I have often contemplated the notions of Heroism in Greek mythology and in the Hebrew Bible. I will compare two “flawed” heroes. One of them is Achilles. Achilles in the Iliad is flawed because of his pride. It his pride–and not just his heel, though that it is military weak spot–that kills him in the end. He is not even as good in the conventional way as the man he destroys on the battlefield–Hector. Hector would fight for Troy. Achilles simply wants revenge for his best friend’s death. Achilles “wins” the fight. Yet ultimately Achilles loses: when Hector’s father comes for his body, he realizes for once what a cruel man he is. So what is heroic about Achilles? It isn’t his nobility to modern readers. It is his being–to use Aristotle’s terms–“like an animal or like a god.” For to Aristotle the Greek gods are not hemmed in my morality or reason. In this respect they resemble animals. No, these things exist only for humans. So it is that godlike Achilles will eventually realize–before he dies, but not long before–that he is mortal, and not a god. For even to the Greeks, to whom the gods don’t have to be moral, human beings are fettered with the laws of mortality. That is why the heroes of Greece are all “flawed.”
Now, David may seem an odd choice for a “flawed hero.” Yet he is the most obvious one in the book. Despite being a man God calls “after my own heart,” he lusts for a woman, Bathsheba, who is Uriah the Hittite’s. He calls her over to his house and seduces her–and apparently with the promise that her son shall be king one day. Such is his passion for Bathsheba that he ignores all Jews think is decency. When Bathsheba is pregnant, David calls her husband Uriah home from the front, but Uriah refuses to sleep with her. Why? Because Uriah is the saint David is not. Although he loves Bathsheba, he loves his fellow soldiers more. If they are fighting at the front, he must not enjoy the comforts of home. He knows that if one of them dies while he enjoys the cushy spot away from the front, it makes him a coward in his mind. So the plot is foiled. David sends a letter to the front telling General Joab to place the unfortunate Uriah in a place where he is likely to die, and the deed is done: Uriah is dead. So David marries Bathsheba. Nathan the Prophet reveals to David the evil of his deed, and David is punished.
Yet for all that, in the end God forgives David. David is allowed to remain king. That is the difference between the Jewish God and the Greek gods. The Jewish God demands justice–and David is punished before he redeems himself–but the Jewish God also exhibits mercy. It may not look like what we moderns think of as lenience. Yet that is because we do not understand God yet.
God lives both inside of us, “the still, small voice of God” in our hearts, and is emanate. God evolves with us from Imperfection to Perfection. God created us to help him finish the world. The first step he took was freeing the ancient Israelites from servitude. Then he poured his Spirit out upon them. First there was the Law, then the Prophets, then the Rabbis of the Talmud. And God is still working through us, trying to get it right. And he is working through non-Jews, too. For though they may have only a partial knowledge of God to a Jew, they are God’s children, too.
As for David… David is blessed because David is forgiven.
What both of these stories try to grapple with is the Imperfection of Humankind. Yet in Greek thought, the Imperfect man dies of his Imperfection, whereas in Judaism, the Imperfect man can be made whole once more. His brokenness is not the whole point. He can still be the “Greatest King Israel ever had.” That is why though while Greek thought is poignant and moving at times it speaks more to the mind than the heart, the Hebrew Deity speaks to the Heart of Humankind. It is the Hebrew tradition that realizes God could speak to a people in slavery as his “children,” whereas Achilles might be a very rich man in fact. Perhaps despite the Founder’s fascination with ancient Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment, it was the Great Awakening’s spirit that would eventually fell slavery. For if ever America was great, it was her heart and not just her mind. And the slaves–they loved Moses as much as Jesus for his passion for Justice for the Israelite slaves.