The Biblical Hero

Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility

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Elliott Rabin
  • Omaha: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , March
     2020.
     336 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780827613249.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Elliott Rabin’s new book, The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility, the enterprises of reading the Bible as literature and reading literature for heroes converge. Rabin investigates larger archetypes of the Bible and connects them with classic projects such as that of Joseph Campbell. He also puts the biblical texts in conversation with the recent trend to see American democratic heroes such as Walt Whitman as heirs to the democratic biblical tradition. While those who had Campbell in ninth-grade mythology only to be reeducated in more sophisticated fashion in college might raise an eyebrow at the emphatic inclusion of Campbell, it turns out that Rabin manages to find Campbell’s turn to the midrash, ancient Jewish scriptural commentary, in which Abraham gets a birth narrative. In this manner, the book deftly moves between the biblical text and its later interpreters, while maintaining a steady focus on explicating the biblical characters from Abraham to Esther.

Throughout the book, the author expects one to be well-versed in both biblical narratives and classical tropes. Of Rachel and Leah, Rabin says: “Living in Rome, they act like Romans”  (182). Rachel and Leah, naturally, never lived in ancient Rome, so they never acted like Romans. Of Jacob, the saying about Caesar is inverted: “Perhaps, then, Jacob’s story is not meant to bury the trickster, but to praise him” (197). These witticisms should be obvious enough to even the most casual of nonspecialist readers, but it is clear that Rabin’s intended audience has a modicum of scriptural and literary education. Certainly, students at religious schools will make these connections with minimal supplementation, but students in secular classes might benefit from short readings on the characters from the primary text or Bible Odyssey to reinforce the basic narratives and locations of the Bible.

A major strength of the book is its inclusion of later Jewish commentary from Rashi and Rambam. After noting that Moses shares revelatory experiences with more than seventy others, Rabin goes on to question how this democratic impulse toward shared power carried through Jewish tradition. Rabin notes that Rashi borrowed from the Talmud Sotah 12 to transform the brick of slavery to one of freedom in the language “like a brickwork of sapphire.” Next, Rabin writes that grandfather and grandson differed as to whether the image was one of pavement (Rashi) or light (Rambam). Both those reading for understanding their Jewish practice and those reading for ecumenical understanding of the history of biblical hermeneutics should benefit from such sections, of which the book has many.

Prospective readers should also note the thoroughgoing inclusion of women, despite the listing of only one (Esther) in the table of contents. Esther’s singular position results from the categorization of biblical heroes into different leadership models, ranging from prototype to strongman to trickster. Notably, Esther and David form separate possibilities for queens and kings, while Jacob’s “trickster” category is equally shared by Leah and Rachel, which Rabin says proves that the Bible does not hold that heroism is in any way limited due to gender. Similarly, Rabin suggests that “Rebecca comes across as the model for Jane Austen’s Emma, smoothly manipulating the other characters toward her intended outcomes yet again.”

The University of Nebraska Press is to be commended for hosting Jewish Publication Society books. The production of the book has a number of endearing touches, particularly the attribution of the authorial photo to Adele Rabin. The study takes a fascinating and deceptively accessible look at the commonalities of biblical heroes and heroines with each other and with the heroes of the more modern literary tradition (e.g., Shakespeare, Austen, Whitman, Richard Wright, and Quentin Tarantino). Rabin’s book is a witty and knowledgeable take on biblical heroism, and it is highly recommended to all readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janelle Peters is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elliott 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. He is the author of Understanding the Hebrew Bible: A Reader’s Guide.

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