Friday, April 6, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: "The Rational Bible: Exodus" by Dennis Prager

Last August, our congregation and I began studying the second book of the Torah together...the fascinating book of Exodus. I have always had a deep love for the Old Testament, and have lamented the fact that Christians by and large are ignorant of it’s content, focusing at times almost exclusively on the New Testament. This is regrettable. It’s simply impossible to understand the life and teachings of Jesus as well as the rest of the New Testament without some background in that portion of scripture that takes up three-fourths of our Christian Bible. I think everyone who has attended our study of Exodus on a regular basis has found it helpful to his or her Christian faith. At the time I am writing this (April, 2018), we just finished our twenty-sixth week in the book...and we’re only half way!

When I heard that Dennis Prager was writing a commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) starting with Exodus, my ears perked up. Mr. Prager is a talk-show host who I have been listening to for years, and a man whose views I respect. As one reviewer of his book described him:

Mr. Prager is not a “firebrand conservative” who wants to get you all excited and so that you may go out and shout others down. He is a calm, rational thinker. His mind is his weapon, his intellect is his tool, and his demeanor makes it difficult for a reasonable person to simply dismiss him, let alone dislike him.

I agree with this reviewer completely. This is why I listen to and read after Mr. Prager, as I do few others. He is becoming increasingly influential in our culture, not only through his books and radio show, but through his Prager University videos, which are watched by millions around the world every week. (If you want to get a cogent crash-course in conservative thought...which I would call common-sense thought...I would encourage you to watch any of these on YouTube. Here is a link to his latest video...”An Eye For An Eye”). I would also add that Dennis Prager is a practicing Jew.

Monday, I did something I have only done one other time...I bought a book on the day it was published. (Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to talk to him on his radio show for the first time and congratulate him on opening at #2 on Amazon!) So why would a Christian pastor buy a Jewish commentary and recommend other Christians read it? 
Here are three reasons:
  • Dennis has devoted over fifty years of his life to the study and teaching of the Torah. He speaks Hebrew as well as he speaks English (which is very well, I might add!), and has immersed himself in the Hebrew of the Bible – both its grammar and its vocabulary. As one who doesn’t have that linguistic background, I appreciate his willingness to share this skill with others like myself.
  • Exodus 18 describes the encounter of Moses in the wilderness of Sinai with his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro, who is a Midianite (pagan) priest, has a lengthy conversation with Moses, and, in the process, gives Moses advice concerning his use of his own time. Moses recognizes the wisdom of these words, and then incorporates his father-in-law’s advice, making it Jewish practice. Now, if God would take the time to include an entire chapter of Exodus about Moses’ listening to and following the advice of a pagan priest, shouldn’t I as a Christian be open to hearing advice and commentary from a Jewish man who has studied the Hebrew Bible for over half a century? I think so!
  • We are living in an age of unprecedented dialogue between Jews and Christians like none other in history. For me to participate in this God-honoring dialogue, I need to understand where my Jewish brothers and sisters are coming from. In addition, I have a great desire to share the good news of the gospel as found in the New Testament with my Jewish neighbors, as do millions of others Christians. Yet, how can I share my perspective with them if I don’t understand and respect their perspective?
I have spent some time reading this book in the last five days, and have finished the first half. I actually skipped to Mr. Prager’s commentary on chapter twenty (the chapter on the Ten Commandments...which we have currently been studying at our church) earlier in the week, as I expected there could be helpful information that I could use in my Wednesday night teaching (which there was!). I intend to continue reading the last half of the book as we progress along in our Bible study. I’m sure it will be a great resource.

So what is my take on this new commentary? And why do I recommend that you purchase and read this book?

