Earlier this week, our friends over at the Jewish Publication Society published this Q&A with Elliott Rabin, author of The Biblical Hero (March 2020). Rabin is the director of thought leadership at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, where he edits HaYidion, the leading publication for Jewish day schools.
Why do the portraits of Biblical heroes contain such flaws?
In the ancient world, heroes were taken much more seriously than they are today. Societies often portrayed one person or character as the primary hero of the culture. That person was depicted as being on a higher plane of existence than mere mortals—as partly divine, supremely strong or clever, nearly but not entirely invincible. The Biblical narrator highlights characters’ flaws, weaknesses, and challenges in opposition to the prevailing view of heroes at that time (and for centuries to come). Biblical monotheism mandates that no person can so rise above the human estate as to become half a god.
So What Makes a Hero?
A Biblical hero is someone who is wrestling with the obstacles, tensions, and dilemmas of fulfilling a particular role. Those challenges arise both from without, from the nature of the role itself and the way that the role impacts the character’s relationships, and from within, from the person’s own character, his or her “inner demons.” The story depicts the hero as undertaking actions and enduring events that forge, test, and refine his or her character. Generally, the heroes’ association with God amplifies their sense of mission while complicating their familial bonds and human interactions.