Modern religious leader’s dishonesty about the Bible: another example

Here’s another example of a modern-minded religious leader’s seeing his religion’s teachings the way he wants to see them, rather than looking at what those teachings actually say. The Bible has so much cool stuff in it – I really don’t think there’s any need to mangle it.

When talking about the story of the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, claims below that the entire Hebrew Bible is a polemic (an attack) against power, and that the story of the Exodus, where long-oppressed slaves won out over the most powerful empire of the time (Egypt) is Exhibit A.

(The clip should start at about 16:10, hopefully!)

While a beautiful message, the claim that the Bible is a polemic against power is not only untenable but contrary to fact.

Here are five instances in the Torah (the Pentateuch – the first five books) alone that glorify the powerful:

  1. Throughout the Torah, the only way the people get to hear YHWH’s (Hashem) command is via Moses (and rarely his brother Aaron). When a man named Korah and his supporters complained to Moses and Aaron that “the entire congregation is holy! Why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?” Hashem had some of them swallowed up in an earthquake and the others burned alive (Numbers 16).
  2. The Bible supports the power of the master over that of his slave. Not only does the Bible not present any polemic against the power of the master, it instructs the master to consider the slave to be sub-human, as noted in my previous post. E.g. if someone strikes a non-slave and the victim dies, the perpetrator is put to death (Exodus 21:12); however, if a master strikes his slave and the slave dies, as long as the slave survives a day or two before passing, Biblical law dictates: “If he [the slave] survives a day or two, he [the master] will receive no retribution, for he [the slave] is his [the master’s] money (Exodus 21:21).”
  3. A priest (kohen) is given the power to incarcerate anyone he wishes for as long as he wishes. All he has to do is see some sort of spot on the person’s skin and declare it to be leprosy. No doctor or anyone else is consulted (Leviticus 13). Indeed when the priests got into a bitter dispute with their king Uzziah, wouldn’t you know it – they noticed that the king had leprosy on his skin! The alleged leper spent the rest of his life in jail (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
  4. The people must obey every legal decision rendered by the priests or the judge at that time or else be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). No jury of one’s peers. No appeals process. All the power resides in the hands of those priests or judges.
  5. When a famine crippled the entire Near East, the only one who had any food was Joseph, viceroy to the Egyptian king, who had stored up seven years’ worth of food. Rather than use his seat of power to save as many as possible from starvation, the Bible devotes a whole section to tell us how the people had to beg Joseph to keep them alive, and only after selling to him literally every piece of property they owned – their animals, their land, everything – did Joseph give in (Genesis 47:13-26). No polemic against power found here. (One could argue that the Joseph story as a whole is a polemic against the power of his brothers who had tried to kill him. But this episode in the story is clearly an example of the opposite dynamic – one of the powerful winning out.)

I have no reason to believe that the Rabbi Sackses of the world knowingly and maliciously lie about the true content of their religious teachings. And we’d rather have a world of religious people who embrace science and morality than a world of religious people who don’t. But as I argued in my previous post, if you dig yourself into the hole of trying to reconcile ancient religious teachings with modern science and morality, it seems you leave yourself no other choice but to mangle the religious teachings and/or misrepresent them until those teachings seem palatable in 2013.

Do you think modern religious thinkers usually mean well, or are they purposely trying to mislead people about what religious teachings really say?

Do you agree that these examples show that the Bible is NOT a polemic against power, as Rabbi Sacks claimed?


5 thoughts on “Modern religious leader’s dishonesty about the Bible: another example

  1. SJA

    I think the answer to both questions is not yes or no. I would guess most of the apoligists are simply victim to their cognitive dissonance and see the Bible as it actually isn’t in order for them to be okay with their religion. I don’t think they are intentionally misleading people. There prbably are some exceptions though. Those probably believe it’s okay to lie to defend the religion to the ignorant masses.
    Regarding your second question, I think there are different sources to the Bible and they have different concerns and such. I’m not an expert in this field, but I would guess the examples you show speak for the voice that isn’t concerned for the underdog. That doesn’t prevent there being other voices in the Bible that are against power since there are multiple sources.

    I would add the whole concept of a priesthood kind of speaks to a higher class and is supportive of that. There is a law to honor the Kohen. The rest of the peoplehave to give their produce and animals to the priests and leviim (produce).. It is stated they would be the teachers. Implying others need not apply for this position.
    Also, the Torah implies that Hashem took us out of Mitrayim to be slaves to Him instead of the Egyptians. And all those many many laws. The Torah certainly seems to support being slaves to a “Higher Power.”

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks so much, SJA. All great points I didn’t think of, and that last one is clever. Modern Bible scholars have shown that the Ten “Commandments” are in the form of an ancient Near Eastern treaty between a vassal and an overlord, and that just adds to your last point.

      So I guess, following your comment, the Exodus story could be intended to glorify the powerless over the powerful. I think my problem was the rabbi claiming that THE ENTIRE BIBLE was a polemic against power, which, as you and I have shown, cannot be supported.

    2. AlterCocker JewishAtheist

      English Rabbi is not presenting Orthodox Judaism truthfully: Example – A Jew who is an atheist is killed under Jewish Law when the Temple existed. Many such misleading comments. Rabbi is an apologetic. It is hard for Dawkins to argue with the Rabbi because the Rabbi is always able to cherry pick a source.

  2. AlterCocker JewishAtheist

    Some are dishonest, some are suffering from confirmation bias, some from cognitive dissonance, some just ignore contrary evidence, some cherry pick, some reinterpret, some just believe no matter what the evidence is, some are ignorant … OJ has tried to create a non falsifiable wall around itself and reminds me of the Cargo Cults. My problem is often trying to figure out which category an individual person is falling into. Some share multiple categories. Often they start with the apriori assumption the Torah is god given and must therefore be true. The Torah commands the Israelites to exterminate various Canaanite tribes during Israel’s conquest. How would the Rabbi justify it ? Probably with The Lord giveth and taketh. How does he think the Canaanites feel about that ? However I do feel a little better knowing there probably was no massive conquest – it was more than less a foundation myth. Anyway good post.

  3. AlterCocker JewishAtheist

    Freethinking Jew, or altercockeratheist or many other former Orthodox Jewish believers could have done a superior job debating the English Rabbi, than Dawkins. The Rabbi s whitewashing Orthodox Judaism, U know it, I know it and many others know it – but Dawkins is ignorant of OJ since he never grew up it or studied it.


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