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.

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