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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Rational Bible’, by Dennis Prager

There may be no such thing as a new idea, to paraphrase Mark Twain, but there are new insights into old ideas.

Enter Dennis Prager’s, The Rational Bible: Exodus, the inaugural work of what will be his five volumes of commentary on the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

While Genesis precedes Exodus, Prager began with the second book because, as he notes in his introduction, “Exodus contains the Ten Commandments, the most important moral code in world history.”

And if the Torah wants its readers to know one thing, it is that “God’s essence is goodness.” More than anything He wants from us moral behavior. Prager cites Exodus 33:18, when Moses asks God to “let me behold Your Presence.” God responds, “I will make all My goodness pass before you.”

“That God chooses to define Himself as good constitutes one of the most important statements in the entire Bible,” Prager writes, adding an idea that may not sit well among many believers and non-believers alike. “God does not say, ‘I will make my love pass before you.’ In fact, the expression, ‘God is love,’ is not to be found in the Hebrew Bible.”

Most fans know Prager through his five-minute PragerU videos, his nationally-syndicated radio show, his appearances on CNN and Fox News, and his book Happiness Is a Serious Problem. (Full disclosure: I worked for Dennis as a writer for PragerU, and before that as an intern for his radio show in college. I’m grateful to count him as a friend and teacher.)

Before Prager became a household name, he was known around Los Angeles for Religion on the Line, a popular radio show where he invited on clergy of different faiths to discuss the Big Questions for three hours on Saturday evenings and five hours on Sunday evenings. He also ran the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, American Jewish University’s educational retreat outside Los Angeles.

But Prager’s fundamental ability to understand and explain the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, comes from his childhood. Growing up in Brooklyn, Prager was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family and studied full-time in a yeshiva (a Jewish seminary for boys) until college. He’s fluent in Biblical Hebrew, an invaluable asset in unlocking profound Torah wisdoms that one can only find by reading it in its original language.

An example: the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” is widely mistranslated as “You shall not kill” — which, if accurate, would directly contradict the Torah’s command, in the very same section, to execute murderers. It would also mean that God, who killed every firstborn son in Egypt, drowned the Egyptian army, and directly intervened in battle for the Jews on multiple occasions, violated his own commands.

“Hebrew, like English,” Prager explains, “has two words for taking a life: harog (‘kill’) and ratzach (‘murder’). The Sixth Commandment uses ratzach.”

Americans have been so influenced by the Bible historically that even the political left, which tends to not appeal to the Bible’s moral authority, will sometimes use a mistranslation if it advances an agenda. Thus one can find people at anti-capital punishment rallies holding “Thou shalt not kill” signs.

Prager’s agenda in writing this commentary is, he says, for “as many people as possible to take the Torah seriously, to entertain the possibility it is God-given, or, at the very least, to understand why so many rational people do.”

Over the years I’ve heard Dennis say publicly that if one had to summarize the mission of his life’s work, it is to explain to as many people as possible that the goodness and the greatness of America and the West flows from its foundational embrace of Biblical thought and its belief in ethical monotheism — the belief that there is one God whose primary desire is for people to treat each other morally.

America’s, and especially Europe’s, increasing secularization, then, will diminish what has made the West exceptionally free, prosperous, and decent.

“The lack of wisdom—certainly in America and the rest of the West—is directly related to the decline in biblical literacy,” Prager writes. “In the American past, virtually every home, no matter how poor, owned a Bible. It was the primary vehicle by which parents passed wisdom on to their children.”

This wisdom, which most people take for granted, was in fact introduced to the world by the Torah three millennia ago. Its moral assertions were “revolutionary and transformative” at the time. As Prager notes, “It is revolutionary in its removal of all sexuality from God and from religion; in its removal of all sexuality from the family (in contrast to Egypt, where Egyptian royalty preferred and practiced incest); in its demand to love one’s neighbor as oneself; in demanding repeatedly that we love and safeguard the stranger who resides among us; and in forbidding the rape of women during wartime.”

