I was not expecting a miracle on Easter Monday. Certainly not in the fluky world of publishing! If you’d told me that a Bible commentary written by a radio talk show host would soar to the top of the charts, I’d have thought it was a post-April Fools’ Day shaggy dog story.
No one ‘reads’ a commentary. By definition, commentaries are reference books. I have spent hours referring to thousands of commentaries in sepulchral libraries and my shelves are stuffed with commentaries on every book of the Bible, but then I’m a biblical scholar who gets his kicks from moth-eaten manuscripts and fragmented papyri.
So when I learned that Dennis Prager’s commentary The Rational Bible: Exodus – God, Slavery, and Freedom had debuted at second place in Amazon’s chart on Easter Monday, I saw it as a milestone in publishing history.
Prager is one of America’s most popular radio talk show hosts. He is not a stuffy biblical scholar who lives in the world of footnotes. He’s written on hot topics such as happiness, anti-Semitism and America, and his books have been extremely popular. So why has this avuncular figure with a voice like velvet and wisdom like the proverbial owl chosen to write a book on the Bible – even knowing this could be publishing suicide?
Prager’s talk shows have frequently explored the problem of evil. He berates the Left for not fighting real evil like radical Islam but made-up evils such as carbon emissions. Conversely, his goal is to promote goodness. ‘At the age of sixteen, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to devote my life “to influencing people to the good”. That mission has animated my life. In a nutshell, I love goodness and hate evil. My favourite verse in the Bible is “Those of you who love God – hate evil” (Psalms 97:10),’ he writes in his introduction to The Rational Bible.
Prager believes the central message of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, is ethical monotheism. The world will be an infinitely kinder and more just place if people properly understand the Torah (the first five books) and attempt to live by its values, he argues.
According to Prager, the prevailing moral confusion in the West is directly related to the decline in biblical literacy. After all, it was the Torah that gave birth to the foundations for Western morality and Western civilisation. The Torah also gave birth to Christianity. Hence, it is the most important work ever written.
After teaching the Torah verse by verse to people of all faiths and none at the American Jewish University for 18 years, Prager is persuaded that ‘the Torah either has something to say to everyone or it has nothing to say to Jews. The idea that the Torah is only for Jews is as absurd as the idea that Shakespeare is only for the English or Beethoven is only for Germans.’
Christians certainly cannot understand Jesus without a grasp of the Torah since Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew who asserted he came not to change ‘a jot or a tittle’ of it.
Prager then makes a monumental leap by contending that he has had non-religious readers most in mind when writing his commentary. This is why calls his book The Rational Bible. It is his central thesis that dominates the entire scope of his argument.
‘First, my approach to understanding and explaining the Torah is reason-based,’ Prager writes. ‘I never ask the reader to accept anything I write on faith alone.’ But he maintains there is ‘a faith component to everyone’s life, including atheists’ lives. Any atheist who believes good and evil really exist, or life has a purpose beyond one he or she has made up, or that free will exists, or, for that matter, that science alone will explain how the universe came about, or how life arose from non-life, or how intelligence arose from non-intelligence, has suspended reason in favour of faith.’
Prager plans to distil his 18 years of lectures into a commentary on each of the five books of Moses. So why begin with Exodus, the second book of the Bible? Why not begin at the beginning with Genesis? Exodus, not Genesis, contains the Ten Commandments, ‘the most important moral code in world history, and the central moral code of the Torah. If people lived by those ten laws alone, the world would be almost devoid of all man-made suffering,’ Prager points out.
Moreover, Exodus offers the greatest liberation narrative in history. The Exodus story is paradigmatic for the founding of the US and for many other liberation movements in world history. Even atheists who reject a historical Exodus or the Ten Commandments would have to acknowledge that the Western world has been largely shaped by the belief that these events did occur. The Exodus and the Decalogue are seminal to our understanding of liberty and morality. In the last week, The Conservative Woman has been serialising Prager University’s short videos on each of the Ten Commandments, some of which YouTube has restricted because they were deemed ‘inappropriate for younger audiences’.
So why gift-wrap these gems in the guise of a verse-by-verse commentary? Prager’s contribution is spectacularly unique in the genre of a Bible commentary. No other commentator claims to reach such a diverse readership. But no other commentator sprinkles his commentary with so much gold dust as does Prager.
Questions that pop into a rational mind as well as questions that no professional biblical scholar or preacher thinks of asking or answering are raised and answered every few pages in the form of short excurses. Why didn’t God give the Ten Commandments to the first human beings? If God intervened to stop the suffering of the Jews in Egypt, why didn’t he intervene to stop the Holocaust? Did God deprive Pharaoh of free will? Was animal sacrifice in the Torah immoral?
Christian readers will find themselves fascinated by essays on laws that often leave them bemused. For example, why is there an obscure law commanding the Israelites not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk?
Having lectured extensively on aesthetics in worship, and keeping in mind Welsh poet R S Thomas’s description of Protestantism as ‘the adroit castrator of art’, I was thrilled to discover Prager’s emphasis on beauty in the building of the Tabernacle, arguing that artists should ideally see themselves as working in the shadow of God.
But more than anything, Prager’s Rational Bible lives up to its name in its appeal to rationalists and its rejection of the irrational. Prager distinguishes between ‘non-rational’ and ‘anti-rational’. Love and art are non-rational but the worship of a molten calf is anti-rational. So what does he say to atheists who argue that worship of any deity is anti-rational?
‘On the contrary, what is anti-rational is the belief the universe came about by itself, intelligence was not created by intelligence, and life sprang from non-life, even though we have not the slightest evidence that it did,’ he replies.
I never imagined I would sit down with pipe and whisky to ‘read’ a commentary until last week when I received The Rational Bible in the post.