Why do we paint biblical heroes more virtuous than Scripture does? Hiding their faults robs us of grace, and it robs God of glory. That’s why the Bible publicly parades their failings.
I once suggested we tell the true stories of our heroes, stories that show God’s pursuit of men and women despite their monstrous failures. I pointed out:
- Abraham was an idol worshiper; and God loved him and pursued him;
- Joseph was a narcissistic boy; and God loved him and pursued him;
- David was a murdering adulterer; and God loved him and pursued him;
- Esther had sex outside of marriage; and God loved her and pursued her.
I was surprised by the many readers who were upset at my negative description of “good” Abraham, Joseph, and David. I wondered, “Have they even read those stories?”
But I was astonished at the hailstorm of angry emails that hated my history of Esther. She is one of the most beloved characters in Scripture, and many think she was forced into sexual slavery like the sex trafficking of today.
I think Scripture says she was complicit in adultery.
Why Won’t We Admit the Failures of Our Heroes?
Let’s put aside (for a moment) Esther’s innocence or willing compliance. Why do we read the Bible with this built-in bias for our heroes to be such “good” people?
Nowadays we think Esther was pure as the driven snow, but for over two thousand years readers thought she wasn’t. When early readers read Esther, they saw moral ambiguity at best. And like us today, they did not like that in their heroine:
- The first translations into Greek added words to “improve” Esther’s character, saying she never violated kosher law and she abhorred the bed of the gentile.
- For the first seven hundred years of the Christian church no one—not one person—wrote a commentary on Esther.
- One Christian thinker wrote, “I am such a great enemy of the book of Esther that I wish it hadn’t come to us, for it has too many heathen unnaturalities.”
Our minds are horribly bent. We want Esther (and other heroes) to be good persons because we always ignore the evil within ourselves. That’s why we cannot comprehend grace. We grasp for high self-esteem, and believe God only works with good people.
Good persons exactly like us.
How Would a Wounded Woman Read Esther?
A woman called me shortly after my villainous portrayal of Esther’s purity. She had been raped as a sixteen-year-old by an uncle. She spent the next ten years using her body to gain men’s affection, even occasionally for money. She said,
When my uncle raped me, it was mostly the force of his personality, but there was a tiny bit of me that was complicit. I didn’t resist, partly because I wanted the attention of any man who at least wanted something I had. In subsequent encounters [with the uncle] I even took initiative.
Now [over twenty years later] I understand the brokenness of that little girl who was abandoned by her father; I understand the innocent longing for affirmation; I feel for that little me that was confused and without tools to cope.
But I still felt guilty for the little part of me that participated. I thought, ‘God could never use me.’ Then I read Esther and I understood that God can make even the smallest into something great. I finally feel forgiven and free. The story of Esther brings me hope.
Her uncle was monstrous. He is guilty of abominable exploitation of a young woman’s personal confusion. I sympathize with this woman’s confusion, and I love the comfort she receives from Esther.
But notice it is her brokenness that allows her to draw hope from Esther’s life. People who feel they are “a good person” refuse to value grace above self-image. They value ego more than humility.
Does God use us because we are born good? Or does God take the most broken—even the most brutalized—and turn us into “possible gods and goddesses that others would be strongly tempted to worship”? (C. S. Lewis, slightly edited)
Where will God receive the most glory; in the strength of our goodness, or through the majesty of God’s supernatural, transforming, and forgiving grace?
What About Esther?
Esther lived in an age of brutality beyond imagining. Hundreds of girls were taken for the king’s harem. Maybe some saw it as an opportunity, but most must have hated it.
[The age was also brutal to men. Every year five hundred boys were taken captive and castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Persian court (Herodotus 3.92).]
Scripture never mentions Esther’s inner life. It only describes her behavior. It neither says “She wanted to be queen,” nor says “She loathed the idea.” It only describes her behavior. And what is that behavior?
- Scripture commends Daniel for identifying as a Jew and not defiling himself with unclean food. Esther assimilates and eats all the food provided.
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resist their king’s command under threat of a fiery death. Esther pleases her king more than all the other virgins of the harem.
