Is the Bible Worth Reading?

Is the Bible worth reading?

I think it is, but you can find intelligent, moral people on both sides of that question.

American novelist Mark Twain, best known for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, had a low opinion of the Bible:

“It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

On the other hand, the Bible provides:

  • Some good moral instruction, as Twain admitted.
  • Stories that pose moral dilemmas and challenge us to think about them.
  • Knowledge required to understand Western civilization, much of which is in response to the Bible. Even Islamic civilization looks to the Bible, though Muslims interpret it in their own way.

One of the Bible’s most important lessons is that moral choices aren’t always simple and obvious.

Consider Genesis 22‘s story of the binding of Isaac. Abraham thinks that God is giving him an order:

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering …”

That story demonstrates the two main reasons that our own moral choices can be agonizingly difficult.

First, we’re often not sure of the facts.

In the story, is God really speaking to Abraham? How can Abraham be sure? How sure does Abraham need to be, in order to justify following the order? Awfully darned sure, one would think.

Second, even if we’re sure of the facts, we still might not know the right thing to do.

If Abraham is sure that God is talking to him, should he obey the order? The order seems clearly wrong. As the Creator of the universe, God could zap Abraham into oblivion for disobedience, but that’s not a valid argument for following the order. Fear of punishment is not a substitute for logic.

Abraham decides to follow the order, but at the last minute, an angel comes to stop him. The best version of that scene comes not from the Bible but from Woody Allen:

“And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, ‘How could thou doest such a thing?’

And Abraham said, ‘But thou said–‘

‘Never mind what I said,’ the Lord spake. ‘Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?’

And Abraham grew ashamed. ‘Er — not really — no.’

‘I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately run out to do it.'”

Some scholars think that the story marks the Bible’s rejection of human sacrifice, which was common in the Ancient Near East. Other scholars think it’s an intentional “Kobayashi Maru” problem to make us examine our own character.

But whatever it is, it shows how the Bible can shake loose our prejudices and make us think more deeply. People who don’t read the Bible don’t get those benefits from it.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is the Bible Worth Reading?

  1. J P says:

    A good question. Those raised in a Jewish or Christian tradition certainly should (though there are undoubtedly many who have not). Doing so surely helps in understanding those faiths even if one does not subscribe to either.

    And as you note it is a sort of foundational text for western civilization. Unfortunately it seems that fewer and fewer see western civilization (let alone Judaism or Christianity) as something worth understanding.


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