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The word παραβολὴ (parable) is written outside the Gospels only in Hebrews:

Which was a figure (παραβολὴ) for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience, (9:9)

Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure (παραβολὴ). (11:19)

While a parable can be taken as a type, illustration, or figure, the writer of Hebrews uses different words to express those different meanings (KJV):

Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example (ὑποδείγματι) of unbelief. (4:11 - also in 8:5 and 9:23)

Who serve unto the example (ὑποδείγματι) and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern (τύπον) shewed to thee in the mount. (8:5)

For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures (ἀντίτυπα) of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (9:24)

Given the different uses of the different words which convey a similar meaning, the writer's choice of parable in both 9:9 and 11:19 seems purposeful to express that particular type of example. In other words, the writer means specifically παραβολὴ and not ὑποδείγματι or τύπον or ἀντίτυπα.

The second use is in describing Abraham's offering of Isaac:

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable. (11-17-19 DRA)

Πίστει προσενήνοχεν Ἀβραὰμ τὸν Ἰσαὰκ πειραζόμενος καὶ τὸν μονογενῆ προσέφερεν, ὁ τὰς ἐπαγγελίας ἀναδεξάμενος, πρὸς ὃν ἐλαλήθη ὅτι ἐν Ἰσαὰκ κληθήσεταί σοι σπέρμα λογισάμενος ὅτι καὶ ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγείρειν δυνατὸς ὁ θεός, ὅθεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἐν παραβολῇ ἐκομίσατο. (NA28)

In what way does the writer of Hebrews understand Abraham offering Isaac as a parable and not as a figure, type, or example (as in the other words)?

  • 2
    parable is a mistranslation. Figuratively is the right translation. Figuratively the child was resurrected in the sense he was (likely) dead and ended up living. Author would never explicitly say that the story of Abraham sacrificing was a parable despite believing that; since did not need to state that. perhaps his audience already knew it to be a parable. These passages nowhere indicate that he is referring to the Abraham's story as parable. – Michael16 Mar 7 '17 at 9:19
  • For reference, here is the Thayer Definition of a parable: 1) a placing of one thing by the side of another, juxtaposition, as of ships in battle – A Child of God Apr 7 '17 at 15:09
  • 2) metaphorically 2a) a comparing, comparison of one thing with another, likeness, similitude 2b) an example by which a doctrine or precept is illustrated 2c) a narrative, fictitious but agreeable to the laws and usages of human life, by which either the duties of men or the things of God, particularly the nature and history of God’s kingdom are figuratively portrayed 2d) a parable: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning – A Child of God Apr 7 '17 at 15:10
  • 3) a pithy and instructive saying, involving some likeness or comparison and having preceptive or admonitory force 3a) an aphorism, a maxim 4) a proverb 5) an act by which one exposes himself or his possessions to danger, a venture, a risk – A Child of God Apr 7 '17 at 15:10
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Both in 9:9 and 11:19, the author is speaking of something that was offered in place of some other thing at the time of the offering - a sort of substitute. I think this is a little different than the other verses you cite in that they speak of things representing other things (in the future), but not necessarily taking their physical place.

In his explanation of the verse (written in Greek), Chrysostom comments indicates that in 11:19 the ram is both a παραβολὴ and a ὑποδείγματι (cf. Heb. 4:11, etc.):

From which also he received him for himself in a type [παραβολὴ]; that is, in example [ὑποδείγματι], by the ram, he means. How? The ram having been slain, he was saved. So that by means of the ram he received him again, and in his stead slew it. But these things were types: for here it was the Son of God Who was slain

Indeed he [also] received him in a type [παραβολὴ], that is as in a riddle, darkly [αἰνίγματι] - for the ram was a representation in parable of Isaac - or as in a type. For since the sacrifice had been completed, and Isaac slain in purpose, for this He granted him to the Patriarch.

Homily XXV on Hebrews

(Also found in the Orthodox New Testament Praxapostolos, p.427n)

As you point out, this seems to be a really obscure usage. One exegete (reposed Orthodox bishop Dmitry Royster) suggests "symbol" in this usage (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, p.137). I suppose one could see the connection with the more common understanding of "parable" in that a parable is a story that stands in place of a dogmatic lesson.

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God had promised Abraham that through the child of the promise all the nations of the world would be blessed. In the Abraham narrative, at every turn, it seems like this promise is threatened: Sarah is infertile, Abraham claims that Sarah is only his sister and is taken for entry into the king's harem, Ishmael is born, and most of all, Isaac is to be sacrificed to the Lord. In every case, Abraham had the opportunity to believe or disbelieve the promise of God.

