Adam Kirsch has an interesting article up at The Tablet about the brutal honesty of the biblical writers with respect to the sins of the Bible’s main characters. He begins:
It’s notoriously hard to write a good story about a good person. Goodness and wholeness are static, they do not need to change; and since narrative is nothing but a record of changes, it is no wonder that stories are almost always set off by mistakes, vices, weaknesses, or bad decisions.
No one knew this principle better than the writers of the Bible. Whatever the patriarchs and kings of the Israelites may be, they are not role models. On the contrary, it’s easy to be surprised by how candidly the Bible describes the flaws and sins even of the patriarchs and the greatest kings. Abraham pretends that his wife Sarah is his sister; Jacob tricks his blind father into giving him Esau’s blessing; Judah patronizes a prostitute; David lusts after Bathsheba and sends her husband to be killed in battle; Solomon, the builder of the Temple, spent his old age worshipping strange gods.
Kirsch then goes to to explore the fact that, although the biblical writers seemed to accept the possibility of flawed characters in the Bible, the compilers of the Talmud apparently didn’t.
The Bible displays extraordinarily little anxiety about portraying its heroes in an unflattering light. Jacob can be both a liar and thief, and the man who wrestles with an angel and wins the name of Israel; David can be both the anointed of God and an adulterer. But as this week’s Daf Yomi reading showed, the rabbis of the Talmud were by no means at ease with this kind of ambiguity. In a long discussion that begins in Shabbat 55b, they consider some of the most famous sinners in the Bible and argue passionately that in fact none of them did what the Bible expressly says they did.
It’s well worth a read, especially for those of us, whether Jewish or Christian, who perhaps feel a twinge when confronted with the biblical stories liberated from the safe, clean, PG-rated versions we may have grown up with.