What Does The Bible Have to do With Trying to Change the World?

What Does The Bible Have to do With Trying to Change the World?


Children are separated from their parents at the border, and the Bible is invoked, both in defense of policy and in opposition. So let's talk about the Bible.

Even for academics with doctorates in somewhat related fields, such as mine (Philosophy) the scholarship and erudition of top Bible scholars is truly awesome. I am no Bible scholar. I did teach the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in a cooperative Jewish Sunday school for ten years and I did go on to write my own book on the Bible. Bible scholar, Jack Miles, who authored two of the most interesting books on the Bible in recent years, and who was the editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, wrote of my book: "A work of stunning originality . . .Nothing quite like it has appeared in years." And, "Modest in manner, but brilliant in the closeness of its readings."

I say all this to give me some standing to write this piece, because what I will say some may find so shocking and counter-intuitive that it might be dismissed out of hand. My claims are these: Neither Judaism nor Christianity accepts the clear meaning of the Biblical text. And further, that among so called "literalists" who claim to pay close attention to what the Bible is telling us, nothing could be further from the truth. And further, that the Bible doesn't present God as omniscient, nor as the source of all Morality. And finally, that at least the first six books of the Bible, Genesis-Joshua constitute a very coherent work that is among the finest works of literature ever produced.

If I am correct about even some of this, it puts in a rather different frame, current disagreements between our Attorney General, Mr. Sessions, and more enlightened folks, who speak with greater depth about the values of Christianity. More generally it goes to the entire validity of the current invocation of the Bible into our political discourse, issue after issue.

Let me explain, a bit. My book falls within what has been termed, "the Bible as literature." For me, despite all that I have to say about how God is presented in the Bible, I have nothing to say about God. Rather, I am talking solely about "the God character," as he is presented in a particular book. Imagine for instance, that we went to a play, and there was a character called God in the play, and I'm writing an analysis of the play. So, while my theses may be troublesome with respect to the great religions, I am not claiming anything about God, one way or the other.

I asked my readers to try to do something very difficult, perhaps impossible, to read the Bible as if they had never heard of it and knew nothing of Judaism or Christianity, as if they had just wandered into a bookstore, looking for a novel, and at random took one home, entitled, Genesis through Joshua.

This approach is particularly appropriate for the Bible for one very basic fact: The religions that have made the Bible and its interpretation central to their very being, came into existence 500 to 1,000 years after the most powerful part of the Hebrew Bible was written. For Christianity this is obvious, but for Judaism it may sound odd. But remember, until year 70 of the Common Era, when the Temple was destroyed, and never, thankfully, rebuilt, Judaism was a sacrificial religion. What we call Rabbinic Judaism, and the replacement of the Temple by the Torah, did not fully take hold until the Temple was no more. So radical was this shift that the great scholar Jacob Neusner, at one point, suggested that we speak of two religions.

The point is that both Christianity and Judaism, around the same time in history, appropriated to their new religions, what was by then, ancient literature. It would be as if a new religion, one with a new orientation, perhaps with a new value scale, and certainly with new metaphysical claims, reached back to the 1500's or further to the year 1018, and made a sacred text of a book from that time period.

Let me not dwell on familiar issues such as the Ten Commandments starting with "Thou shalt have no other gods before me . . . nor serve them . . .for I, Yahweh (as is written in the original) Thy God, am a jealous god," which only can be viewed as a monotheistic statement with considerable acrobatics.

Instead, look at one of the most powerful and indeed stunning passages in the entire Bible, Abraham's intercession with God to spare the innocent of Sodom. We are all familiar with the bargaining over how many innocents will be sufficient for God to spare the city. At first Abraham asks if God will spare the city if there are 40 innocents. God agrees to that. Then Abraham asks, what if there are only 35? And God agrees again. And so it goes, down to 10, with God agreeing that he will spare the city if there are 10 innocents. God makes no further commitment, and the implication seems to be that 10 is as far as he will go.

But consider the exchange that precedes the bargaining, when Abraham first learns of God's intention to destroy a city at all. He says "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" READ THESE LINES AGAIN FOR THEY ARE ASTONISHING.

What do we find here:

  1. Abraham is giving God a title that he has never himself used: The Judge of all the earth.
  2. Abraham is calling God, as this Judge, to be true to himself: "Far be it from you. . . "
  3. Abraham is invoking what seems an undeniable claim, "That justice requires treating the innocent differently from the guilty."
  4. Abraham is saying that God himself is subject to this moral claim.
  5. Abraham is saying that God might well act immorally, indeed, that what God intends to do, is immoral.

And by this standard, even to destroy ten innocents is to have acted immorally, and what can we then say about Leviticus and an entire theory of history and international relations that involves using the Babylonians (the Iraqis?) to destroy Jerusalem itself and take the Israelites into captivity?

One can, of course, maintain that this is just crazy Abraham who doesn't know where morality comes from, or doesn't know that by definition God is moral. There are lots of moves a determined clergy can make. But for any good reader, one not committed to certain theological theses, what is going on is pretty straightforward. And if we miss it, we miss entirely the breathtaking magnitude of what Abraham is attempting: he is calling the most powerful being in creation to a new identity. He is trying to get God to view himself as the Just Judge of all the earth, trying to get God to experience himself as untrue to himself if he is ever unjust or considering acting unjustly.

Abraham, of course fails in this. The entire story would be different had he succeeded. And for Christians, this should offer a new view of who Jesus is, and what his project might be. And I'll say it, but not explain: this offers new insight into why God subsequently commands Abraham to kill his own, totally innocent, child.

Anyhow, think of this, the next time you hear some Bible thumper, trying to invoke God for some injustice they are committed to.