In the case of the sacrificial instance, Abraham had to believe that God would provide, but that even if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back from the dead. Indeed ,he would have to in order to be faithful to his word. Since Isaac was thus reckoned dead by Abraham, receiving a ram in his stead is a figurative resurrection, since he received back that which he considered dead.

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In what way does the writer of Hebrews understand Abraham offering Isaac as a parable and not as a figure, type, or example (as in the other words)?

Certainly παραβολή can have that meaning, and it seems to have that meaning in Heb. 9:9, but that does not necessarily mean the author used it in the same sense in Heb. 11:19.

The noun παραβολή is related to the verb παραβάλλω.1 Among other meanings, παραβάλλω can be used in the following sense:

LSJ, p. 1304, παραβάλλω

παραβολή is simply the related noun; therefore, παραβολή can mean “a risk” or “a venture,”2 as Thayer3 and LSJ confirm:4

LSJ, p. 1305, παραβολή, IV.

Abraham’s act was a παραβολή (“venture”) because he risked losing (by killing) his promised son, his only heir.5 God promised Abraham, “In Isaac shall your seed be called.”

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18 of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” NKJV, ©1982

It seems counter-intuitive to kill the very son that was promised to him. Nevertheless, Abraham offered Isaac because he had faith that God was trustworthy and able to resurrect Isaac from the dead in order to fulfill His promise.

ὅθεν—“on which account; for which reason”—that is, on account of such faith and confidence in God,6 Abraham received Isaac back in a venture (ἐν παραβολῇ), in “a chance or risk of incurring harm or loss.”


Footnotes

1 Just as καταβάλλω is related to καταβολή, ὑπερβάλλω to ὑπερβολή, etc.
2 OED online: “venture” (n.): Danger, jeopardy, hazard, or peril; the chance or risk of incurring harm or loss. (obs.)
3 LSJ, p. 1305, παραβολή, IV
4 Thayer, p. 479, παραβολή, 5.
5 Abraham had sent Hagar and Ishmael away, out of his house. cf. Gen. 21:10:

10 Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” NKJV, ©1982

6 Abraham was rewarded for his trust in God. cf. Gen. 22:16: “...because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son...”

References

Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

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How is Abraham offering Isaac a parable?"

This is a fascinating assumption and I admit I hope it's true, but we don't know that it is a parable. Only one translation uses "parable," and they later specify it as a "figure." The Greek word is "parabole," which can mean "parable," but not necessarily. In this verse, it is more often translated differently.

From Douay-Rheims, verse 19:

"Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable."

[19] For a parable: That is, as a figure of Christ, slain and coming to life again.

For "parabole," in Hebrews 11:19, other translations use:

(KJV) "figure"
(NKJV) "figurative sense"
(NLT) "in a sense"
(NIV) "in a manner of speaking"
(ESV) "figuratively speaking"
(HCSB) "as an illustration"
(NASB) "type"
(NET) "in a sense"
(RSV) "figuratively speaking"
(ASV) "figure"
(YLT) "figure"
(DBY) "figure"
(WEB) "figure"
(HNV) "figuratively speaking"

Strong's definition:

parabole = "a similitude ("parable"), i.e. (symbolic) fictitious narrative (of common life conveying a moral), apothegm, or adage: -comparison, figure, parable, proverb.

Only Douay-Rheims uses "parable" for "parabole" in Hebrews 9:9.

  • The Douay-Rheims is a translation of the Vulgate Latin, not Greek. The Latin essentially borrows the Greek word παραβολὴ, transliterating it to "parabola". The Douay-Rheims tends to use anglicizations wherever possible, which explains the appearance of "parable", even if the meaning is obscure today (or maybe even in the 16th century). Another interesting example is the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:11, which reads, give us this day our supersubstantial bread – user33515 Mar 7 '17 at 3:34
  • Did you see where Revelation Lad quoted "parable" from Douay-Rheims? – Gigi Sanchez Mar 7 '17 at 4:41
  • The Greek is παραβολῇ which is always translated as "parable" in the Gospels. Only in Hebrews is it rendered otherwise. The number of translations which choose to render the word as something other than parable, does not alter the original language. My question is how does the writer understand the real event as a parable, which is what they wrote. Had they intended the meaning of figuratively speaking, they would have written so, as they did repeatedly elsewhere. The original language is explicit to convey the offering of Isaac as something more or different than a figure or type. – Revelation Lad Apr 6 '17 at 22:56

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