Monday, August 20, 2012

When the Bible is a Refuge for Scoundrels

Now that Rep. Paul Ryan is the vice-presidential candidate in the upcoming election, this follow-up to my last posting is all the more timely.  The background to all of this is an article that Prof. Dan Maguire wrote, entitled "When Religion is a Refuge for Scoundrels", in which he criticized Rep. Paul Ryan's recent federal government budget proposals.  The professor cloaked himself in the mantle of Catholicism to go after Ryan, even though he himself takes numerous positions contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church.  I heard Maguire on Wisconsin Public Radio and it is this interview that really sparked my interest.

This is not intended to be a defense of Paul Ryan's policies.  Rather, it is meant to highlight the intellectual bankruptcy of Maguire's criticism of Ryan.

Quite rightly, Maguire was challenged early in the WPR program to explain how, on Catholic grounds, it's primarily the government's responsibility to care for the poor. As one caller said, "The Church is the one to respond, not government."  This was a theme that was to be repeated several times during the interview.  It would certainly seem that the professor had heard this challenge before, since he seemed to have an answer at ready.  And I presume that, since he would seem to have thought about it before, this was the best answer he could give—let's presume that he put his best foot forward.  Here was Maguire's response to this first challenge:

What I hear there is the voice of Tom Paine, one of the early pamphleteers of America, who really gave voice to what I would call the mainstream of American thinking. And what Tom Pain said, Government is "a necessary evil".   That's quintessentially right wing Americana.

You want a Bible definition of justice?  Here's what it would be, justice, uh, the government rather—government is the prime caretaker of the common good, with a particular concern to the poor.  Now that's a biblical definition.  When the Bible says drape the king, drape government with tsedâqâhtsedâqâh was the Jewish concept of justice and it has built right into it the notion of mercy of the poor.

A "biblical definition" eh?  Interesting choice of words.  We're going to unpack that below, but let's give Professor Maguire one more chance to state his case.  Further on in the interview another listener posed a similar challenge:

Your guest has grossly misused the biblical text.  Yes, the Gospel does compel us to take care of our neighbor.  However, to take this as absolutely applying to the government goes well beyond the text" . . .

And here's Professor Maguire's response:

Now as I say the Bible, when it talks of government, it talks of the kind of government they had.  And the government it talks of in the context is the king, so the king or the one in charge of society, and they say that you must drape the king with the virtue of tsedâqâh.  And this is the biblical concept, the beautiful Jewish word still very prominent in Jewish spirituality and morality today.  And it has built into's a Hebrew word that comes rooted in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke.  And the Aramaic language tsidqâh meant "mercy on the poor"  So the whole preoccupation as I say runs like a grand motif all through Bible—the orphans, the windows, the immigrant, those that lack food.  They told you that when you harvest your crops don't take everything home with you, don't harvest the entire crop leave it for home, for the poor, the orphan, for the widow.  The Bible demands redistribution, redistribution of wealth so that greed does not suffocate the base and then destroy the entire economy.
So, now that the professor has had a chance to lay out his case, let's see how it holds up to a little scrutiny.

Where the heck is this Bible verse?

Interestingly, as soon as one starts to look into his claims the very first obstacle is trying to figure out which biblical verse he's quoting.  He never tells us.  I searched first in English for "drape" and "king" but no English translation that I could find had any such verbiage.  Next I searched for verses where the Hebrew word tsedâqâh occurred with "king".  I had better luck—there are several verses with these two words together and of those it would appear that the professor is referring to Psalm 72:1:

Give (nâthan) the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness (tsedâqâh) to the royal son!

So, presuming that this is the verse (the sole verse, ahem) to which Professor Maguire refers, it's clear enough that he has misquoted it.  It doesn't say to "drape" the king with anything—the word nâthan doesn't mean "drape", it means "give" or "bestow".  And what's more, in this verse tsedâqâh is given not to the king, but to the "royal son".  Small quibbles, perhaps, but if he's going to pontificate on the "biblical definition" of justice as part of a very public attack on a prominent Catholic lawmaker, the least we might expect from the professor is that he accurately cite his sources.  Oh, whoops, I mean source—he only miscited one source, one lone Bible verse.

