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reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+3

The Rational Bible: Exodus
God, Slavery, and Freedom
by Dennis Prager
Regnery Faith, 2018, 520 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

I've been on lockdown now for almost two months and Xena hasn't been on TV in three whole days. So I decided to read a copy of Dennis Prager's Exodus that I had lying around. For whatever reason, Prager wrote this one first, before Genesis, which is the most interesting book in the Bible (Prager is Jewish and there's no Revela­tion in Judaism), and Prager has been censored by YouTube, which means what he says is original and well worth reading.

The backstory is familiar: somebody creates humans. After a week or so they start to go bad, so he drowns them all and starts again. They go bad again, with the survivors killing each other off, so he gives them a bunch of rules through Moses—telling them, in essence, “stop doing that!”

Prager is very knowledgeable about the topic, but Exodus is far from being a dispassionate work of scholarship. It is a work of religious fundamentalism and in his commentary Prager ridicules alternative interpretations of the events.

My conception of the Old Testament God is strongly at variance with that: it seems to me that one could substitute every occurrence of Jehovah with “the immutable laws of nature” with no change in meaning. Even so, the Bible is a valuable record, even for us atheists, of how those laws were discovered and written in allegorical form to tell us what people would need to do if they wanted their culture and society to survive.

Based on how people behave these days, that's not something we can assume. And it's probably the most important thing religion can teach us today. But the Israelites did want it, and their survival throughout the millennia is evidence of the validity of those laws.

Anyway, everybody knows the story of how Moses was born in Egypt. The pharaoh orders all male babies to be killed, but Moses's relatives put him in a basket and he escapes. Then he was an adult. People grew up fast in those days.

Prager takes each line of Exodus and explains the philosophy behind it. Along the way he tells us why he believes God exists:

If there is no God, good and evil do not objectively exist because if there is no God, there is no non-material reality. Only the physical exists, and good and evil are not physical properties; they are moral properties. Therefore, if there is no God, the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are subjective opinions, not objective realities . . . The existence of a moral God is necessary for morality to objectively exist.

This is a common argument, but there are a few problems with it. One, as has often been noted, is that the definition is circular: we know God exists because there is good and evil, and good and evil are defined as whatever God wants.

Philosophers have tried for millennia to find adequate definitions of good and evil, but those terms are only meaningful in relation to a goal. If something advances your goal, it's good. If it harms it, it's evil. Therefore, we must ask: what was the goal of the writers of the Bible? It seems clear that their goal was for their tribe to survive. The Bible is saying that a tribe can only survive by not being evil: by obeying those ten commandments and following the dietary recommendations in Leviticus (I look forward to learning from Prager why they're so insistent that we should not eat owls, which Leviticus mentions several times). When they stray from these traditions they automatic­ally set their culture on a path toward extinction. The fate of the Soviet Union and some other countries would seem to bear that out.

Prager goes on to say [p.35] that only if there is a God can anything non-material exist. He gives love and the mind as examples, saying “If there is no God, the ‘mind’ is just the material brain deceiving itself into believing it exists.”

This is just too mushy for me. First of all, what does it mean for something non-material to exist? Everyone acknowledges that there are non-material things; the question is whether they must also have a corporeal presence. But mathematics exists. Abstract concepts and subjective experience exist. Only a radical materialist would claim that mind is “merely another physical part of the brain” as Prager says. Prager is making a strawman argument.

By the way, I wish to God my fellow atheists would stop saying that without God there is no objective morality. That's an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

In fact, according to philosophical skepticism, we can't really be sure that even material things really exist. But if Prager wants to beat up on Rorty [p.35], I want to get in line.

So anyway, back to Moses. Moses encounters the burning bush. Not the burping bush as I originally misheard it in Sunday School. (All that stuff the bush was saying makes a lot more sense now!) Moses wisely asks the bush its name, for it would have been tough to convince his fellow Hebrews that they're now taking orders from a shrubbery. The bush answers with something so profound it reaches down into your soul: I am what I am.

Well, it's profound when Jehovah says it. For the rest of us, maybe not so much.

Then other stuff happens, but this review is too long already. There's a lot of sermonizing in this book, and to be honest Exodus isn't particularly exciting.

But there are many interesting points. Prager says Moses crossed the Sea of Reeds, not the Red Sea. Many other scholars agree, saying Red Sea is a mistranslation. The Sea of Reeds is a lake north of the Red Sea. Bad news for Charlton Heston.

Exceptionally clearly written and nicely printed. No index.

may 05, 2020

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