Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Reading the Bible, Reading the Quran

I may have been harsh on David Plotz and his book, The Good Book, about reading the Bible, in which case I apologize. Plotz himself fights back spiritedly in the comment box. When I’ve read his writing in the past, it’s always been charming and interesting. I’m sure the book is similarly well done, given the constraint. However I stand by my observation that reading the Hebrew Bible as you’d peruse the newspaper — or as A.J. Jacobs read the encyclopedia for the book he wrote before The Year of Living Biblically — is bound to produce results that I find it hard to believe could ever change the life of an adult.

What’s more, I wouldn’t exempt other holy books from this standard. I once wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post about reading the Quran straight through — an experience I found disturbing and scary. But in retrospect, I’m sure I too missed much of the point. The Quran is part of a living tradition, not an isolated literary classic. Western writers who quote from it and think they are representing Islam, or anything particularly meaningful, are undoubtedly wrong. Yes, I was wrong about the Quran.
But consider Plotz’s reply to me.

He writes, “It’s certainly true that I didn’t read the Hebrew Bible in the way that many Jews traditionally study the Hebrew Bible. But you know what? I’m not an observant Jew!” Sorry, irrelevant. What is this arbitrary definition of being “observant”?
Whether Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or none of these, every Jew who is not totally alienated from his people is an observant Jew. That’s right. Every such Jew is involved in some way with mitzvot, commandments. So he’s not Sabbath-observant? Doesn’t matter — not in this context. Many Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath but still gossip — a sin the rabbis compare to murder. Does that make them “non-observant”?
Whether he eats shrimp or not, or whatever, a Jew or a non-Jew who’s a sensitive reader and tries to read the Bible as you’d read a novel, should, I would think, come away asking, as the song says, “Is that all there is?” 
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posted April 27, 2009 at 7:14 pm

I first read the Bible (both Testaments) cover to cover in the King James translation when I was about 18, and again about a year later in a modern (New English Bible) translation. I didn’t formally belong to any religion, though I’d been raised in a vaguely Christian atmosphere, and I didn’t use any kind of commentary. There were large parts of the Scriptures that were puzzling, parts that were totally opaque, parts that were appalling, and parts that were tediously dull. However, there were parts that struck a chord in my teenage self.
This was enough to motivate me to seek out commentaries, re-read many pertinent sections, study both the Old and New Testaments, along with a little Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and several other religions. Ultimately I was lead to Catholicism. I understand a lot more about the Bible now, but I realize that it is beyond the scope of any individual and makes sense only with some accompanying framework.
Having said that, I think many Evangelicals in this country really think you can read the Bible like you would a novel, with no need for commentary; which is why I think many of their ideas are, to say the least, strange. Really, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have more in common with Judaism than with their fellow Christians in Evangelical churches. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Jews all agree on the need for an interpretive framework (though of course they disagree on what that framework should be), whereas Evangelicals tend to think that no framework is necessary (hence their frequent aversion to creeds).
Maybe this puts Plotz’s comment into perspective. If an Evangelical or say a non-church attending “cultural Christian” were to write a book about the Bible and I critiqued him for failing to take into account the teachings on the Bible from Catholic Tradition, Papal documents, etc., he could (quite rightly!) respond, “But I’m not Catholic!” In other words, as a non-Catholic he does not acknowledge Catholic Tradition as normative for understanding of Scripture, any more than I’d recognize Calvin’s Institutes as a framework for my reading of Scripture.
I think Plotz is saying something similar. When he describes himself as a “non-observant” Jew, I think what he’s saying is that he is culturally Jewish, but that he does not acknowledge or practice institutional Judaism. Since institutional Judaism ultimately is based on interpretation using the Oral Torah, in effect he is saying that he does not acknowledge the validity or normativity of the Oral Law. Thus, why should he take it into account, any more than the hypothetical Baptist should take Catholic Tradition into account?
To put it another way, one might say that people “should” read the Bible intelligently, rather than naively reading it through as a novel. Anyone could, I think agree with that, although some might argue that even such a naive reading might be of value. To say that someone “should” use my interpretive framework, though, is tantamount to seeking conversion. In other words, if I insist that one read the Tanakh in light of the Oral Torah, I am essentially asking them to read, and implicitly believe, as a Jew. If I say one should read the Old and New Testaments in light of the Orthodox Fathers, I am essentially saying, “Read and believe as an Orthodox Christian,” and so on. This is OK, actually, but the implication needs to be explicit. Of course, it also goes without saying that the person so urged has the right of refusal. As a Christian, I of course am not going to accept the interpretation of the Tanakh given by the Oral Law; just as a Jew, of course, would not accept the interpretation given by Catholic Tradition; and neither would accept an Islamic interpretation of it. As long as we all respect each others’ right to disagree, and each others’ right not to be coerced, it’s all OK.
I do think the argument as to what makes an “observant Jew” is a bit odd. David seems to be saying something to this effect: “If you identify as Jewsih in any way at all, no matter how minuscule, you are therefore obligated to read the Tanakh solely in light of the traditional rabbinical interpretation.” Since the Catholic Church recognizes any baptism that is properly done (and thus almost all Protestant baptisms), this would be analagous to a Catholic saying to, say, a Methodist, “Since you are baptized, that means you’re really Catholic, even if alienated from Catholic practice, and therefore are obligated to read Catholic translations of the Bible and use Catholic commentaries as aids.” Though a slightly tortuous case could be made for this kind of theology, I trust it’s obvious why it wouldn’t fly!
To go to the original question, if someone with no cultural connection to or interpretive framework for the Bible read it straight through, it probably wouldn’t make much sense. You never know, though–they might get some spiritual effect from it. Depends on the individual. I read the Qur’an at about the same time I first read the Bible, and I remember thinking that while there were snippets here and there that were sublime, it was on the whole more puzzling than not. However, God works in mysterious ways, and I would thus never assume that one couldn’t get something out of Scripture without a pre-existing standard or interpretive framework.
I would say that one strong personal impression I have is that there is so much barbarity and nastiness in the Hebrew Bible, much of it attributed to Divine command, that for me it would be hard to take it “straight up”. This is why the Gnostics rejected it altogether, and why the only form of Judaism to survive the destruction of the Second Temple was rabbinical Judaism, which I would submit was the only form that had the intellectual and moral tools to deal with the permanent loss of the Temple while having an interpretive framework that could reinterpret the seeming immorality of much of the Tanakh. This is also why the development of the Christian allegorical method of interpretation and of types was so important. Neither religion thought that the book as it stood was a edifying!

