The Biblical Hero (Elliott Rabin) -- A Review
THE BIBLICAL HERO: Portraits in Nobility & Fallibility. By Elliott Rabin. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Xxiii + 304 pages.
When I was growing up I was fascinated by stories of Greek and Roman heroes and gods. What little boy didn't enjoy reading or hearing the stories of Alexander the Great or the Trojan War? Well, maybe that was more me than anyone else, but these stories still seem to hold our attention. But, what about biblical heroes? I also learned the stories of Samson and David and other biblical figures as a child in Sunday school, though I’m not sure they caught my attention in quite the same way as the Greek and Roman heroes. Nevertheless, there are important figures in the biblical story that have heroic elements. This book, The Biblical Hero, by Elliott Rabin, offers us an intriguing look at these biblical heroes, putting them in the context of their times while asking what messages these stories might have for us today. He does this by comparing these biblical heroes with their ancient contemporaries as well as American heroes such as George Washington or the ones the populate American literature.
Elliott Rabin, the author of this book, is director of thought leadership at Prismah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. He, obviously, takes up the stories of heroes we Christians would place in the Old Testament, so you won’t find a chapter on Jesus. Nevertheless, this is definitely a book that will benefit a Christian audience. I am finding that reading Jewish perspectives on common areas of interest is quite beneficial to my understanding of these areas and to my spiritual life.
Rabin explores the stories of six biblical heroes, starting with Moses and moving toward David. The other heroes are Samson, whom he titles the "Strongman;" Esther the "Queen;" Abraham the "Pilgrim;" Jacob the "Trickster;" and David the "King." In closing the book, after exploring the stories of these six heroes in the various contexts he sets up, he asks the question of whether in the Bible God is the hero of the story. There are reasons why God might not be a hero—especially if we assume that God has nothing at risk—but at the same time who stands out in the stories?
Because Rabin places the biblical heroes in the context of world literature, he makes a comparison of these heroes and the Greek and Roman heroes that I enjoyed reading about in my youth. One thing Rabin wants us to know is that these biblical heroes are quite human and quite fallible. These are not semi-divine beings like Hercules. He writes that "all the legendary characters in the Bible are marked by flaws, doubts, and ambiguities—just as one would expect to find in real life, but not in an ancient religious document" (p. 3). These heroes play an important role in the story, but the Bible doesn't hold back judgment on their failings. Thus, he writes that "the closer one examines the biographies of biblical heroes, the more difficult it can be to discern what is heroic about them" (p. 4). Yet, it is this fallibility, this ordinariness, that makes the stories so poignant. Perhaps they lack the poignancy that would impress Joseph Campbell, who didn't include any biblical heroes in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces." At least he didn’t consider directly the biblical stories, though he did draw from Midrash.
While Moses serves as the prototypical biblical hero in the book, Rabin notes that Judaism is not "Mosesism." That is, Moses doesn't play the same role in Judaism as do the founders in other religions. That would include the role of Jesus in Christianity. He writes regarding these other religions: "the religion's founder is considered to be perfect, a model for all adherents to emulate through the generations. Judaism, by contrast, is not 'Mosesism.' Despite Moses' centrality in the Torah, Moses is too flawed in character, too physically weak, and too limited in his role to be venerated" (pp. 19-20).
In the biblical portrayals (the Tanakh or Christian Old Testament) the narrator both judges and celebrates the hero. Of these heroes, only Samson possesses what we might term "superhuman" strength, and yet his flaws are the most apparent of all. One might even wonder why his story is present in the Bible. He looks more like a Greek hero than a biblical one. Of these heroes, the one woman portrayed in the book is Esther. While she saves her people it’s not through superhuman powers. Instead, she uses her beauty to get her way. Again, like the other biblical heroes, she too is flawed. In these portrayals, the characters exhibit heroic features the most when they are walking in faith. But the truth is, they don't always exhibit this faith. In addition, while they can be gracious and generous, they can turn around and be violent and vengeful. In other words, they are human just like us. Nevertheless, they demonstrate that even in their human frailty they can be used by God. Rabin writes that the "Bible teaches us both to have high expectations of our leaders and to tolerate their imperfections" (p. 23).
After exploring the stories of these human biblical heroes, he offers us a chapter on God as the true hero of the Bible. He notes that when thinking in this way, the question is whether God is the archetype of a biblical hero or the antitype? That is, while "the biblical God can't be a hero in the sense of a human exemplar. But from the Bible's perspective, it often seems that only God can be a hero" (p. 245). It's important to remember that in the stories that lie outside the Bible most heroes are demi-gods—half-human and half-divine. The biblical heroes lack this divine element, so perhaps, in the biblical sense, there is no hero, for God is too far above us to be a hero. Nevertheless, there are both human heroes, like the ones we find in Scripture and the one divine hero—God. Rabin writes that "God is the world's hero. Only God is sufficiently above human capacity to accomplish heroic deeds." (p. 246). This is an intriguing concept. It is worth pondering as we consider the roles played in Scripture not by God, but by the human characters. In his conclusion, Rabin brings the story of Jonah into the conversation. In this discussion, Jonah serves as the biblical anti-hero. Jonah's heroism is demonstrated in his unwillingness to serve, allowing God's patience and mercy to shine through.
From these stories of biblical heroes, Rabin discerns five consistent messages. First, "through their thoughts and actions, we can glimpse the qualities of God." Second, "all biblical heroes are collective heroes." Third, "biblical heroes are as human as we are." Fourth, "many different people can be heroes, and heroes can embody different roles." That is, the Bible "democratizes its heroes." Finally, "the Bible's heroes are meant to serve as forerunners of our own tortuous moral lives" (pp. 269-272). By tolerating their foibles, perhaps we can forgive our own? He writes that “The Bible teaches us that even the people we revere the most likely have a skeleton or two in the closet and people we never think of as heroic just might possess a degree of heroism. Contextualized within the often-monochromatic messaging of our modern era, the Bible’s treatment of its heroes offers us a requisite recast to see the humanity, godliness, and potential for heroism in one another” (p. 272). In other words, we don’t have to be Alexander the Great to be a hero.
Writing this review as a Christian pastor/theologian, I'm cognizant of the role Jesus plays in the Christian story. He is the perfect exemplar, the one of whom we ask: “What would Jesus do?” We ask the question, even though we don’t always have a good answer. At the same time, while we ask the question of Jesus, Christians rarely ask the same question of Peter or Paul, both of whom exhibit similar traits as these earlier biblical heroes. While I value Jesus as the exemplar of faith, I must admit that I'm drawn to these stories of less than perfect heroes. I might not be able to fully live like Jesus, but Peter or Abraham, well perhaps.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to spend time with Elliott Rabin's The Biblical Hero. I’m grateful that the publisher chose to provide me with a review copy. And as a Christian, I can say that whether you are Jewish or Christian or someone outside these two faith traditions, there will be a great reward from reading it. In other words, this is a book you'll want to add to your reading list and dive into it as soon as possible.