Can one criticize the patriarchs

I accept the divinity of the Bible, yet do not feel that the intention of its Author was to whitewash the faults of its characters.

The Torah (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Torah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The book of Genesis describes many situations which present ethical dilemmas. For example, did Abraham intentionally sacrifice Sarah’s honor in order to save his own life? Before relating to this question, it behooves us to lay down some ground rules. In accepting Abraham as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, does this mean that throughout his life, every act that he ever performed was impeccable? Such a viewpoint with respect to the heroes of our nation does exist, and so we are told with respect to the ostensibly adulterous relationship between David and Bathsheba, that whoever says that David sinned is committing a grave error (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 56a).
On the other hand, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stresses that we are not to be embarrassed even if Abraham does not meet the standards that we have set for him. Only by not deifying our patriarchs does the Torah imprint the seal of truth and enable us to learn from the good as well as the bad traits of the biblical characters.
As an example, Rabbi Hirsch cites Moses’s proverbial modesty. Had we not been told as well that Moses occasionally slipped, such as when he lost his temper and querulously addressed the Israelites saying: “Hear now, you rebels,” (Numbers 20:10) we would have glossed over his modesty, saying that such behavior may be de rigueur for a semi-divine being, but can hardly be expected of a mere mortal.
The overwhelming majority of the commentators are of the opinion that, at all costs, it was imperative to prevent Sarah from being morally contaminated. The only question is whether Abraham acted properly in achieving this outcome. The Ramban felt that Sarah’s chastity would have been best protected by remaining in Canaan. He strongly criticizes Abraham’s behavior. After God’s command to settle in the Promised Land, Abraham was not justified in leaving it on his own initiative. Nor was it proper to expose his wife to a morally dangerous situation because of his fear for his own life.
Rabbi Hirsch disagrees with the Ramban, and says that it would have been prohibited for Abraham to take upon himself to remain in the hunger-stricken land, since one should not rely upon miracles. God Himself apparently expected Abraham to leave the land, since one of the 10 tests of faith that Abraham underwent was to see whether he would not question God’s infallibility, after being commanded to relocate his entire family to the land of Canaan and then shortly after being forced to leave because of famine (Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 5).
Rabbi Hirsch states that in the ancient world the position of a single woman with a male escort was infinitely better than that of a married woman. In the latter situation, the husband would be disposed of, and with no one to defend her, the widow would be defenseless. When Abraham said, “and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive” (Genesis 12:12), the words “keep alive” were a euphemism: Were they to kill you, that would be superior to the life of disgrace that would be imposed upon you.
By playing the doting brother, Abraham was able to act as a tough negotiator to ensure that his asking price at every stage was greater than what his interlocutors could afford. In doing so, he was buying time, with the hope that the famine would end before a deal was reached, and by then Abraham and Sarah would be safely on their journey back to the land of Canaan.
What was Rabbi Hirsch’s attitude toward the question of whether biblical figures may be criticized? Clearly, he does not accept the view of some religious people that the characters that appear in the book of Genesis – especially our patriarchs and matriarchs – are superhuman beings whose motives and actions cannot be judged by mere mortals.
In fact, he says exactly the opposite, since he claims that only as a result of Scripture pointing out their faults and foibles, do biblical stories attain a degree of credibility and relevance to our lives. The question that remains is whether we are free to criticize the behavior of the patriarchs even when Scripture portrays their behavior without comment.
One approach is to say that Rabbi Hirsch accepts the criticism expressed by the simple meaning of the Bible, such as in the story of David and Bathsheba, where an entire chapter in the book of Samuel (II Samuel 12) is devoted to the rebuke of David by Nathan the prophet. However, if no explicit criticism is leveled, such as in the story of Abraham and Sarah, we must assume that our forefathers acted appropriately, and their behavior provides an ethical standard. This view of Rabbi Hirsch’s approach is reinforced by the fact that he offers the example of Moses, whom Scripture openly criticized, rather than the potentially questionable behavior of any of the other patriarchs, such as Jacob’s commercial interactions with Laban, which Scripture describes without comment.
Another approach is to say that Rabbi Hirsch would allow criticism even where the Bible proffers none. The proof would be from the fact that he stated that he would have willingly accepted the negative view of the Ramban concerning Abraham’s deeds, had he not had a satisfactory alternative explanation.
I accept the divinity of the Bible, yet do not feel that the intention of its Author was to whitewash the faults of its characters.
Therefore, exegetical acrobatics to neutralize the criticism of biblical figures expressed in the Bible itself are superfluous.
With regard to behavior described without comment, I make every effort to understand it and use it as a basis for the prescribed behavior of future generations.
Only if all efforts at justification prove to be futile would I seek a respected commentary which adopts the approach of the Ramban and openly criticizes one of the patriarchs, and I believe this to be Rabbi Hirsch’s viewpoint.
The author graduated from Yeshiva University and holds a PhD from New York University.
He served as a Reserve Chaplain in the United States Air Force and is the father of four sons and lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He is also the author of The Ethics of Genesis.