The Bib­li­cal Hero: Por­traits in Nobil­i­ty and Fallibility

  • Review
By – September 14, 2020

What is the bib­li­cal con­cept of hero­ism? How does the Jew­ish per­spec­tive on heroes dif­fer from that of oth­er con­texts and cul­tures? In The Bib­li­cal Hero: Por­traits in Nobil­i­ty and Fal­li­bil­i­ty Elliot Rabin offers an engag­ing analy­sis of the unique man­ner in which our tra­di­tion has thought about the cham­pi­ons of our his­to­ry. Rabin, the Direc­tor of Thought Lead­er­ship at Prizmah: Cen­ter for Jew­ish Day Schools, ana­lyzes fig­ures includ­ing Moses, Sam­son, Abra­ham, and Esther through close read­ings of their sto­ries con­trast­ed with the por­tray­als of heroes in oth­er tales.

Rabin shows how Jew­ish per­spec­tives vary great­ly from oth­er mod­els of bib­li­cal hero­ism by uti­liz­ing the work of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry schol­ars Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Joseph Camp­bell who stud­ied the role hero­ism plays in human devel­op­ment (they empha­sized the key ele­ments of ascend­ing to great­ness, shap­ing des­tiny and sur­mount­ing our nat­ur­al lim­i­ta­tions, respec­tive­ly). As opposed to the cen­tral fig­ures of ancient epics like Gil­gamesh and Roman myths, the Bible’s heroes are not god-like crea­tures, rather they are deeply human, com­plete with per­son­al fail­ings and moral strug­gles. The mea­sure of their suc­cess is cal­cu­lat­ed in feal­ty to God, not in mil­i­tary vic­to­ries or the attain­ment of polit­i­cal power.

Rabin’s broad knowl­edge of lit­er­a­ture informs his analy­sis. With­in the span of two pages he com­pares the wan­der­ing first man, Adam, to a series of Adam­ic out­siders,” depict­ed in the writ­ings of Melville, Thore­au, Twain, Hem­ing­way, and oth­ers, and notes how just like Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, bib­li­cal lead­ers such as Moses and David are depict­ed with sus­pi­cion and sub­ject to judge­ment.” Moses’ killing of the Egypt­ian lends him no hon­or,” in con­trast to the epic tales of Greek heroes, Rabin astute­ly notes. Equal­ly adept in both high and pop­u­lar cul­ture in his com­par­isons, Rabin writes of Moses’s arch­neme­sis, Like Lancelot and Arthur, Mori­ar­ty and Sher­lock Holmes, or Darth Vad­er and Luke Sky­walk­er, the men­ac­ing Pharaoh elic­its the hero­ic fea­tures of his noble opponent.”

All the char­ac­ter pro­files are equal­ly as infor­ma­tive. Sam­son, though born with all the right machin­ery” of a clas­sic hero, the Jew­ish Her­a­cles” instead los­es his touch” by squan­der­ing his promis­ing career on love for Philis­tine women. Esther both is and isn’t like Scheherazade, the hero­ine of the Ara­bi­an leg­end 1001 Nights who found her­self sim­i­lar­ly at the mer­cy of a king. Abra­ham’s sto­ry is brought into con­ver­sa­tion with John Bun­yan’s Pil­grim’s Progress and its hero’s own tale of reliance upon God and will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice his con­nec­tion to his fam­i­ly. And Jacob’s life, as depict­ed in Gen­e­sis, is exam­ined through the prism of the folk­loric phe­nom­e­non of trick­sters,” as, after all, he was an indi­vid­ual whose decep­tions of his broth­er, father, and uncle seem out of place in the moral assump­tions of the bib­li­cal universe.”

As Rabin’s excel­lent vol­ume so expert­ly teach­es us, the Bible’s por­tray­al of its heroes inspires us today To have high expec­ta­tions of our lead­ers and to tol­er­ate their imper­fec­tions… Bib­li­cal heroes are role mod­els pre­cise­ly because of the dif­fi­cul­ties they encounter, both out in the world and inside themselves.”

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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