Ask the Expert: Biblical Role Models

How can I look up to characters in the Bible?

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.”

Another thing Rabbi Helfgot pointed out was that the Bible takes place in a time and culture that is incredibly different from the one we know today. While that can’t excuse every bad behavior that we see in the Torah, it’s important to keep that in mind when we look at these stories. For instance, the idea of an important man having multiple wives, and concubines, too, may seem repugnant and upsetting to us now. But in the time of the Bible–and even in some places today–that was the norm, and wasn’t considered at all shocking and chauvinistic. Though we consider the Bible to be timeless, it’s impossible to ignore that it is, in many ways, a product of the era when it was written.

Finally, Rabbi Helfgot suggested that the greatest lessons to be learned from biblical men and women are about relating to God, not relating to each other. He wrote, “The timeless messages about commitment, covenant, devotion to God, following in the ways of God to do righteousness and justice, ethical monotheism, the mission of the Jewish people to proclaim the one God and live up to His law, the responsibility for the family and nation, fear of heaven and so many other values cut across the divide of millenia.” In other words, it’s perfectly valid to be uninspired by the interpersonal relationships in the Bible. If that’s what you’re struggling with, try focusing on the many issues of God and Man (or Woman) in the Bible, instead.

I have a lot of role models, Freya. And I love learning about the men and women who inspire me to be a better person, work harder, change the world, and help others. But the more I learn about the people I look up to–people like Shakespeare, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Beruriah, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Harriet Tubman, and Maimonides–the more I realize that they all had pretty significant flaws. They made errors of judgment both great and small, and though they changed the world, they also made mistakes in their personal and professional lives.

It can be horrifying to hear unsettling truths about such important men and women, but it’s also helpful and important for me to see how they all struggled with the imperfect parts of their own lives. My Bubbe used to say, “From some people we learn what to do, and from some people we learn what not to do.” I actually think that from most people we can learn both.

I like to take this same stance with the men and women we read about in the Bible. Many of them can teach us incredibly valuable lessons about how to conduct ourselves with others, and how to relate to God. But we also have opportunities to learn from their mistakes.

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