 So, does Professor Maguire really advocate a divinely appointed theocracy?

The next thing that strikes me is how even this lone verse is wrenched out of context.  Professor Maguire insists that Psa 72:1 provides us with the "biblical definition" of justice (to the poor).  But how, exactly, has he managed to take a prayer for special divine guidance of the divinely appointed king over a divinely chosen people in a particular time in history and turn it into an overarching principle that can be applied to any secular government, of any form, in any time, in any place?

And how would he handle the remainder of that psalm, with its appeal that this same king, "have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! . . . May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!"?  Does Professor Maguire advocate the establishment of a world-embracing theocracy?  And given his strong pacifist leanings, did Professor Maguire just decide to ignore the prayer in verse 9: "May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust!"?

Does Professor Maguire really have some principle by which one isolated portion of this psalm becomes universal and binding, while other portions just a few sentences away are cast aside as time-bound and anachronistic?

What the heck does "Hebrew word rooted in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke" mean?

Further evidence that Professor Maguire is more or less just making up this "case" out of thin air comes from his assertion that the word tsedâqâh is "a Hebrew word that comes rooted in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke".  Neither the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, nor Holladay's Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (based on the Koehler-Baumgartner Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros) say anything of an Aramaic origin of tsedâqâh.  But I suppose for the uninformed it sounds impressive to try and connect this with "the language that Jesus spoke".

Does tsedâqâh mean what Professor Maguire says it means?

Apart from its alleged rootedness in the Aramaic, Dr. Maguire makes some pretty definitive and sweeping claims for the Hebrew word tsedâqâh.  He says that it "was the Jewish concept of justice and it has built right into it the notion of mercy of the poor" and that it means "mercy on the poor".  So is this true?  Nope.

Tsedâqâh, in biblical Hebrew, means "righteousness" or "justice".  None of the Hebrew lexica that I accessed offered Professor Maguire's definition as a specific meaning for the word in biblical Hebrew.  Indeed, if one looks up all 157 of the instances of  tsedâqâh in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament there does not seem to be even one instance in which it means "mercy on the poor", which is precisely why that meaning is not reflected in the various Hebrew lexica.

It is true that in rabbinic Hebrew the word came to mean primarily "charity" or mercy on the poor.  In fact, the box in the synagogue used to receive alms for the poor is called the tzedakah box.

But it did not mean this when the Hebrew Bible was penned.  What Dr. Maguire has done is deploy what biblical scholar D. A. Carson has called a "semantic anachronism".  As Carson defines it, "This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature."  Carson gives a very common example of this exegetical fallacy:

Our word dynamite is etymologically derived from [dunamis] (power, or even miracle).  I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this: 'I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes"—often with a knowing tilt of the head as if something profound or even esoteric has been uttered.  This is not just the old root fallacy revisited.  It is worse: it is an appeal to a kind of reverse etymology, the root fallacy compounded by anachronism.  Did St. Paul think of dynamite when he penned this word?  And in any case, even to mention dynamite as a kind of analogy is singularly inappropriate.  Dynamite blows things up, tears things down, rips out rock, gouges holes, destroys things.  The power of God concerning which Paul speaks he often identifies with the power that raised Jesus from the dead (e.g., Eph. 1:18 - 20); and as it operates in us, its goal is [eis soterian] ("unto salvation," Rom. 1:16, KJV), aiming for the wholeness and perfection implicit in the consummation of our salvation.  Quite apart from the semantic anachronism, therefore, dynamite appears inadequate as a means of raising Jesus from the dead or as a means of conforming us to the likeness of Christ. (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 32f.)

 Maguire has done exactly the same thing with the Hebrew tsedâqâh, reading a later meaning of the word back into the Hebrew Scriptures.  And what's more, if one reads even about the more modern usage of the word, one finds that the Jewish understanding still focused on personal acts of charity and almsgiving and did not assume that government intervention is the sine qua non of tsedâqâh.  The emphasis in rabbinic literature is on personal charity and the redemptive nature of such personal giving for both giver and receiver, not on government handouts.

Does the Bible really  "demand" redistribution?

