A commonplace distinction in biblical studies is that between "what it meant" and "what it means". The authors of The Bible Now, who are experts on the Old Testament (or, for Jews, the Hebrew Bible), maintain not that the distinction is false but that the issues are linked. One can concentrate on "what it means", but those claims inevitably depend on "what it meant".
Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky demonstrate that the biblical view on five leading contemporary topics - homosexuality, abortion, women, the death penalty and the Earth - is far less obvious than is often assumed. For example, the Old Testament discusses the topic of homosexuality in only a few places, is often mistaken as condemning behaviour that in fact has nothing to do with homosexuality, and says nothing about female homosexuality. The often-invoked line that "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis ii, 24) is about why males and females mate and not about homosexuality.
A line continually cited against abortion - "You shall not kill" (Exodus xx, 13) - really "refers to taking a human life with malice" and not "to human sacrifice or to mercy killing, killing in war, killing in self-defense, or killing an animal". Indeed, nowhere is abortion prohibited. The Bible values life, but abortion does not undermine that value.
The authors grant that the Bible depicts women as having an inferior position to men, but not because the Bible legislates inequality. Arguing that the Bible advocates inequality is jumping from "is" to "ought" and is thereby committing the naturalistic fallacy.
Almost the reverse is true on the issue of capital punishment. The authors list more than 25 offences, both "social" and "religious", that outright require, not merely permit, execution. Capital crimes far exceed those that today would warrant execution in most countries. For example, the ownership of a dangerous animal that kills a human demands the execution of the owner. The cursing of one's parents also incurs the death penalty. These are social crimes. Religious crimes include working on the Sabbath, taking God's name in vain and practising sorcery. At the same time, laws and cases are complicated. Cain kills Abel yet is not then killed by God, who even protects him from the hands of others.
On the issue of the Earth, the authors are at their most incensed. They castigate those who read the Bible as granting humans the authority to do with the planet as they please. For them, the Bible in fact evinces exceptional respect for the Earth. And again, seemingly uncomplicated statements prove otherwise. Even God's telling humans in the first creation story to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis i, 28) is more an explanation of the spread of humans worldwide than a commandment to reproduce.
Friedman and Dolansky write not only to refute simplistic takes on the biblical message but even more to encourage admiration for the Bible. They stress that admiration does not require belief in the Bible as revealed, a claim that most biblical books themselves never make.
But for me, the "lessons" of the Bible are no match for the lessons of philosophers. Even where the Bible prescribes behaviour, it offers scant justification for its prescriptions. By contrast, Plato roots prescriptions in formal, systematic arguments about human nature and the nature of the world. Undeniably, the Bible has spurred philosophising, but it is not itself philosophical. Still, The Bible Now is a refreshingly no-nonsense, authoritative work.
The Bible Now
By Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. Oxford University Press. 2pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780195311631. Published 22 September 2011