Another year, another code

This week’s edition of Time features a 2,400-word essay by Robert Wright, and it’s one of the most amusing exercises in eisegesis I’ve read in a very long time. The cover of Time promotes the essay, an excerpt from Wright’s new book The Evolution of God, as cracking a code embedded in the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The article’s subtitle suggests that, if the monotheistic Scriptures are read correctly (i.e., with Wright’s code in mind), this may even create the possibility of reconciliation and religious harmony.

The code, it turns out, is rooted in Wright’s theory of the non-zero-sum game, which he explained in greater detail in his previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Wright is so busy seeing the code everywhere that he often fails to read biblical texts on their own terms. Consider his bowdlerization of Judges 11:

[S]ometimes the Israelites were happy to live in peace with neighbors who worshipped alien gods. In the Book of Judges, an Israelite military leader proposes a live-and-let-live arrangement with the Ammonites: “Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that our god Yahweh has conquered for our benefit?”

Wright does not mention that this offer occurred as the Israelites sought to migrate through the land of the Ammonites; that the offer was rejected; and that the Israelites’ military leader, a man named Jephthah, was then so fired up for battle that he made this troubling promise to God: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Jephthah’s daughter greeted him with joy upon his return, and paid for it with her life. It is one of the most tragic stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and hardly a basis for these sentences by Wright: “You’d think the Abrahamic God would make up his mind — Can he live with other gods or not? What’s with the random mood fluctuations?”

Similarly, Wright writes this about the biblical observation that Solomon’s wives led him into idolatry:

The Bible has the logic backward. In ancient times, when a man of royal blood married a foreign woman of royal blood, it wasn’t on a romantic whim. It was part of foreign policy, a way to cement relations with another nation. And that cement was strengthened by paying respect to the nation’s gods. Solomon’s many wives didn’t lead to his many gods; his politics led to both the wives and the gods.

Solomon believed Israel could benefit — economically and otherwise — by staying on good terms with nearby nations. As game theorists say, he saw relations with other nations as non-zero-sum; the fortunes of Israel and other nations were positively correlated, so outcomes could be win-win or lose-lose. His warmth toward those religions was a way of making the win-win outcome more likely.

Wright is a bright and witty man, as is clear in the video discussion with Karl Giberson atop this post. When he refers to God, however, he is not describing the God of monotheism, as he makes clear in this afterword to his book. This is a breakthrough in chutzpah, even for Time: Promoting an agnostic reading of the three great monotheistic religions, and promising that the encoded reading holds the promise of these religions becoming their best selves.

Print Friendly

  • Deep Sea

    iesegesis? do you mean eisegesis?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for the catch, Deep Sea. I use the word only about twice a year, and I stumble over the spelling too often.

  • Jerry

    This is a breakthrough in chutzpah

    Given the levels to which chutzpah has reached in just the last few decades, that’s a very high bar.

    I was unable to find a list of the winners in the chutzpah category. Unless I missed such a list, here’s a clear unexplored journalistic opportunity: write an article about your top 10 picks. It would sell like hotcakes with almost everyone disagreeing with your list and wanting to tell you what the real top 10 should be. Twitter would explode.

  • http://weeblindmice.com max schmeling

    With all respect: To use the words “god” and “Yahweh” as though they are somehow complimentary is a grave error. Yahweh is the Creator/Possessor/Supreme Teacher of the universe. He is not a god. God is a title, not a name. It is used to describe Satan and the fallen sons and daughters of Yahweh who rebelled against Him and are now His adversaries. The word god actually means those who usurped authority, breaking ranks, rebelling against their Head.

    The title “god” was wrongly used by the King James translators as a substitute for the correct name, “Yahweh,” which was used exclusively in the oldest text 6830 times. The third Commandment forbids the hiding of Yahweh’s Name. Isaiah 52:6 states: “Therefore, My people shall know My Name…”; also 2 Chronicles 7:14 states: “If My people, who are called by My Name…”; additionally we must be baptized in “The Name of The Father,” and we are instructed to pray to “our Father,” all of which would be impossible to do without knowing and calling upon Yahweh’s hallowed Name.

    I would also note that the word translated (in the “New Testament” only) “religion” (Strongs Exhaustive Concordence Greek Dictionary No.2356 and 2346 from the root 2360 “throeo,” meaning: to clamor, i.e. (by implicaion) to frighten:-trouble. Yahweh never sanctioned any (man-made) religion. His “plan” (as defined in His 613 Laws) is always referred to as “the Way of Truth” or simply, “The Faith.”

    May Yahweh bless your understanding.

  • Dave

    Publishing an analysis of scripture that offends religious conservatives is not a failure to get religion. It’s an exercise in spiritual diversity.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Dave, I do not consider the potential offensiveness of ideas a criterion for determining their truth, and I made no reference to giving offense.

  • Dave

    Let me amend my comment: Publishing an essay that religious conservatives strongly disagree with is not a failure to get religion.

    I don’t see how you determine the truth or lack thereof in in such an essay. One agrees with it, or one has a different view. Of course, such an essay may contradict the truth claims of a religion, but that is basically another level of disagreement.

    I realize that sometimes the principals of GetReligion think their job is to assess the truth of some journalistic essay, such as the famous Newsweek item on marriage and scripture. I dissent from that view; it’s a disagreement, not a failure of the press to get religion.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Dave, GetReligion is the name of our blog. Every blog needs a name, that one is ours, and I am rather fond of it.

    That said, I try to write in a way that never boils down to something so pat as “Robert Wright does not get religion.” I do not consider my writing locked in by the name of our blog, or by William Schneider’s quote that GetReligion uses as its subtitle.

