Can the Book of Exodus Be Rationalized (Away)?

The Torah—the first five books of the Bible—has a public relations problem. Radio host and Torah teacher Dennis Prager aims to fix it. Does he succeed?

His commentary The Rational Bible: Exodus: God, Slavery, and Freedom is the first in the series on the Torah.

This review is extra-long because the topic is so crucial.

1. Unfortunate series title

Let’s start with the series title: “the Rational Bible.” It will offend millions of Christians because it smacks of rationalism, which is atheistic and anti-miraculous. Devout readers should not be scared off, however, for the commentary assumes that miracles happened (e.g. pp. 117-18 and 181-82). And God certainly exists!

A (slightly) better series title would have been: the Reasonable Bible (but see pp. 234-36 and 248). Even better: the Practical Bible. The latter title alone would have drawn countless Christian readers to pick it up and at least thumb through it. His description of his commentary on the back cover which highlights the Torah’s  practicality is definitely in the right direction, but the words “Rational Bible” swallows it up. Too bad.

Also, using the word “Bible” when it is just about the Torah is overblown. But how would this look? The Rational Torah. A niche market the publisher would not allow because of limited book sales.

2. Audience

It is written for the general audience, but that is not to say it is shallow (just in some places). However, if a Christian wishes to go deeper, any number of the thicker and fuller and richer (and drier) Christian commentaries would serve the purpose.

3. His hypothesis

In a bold hypothesis or thesis, Mr. Prager writes in the Introduction: “The Torah, the greatest repository of goodness and wisdom in human history, is the most important book every written” (p. xvii). He says it is a source of many New Covenant (my words) Christian ideas, and that’s true. But the New Covenant Scriptures also say explicitly to move past the old laws and not to keep it to please God (e.g. 2 Cor 3:3 and Rom. 3:21-31).

Further, does he rationalize (away) Exodus too many times just to confirm his hypothesis? That is, does he engage in the informal fallacy of protecting the hypothesis (at any cost)?

Let’s see.

4. General tone

It is good to see Mr. Prager’s enthusiasm for the Torah; it makes one smile. It led to his bold hypothesis, surely. From his enthusiasm he indeed offers profound insights and a strong defense of Exodus and particularly the sticky verses. But then he becomes needlessly polemical (see no. 8 and Martin Luther).

5. Insightful

His essay on the importance of the Sabbath, for example, is superb (pp. 247-49), though as we shall see below (no. 8), it is too little, too late.

And his explanation of the “jealous” God should make (reasonable) critics think twice before they mock (pp. 241-42).

Another example of his enthusiasm leading to insight is his emphasis that the founders of America were influenced by the Torah (e.g. pp. 135, 182, and 248), though how much influence can be debated (see below at no. 7).

Christian holiness preachers will be grateful for Mr. Prager’s explanation of the word holy (pp. 211-13).

His answer to the question on whether God deprived Pharaoh of free will is sure to intrigue both Arminians (believers in free will) and Calvinists, because God foresaw Pharaoh’s heart, which would not relent and therefore deserved to be punished, so God “strengthened” it and yet maintained the king’s free will (pp. 56-57 and 112-13).

His sections on slavery are excellent and can be used by Christian apologists for Scripture when critics sneer at the topic (pp. 279-89).

6. Protecting the hypothesis

The one big difficulty with the Torah is its punishments for seemingly trivial “crimes.” Mr. Prager’s rationalization is stated in this way: “The Torah frequently specifies punishments for the sake of indicating the severity of the sin” (p. 141). One example is the death penalty for cursing one’s parents (pp. 291-92). His rationalization is that we don’t know that the death penalty for this “crime” was carried out, so it must not have been done (p. 292). Of course ancient records crumbled into dust over the centuries, so the record of such a punishment might have been lost.

In the same vein, Exodus prescribes the death penalty for witchcraft, bestiality, and sacrificing to other gods (pp. 320-22). Mr. Prager states that the Torah bans behavior, not thought. Apparently he imagines people can follow their deep beliefs only in their heads and not live them out. Maybe some can. However, practices typically flow out of the heart. So this is a distraction from the fact that belief very often leads to behavior.

As proof, in the Mishnah, Torah-following judges carried out the death penalty for various religious “crimes.”

“Did not Simeon ben Shetah hang women in Ashkelon? They answered: He hanged eighty women.” (Sanhedrin 6.4)

The context of that mass hanging seems to be idolatry or witchcraft in an apostate town (cf. Deut. 13:12-18).

See Sanhedrin 6.1 to 9.6 for other such cases—it makes for very sad reading, for clearly the death penalty was actually carried out as prescribed and commanded by the Torah. It is nearly impossible to believe that from the time of Moses to the Mishnah (and beyond) never was the death penalty implemented for religious “crimes.”

