Jewish Journal

The Bible: What it says and means

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Jun. 16, 2011 at 11:46 am

Now that another presidential campaign season is upon us, you can count on a fair amount of Bible-thumping between now and election day.  But if you wonder what the Bible really says about abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment and other contemporary concerns, the real answers are to be found in “The Bible Now” by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford University Press: $27.95).

Friedman, a distinguished scholar who holds academic chairs in Jewish studies at both the University of Georgia and the University of California, San Diego, is the author of, among many other books, the best-seller “Who Wrote the Bible?,” which remains the single best introduction to theories of biblical authorship for the lay reader.  Dolansky is an assistant professor of religious studies at Northeastern University and author of “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Relationship Between Magic and Religion in the Hebrew Bible.”

Friedman and Dolansky acknowledge that the Bible can be a highly controversial book that means different things to different readers. “You can feel any one of a thousand feelings about it, but one thing you should not do is ignore it,” they write. “The stakes are high enough that we cannot afford to be ignorant or sloppy about it.”

Their approach is based on an exacting and meticulous examination of what the biblical text actually says and means, a task that calls on their expertise in ancient languages and, especially, the translation of those texts into English.  Thus, for example, they point out that the famous story about Sodom and Gomorrah does not necessarily refer to homosexual conduct of any kind, and the love between David and Jonathan is a matter of metaphor rather than sexual orientation.
“[T]he prose and poetry texts that people most often mention with regard to homosexuality,” they warn, “do not shed any light at all on this subject.”

They take a very different approach to biblical law, where we sometimes find explicit prohibitions against sexual conduct of various kinds, including “a straightforward prohibition of male homosexuality.”  They drill down to the underlying values that were meant to be served by such a prohibition, an exercise that often produces surprising and even shocking insights.  Thus, for example, the authors point out that the Hebrew Bible does not prohibit sexual contact between women, and they argue that the explanation can be found in the ancient practice of polygamy.

“Men with two wives, or even harems, had opportunities for group sex and for voyeurism of female homosexuality,” they frankly explain.  “Today it is a fantasy for men, which they can view [on the Internet and in other media], but for men in the ancient world it was an option, at least for men of wealth who could afford it.”  And so, since the biblical law codes were written by male authors, “men were not about to forbid female-to-female contact.”

Sometimes, the most telling fact about the Bible is what it doesn’t say.  On the hot-button issue of gay marriage, for example, the authors point out that “the laws in the Torah in fact hardly address any matters of getting married at all.”  Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is clearly not consulted as a source for marriage law since the rejection of polygamy by most Jews and Christians “suggests that they do not feel bound by the Hebrew Bible’s conception of marriage.”

The same is true for abortion.  The biblical texts that arguably relate to abortion “are few,” insist Friedman and Dolansky, “and questionable.”  The commandment against murder in the Ten Commandments, for example, is not helpful because the biblical authors carefully distinguished between “killing” and “murder” — and only murder is flatly prohibited.  Translation from ancient Hebrew into contemporary English can be controversial, they concede, but not here.  “Words have meanings, sometimes clear, sometimes not so clear,” they write. “This case is clear.”

Thus the case for or against abortion owes nothing to the Decalogue. “One can be against abortion or for it,” they explain. “One can have a strong conviction that abortion is murder or that it is not.  But everyone should understand what this commandment means.” And they point out that “the only explicit reference to abortion in the Hebrew Bible is rarely cited in debates” — a disturbing passage in the Book of Jeremiah in which the prophet wishes that he had never been born in the first place. (Jer. 20:14-18).  Precisely because it is poetry rather than law, “one would be well advised to use caution when factoring it into any contemporary view on abortion.”

Sometimes the framing of the biblical texts is based on simple but unarguable historical observations that are external to the Bible itself.  Why does the Bible prescribe capital punishment for so many misdeeds?  “The most likely reason,” they propose, “is that there were no prisons.”  So the fact that Bible sanctioned capital punishment in remote antiquity does not mean that we are morally entitled to put criminals to death today. “[O]ne cannot just say that the Bible has execution and that this is therefore a support for using the death penalty,” they write. “Countries today have other options.”

Friedman and Dolansky are accomplished and respected scholars who bring their knowledge to bear on all of the contemporary issues under discussion in “The Bible Now.”  They invite us to consider the nuances of meaning in biblical Hebrew, the fine points of Middle Assyrian Law, the ancient medical text embodied in the Ebers Papyrus, and much else besides.  But they are also capable of addressing a lay readership with perfect clarity and explaining even the most abstruse concepts in plain English. That is what makes “The Bible Now” not only an important book but a useable one.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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