Patriarchs Are People Too – A Reflection on the Fact That the Bible Speaks Frankly About the Faults of Our Heroes

PatriarchOver the years, I have written a number of articles on the men of the Bible: many of the patriarchs of the Old Testament such as Abraham, Moses, David, Eli, and most recently, Lot and Jacob. Likewise, I’ve written on Peter and Paul, and on John the Baptist.

I find the biblical portraits of these men (and also many women as well) fascinating and often brutally honest. The Scriptures seldom feature biblical heroes without flaws. Even if these epic figures eventually got their halos on straight, it certainly wasn’t that way from the start. With the possible exception of Joseph the patriarch, these men often struggled mightily to hear, comprehend, and heed the voice of God. And God often needed to purify them greatly for the tasks that He had for them.

And when I write of the struggles and imperfections of these biblical figures, I find that some of my readers take offense at my often frank discussion of their shortcomings. There is an old Latin expression Offensiva pii aurium, which means “offensive to pious ears.”

To illustrate, some years ago I wrote an article that described Solomon’s fall from grace. He who had begun in great wisdom declined to such an extent that he had over a thousand wives when he died, and his policy of increased taxes (multiplying gold) and a large military draft (multiplying horses) so oppressed his people that during the reign of his son, the Kingdom divided in two. Scripture said of him,

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-9).

Despite some pretty basic facts and Scriptures attesting to Solomon’s errors, some objected when I wrote of Solomon’s failings, saying that the Orthodox refer to him as “Saint Solomon” and posting icons in the comment section. Others took offense when I suggested that Solomon died less holy and wise than he began.

More recently, some readers bristled when I suggested that Lot suffered from sloth, and that his pitching of his tent toward Sodom was problematic and indicative of sinful attraction. The Bible says, “Flee fornication” (1 Cor 6:18) not “pitch your tent toward it.”

Some would prefer to interpret the meaning of the texts differently or at least to place a different emphasis. But Lot, who I would argue was not even one of the patriarchs, certainly lived a life filled with ambiguities deserving of scrutiny, and in his story is an admonition for us.

But despite objections that I should not besmirch the patriarchs by recalling their pasts, let me be clear that I mean no offense, either to the biblical figures or to readers. I do take the stories at face value, and I think that they are told in all their gory detail so that we can learn and understand that the patriarchs (and matriarchs, too) found their way to God often through great struggle and sin. Yet through it all, God did not give up on them, but rather kept calling, purifying, preparing, and finally perfecting them. Perhaps, then, there is hope for us!

The honest truth about the patriarchs is that they didn’t “have it all together” from the start. Abraham did heed God’s call to go to the Holy Land, but then he went to Egypt when famine struck, thinking that God could not take care of him. He ran to Pharaoh and put his wife into Pharaoh’s harem! He strayed with Hagar and even laughed at God’s promises on one occasion. Eventually Abraham came to the strong faith that we praise him for, being willing to offer his son Isaac back to God.

Moses committed murder and needed forty years of purification in the desert before God could use him. David both murdered and committed adultery. These were men who struggled. They were not perfect and were often capital sinners. But God still loved them and worked with them.

In this sense, these are beautiful stories. It is exciting and thrilling for us to see how God will not be overcome, and can write straight with crooked lines (even though He shouldn’t have to).

Here then, dear reader, is my apologia for my depiction of the patriarchs. Soon enough I will enter into an even worse fray, where political correctness is even more demanded: I will begin to feature the women of the Bible! Sorry y’all, but they weren’t perfect either. But here, too, is hope for us all. God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called. He does not summon the perfected; He perfects the summoned.

It’s fine if you wish to disagree with my understanding of the text. But don’t presume impiety when the biblical text itself supplies a sordid past. And always remember, a saint is just a sinner who fell but got back up again. A saint is someone who stayed in the conversation.

Onward with the frank discussion of biblical figures, some of whom are now saints, but not from day one to be sure!

20 Replies to “Patriarchs Are People Too – A Reflection on the Fact That the Bible Speaks Frankly About the Faults of Our Heroes”

  1. Looking forward to it. I don’t know how one can read the OT and not see people yielding to concupiscence, and more importantly, as you point out, God’s patience.

  2. People objected to you talking about the sins of the Patriarchs? That’s crazy! If they want sinless prophets they could just read the Qur’an, where all the stories are whitewashed.

    Even Saints sin. Even Patriarchs bungle. This should encourage us that God can do great things even with people such as these!

    “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” – Romans 15:4

  3. I certainly don’t object to the moral of the story, that saints are those who continue to fall but get up, repent and begin again. What I object to is the accepted practice by many writers and readers of dismissing, ignoring and almost condoning the behavior of present day patriarchs of the Church (and secular too) who have fallen but show absolutely no sign that they are repentant or struggling to get up…and using this “moral of the story” as an excuse to not speak the truth about their behavior!

