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When a Lie Is Not a Sin: The Hebrew Bible's Framework for Deciding

When a Lie Is Not a Sin: The Hebrew Bible's Framework for Deciding

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When a Lie Is Not a Sin: The Hebrew Bible's Framework for Deciding

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May 2, 2016


The difference between truth and falsehood is often clear and simple. But when life gets complicated, the Hebrew Bible can help.

The Hebrew Bible is true and wants us to tell the truth, even as biblical characters behave in less than truthful ways. What's more, where some of the lies people tell in the Hebrew Bible stories are punished, others are ignored and still others are rewarded. The Hebrew Bible’s mixed-message of "Do as I say, not as they do" shows that lies―little and big, whether told to protect or advance oneself or when intended to preserve the peace―often occur under involved circumstances and demand careful consideration. By viewing an array of situations in light of the Hebrew Bible―from the routine but delicate to the once-in-a-lifetime dilemma―this book will make a difference in how you think and live.

This candid look at religion and truthfulness is ideal for anyone interested in exploring the religious basis for personal decision making, conscience and morality, including Jews of all denominations personally or in Torah study groups, Christians and social justice activists.
May 2, 2016

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When a Lie Is Not a Sin - Dennis S. Ross



The Hebrew Bible Is True

In a scene Moses never imagined, a California pastor’s tweet, Costco has Bibles for sale under the genre of FICTION, ignited a national Twitterstorm of controversy. ¹ The embarrassed Costco retail management blamed a distributor for a labeling error and then said, We take responsibility and should have caught the mistake. We are correcting this with them for future distribution. In addition, we are immediately relabeling all the mislabeled Bibles. We greatly apologize for this error. The words of remorse satisfied some but only stoked the rage of others who believed that a fiction label is precisely what the Bible deserves.

I fail to see the problem, said one social media critic. Costco got it right, by calling the Bible fiction.

Costco should have kept the label, someone else noted. And stuck it next to a book about unicorns and leprechauns.

Another chimed in, People who work in bookstores have to constantly deal with customers who think it’s hilarious to move Bibles to the ‘Fiction’ section.

There were similar verbal squalls at our family gatherings whenever Uncle Lou, of blessed memory, unapologetically called the Bible fiction, too. Uncle Lou swore that he had no need for God, the Hebrew Bible, or Jewish traditions. He never came to Passover seders or bar or bat mitzvahs. As for the Hebrew Bible? It’s full of lies. I don’t believe it. I can only imagine the thunderbolt he would have thrown into the Costco social media tempest.

Like Lou, many people are convinced that the Bible is fiction. As for moral truth, You don’t need the Bible to know that it’s wrong to murder or steal, they say. Figure it out on your own. The issue of biblical truthfulness enters many more corners of popular life. In contrast to Uncle Lou, George and Ira Gershwin artfully raised the issue in their musical classic Porgy and Bess with The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so. But I sure was surprised when this question wormed its way into the 2008 Republican presidential debate.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper moderated a first, a presidential debate featuring ordinary Americans questioning candidates via YouTube.² We heard and saw one questioner introduce himself as follows:

I’m Joseph. I’m from Dallas, Texas. And how you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? (He holds up a Bible.) And I mean specifically this book that I’m holding in my hand. Do you believe this book?

Here is some of what the candidates said:

Mayor Rudy Giuliani: I believe it, but I don’t believe it necessarily literally true in every single respect. I think there are parts of the Bible that are interpretive. It does define, to a very large extent, my faith.

Governor Mitt Romney: I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely.… It’s a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world.

Governor Mike Huckabee: Sure, I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It’s the word of revelation to us from God himself.… I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says, Go and pluck out your eye—well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical. But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation: Love your neighbor as yourself. … Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I’m not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated.… There are parts of it I don’t fully comprehend and understand, but I’m not supposed to, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it.

I sure appreciated the responses and consensus. The Bible is true— literally in some places, poetically in others. I also respected the way they said the Bible includes things we don’t understand, at least not yet, bringing me to think of stories about talking animals, such as the serpent of Eden or Balaam’s ass, the kind of stories that rankled Uncle Lou.

The reality is that no presidential candidate—Democrat or Republican, not even the pastor among them—could provide a fullhearted consideration of biblical truth in the assigned ninety seconds. But the bigger issue is, really, what difference does it make whether a president believes the Bible’s every word or not? Article 6 of the United States Constitution says that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. That is to say, you don’t need to be of a particular faith—or any faith—to hold office; there’s no religious litmus test. So, it’s hard to figure out what Joseph from Dallas had in mind when he said, How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know. Given the wording of the Constitution, a candidate’s religion doesn’t tell us a thing—not at all— and it’s hard to figure out why the debate’s screeners allowed this question through. What’s more, this was a presidential debate, not a church, synagogue, or mosque search committee interview. We were electing a president, not a pastor!

Which Bible?

But I digress. Let’s get back to the topic by saying that I believe that the Hebrew Bible is entirely true; there’s truth in each and every word. But before we go any further, let’s consider this: Which Bible are we discussing? Governor Romney’s Bible is not Mayor Giuliani’s, nor is Governor Huckabee’s Bible the same as mine. One Bible includes the New Testament and another doesn’t. The Qur’an is holy to some, but not to others. So, when we talk about the Bible’s truth, we have to ask, Which Bible do you mean?

This book is about the Hebrew Bible, particularly the first part of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Five Books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—that is to say, the first of the Hebrew Bible’s three sections. The second section, the Prophets, includes books like Joshua, Kings, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The third section, the Writings, has Proverbs, Jonah, Esther, Job, and more. That’s the Hebrew Bible. Now let’s focus on the Torah.

The word Torah in the broadest sense means many different things beyond the Five Books of Moses. The Torah refers to the scroll in the ark, as well as the book we use in Torah study class, the sum total of Jewish thinking and writing, and the Jewish way of life. This book draws from all of those definitions of Torah, whether bound in print, rolled on parchment, or lived in life. It takes the body of Jewish literature, Jewish history, and how Jews act today to create a framework for Jewish living.

The Hebrew Bible began as spoken Hebrew that was eventually written down in a scroll. Most people read the Hebrew Bible in translation, in their own language—English, or whatever that reader’s language happens to be—and, as with any translation, something is guaranteed to get lost going from one language into the other. First of all, the Hebrew Bible’s Hebrew is at times unclear, so even the best translation falls short. Beyond that, each translator brings a personal bias. Some of these biases don’t amount to much; other disagreements will flare up when an entire religious outlook rests on just a few words.

For instance, many assume the Hebrew Bible insists that sex came on the scene only after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. That’s to say that there was no sex before the fall. But some of the most respected rabbinic commentators, Rashi and others, read the Bible’s Hebrew differently. They conclude that Adam and Eve conceived and gave birth to their first child, Cain, before eating the fruit. The first couple had sex, right there in Eden. We’ll look at this issue more deeply, later on. For now, let’s note that an important religious difference rests on this difference in translation and interpretation. Any conversation about the Hebrew Bible’s truth must acknowledge that each translator has his or her own approach to the original text. This book contains my own Hebrew-to-English translations of the Hebrew Bible and the writings of the rabbis, and as you might expect, I have my point of view, too. Speaking of the rabbis, let’s turn to them right

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