wanted to obtain the blessing afterward, he was rejected and, though he pleaded for it with tears, he could find no way of reversing the decision.

RSV: For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

Let us look at the Greek text:

ἴστε γὰρ ὅτι καὶ μετέπειτα θέλων κληρονομῆσαι τὴν εὐλογίαν ἀπεδοκιμάσθη, μετανοίας γὰρ τόπον οὐχ εὗρεν καίπερ μετὰ δακρύων ἐκζητήσας αὐτήν.

A very literal translation could be:

After all, you-all know that he indeed afterwards, while wishing to be given the blessing (of the firstborn), was rejected, for he did not find room for a change of mind, although with tears he desperately sought it.

Traditionally, metanoia has been translated as “repentance” without much consideration for the context. But the word itself basically refers to a change of mind. The RSV and related translations interpret the text to mean that it was Esau who found no room for repentance. This can lead to the general theological interpretation that there is a time when repentance can no longer be followed by forgiveness. The blog author rejects this option and his solution is to take the final feminine pronoun αὐτήν (it) to refer all the way back to the feminine τὴν εὐλογίαν (the blessing) rather than to the closer feminine word μετάνοια (change of mind).

For grammatical reasons my preference is to accept that the pronoun it does refer back to μετάνοια. However, it is clear that Esau has regretted that he sold his birthright and he was seeking with tears to make his father change his mind. Therefore, I think the NJB suggestion that the change of mind is not referring to Esau, but to Isaac makes better sense in the context. It was too late for Isaac to undo and withdraw the blessing he had already given to Jacob and the result was that Esau could not get the blessing he sought after with tears. With this interpretation it is possible to keep the reference of it to the change-of-mind, and at the same time clarify that it was the blessing rather his own repentance that Esau sought and could not be given.

How people interpret this illustration in a broader theological context can vary. Is there a time or a situation where it is too late to repent? I doubt that this text alone gives a clear answer to that question. In my view the crucial point is the willingness of the person to repent rather than God’s willingness to forgive. I believe the second part is constantly available, but the first part may not be present.

17 thoughts on “Repentance in Heb 12:17

  1. Tony Pope says:

    Iver, I’m not sure what your grammatical reasons are for referring “it” to μετανοίας (other than that the other option is a long way back), but Winer (Grammar of New Testament Greek) gives the argument that the correlation of “did not find” and “sought” makes the reference to μετανοίας more likely than to εὐλογίαν (blessing).

    The interpretation you prefer (and I think you’re right) did not of course originate with NJB, it seems to go back as far as Beza, even if it has not been the majority view. It has been said in criticism that if it were right the Greek should have read μετανοίας τοῦ πατρός (change of mind of his father). But this is to ignore that the word ἀπεδοκιμάσθη (he was rejected) coming just before signals that the scenario of his father Isaac’s decision is open.

    Some may have a difficulty with the meaning of the word μετάνοια, which usually in the NT refers to repentance. But in a passage such as this, narrating a historical event, the ordinary Greek meaning “change of mind, change of attitude” is perfectly reasonable. (An example comes in Josephus War 1.92, referring to Alexander Jannaeus who had been fighting and then stopped. “But [his subjects] hated and distrusted him all the more for his change of policy and inconsistency of character.” – Cornfeld’s tr.)

  2. David Heath says:

    Dear Iver,
    Thank you for bring out this issue. I believe this might be an issue of asking the wrong question. Michael (and others) are dealing with the issue of a “sin” that people cannot repent of. I think, that perhaps a better question is: “What is the communicative function of these verses in Hebrews?” The author stated in Heb 6:6 that to repent again was not possible. But more importantly the context of these verses Heb 12:1-13 highlight the position of believers as God’s children (and our need to receive discipline). These verses are akin to Heb 2:9-18 – the OT quotations in vv12-13 are highlighting our relationship to Jesus as brothers and that we are God’s children.

    I believe the comments about Esau are not highlighting the birthright, but in a sense his rejection of what was his from his father — the relationship (a part to stand for the whole).

    The writer of Hebrews has the chief point (8:1-2) about Jesus as the HP and sacrifice. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the relationship with the Son (and thus the Father).

    In the topic of eternal security, people talk about “sins,” the focus of Hebrews is the “sacrifice.” The comfort of Hebrews is that Jesus understands our weakness (and sin nature). However, the writer wants the people to take the sacrifice and the relationship with Jesus and the Father seriously.

    I am open for discussion on this. david

  3. Sid Williams says:

    I am happy to run into a man who knows the Greek, that “Auyhn” means “her.”

    Did you know that all English translations ignore the Greek, and copy the Dark Ages rendition of, “it.” This is especially true in Revelation, Chapter 22.

    What do you think it would take to get Bible translators to quit “copyimg” Dark Ages trash, and begin to translate the Greek words? Cities, states, and kingdoms are all feminine, as a wife of a king.” But even the Hebrew verses with “H” and “T” feminine suffixes are rendered, “it.”