    We should acknowledge their sin and simply say, “let’s pray them”

    1. Yep, same here. Just because patriarchs sinned doesn’t make it right nor does it excuse us from our sinning.

  4. An important aspect of this is what exactly is said about anyone, or any deed, in Scripture. St. Irenaeus addresses part of this, in this way (IV, 31, 1): “When recounting certain matters of this kind respecting them of old time, the presbyter [before mentioned] was in the habit of instructing us, and saying: ‘With respect to those misdeeds for which the Scriptures themselves blame the patriarchs and prophets, we ought not to inveigh against them, nor become like Ham, who ridiculed the shame of his father, and so fell under a curse; but we should [rather] give thanks to God in their behalf, inasmuch as their sins have been forgiven them through the advent of our Lord; for He said that they gave thanks [for us], and gloried in our salvation. With respect to those actions, again, on which the Scriptures pass no censure, but which are simply set down [as having occurred], we ought not to become the accusers [of those who committed them], for we are not more exact than God, nor can we be superior to our Master; but we should search for a type [in them]. For not one of those things which have been set down in Scripture without being condemned is without significance.'”

    It seems that when he says “those actions, again, on which the Scriptures pass no censure, but which are simply set down [as having occurred], we ought not to become the accusers” he is thinking of actions which we can recognize as wrong – and/or perhaps would tend assume were wrong.

    Not becoming accusers does not mean refraining from trying to discern whether the actions really are misdeeds or not. And I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to looking for typological explanations where things set down in Scripture without being condemned are concerned. We do have to try to interpret words and deeds correctly, and realize we may be jumping to conclusions in one way or another.

    “He said that they gave thanks [for us], and gloried in our salvation” reminds me of “Abraham your father rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad” (St. John 8:56).

    1. Irenaeus not withstanding (he also said Jesus was 50 when he was crucified) It is hard to imagine what Irenaeus (or David) would have us do with such information. Ignore it? What does he mean to “inveigh” or blame or ridicule? I think I have heard Monsigneur do this. SO I don’t get what you are saying here David, nor Irenaeus frankly. Why would the Holy Spirit give us these stories if we are not supposed to use them?

      1. Philo,

        What I am implicitly accenting (among other things), is that where there is not explicit commentary, etc., within the Scripture – as there is, in 1 Kings 11:1-9, which Monsignor Pope quotes, but as there is not in Genesis 19:31-38 to which St. Irenaeus chooses to attend as an example – then, we need to be circumspect. I say ‘accenting’, as that is also (so far as I can see) much what Monsignor Pope is saying with “Some would prefer to interpret the meaning of the texts differently or at least to place a different emphasis.”

        And I am accenting that what St. Irenaeus says exhibits conscious reflection on the distinctions that need to be made and the care that needs to be taken, at and from the time of the generation after the Apostles.

        As to what he means: where the Scriptures “blame” is clear, for example, in the text of 1 Kings 11:1-9, and in what Nathan says to David about Bathsheba. St. Irenaeus seems to think it is clear (though not spelled out) in Genesis 9:21, too. I see no suggestion anywhere that anyone should ignore “those misdeeds for which the Scriptures themselves blame”.

        But how are we to treat them. St. Irenaeus seems to interpret Ham’s offence in Genesis 9:22 (at least to an important extent) to be to ‘ridicule the shame of his father’. Japhet and Shem in verse 23 do not ignore the fact, and presumably do not ignore the shamefulness of getting so drunk, but they respond with tender care to and for the sinful patriarch, their own father.

        I think ‘ridicule’ and ‘inveigh’ are about how we pay attention to ‘misdeeds’ properly seen and ‘blamed’ as ‘shamefully’ such. There are, for example, the dangers of inaccuracy and spiritual dishonesty with which Our Lord’s example in St. Matthew 7:3-5 and St. Luke 6:41-42 are concerned.

        We are given stories where things are spelled out and interpreted explicitly and ones where they are not, to learn how to use them carefully, wisely, and well.

        As far as I recall, we are not told anything specifically about the state of Solomon’s soul in articulo mortis. We are not told the ultimate personal spiritual consequences of his dying “less holy and wise than he began” – which does not mean that that is not (rightly understood) a fair description.

        St. Irenaeus seems confident that of even the clearly outrageously sinful patriarchs and prophets we can say “their sins have been forgiven them through the advent of our Lord” and that we can and “should give thanks to God in their behalf” for it – and that we can even know this from Scripture properly read and understood. How does the Church recognize those to whom the cult of sanctity is accorded? How has she done that throughout the greater part of her history?

  5. Holy cow, seriously? I can’t beleive people would have you “politely ignore” the sins of our patriarchs (and relatives of same). Why it’s akin to viewing the Mona Lisa in a dark room! You miss all the good stuff!