    I do argue that the story of Jephthah is not a good foundation for arguing that God has random mood fluctuations or is ambivalent about polytheism. I argue as well that such readings of Scripture are unlikely to lead to reconciliation or harmony, as suggested in Time‘s subtitle for the excerpt.

    It’s of minimal concern to me whether readers conclude from my arguments that Robert Wright does or does not get religion. I’ve offered my criticism, I welcome discussion of it, and that’s enough for me.

  • Julia

    This code-cracking isn’t new.

    Check out the movie Pi, which was came out in 1998. It’s about a math genius who is trying to crack a numberical code in the Jewish scriptures that reveals the order behind the apparent chaos in the world.

    Various groups are after him to use his knowledge – Hassidim, Kabbalists and stockbrokers, among others.

  • Dave

    Doug, you’ll have noticed that I’m a lot more liberal and (in a very limited sense) post-modern than the principals and a lot of the commentators on this board. My allegiance is due to the fact that I fully embrace the premise that the press doesn’t get religion, out of my experience as both a Humanist and, more recently, a Pagan. I’ve even expanded my definition to include Terry’s concept of a religious “ghost” or “hole.” So it’s a chronic tender spot for me, in large part because the departures from, if you will, strict construction of the term are generally in the conservative direction. I’m just glad the departures are as infrequent as they are.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    I do argue that the story of Jephthah is not a good foundation for arguing that God has random mood fluctuations or is ambivalent about polytheism.

    Oh, c’mon. Is Wright arguing that God has random mood fluctuations or that the Bible represents him as having mood fluctuations?

    I realize that this is a little witticism not to be taken literally but it obscures an important distinction which conservatives tend to fudge–between orthodox theological commitment to the existence of an omipotent, omniscient, omnibenevelolent God who doesn’t, e.g., have mood fluctuations, and the commitment to the doctrine that the Bible represents God accurately

    You can consistently hold theologically orthodox views about the existence and nature of God while holding at the same time that Biblical writers were at best stumbling and bumbling their way to an understanding of God and almost always got things wrong.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    You can consistently hold theologically orthodox views about the existence and nature of God while holding at the same time that Biblical writers were at best stumbling and bumbling their way to an understanding of God and almost always got things wrong.

    As Robert Wright makes clear in the afterword to his book (linked from my post), he makes no claim to being theologically orthodox, or to affirming the existence of God as described by monotheists.

  • danr

    The Bible has the logic backward. In ancient times, when a man of royal blood married a foreign woman of royal blood, it wasn’t on a romantic whim. It was part of foreign policy, a way to cement relations with another nation…
    Solomon believed Israel could benefit — economically and otherwise — by staying on good terms with nearby nations. As game theorists say, he saw relations with other nations as non-zero-sum

    Does Wright really think that people in Bible times (and today) weren’t well aware of this ancient geopolitical strategy? He posits it as some kind of new revelation.

    Does he address the incredible “coincidence” that Solomon was prophetically warned if he intermarried with other nations, and was drawn away to worship their gods, then the kingdom would be torn away from his immediate descendants – which historically is exactly what happened? In that “zero-sum” political game, how does he account for such a prophetically-fulfilled subtraction?

    Wright does what so many past/present Bible skeptics do: conveniently, arbitrarily choose those Bible passages, points, and principles which validate their particular worldview, while discarding those (usually spiritual, supernatural, and/or exclusive to Christ) that are contradictory to it. Seems to me one can’t reasonably play both sides of the Bible field – either it’s authoritative, or it’s not.

  • Herb B

    One of my very “liberal” friends many decades ago commented on this kind of eisegesis, that people in general usually refer to as one more individual’s (and therefore legitimate) interpretation–he said, “it sounds like a contradiction, rather than an interpretation.

    And Max, I have a D. Min. degree, a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and know my way around reference works pretty well, but I could not, for the life of me, figure out what you were trying to say. I guess YHWH has not blessed my understanding, but I’ll keep praying.

  • Pingback: The Anchoress — A First Things Blog

  • http://weeblindmice.com max schmeling

    Herb B.-
    What I was saying was that the Title God is not synonomous with Yahweh. The title “god” was applied to Lucifer and the 1/3 fallen sons and daughters of Yahweh who rebelled against Him. For verification see Psalm 82 where Yahweh states that He named them such. There are approximately sixty-six prohibitive laws that forbid any form of “god worship.” Sin is transgressing the Law (1 John 3:4). Therefore, using the name of hinder gods is a sin.” All gods hinder us in our undestanding. Exodus 23:13 forbids us to make mention of hinder gods.Without the basic understanding of and usage of Yahweh’s proper Name, all prayers are useless. Isaiah 59:2 says that our sins prevent us from being able to have any contact with our Father. There are many verses that confirm that fact. Proverbs 28:9 says that “one who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayers shall be an abomination.”

    I only make mention of these things in an attempt to show concern for others. The law obligates us to expose sin frankly or be complicit in it. May Yahweh bless your understanding.

  • Pingback: B-head on the G-head « Around The Sphere

  • http://www.michaelnoyes.com Michael Noyes

    Doug, I suppose it could be understood that the sacrifice/murder of Jephthah’s daughter, clearly one of the most heinous acts recorded in the Bible that is perpetrated upon one human being by another, actually supports Wright’s argument, because it demonstrates a clear contrast between the non-zero-sum offer of peace between neighbors and the zero-sum response when that offer is rejected … win-loose reactionary responses ultimately result in everybody loosing.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Michael, it seems to me that if one is spiritually evolved enough to see things from a nonzero perspective, one should not then become so radically zero-sum in response to someone else’s zero-sum beliefs.

    I agree that the sacrifice/murder of Jephthah’s daughter is heinous.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X