Columnist Richard Fein: Cancel the Bible? 


Published: 6/27/2021 8:18:49 PM

Throughout my life I have approached the Bible reverently albeit not literally. This column is about my personal problem with many of the most prominent figures in the Bible. To use a contemporary term, should I cancel Biblical characters for those of their actions I consider abhorrent? I will limit myself to only those characters in what many people refer to as the Old Testament.

Take Abraham. He was the progenitor of three monotheistic faiths. On the other hand, he nearly murdered Ishmael, Hagar and Isaac. In Massachusetts those are felonies.

Jacob induced his elder twin brother Esau to sell his birthright and stole the paternal blessing from their father. Two of his sons massacred the population of Shechem and ten sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery. What kind of family is that?

Speaking of Joseph, we are told at the end of Genesis that, as Pharaoh’s viceroy, he dispossessed the peasantry of Egypt and moved entire communities to other places. Interpreting dreams is fine and preparing for a famine is laudable. However, ethnic cleansing is atrocious.

Moses, the Great Law Giver, is rather problematic. Put aside his anger management problems. Losing your temper with a rock and smashing the Ten Commandments can be excused. But Numbers tells us that Moses also ordered the massacre of a tribe of Midianites, men, women and children. How can you even respect a person like that?

Many of the Psalms I love are attributed to King David. But he was an adulterer more than once, most prominently with Bathsheba. David also murdered her husband . Slaying Goliath and defeating Israel’s enemies are heroic. Military valor is vital to protect a nation’s freedom but David as a person doesn’t make it in my book.

As an aside, why is the book of Leviticus even there? We find many chapters describing in detail ritual animal sacrifices. Do you know anybody who does that stuff anymore? Besides, what an insult to PETA and vegetarians. What would we lose by dumping Leviticus?

You can see why I might want to cancel some parts of the Bible and many of its most prominent figures. We haven’t even gotten into slavery, misogyny, and giving bad press to other ethnic groups (e.g. Egyptians, Canaanites, Moabites and Amorites).

However, I have decided to approach what troubles me in a different way. Starting a religion and trying to bargain with God not to destroy two cities ( Sodom and Gomorrah) does demonstrate something really positive. Abraham can stay. Maybe Jacob was worthy of the birthright and his father’s blessings while Esau was not.

Leading a nation out of slavery, receiving the Ten Commandments and bringing a liberated people to the very edge of their Promised Land are laudable accomplishments. Both the good and the indefensible that Moses did should be studied. Credit and calumny can be attributed as warranted.

Leviticus established the jubilee year when Israelite servants are set free, the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, love the stranger, and numerous precepts for a better society. Leviticus is important even if large sections are difficult to find relevant.

It is to the Bible’s credit that it does not avoid showing the really bad side of its greatest heroes. Further, at least in the Judeo-Christian traditions, our abhorrence of some of what the Biblical heroes did flow, at least in part, from the teachings of the Bible itself. Throughout history there have been people who thought that murder, adultery and theft are perfectly fine if you pick the right victims and can get away with it.

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had dysfunctional families and some homicidal tendencies. So did Saul and David, the first two Israelite kings. In modern times, we have some pretty serious family problems too. There is a reason that Massachusetts has so many psychotherapists, a family court and a Division of Children and Families. Maybe our families can learn from the biblical families, both the good and the bad, and have a better family life for ourselves.

Upon further consideration, I have decided not to cancel the biblical characters. In Genesis, Jacob wrestled with an angel and came out of that struggle a better person. Let’s view the Biblical characters as case studies rather than role models. If we struggle with what is complex or downright awful about them, what we find offensive can be as instructive as what we find inspirational.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at

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