The irony of secular humanism is that it asserts that human rights are universal and valid without God, even though universal human rights are a Biblical invention. After all, if humans aren’t created in God’s image and thus fundamentally equal, and if God doesn’t command us to treat each other well, the call to universal human rights has no more logical validity than “might makes right.”

A central implication of The Rational Bible is this: It’s the Bible’s world. We’re just living in it.

While Prager’s intended audience may be Biblical skeptics — and for them I couldn’t more highly recommend The Rational Bible — believers will find ideas they’ve never seen; ideas original to Prager and drawn from some of Prager’s influences, including Biblical scholars Nahum Sarna, Everett Fox, and Jewish philosophical giants like Maimonides.

On Exodus 1:8: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” Prager notes, “Given that Joseph’s role in Egyptian history was so profound, the words ‘who did not know Joseph’ are extraordinary.”

Pharaoh forgot that Joseph’s foresight and ingenuity saved Egypt from famine and starvation. Pharaoh was ungrateful because he was forgetful.

Citing writer Bruce Feller, Prager writes: “Moses’s goal is to build a counter-Egypt . . . to construct a society that offers an alternative to ignorance and unknowingness. He must devise a community that remembers.”

Memory has been a central theme of Jewish practice since Sinai. On Passover and in daily prayers Jews remember that God took them out of Egypt; on Rosh Hashanah Jews remember that God created the world; on Shavuot Jews remember that God gave them the Torah.

On Exodus 1:17: “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live,” Prager writes: “Fear of God is a liberating emotion, freeing one from a disabling fear of evil, powerful people. This needs to be emphasized because many people see fear of God as onerous rather than liberating.”

What most draws people to Prager, in my view, is that he simplifies the complex. In an age where Smart People like college professors get tenure for complicating the simple, this is no small thing.

I’ve found that many commentaries on the Torah, while excellent if you’re looking for an intense, deep dive exploration of an idea, too often skip past its simplest and in some ways most profound messages. The ones that laid the groundwork for the world we live in.

The Torah stigmatizes slavery — a pre-Biblical universal norm — but does not ban it outright. Detractors of the Bible see this as a gotcha!, but miss the point: they have the luxury of being born into a culture that takes it for granted that slavery is evil only because the Torah condemned it over 3,300 years ago.

“In general, though not always, the moral precedes the legal,” Prager writes. “First you teach people what is right and wrong, then they eventually put the teaching into law.”

Readers of The Rational Bible will also notice that Prager addresses sections from the Torah that, to be honest, can make the eyes glaze over. The sacrifices, the construction of the Tabernacle, and other ritual items that are easy to dismiss as odd or even objectionable.

But, he adds, “It is essential to remember the Torah, while eternal in its values, first had to be intelligible and create a moral revolution in the late Bronze Age.”

On sacrifices, Prager, citing Sarna, writes that sacrificing Egypt’s gods is “analogous to people in totalitarian states gathering to publicly smash statues of the dictator.”

On the detailed instructions of building the tabernacle, Prager writes, citing Rabbi Saul Berman, “By listing the precise specifications for the Tabernacle in a document accessible to every person, the officials couldn’t later claim more material was required than was recorded.”

On the placing of the Ten Commandments in the ark, the holiest part of the Tabernacle, Prager observes, “It is a physical representation of a major Torah teaching: the holy protects the ethical.” A truth reflected in the well-documented deterioration of the Conservative and Reform denominations of Judaism, which, unlike Orthodox Judaism, de-emphasize Jewish ritual law.

And then there are the ideas found in The Rational Bible that are simply beautiful, and tragic. Why, Prager asks, are Moses’ sons paid scant attention to by the Torah? Far less attention than Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu?

Prager believes the Torah is commenting on the price of being the child of a great man, one of which is that, to quote Rabbi Harold Kushner, “It takes so much of a man’s [the father’s] time and energy to be a great man—great in some ways but not in all—that he has too little time left to be a father.”

The Rational Bible is a standout addition to the Bible commentary market, which, one would think, has plumbed the depths.

Prager’s exploration of the Bible’s surface shows that we have no idea how deep God’s word goes.

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