It may be true that there is no case of a Jew being stoned to death for violating the Sabbath, except in Nu. 15:32-36. Again, just because the records are silent does not mean it did not happen. However, since arguing from silence is tricky, let’s stipulate it did not happen after the one case in Numbers. The reasons are obvious: it is a punishment that does not fit the “crime” (and rational / reasonable people sense it); and a countless number of Jews would have been stoned to death throughout Jewish history—even (or especially!) today.

Next, Mr. Prager rightly says that Medieval Christian authorities should never have done the Inquisition. True. Very bad. However, he apparently does not realize that the inquisitors got the practice by reading the Torah or “divine law” (as they called it), which are written out on Prager’s pp. 290-92. The inquisitors (unjustly) believed that being Jewish and practicing Judaism (combined) was heretical (if Jews kept their beliefs only in their heads, then how is that Judaism, and how could the inquisitors detect them?). Inquisitors (unjustly) burned the Albigensians and even their entire towns in southern France for heretical beliefs and practices (combined). In the latter case, the inquisitors were following the Torah (admittedly outside Exodus), which says in Deut. 13:12-18 to burn and destroy apostate towns after a thorough investigation–that is, an inquisition.

7. Two civilizations and a fraction of one implemented some of the Torah

We can carry out an experiment to see how a civilization fared when it implemented some of the Torah. The unpleasant facts in the previous section bring us here.

The first civilization is Medieval Christendom. Spiritual and temporal authorities looked through the Torah (“divine law”) and implemented all sorts of harsh physical punishments for crimes or sins, like homosexuality or heresy. True, the Torah never says to draw and quarter a corpse (or still-living person) or engage in open torture before executions. However, “witches,” for example, died in their thousands. Too much religious law. Theocracy.

The second civilization is Islam. There are several traditions about Muhammad asking the Jews of Medina, who thrived there, about stoning adulterers to death. A Jew covered up the Torah verse with his hand (Jews are often depicted as sneaky and devious in Islamic sources). But Muhammad made him take his hand away. Lo! Behold! There was the verse! To this day Islam carries out physical punishments for “crimes,” like flogging for fornication and stoning adulterers (almost always adulteresses) to death. Way too much religious law (shariah). Theocracy.

The fraction of a civilization is the seventeenth-century founding of America. The earliest colonists imposed harsh punishments on religious sins and crimes, as the colonists followed the Torah (though mercifully they were more lenient than the Torah in some cases). They fined people for not keeping the Sabbath and attending church. But they were not lenient when they executed about two dozen “witches.” (Even John Calvin burned a heretic named Michael Servetus in theocratic Geneva). Thankfully the more intellectual American founders of the eighteenth century gradually purged out those harsh punishments (and the judges soon after the Salem witch trials apologized). Too much religious law. The beginnings of a theocracy.

So how deep was the Torah’s influence on America, apart from those punishments?

Just because a clause in Lev. 25:10 is written on the Liberty Bell or the image of the children leaving Egypt appealed to some of the founders does not mean or imply that the Protestant founders forged the country in the name of Judaism or the Torah (Mr. Prager’s enthusiasm again). They were not anti-Semitic (as far as I know), but they built this nation on a religion they knew so well: Christianity, and a streamlined version at that (Protestantism). They read the Torah and the entire Old Testament through the filter of the Christian faith (as all Christians do–or should do–today). As more intellectual Protestants, the constitutional founders instinctively ran away from religious law. It smacked too much of a theocracy.

Hypothetically, if the Torah were applied as written, would it better the world? Not in many areas, for there would be too many harsh punishments, too many animals dying to atone for sins, and religious law would be piled on top of religious law with the threat of death hanging over the noncompliant. This contradicts Mr. Prager’s claim that if the Torah were properly understood (rationalized or explained away?), the world would be an “infinitely kinder and more just place” (p. xvi), note the modifier “infinitely.”

However, the Torah treats sexual misconduct as a crime punishable by death. The New Covenant Scriptures treat it as a sin forgivable by love and grace and restoration (Gal. 6:1-2). Therefore, if the New Covenant Scriptures were followed closely around the globe, then and only then would the world be a better place.

Bottom line here: applying some principles of the Torah might be helpful to modern society, but not even close to a majority of its religious laws would.

In other words, moral law ≠ religious law. Various religions can teach different rituals, but moral law exists everywhere for reasonable people with a conscience, even before the Torah existed or Moses lived (cf. Rom 1:18-32).

8. The New Covenant Scriptures

Over the centuries Christian Bible interpreters have seen some wisdom and goodness in the Torah, but they did not categorize it as “the greatest repository” of those two virtues.

