Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Can One Criticize the Biblical Heroes?

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Can One Criticize the Biblical Heroes?

Article excerpt

Whether one can criticize the heroes of the Bible or not depends on whether one may study the Bible at "eye-level" (in Hebrew be-gova eynayim). Judging a biblical character at eye-level is the contemporary terminology for looking at him eye to eye and relating to his behavior as being acceptable, and even commendable, or otherwise--as if he were a contemporary. Those who reject this approach consider their eye level to be far below that of the heroes of the Bible, who, so to speak, look down from above, upon man. Their approach may be termed the superior-being approach, since they look upon the biblical heroes as people whose lives existed on a higher plane than that of later generations. From the point of view of the eye-level advocates, superior-being advocates frequently indulge in apologetics and hagiography.

The eye-level versus the superior-being approach comes into play in the following three situations:

1. The Bible presents many scenarios without commenting positively or negatively about the behavior of the characters involved. The preference of most of the classical Jewish commentators is to interpret the actions of the biblical heroes in a positive fashion. However, some commentators allow themselves the freedom to criticize the biblical actors even where the Bible itself has not expressed an opinion.

2. Many midrashim present extra-biblical heroic stories about biblical characters. The source of such stories could be long-standing tradition on the one hand, or inventions of the story-teller on the other, for the purpose of inculcating an important lesson.

3. There exist stories in which the Bible itself describes the protagonist as behaving in an improper and even anti-halachic manner.

This paper will confine itself mainly to instances of the first and third type. (1)


The different approaches described are represented in the Talmudic and midrashic literature. R. Yehoshua Rice sees the two approaches reflected in the schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. (2) The former tended toward the superior-being approach, and TB Menahot 29b says of him that he was able to expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws. On the other hand, Rabbi Ishmael was wont to say: dibra Torah bi-leshon bnei adam, i.e. the Torah speaks in accordance with the language of men. (3) R. Aaron Lichtenstein has pointed out that the Torah calls itself the book of the history of mankind: This is the book of the generations of Adam (Gen. 5:1), and, as mentioned, it describes mankind using commonplace phraseology. (4) But how can one describe superhuman beings using routine language, and in what sense can a book using such language provide the reader with an historical account?

The Talmud intersperses sayings expressive of both approaches. On the one hand, it is stated in TB Shabbat 112b: If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses, and not [even] like asses of R. Hanina b. Dosa and R. Phinhas b. Yair (who would not eat untithed grain), but like other asses. On the other hand, it says in TB Arakhin 17a: R. Eliezer the great said: If the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to enter in judgment with Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, not [even] they could stand before His reproof!

Researchers have attempted to relate the approach chosen by the sages at various periods to contemporary events. Dr. Gilad Sasson concluded in his M.A. thesis that the tendency of the Tannaim was to make every effort to vindicate the patriarchs, while the Amoraim frequently allowed themselves to be more critical. In the event that the Tannaim reproved the patriarchs, the rebuke appeared only in Amoraic sources. (5)

According to Sasson, the Tannaim lived at a time when Hellenism was prevalent, and they did not want to provide additional ammunition to the Hellenists who were very critical of Judaism. …

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