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:
- 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).
- 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).”
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?