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posted April 27, 2009 at 7:20 pm

One quick addition: I would recommend to David or anyone else the excellent book The American Religion by Harold Bloom. He is idiosyncratic at times, but he does a good job of showing that the beliefs of the majority of Americans really have nothing to do with any traditional interpretive framework. One of the parts that is memorable to me is where he points out that in a sense Orthodox Judaism and traditional Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the original churches of the Reformation) really aren’t Biblical religions, since they interpret through a framework (the Oral Law, the Tradition, etc.); whereas Evangelicalism really is a religion of the book, since it really thinks that that’s all you need. This is also, as he points out, where many kooky beliefs come from. A fascinating insight, I think.

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Brian Beckman

posted April 28, 2009 at 1:04 am

I am not moved by critiques against the Hebrew Bible that highlight the “brutality and nastiness” as if that somehow argues that the Bible is NOT an instruction manual for the highest possible moral aspirations of both Jews and Gentiles. Does one happen to think that the escapees from Egypt might face a warm and cuddly reception in Canaan? Does one think that the establishment of the nation of Israel essentially overnight might NOT require swift and severe punishment for outright treason like the golden calf and the rebellion of Qorach? Does one think that the Midianites’ attempt to corrupt the nascent nation outright by pure seduction should have been greeted by the other cheek?
No no no. The Hebrew Bible is first and foremost a Survival Manual for the nation of Israel. For without them there would be no established position for Christians to offer their softer response to sin and nicer treatment of enemies. If the Am Israel had NOT taken the harsh steps to “put their own oxygen mask on first,” Christians would all be breathing the monoxide of paganism.
You don’t have to honor the rabbis or even know of Rashi, Rambam, Cli Yakar, or Baal HaTurim to realize that God designed a world where survival of the fittest is a harsh reality and that it is only the Hebrew Bible teaching us that it survival of the fittest may not the ONLY reality. Ironically enough, the Hebrew Bible has survived, virtually verbatim, in one of the most stunning examples of relentless survival in human history. Every Christian owes it to himself to study deeply the religion that Christ himself practiced every day of his life.

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posted April 28, 2009 at 8:03 am

Well, Brian, the God I believe in does not order the destruction of every man, woman, and innocent child and even animals in conquered cities, or send bears to maul children just for taunting an old man (2 Kings 2:23-25). Certainly, plenty of people have used the exact same reasoning as yours to justify such actions ever since (read about the siege of Béziers in the Albigensian Crusade some time), and it is the type of reasoning being used now by those who would justify torture. I assume you’d probably disagree on that, too, which is fine. I just don’t see how people can worship that kind of God. To me that’s the point of the interpretive frameworks, which show that God is not, in fact, as he appears to be presented.
God designed a world where survival of the fittest is a harsh reality
Ironic statement on an anti-evolution blog!

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Brian Beckman

posted April 28, 2009 at 10:35 am

It is an irony! The whole point of God’s message to the world is that survival-of-the-fittest need not be the ONLY reality. Without God, it is, sadly, the ONLY reality. It us up to us whether to accept or reject the message. The essence of human moral freedom is we get to choose whether to be slaves to a relentlessly harsh physical world or to pursue God’s offering of light and understand spiritual reality. But taking the message does not mean that the world is not full of dire, mortal threats.
If one believes that the foundation of Israel was the one time that God descended to micromanage the world after the Creation, then its not reasonable to use analogies to the Bible to justify brutalities. It happened, it *had* to happen due to external realities, and it’s done with now.
On evolution, I have no problem accepting it as God’s mechanism for effecting his designs on the world. I simply take a teleological interpretation of mechanism instead of a anthropic interpretation (the empty tautology). The teleological interpretation, in another amazing irony, is admitted by none less than the Dawkins, Dennet, Gould crowd who say (my paraphrase) ~”Intentionality arises in ex-post-facto examination of the results of Darwinian trials — living systems act *exactly* as if they are *trying* to achieve superior designs. This simulation of intentionality is so perfect that we might as well *define* intentionality as ‘that which living systems do.'” Well, by gum, so life responds to a perfect simulation of teleology, eh? Oh my.

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David Murdoch

posted April 28, 2009 at 8:50 pm

It needs to be understood that the bible is the Word of God, and the Word of God is unlike any other literature in that it is a device through which God reveals Himself to the reader. The best way, and correct way, to read the bible is with the aid of the Holy Spirit because the bible is the Word of God speaking to us and the human reasoning by itself doesn’t always know, in fact it often doesn’t understand, what it is that God is trying to say through the means of this text.
The bible speaks in many different ways to many different people at many different times, to the extent that one could not really capture the nature of the text, because God speaks in that same fashion and our understanding of Him is always falling short of capturing Him in His infinite totality.
God Bless,

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