Ask the Expert: Biblical Role Models

How can I look up to characters in the Bible?

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Question: How can we consider the people in the Bible to be role models? They go around killing people, they treat women horribly, and they don’t even listen to God all the time. What’s so great about them?

–Freya, San Jose

Answer: I can certainly sympathize with your frustration, Freya. I think most people who have spent some time seriously studying the Bible have come across passages that confuse, upset, and even anger them.

There is a long history in rabbinic literature, from the midrash to the Talmud to contemporary commentators, of whitewashing the characters in the Bible. Take almost any difficult or problematic story–for instance the story of Sarah asking Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from her home after she sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. In the p’shat, the simple meaning of the text, Sarah seems to drastically overreact. By sending Hagar and Ishmael away she is effectively condemning them to death in the desert heat. It seems to be a cruel and heartless action.

In order to protect the image of Sarah as a righteous woman, some commentators have suggested that Sarah saw Ishmael molesting his half-brother, and so her reaction and the banishment were justified. This is just one example of a way that some people have interpreted the stories of the Bible in order to make them less troubling to readers.

But there are other ways of dealing with these stories, too. As I was thinking about your question I got in touch with Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, the Chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and asked him if he had any thoughts on making the imperfect men and women of the Bible into role models for us today. In an email to me Rabbi Helfgot wrote, “The biblical heroes who are the foundation of our nation were great spiritual people in intimate relationship with God, who at the same time were deeply and fully human. In the world that they lived they confronted many challenges, someask the expert swearing in court of which they passed with flying colors and others in which they erred terribly and made wrong choices.”

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