Perhaps we’ve put white hats on some people in the scriptures who don’t deserve them.
In an against-the-grain reading of the story of Esther, Bob Deffinbaugh introduces the concept of the pious bias: the assumption that, hey, if they’re in the Bible, they must be good people, right? He writes:
Why are Christians so inclined to embrace Esther and Mordecai as model saints, examples of faith and godliness? First, because they err in assuming that people recorded in Scripture are all godly. And so wayward prophets like Jonah are â€œsanctifiedâ€? by a misreading and mishandling of the text. Ruthâ€™s mother-in-law Naomi is embraced as a kind and loving woman rather than a grouchy and bitter old woman. Jacob is viewed as a pious man of faith rather than as a deceiving, self-seeking, con artist. And Esther and Mordecai are just one more example of reading the Bible through rose-colored glasses, seeing people in a way that makes us feel comfortable. Second, we fail to study books like Esther and Jonah in light of the rest of the Old Testament, especially the Law, and contemporary writings. In the case of Esther, we can study this book and its events in light of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophecies of Jeremiah and Daniel. Third, we often â€œguild the lilyâ€? because we have been taught to understand the text a certain way, without questioning whether it is correct.
There’s a lot going on here. [And, I'll note, that I think some of his essay comes close to bordering on anti-Semitism.] I’d like to pose a few questions:
(1) How do we know when we read the scriptures whether a character’s actions are presented as a model or as a warning? I once heard the theologian Renita Weems, while arguing that the story of the creation and the fall should not be accepted as normative for our lives, pose this question: We don’t take Cain and Abel as a model for sibling relationships; why would we take Adam and Eve as a model for male/female relationships? Well, the Saints have an answer for that question, certainly, but unfortunately, it doesn’t apply to every single story in the scriptures. What then?
(2) What do you make of Deffinbaugh’s assessment of Esther, Mordecai, Jonah, Naomi, and Jacob? Is this character assasination or is it a more plausible reading of the text, or both?
(3) Let’s Mormonize: Is there a pious bias in our reading of any Book of Mormon characters?