    It is the darkness depicted in these stories that so perfectly portrays the glory of God. It is as if they do not want to see it in all of its majesty. How sad.

    This was a great post, Monsignor, and I look forward to your review of the women of the bible.

  6. Another aspect deserving attention which Monsignor Pope touches upon is how such people have been regarded within the Church after the time of the Bible, not least in terms of liturgy and cult (though also Biblical commentary, like that of St. Irenaeus). For example, there were Churches of St. Lot before the Great Schism of 1054. And he was present in martyrologies, too, then and later, also in the West, including the Roman Martyrology. It is even the case that, where in earlier ones he is referred to as Lot the Just, in later ones (like that of Usuard from the 800s) he is called the Prophet Lot.

  7. I’m surprised that people take offense at Msgr. Pope’s simply repeating the information that is given about various people in the Bible. It reminds me of a case in Australia in which Moslems claimed their religion was “vilified” by Christian pastors who were simply reading, from the Koran, content which the hearers didn’t like.

    I’m not such a fan of Joseph. Genesis 47: 13-26 describes how Joseph used the stored food to take the money, the farm animals, and finally the land of all the peasants of Egypt, making them in effect slaves to Pharaoh.

  8. Necessity demanded that one of them move in the direction of Sodom.

    I wonder if I went too far in my efforts to understand why Lot hung back.

    Another aspect of Lot’s life that I wonder about is why he didn’t return to his uncle, Abraham, after the destruction of the wicked cities.

    St. Lot, pray for us.

    Also, not only did David sin, but he needed the prophet Nathan to help him see his sins. Our society needs a prophet Nathan, or many prophet Nathans, to help it see its sins. A kind of poetry, I think, as all analogy reeks of poetry.

  9. This is an excellent piece. St.Paul summed it up in a few words when he said, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. I believe this is so excluding Our Mother Mary who is saved by grace most likely John the Baptist too. This to show that the impeccable holiness of the Son who came to the world to show how it is done in the sight of God.
    The point, as you have show us here, is that there is hope for all of us who are not saints–at least not yet–but with continual conversion of heart and mind and will, may be one we will attain the blessedness of God in and through Jesus Christ.

    Once again, thank you for posting this honest analysis of some of the famous names in the Old Testament. Yes, God remains God even when we are not faithful. God knows us from within and will do all He can to help us achieve holiness.

    May God bless you and keep inspire you to write in truth.

  10. Thank you, Msgr. Pope. It is always such a joy to read your writings.
    God bless you!

  11. Dear Msgr. Pope, no need to apologize when you’re telling the truth. Thank you for boldly proclaiming the gospel, the world and I certainly need it. And it does help to know even the patriarchs are not infallible. There is yet hope for the rest of us after all.

  12. Great post Monsignor, as always. I really learn much reading your erudite posts. Keep up the good work.

  13. Monsignor Pope writes, “I suggested that Lot suffered from sloth, and that his pitching of his tent toward Sodom was problematic and indicative of sinful attraction.” As possibly (even, almost certainly) one of those whom he describes as having “bristled”, I’ve tried to go on looking into this (while being much less of a Hebrew than Greek learner).

    I do not know that I ever did anything other than admit that “his pitching of his tent toward Sodom was” – or at least might be – “problematic”. The phrase is there in Genesis 13:12 in some form in Hebrew, with a verb related to the noun for ‘tent’. The Septuagint translates it with a Greek verb also related to the noun for ‘tent’. This feature disappears in the Vulgate: “habitavit in Sodomis” (which Douay-Rheims translates “dwelt in Sodom”). The question is, is there any reason to think this is “indicative of sinful attraction”? Can the Hebrew (or Greek) tend to give that sense of ‘indicative of attraction’ with ““pitch your tent toward” (or “in/among”)?

    Part of the question may be how to read verse 13. In Hebrew there is simply no verb in this sentence. The Greek preserves this feature. Is there any reason to understand this sentence as necessarily meaning ‘the men of Sodom [were already at that time known to be] very wicked, and sinners before the face of the Lord, beyond measure’? Or could it be as accurately understood to mean something like ‘the men of Sodom [were over the course of the next couple decades to become] very wicked…’? Do we know, from this verse, that there was already much more ‘fornication’ to flee in Sodom than in any other pagan city, or rural neighborhood like “the vale of Mambre” (v. 18)?

    A curious fact about the verb-plus-preposition used of Lot in verse 12 in Greek is that they are exactly the same ones used of Our Lord the Word in St. John 1:14, and the Vulgate duplicates this: ”habitavit in nobis” (which Douay-Rheims translates “dwelt among us”). So, it would seem conceivable that even if ‘the men of Sodom [were already at that time known to be] very wicked’ Lot might have ‘tabernacled among them’ with an eye to their good, rather than from any improper attraction or slothful carelessness.

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