- Ezra condemns any Jew who marries a Gentile. Esther loses her virginity in the bed of an uncircumcised Gentile she marries only later and is crowned queen.
Some say that Esther had no choice; others say she should have resisted to the point of death. Some even say suicide was preferable to allowing that defilement.
Esther’s predecessor, Queen Vashti, was banished for defying the king. Esther won the king’s favor by not defying him. Yet the book climaxes when she finally does defy him.
In making her decision she exclaims, “If I perish, I perish.” It reminds me of the men before the fiery furnace who say, “Our God can save us, but even if he doesn’t….” Something changed in her.
What About Us?
As a kid I used to wish I had been one of the disciples so I could have been the lone friend who didn’t abandon Jesus. As an adult, I know myself better. And I certainly know that I would have done far, far worse than Esther.
The gospels—on every page—carefully display the bravery of the disciples; not of course their “bravery” during the crucifixion, but their bravery in highlighting their own faults. The Gospels overflow with their ambition, stupidity, selfishness, and cowardice.
That took guts. Why do you think they wrote the gospels that way?
Karen Jobes wrote a terrific Commentary on Esther. She says,
Other than Jesus, even the godliest people of the Bible were flawed, often confused, and sometimes outright disobedient. We are no different.
Let’s not falsely disparage biblical characters, but let’s not ignore their failures either. Because we are no different: flawed, self-centered, outright disobedient, and proud.
Why do we want our heroes to be better than they really are? Because we think we are better than we really are. We would see more of God’s transforming grace if we spent more time admitting our great failures, just like the Bible does with its heroes.
God can make the littlest great; but he can’t use the greatest until we become little.
P.S. This article is an excerpt from my book, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids. People in the world often reject Christianity simply because they can’t distinguish it from the message of “Just be good little boys and girls.”
Yes, we need morality (oppression thrives when consciences are abandoned) but we need something else even more. We need the gospel of grace. A gospel that has largely been lost amid the dos and don’ts and godless-self-esteem of of our western culture.
Join thousand of other readers who have delighted in this short, story-filled, thought-provoking book on grace.
Sam, this is what I have always worded to others, aswell.
Also: They give the same kind of glory to pastors nowadays. And I find it disturbing. We should never accept any sermon blindly. We must always see if the message correlates with the Word. We must not forget that pastors are also only human!!
Please write about this topic aswell: some claim that there was no Holy Spirit with/in the people during Old Testament times. I dont believe that.
I enjoyed this article. I have always found comfort in the honesty of Scripture, including the flaws of old and new testament Biblical characters. It’s comforting to know that they are broken like me and yet God loves, forgives, and uses them for His glory.
The truth hurts! I absolutely love that the scriptures paint no one as completely perfect. Daniel certainly comes across as blameless, but he accepted his appointment as a counselor to a heathen king and who knows what government affairs he may have been complicit in? I take great comfort in Abraham’s ham-fisted attempts to protect his pretty wife and he and Sara’s decision to “help” God give Abraham a son. And yet he is called “the father of our faith”!
God doesn’t expect perfection. He expects us to believe everything He says about Himself and His Son and live like it.
And yes, Cris, the Spirit of God (also referred to as the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus in scripture) was definitely with David (who asks God to not take Him away in Psalm 51:11), Sampson ( who was weak for bad women…a lot!), Gideon (who was a real doubter who ultimately obeyed) and we believe the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets to write what we read in the Bible.
Good post Sam
You have hit the nail on the head with this excerpt from your book “Is Sunday School…”
I bought a copy a few years ago & gave it to our youth leader at Journey Church
Fortunately, we are a church which is Grace believing and Holy Spirit driven.
Always good to see your exposition of how we pump up our heroes image in order to validate our own, sometimes overblown, impressions of ourselves.
Sam, becareful you don’t interpret scripture in the light of pop cultural thinking.
Great story from your book ” Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?”
I have read it a couple of times and gave a copy to our Youth Pastor at Journey Church!
Thanks for passing along the Word you have gotten from the Lord, in a way in which we can all appreciate it!.