Maybe in that light, Mr. Prager surprisingly takes his gloves off. His claim that Martin Luther’s view on faith over works (but not ignoring works) is “extreme” is particularly unhelpful and misguided (pp. 236-38). But here is Luther boiled down on good works: “God does not need my good works. My neighbor does.” In other words, stop doing good works to save yourself before a thrice-holy God; your works can’t achieve it. Rather, receive salvation by grace through faith, first. Then channel your good works towards humans here on earth. That is one of the biggest purposes of saving grace and faith in the first place! It is difficult to see how that is “extreme.”

And no, Luther’s emphasis on saving grace through faith for salvation over working for one’s salvation did not lead to a harsh and wrongheaded document about the Jews late in his life.

See my A Few Observations on Martin Luther and my posts Law v. Grace and Law v. Gospel for fuller explanations of Lutheranism.

And Mr. Prager’s analysis of good works and faith in the Epistle of James is short and shallow.

See my post Paul and James on faith and works.

To sum up this section so far, I was surprised and disappointed to see the section on Luther in Mr. Prager’s commentary on Exodus. So needlessly polemical and so badly misinformed.

Next, Paul in Romans and Galatians and the author of Hebrews say that the Torah Covenant is obsolete (cf. Heb. 8:1-13) (an exception for many Christians is its moral law, but even here the New Covenant Scriptures are filled with it, without referencing the Torah).

Paul even says that the “law brings wrath” (Rom 4:15). Any reading, deep or shallow, of the Torah can easily lead to that accurate impression.

As for the Sabbath, with apologies to Seventh Day Adventists, the New Covenant Scriptures free people from observing it out of obedience to command and fear of punishment:

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28).

In other words, don’t be enslaved to the Sabbath; follow Jesus to permanent, daily rest (Matt 11:28-30).

Next, Paul liberates the conscience by saying one man holds a day sacred or special, while another does not:

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. (Rom. 14:5-6)

Now this is true freedom that cannot be found in the Old Law that commands Sabbath-keeping and the death penalty for breaking it.

Further, Mr. Prager embarks on a special concern. He writes: “To be a ‘God of Love,’ God must also be a ‘God of War’” (p. 172). However, the connection between war and love in Ex. 15:3 is nonexistent. Nowhere does the overthrow of the Egyptians in the Red Sea mention the New Testament teaching that God is Love (1 John 4:8 and 4:16).

He talks about this on his radio show and refutes (apparently) untrained callers who don’t know how to explain it to him. So here is a surface explanation. Before God made the heavens and the earth in the beginning, God did not have to apply his justice to the point of war. The attribute of justice was applied only occasionally and situationally after humans were created and lost their way. Even still, God still loves humanity because he sees them as pitiable. And after God wraps up this fallen universe and judges the unjust, as the Christians Scriptures affirm, God will no longer need to apply his justice attribute as a warrior and judge.

Therefore, the essence of God in eternity past before creation and in eternity future in a new creation is love. God was and is and always shall be love.

So maybe the Torah is a limited, partial and incomplete revelation, after all, if it misses this basic doctrine. (But even the Torah speaks of God’s love and grace. See my God’s Love and Grace in the Torah).

See my post God Is Love for a deeper explanation.

9. Conclusion

So does Mr. Prager “protect the hypothesis” at any cost? In most places, no. Only in some places, particularly his rationalizing (away) the Torah’s punishments.

Still, his commentary will help many people. Christian apologists of the Bible can make use of it, particularly the sections on slavery.

He points out that the Torah improved on religious laws in the Ancient Near East. True. However, the Torah does not go far enough for a modern society that may come under the direct or indirect good influence of the New Covenant Scriptures.

Did he fix the public relations problem? Only partially. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, despite Mr. Prager’s noblest and best efforts, that the Torah prescribes real-world and extra-harsh punishments and has too many religious laws in a theocracy to be applicable today. But the legal sections do offer a few gold nuggets here and there. Of course the stories in the Torah have cheered and blessed readers since they became known.

Final thought:

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai right after the Ten Commandments were delivered (many believe this was during Pentecost), 3000 people were put to death.(Ex. 32:28).

In contrast, when the believers were filled with the Spirit on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, at the birth of the church during Pentecost, 3000 people were saved (Acts 2:41).

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)


How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

The Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with Humanity’s Big Failure

Slavery and Freedom in the Bible

How to Forgive Adultery

God’s Love and Grace in the Torah

God’s Love and Grace in the History Books

God’s Love and Grace in Job, Psalms and Proverbs

God’s Love and Grace in the Prophets

God’s Love and Grace in the Gospels and Acts

God’s Love and Grace in Paul’s Epistles

God’s Love and Grace in Hebrews, General Letters and Revelation

Grace to You

Grace Is a Verb

God Is Love

Do Christians Have to ‘Keep’ the Ten Commandments?

The Wrath of God in the Old Testament: “the Law Brings Wrath”;

The Wrath of God in the New Testament: Never against His New Covenant Community;

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