December 05, 2011

Airbrushing the Bible

The Bible poses a real problem for Jews and Christians. In it, god commands the most awful things that we now would recoil in horror from doing. So what options do they have? The literalists say that god must have good reasons for making those commands, even if those reasons are elusive to us, and that we have to simply trust in his goodness.

Of course, that is a tough sell for the more sophisticated believers and some of them have taken the tack of trying to re-interpret the plain text of the Bible to suggest that it actually says things that are more benign or even good than what appears on the surface. One such apologia can be seen in the essay Are Biblical Laws About Homosexuality Eternal? by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky, based on their book The Bible Now, where they tackle the highly problematical attitude of god towards homosexuality, which is turning out to be the Achilles' heel for Christianity and Judaism in America.

The essay itself is a fine example of the contortions one has to go through to salvage the idea that the Bible contains some moral value. Adam Kirsch of The New Republic reviewed the book and Jason Rosenhouse analyzed the essay and both come away unimpressed.

As Kirsch says, the Bible seems pretty clear about god's views on homosexuality.

Just look at Leviticus 20:13: "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." The law as written does not apply to women, but for homosexual men it means death.

At this point, the twenty-first-century Jew—like the Protestant and the Catholic, anyone whose religion views the Bible as holy writ—has two simple choices, and one messy and unsatisfying one. The first simple choice is the one the Satmar Hasid would take: the Bible being God's word, homosexuality is ipso facto an abomination, Q.E.D. The second is the one any secular rationalist would take: the Bible is not God's word, and it has no more binding force than any other ancient Near Eastern law code. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, holds that "If a man's wife be surprised with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water," but we are no more obligated to follow this law today than we are to follow Leviticus. Both reflect millennia-old views of gender and sexuality that now appear simply unjust.

The third choice is the one represented in The Bible Now, the new book by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. They have set out to explain "what the Bible has to say about the major issues of our time," in particular "five current controversial matters: homosexuality, abortion, women's status, capital punishment, and the earth." Some people turn to the Bible for guidance, they observe early on, "because … the Bible is the final authority and one must do what it says." But as secular academics, Friedman and Dolansky recognize that the Bible was written by historically situated human beings, with various political and religious agendas. They belong to the other category of Bible-seekers, they say, 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."

Kirsch goes on to say that by using a tortured analysis, Friedman and Dolansky manage to turn that ghastly Leviticus passage into something positive.

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."

What licenses this kind of reading is the principle that "God is free to change," that is, to change his mind about what is offensive and inoffensive, good and evil—but only, it seems, in ways that bring him more in tune with the views of people like Friedman and Dolansky (and, I hasten to add, myself).

Rosenhouse points out another fact that makes all this convoluted argumentation seem pointless.

I would add that if we take the text seriously then it is not the authors of Leviticus who are issuing prohibitions, but God Himself. As Kirsch notes, Friedman and Dolansky do not accept the divine authorship of the Bible, so they are free to understand the text as the creation of an uninspired human writer. But in that case, what is the point of this exercise? Why would it even occur to anyone to think the author of this portion of Leviticus, writing thousands of years ago, had any particular insight into sexual morality?

I have no doubt that in the small community of Biblical scholars, this sort of analysis is considered very clever and highbrow. No doubt they endlessly pat each other on the backs for it and shake their heads sadly at those who think that when God personally describes something as an abomination, He actually intends to express His disapprobation for that something. But their arguments amount to nothing. To accept their conclusion we must believe that the Biblical authors once again (let us recall that the early chapters of Genesis come in for similar treatment at the hands of Biblical scholars) expressed themselves in ways that are most naturally understood in a manner almost precisely opposite to what they meant to say.

This is not reasonable. If you want to use the Bible as a moral guide then you are stuck with it. The text is not infinitely malleable, and you cannot reasonably interpret X to mean not X. Rather than try to twist the text to fit modern moral sensibilities, which despite their denials is precisely what Friedman and Dolansky are doing, why don't we simply discard this particular ancient book and move on to more promising approaches to morality?

This is a very important point that I wish to re-iterate. If a person believes that the Bible is of divine origin and thus infallible, then it makes sense that one would try to explain away the morality that is presently unacceptable. But few of the more sophisticated biblical apologists and theologians would claim that the words in the Bible were of divine origin and literally dictated by god. Almost all of them accept that they were the work of humans who lives thousands of years ago and were merely reflecting the morality of their times. Why don't they simply reject the obnoxious ideas in them just the way we would other old books?

What people like Friedman and Dolansky are seeking to do is to find a way to make the Bible less embarrassing to modern believers. It is another example of how modernity, and the sensibilities that come with it, are in direct conflict with the archaic attitudes of religions.


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It was explained to me that Leviticus is written specifically for Levite priests, and the prescriptions in it are expressly for them. Since none of us are Levite priests there's no reasons for anyone to follow the rules in that book.

Posted by Jared A on December 5, 2011 09:38 AM

I apologize in advance for digressing slightly, but it seems to me that the intellectual issues here are similar to those that arise in constitutional interpretation. And these issues are particularly problematic for conservatives who urge rigid adherence to both the Bible and its civic equivalent, the Constitution.

Of course, we know that in reality the right-wing's professed adherence to the literal meaning of the Constitution flies out of the window whenever it gets in their way. (A few minutes on Glenn Greenwald's blog should clear that up for anyone who has yet to make that breakthrough.) Nonetheless, they continue to sell that simple faith to an audience that is receptive to that kind of message; namely, the Christians who display an equally simple-minded faith in their sacred text.

It is somewhat ironic, then, to see Biblical scholars tie themselves in knots attempting to bring their ancient "truths" into modern times. How is it that this can be tolerated by Christian conservatives who disavow the very notion of "evolving constitutionalism" in political affairs? As a matter of intellectual integrity, it seems to me, you can't have it both ways. You're either a strict literalist, or you're a "word bender."

While I'm sure that this very debate does take place within the "bizarro world" of Biblical scholarship, I still find a delicious irony in watching conservatives compromise their putatively high principles when subjected to real-world pressures.

Posted by Richard Frost on December 5, 2011 11:17 AM

Personally i believe that most of the story's are parables for you to interpret and not to be taken literary.
Also that it was interpreted and written for by people who lived a couple of thousand years ago who had different views and attitudes than people who live today. As such, punishments and rules that today sound awful or silly, to people living 2000 years ago it would have been fine.

Posted by Jon Guildford on December 5, 2011 02:23 PM

Interesting post, Mano. I was in a conversation the other day where I made essentially the same point (although less eloquently) as Rosenhouse: "But in that case, what is the point of this exercise? Why would it even occur to anyone to think the author of this portion of Leviticus, writing thousands of years ago, had any particular insight into sexual morality?"

These types of intellectual gymnastics were significant in pushing me away from Christianity. Over time, they simply seemed more and more foolish to me.

Posted by Tim on December 6, 2011 09:05 AM