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    Sid,

    I’ll reply, but I don’t want to hijack this posting to a different topic.

    Having said that, you’re confusing grammatical gender with biological gender. They are two entirely different things. Greek has grammatical gender. Some languages don’t, Cheyenne, for example. English isn’t normally thought of as having gender, either (note: I used no words in this comment that can be thought of as having gender).

    The word you’re referring to is a pronoun and is coded with grammatical agreement to its antecedent. It has no meaning of femininity in the biological sense. Nor does the antecedent.

  5. Sid Williams says:

    To Mark Sangry:

    I know nothing of “Cheyenne” language. But, Hebrew Greek and English all have gender.

    In Hebrew the prefix “T’ is “she” or the common word “you” depending on the context.
    The suffixes “H” and “N” and “T” are feminine singular (H) and plural. No feminie suffix indicates a mascukine noun.

    Greeh has autos and asuth and auto — masc., and fem., and neuter gender.

    English has the gender indicated by the case endings of the verb following the noun, as, “the city she endured.”

    Without mastering the genders, you cannot understand the Bible message. And – there is no non-biological gender in the Bible.
    Gender is one of the keys to interpretation.

  6. alice says:

    I have had unforgivable sin phobia for 5 years now…it is very hard to live with.

    The verse that troubles me most is Hebrews 6:4. Is God saying that once someone falls away he is lost forever, and sorrow for sins and begging to return is of no avail?

    Is it possible to check the Greek for clues that would give hope to one who despairs?

  7. Iver Larsen says:

    Alice,

    I wold recommend that you read the whole context and especially verse 6. GW translates it like this: “They are crucifying the Son of God again and publicly disgracing him. Therefore, they cannot be led a second time to God.”

    Would you say that if Jesus came to visit you, then you would want to crucify him and hold him in contempt?

    I think the focus is on the impossibility for another person to try to convert this one who has completely rejected Jesus and continues to do so. I do not think it applies to a person who is willing to repent and return.

  8. alice says:

    How about Hebrews 10:26… is there anything in the original Greek that would soften this scary text to make room for grace and forgiveness?

    Also, I have been burdened by the thought, is it possible that in Heb 12:17 the verse refers to Isaac’s mind (instead of Esau’s) being changed when Isaac is not directly mentioned in the verse?

    (Today I stayed home from work because I was so worried about these verses and I am seeking out information on the internet. I came across this blog, thankfully)

  9. Iver Larsen says:

    Alice,
    Heb 10:26 has a present tense of the participle. This is covered quite well by the NIV when it says: “If we deliberately keep on sinning.” Most translations are similar.

    From what you have said, this does not apply to you. Deliberately continuing to sin means that there is no repentance and no wish to return to the grace of God.

    For Heb 12:17, I suggest you read again the blog post at the beginning. I am not the only one who believes that the change of mind refers to Isaac, not Esau.

  10. alice says:

    That is a comfort to know. One final concern related to the issue of repentance… The Bible says that when he saw Jesus being arrested, Judas “repented” and killed himself. Does the Greek really say he “repented?” Because if God didn’t accept Judas’ repentance, how can I know He will accept my repentance?

  11. Iver Larsen says:

    Alice,

    You are probably referring to Matthew 27:3 where some versions like KJV and RSV use the word “repent”. The Greek word used here is not the word used for spiritual repentance, but an everyday word that means to “regret”. See also the NET Bible at http://www.bible.org. Judas apparently did not expect Jesus to be sentenced to death, and he would agree with Pilate that Jesus had not done anything that was punishable by death. He knew that he was partly to blame for the death of Jesus. If Judas had gone to Jesus and asked for forgiveness, I am sure he would have been forgiven. But he did not. It appears that Judas did not believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. He was expecting a political saviour, and when Jesus was not that kind of saviour, he got frustrated and angry. He finally went and hanged himself.

  12. alice says:

    That helps a lot. I have more peace about this now.

    Just one last point about Esau. I agree with your reading of the text. Esau did truely repent, but Isaac still did not bless him. It appears that his repentance was fruitless. Does this imply that God will not even forgive true repentance? Why does the author of Hebrews 12:17 seem to hint that God be like Isaac and ignore tears of contrition?

  13. Iver Larsen says:

    Well, I do not see that Heb 12:17 in any way hints that God is like Isaac and ignores true repentance. The context asks us to not be like the godless Esau. He was a selfish person (as was Jacob at that time), and he only cried in an attempt to get his own will and the blessing that he had willingly said no to. I would rather think about the criminal on the cross who repented and was accepted by Jesus. Jesus even prayed for and forgave those who killed him. Would he not much more forgive anyone who comes to him and asks for forgiveness, no matter what they have done?

  14. kevobx says:

    Repentance (2nd Timothy 2:25), means acknowledging of the truth, that Jesus, he is God (John 8:24) *Deuteronomy 32:36? Satan is him in the Bible, read 2nd Timothy 2:26.

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