Friday, July 15, 2011

Biblical Wisdom?

Recently a number of perceptive reviews by Adam Kirsch have been appearing in the Jewish journal, Tablet (, not to be confused with a Catholic journal with a similar title. One of the latest (July 5), “By the Book,” concerns the (Hebrew) Bible.

Even the irreligious have a sense, however difficult it is to specify, that these venerable writings provide a deposit of ancient wisdom. In my college classes I attempted to give substance to this intuition through works of art. It is not often realized that down to 1800 a majority of significant works of European art were religious in inspiration--even (especially) those produced by the supposedly secular Renaissance. After retiring from regular teaching five years ago, I sought to specify this sense by sorting the wheat from the chaff. Alas, I found that the torrent of chaff engulfs and overwhelms the few sheaves of wheat. The valuable bits include a few Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and some portions of the Gospels.

To be sure, others, even those who are not religious in the fundamentalist sense, find considerably larger tracts of value in Scripture. Moreover, they believe that overall the Bible contains a message that still offers valuable guidance for modern-day ethics and conduct.

A continuing stream of books seeks to ground this intuition in a more particular examination of the ancient texts. The latest of these, as reported by Mr. Kirsch, is “The Bible Now” by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford University Press).

A respected senior scholar, Friedman serves as the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. He is perhaps best known for his “Who Wrote the Bible?,” concerning the Documentary Hypothesis, where he seeks to chart a middle course between traditionalism and modernism. It is fair to say that, as many would-be peacemakers find, his efforts have failed to settle the conflict, pleasing neither side. Still, he deserves credit for the effort. A newcomer, Shawna Dolansky has lately been addressing the issue of feminine elements in the Hebrew Bible.

In their jointly written volume, Friedman and Dolansky seek to explain “what the Bible has to say about the major issues of our time.” Sensibly enough, they place themselves among the ranks of those “who do not believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, [but] turn to the Bible because they believe it contains wisdom—-wisdom that might help anyone, whatever his or her beliefs, make wise decisions about difficult matters.”

Friedman and Dolansky address five current controversial matters: homosexuality, abortion, women’s status, capital punishment, and the earth.

Of particular interest to me is their approach to the antihomosexual passages in Leviticus 18 and 20. The second (Lev. 20:13) is hideously explicit: “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them.” To be sure, the prohibition applies only to male homosexuals and not to lesbians, but to those of us who are its target the words are chilling--as they ought to be for every reasonable person.

Regrettably, the treatment offered by Friedman and Dolansky is tortuous in the extreme. Adam Kirsch has done his best to try to follow their argument. Here is the gist of his summary:

"Turning from Israel to Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, Friedman and Dolansky observe that these other Near Eastern societies generally had nothing against homosexual acts per se. They reserved their odium for the passive partner in anal sex, the man who was penetrated. A “Middle Babylonian divination text” instructs that “If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers”; on the other hand, Plutarch writes, “We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depths of vice.”

“Never mind that these texts were written more than a thousand years apart, in two very different civilizations, neither of which was Israelite. Friedman and Dolansky use them to establish “the wider cultural context” of Leviticus, from which it follows that “what the authors of Leviticus … may be prohibiting is not homosexuality as we would construe the category today but, rather, an act that they understood to rob another man of his social status by feminizing him.” Why, then, does Leviticus, uniquely among ancient Near Eastern law codes, prescribe death for both partners in homosexual acts? Because, Friedman and Dolansky argue, quoting another biblical scholar, Leviticus “emphasizes the equality of all. It does not have the class distinctions that are in the other cultures’ laws.”

“This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism. Friedman and Dolansky imply that it was not homosexuality the Bible wanted to condemn, but the humiliation of the passive partner. And since we no longer think of consensual sex acts as humiliating, surely the logic of the Bible itself means that homosexuality is no longer culpable: “The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive.”

"But wait: Doesn’t Leviticus also say, in Chapter 18, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination”? Here too, Friedman and Dolansky have a reassuring response. “The technical term to’ebah,” they write, is usually employed in the Bible not for absolute moral laws, but for cultic taboos: “an act or object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances.” Maybe homosexuality was once to’ebah, but “Why do people assume that things relating to God must be absolute and unchanging? Even for a person who believes in God wholeheartedly, why should that person assume that God is never free to change?””

To make a long story short, the authors start with an enlightened, secular view of male same-sex conduct, and then try to square the Biblical injunctions with it. To use the technical language of Biblical criticism, this is not exegesis (that is, the elucidation of the meaning of the texts based on what they actually say) but eisegesis (the injection of meanings into the text that are not there). In all frankness, the result is ludicrous.

An even more telling point is this. If we can reach valid conclusions regarding ethics by applying natural reason alone, the use of the Bible for this purpose is unnecessary and superfluous. Or, to use a legal analogy, Scripture appears only as a supportive witness--and one that is all too often made to perjure itself.

We come back to a conclusion that has long been evident to skeptics. There is no overall “message” of the Scriptures, at least not one that we can respect. Instead, we are confronted with a vast collage of fallible documents, variously quaint, bizarre, horrifying, and pathetic, which are mainly of use in reconstructing the superstitions and belief systems prevalent in backward regions of the Near East a long time ago. In this mass there are a few nuggets--some Psalms, the book of Job, and so forth--but there is no warrant for assuming that that taken as a whole this salmagundi offers any sustained guidance for human beings in the twenty-first century.



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