  • This book is like no commentary I have ever read...and I have read from many of them. It is not stuffy at all. Dennis chose to write it in the first person and to include personal anecdotes where appropriate. What other commentary would quote Maimonides, Abraham Lincoln,...and Woody Allen?
  • Because of Mr. Prager’s immersion in the Biblical Hebrew (as noted above), he brings out many nuances in the text which are not apparent to English readers. He also explains Hebrew terms that are almost universally misunderstood. One example that enlightened me is the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” (first recorded in Exodus 3:8), which refers to the Hebrews’ future home, Canaan. He quotes Jewish theologian Nahum Sarna in explaining that “a land flowing with milk (which was goat’s milk)...suggests ample pasturage and the prospect of much meat, hide, and wool. And honey here refers to the thick sweet syrup produced from dates, not to the honey produced from bees.” All of these together bring out a greater appreciation and understanding of the Biblical text.
  • Dennis frequently alludes to historical (and occasionally current) events to illustrate Bible truths. This is especially true of the history of America, which he calls the most-Bible based country ever founded (outside of Israel). An example is his commentary on chapter three verse eleven, where Moses states to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” Dennis comments, “During the American Revolution, a relatively common phrase was ‘the meekness of Moses’ which described the humility many were looking for in their prospective leaders.” He goes on to quote John Adams who wrote in 1776 that the management of the United States would require “the Meekness of Moses, the Patience of Job and the Wisdom of Solomon, added to the Valor of Daniel.”
  • Throughout the commentary, Mr. Prager sprinkles in longer essays. These by themselves are worth the price of the book. The one that stands out to me the most (so far) is found in his commentary of chapter eight verse six, entitled “The God of the Torah: The Most Important Idea in World History.” In this essay, he gives fifteen reasons why the contribution of the Torah is vastly important. Some of them include…
    • The God introduced by the Torah is the first god in history to have been entirely above and beyond nature.”
    • The God introduced by the Torah brought universal morality into the world.”
    • The moral God introduced by the Torah means morality is real. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are not merely individual or societal opinions. But objectively real.”
    • The God introduced by the Torah morally judges every human being. There had never been a concept like this. And it became a major reason for Jew-hatred.” (I had never thought of this as being a reason for anti-semitism, but it must certainly be one.)
    • The God introduced by the Torah means there is ultimate meaning to existence and to each of our lives. Without this Creator, existence is random and purposeless.”
  • In addition, here are a few quotes from this book which caught my attention:
    • The central message of the Torah is “that God is good and demands we be the only belief that will enable us to make a good world.”
    • People (today) greatly value knowledge and intelligence, but not wisdom. And the lack of wisdom—-certainly in America and the rest of the West – is directly related to the decline in biblical literacy. 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.”
    • The Torah is so different – morally, theologically, and in terms of wisdom – from anything else preceding it and, for that matter, from anything written since, that a reasonable person would have to conclude either moral supermen or God was responsible for it.” (I would put the entire Bible in this category, including the New Testament.)
    • Another major reason I am convinced the Torah is not man-made is it so often depicts the people of the Book, the Jews, in a negative light.”
    • On the divinity of the Torah...“When Professor (Alan) Dershowitz (a secular Jewish scholar) differs with the Torah, he thinks the Torah is wrong and he is right. When I differ with the Torah, I think the Torah is right and I am wrong.”
    • Remembering – the good others have done, the evil others have done, and one’s moral obligations – is an indispensable aspect of a good and meaningful life.”
    • Biology is not destiny; you can be the child of an evil person and be a good person.”
    • Gratitude takes effort; resentment is effortless.” (So true!)
  • The section on the Ten Commandments is detailed and thoughtful.
    • It includes a lengthy, well-written essay on the “false gods” of our modern culture. In this section, Mr. Prager singles out a number of modern-day “false gods”, in violation of the second commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Some of these “false gods” which he writes about are “education”, “art”, “love”, “reason”, and even “religion and faith”. (I would add “sports” to this list...that’s a huge idol in our culture!)
    • One essay which I found especially enlightening is on the third commandment, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain...” In this essay , entitled “The Worst Sin Is Committing Evil In God’s Name,” Mr. Prager makes the point that the Hebrew word for “take” can be translated “carry.” He states “any person (using modern-day examples of an Islamic terrorist or clergy member who molests a child) who claims to be acting in God’s name while doing the opposite of what God wants (is) evil.” I used this example in our study on this commandment based on Dennis Prager’s excellent video on the same subject (which you can watch it here).

Because this book is written by a religious Jew who rejects the deity of Christ (albeit one who respects Christians and defends them frequently), there are many things in the text of Exodus that are obvious to me and other Christians which are not obvious to Mr. Prager and other Jewish teachers. The whole concept of redemption in Exodus, which Mr. Prager deals with as only redemption from Egypt, is sprinkled throughout the book. I believe that redemption in Exodus finds it’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This “greater meaning” of Exodus is found in it’s foreshadowing of Christ, who most notably is pre-figured as the Passover lamb (Exodus 12). Jesus, who as “the Lamb of God” who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29), was crucified on Passover as a fulfillment of the Exodus Passover story. As the Hebrews of the Exodus were to apply the blood of the lamb to the doorposts and lentil of the homes in order to escape the death of the firstborn, we are given the opportunity through faith in Christ to apply the blood of “Christ our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7) to our own hearts in order to escape “the wrath to come.” I and other Christians see many other allusions to Christ in the book of Exodus...which are of course missing from Mr. Prager’s book as well as his theology.

That being said, I believe there is great value to this work...even to believing Christians like myself. Paul in 2 Corinthians calls our New Testament understanding of God “the ministry of the Spirit”. Compared to the Old Testament understanding of God, Paul says this New Covenant is “more glorious” than the teachings of the Old Covenant as revealed in the Torah. Yet, even in this passage, Paul describes the Old Testament teachings (as were taught by observant Jews then and now) as “glorious.” In this same spirit, I would describe Dennis Prager’s commentary on Exodus (especially compared to the drivel which assaults our bookshelves each week) as a glorious work!

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