But Maguire goes well beyond loading up a single Hebrew word to support his pet ideas.  He loads up the whole Bible to try and support them:

So the whole preoccupation as I say runs like a grand motif all through Bible—the orphans, the windows, the immigrant, those that lack food.  They told you that when you harvest your crops don't take everything home with you, don't harvest the entire crop leave it for home, for the poor, the orphan, for the widow.  The Bible demands redistribution, redistribution of wealth so that greed does not suffocate the base and then destroy the entire economy.

And elsewhere he states:

The Bible is precisely concerned with money poverty, not poverty of spirit whatever that would be.  Um, money poverty is preci....the whole goal of the Bible....Go back to Deut 15:4 and it really establishes what the Bible is all about,  Quote, "There shall be no poor among you.  That's the mandate."

First off, a claim that "the whole goal of the Bible" is about "money poverty" is Olympic gold medal-class nonsense.  The "whole goal of the Bible" is God's revelation concerning the salvation of mens' souls, not their physical or material wealth or lack thereof.

But once again, let's look more closely at the verse that Prof. Maguire deploys. Is Deut 15:4, "There shall be no poor among you..." really "what the Bible is all about"?  Again, we find Dr. Maguire wrenching verses wildly out of context.  In its context Deut 15:4 is talking about the specific blessings that would accrue to the Israelite people based on the land and the specific blessings that God promised to them, if they remained faithful to His covenant with them.  It would be interesting to hear how Maguire derives a universal principle for all times and all places from that lone verse.  What makes this even funnier is that just a few verses later it blows Prof. Maguire's interpretation out of the water: "For the poor will never cease out of the land" (Deut 15:11).  And of course our Lord Jesus also stated quite plainly that, "The poor you always have with you . . ." (John 12:8).

But let's go further.  Does the Bible really demand redistribution of wealth?  There certainly is a mandate throughout Scripture for believers to be generous to the poor.  But as I pointed out in my last posting, there is no indication even in the gleaning laws of the Old Testament that government-enforced redistribution is in view: The guy who owned the field before the gleaning still owns the field after the gleaning and sacred Scripture still does not say anything about any government swooping in to demand that said field owner allow the gleaning, much less redistribute his wealth by incrementally taking the field away from him.

And how about these verses, Dr. Maguire?

If your brother becomes poor, and sells part of his property, then his next of kin shall come and redeem what his brother has sold. (Lev 25:25)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.  (Matt 25:35)
If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8; and yes, that applies to liberal presidents of the United States too.)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  (Jam 1:27)

That's the way it is all though the Bible.  Check out this big long list of verses pertaining to the poor:  Bible verses: Caring for the poor.  Guess what?  The Bible doesn't say anything about the government being responsible for taking care of the poor.  That is not to say that government does not have some responsibility to maintain the common good and therefore to help those who are in need.  But Dr. Maguire's total misfire of a presentation shows that neither the Bible nor the Catholic Church teach that this care of the poor is primarily the government's responsibility.

The real theme that runs throughout the Bible is that individuals, families, and churches are primarily responsible for the care of the poor. As my friend Michael Forrest very rightly points out,

Jesus pinned the responsibility for taking care of those in need on the shoulders of the individual and did not say to cede it to the government.  Why?  What is the purpose of charity?  Is it solely to take care of temporal needs?  Even primarily?  No.  It is to model the love of Christ, to draw others toward him like a moth to the light.  And there is the further hope that such love will produce other Christs who will in turn go out and do likewise.  It is a grace-filled plan of reproduction, if you will.  

A Protestant Fundamentalist?

What struck me so strongly about Dan Maguire's interview on WPR is how he is essentially a liberal alter-image of a Protestant health-and-wealth gospel preacher.  Turn on cable TV, tune into one of these yahoos.  Like Dan Maguire, he's going to assure us repeatedly that he's giving us "the biblical" view of things, albeit with no recourse to anything other than his personal, private interpretation.  He has a single theme, a one-note song, that he reads into everything.  He deploys isolated Bible verses wrenched out of context, to try to back up his pet cause. And he tops it all off with phony appeals to the original biblical languages to impress the audience and give an air of scholarship that doesn't exist.

We might expect that from a flim-flam man with big hair and a cable TV show.  It's pretty disappointing—indeed, disgusting is not too strong a word—coming from a professor of theology at a major Catholic university.