Over 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!