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Books Chat

Chat Transcript: Author Alan Dershowitz discusses his book "The Genesis of Justice"

April 7, 2000
Web posted at: 4:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- Harvard Law School professor, Alan Dershowitzís new book, "The Genesis of Justice: The Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law," examines ten biblical tales and the influence of the Bible on current laws. Dershowitz concludes that the flawed behavior of various biblical characters led to the Ten Commandments and a deep sense of justice in the Judeo-Christian world.

Alan Dershowitz joined a special Talkback Live chat to discuss the theories in his book on Friday, April 7, 2000. Mr. Dershowitz participated in the chat in person from in Atlanta. A typist was provided for him. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Alan Dershowitz, and welcome!

Alan Dershowitz: Thank you for joining me! Please ask me the hardest questions you can think of about the book of Genesis! If you don't get a chance to ask me the question today, my email appears in "The Genesis of Justice," and you can write me with your own personal interpretations of the ten stories I deal with in the book.

Chat Moderator: Please tell us a little bit about your background.

Alan Dershowitz: I was brought up as an orthodox Jew. I went to religious school for 12 years, studying the Bible, the Prophets, and the Talmud. For the last three years, I've been teaching a course at Harvard Law School on the scriptural sources of justice. I love the Bible, but I do not read it as a fundamentalist.


Question from Patrick1: What is this Dershowitz book about?

Alan Dershowitz: The thesis of this book is that in order to understand the Ten Commandments and the rules of the Bible, you have to first understand what the world looked like before law and rules. The book of Genesis tells us about that world, a world in which an attempted murderer is praised, a brother steals his blessing from his blind father, and other injustices exist. These injustices show us why we need law rather than just instinct.

Question from Summer: Alan, Desmond Tutu once said, "God who alone has the right to be a totalitarian, would rather see us freely go to hell than compel us to go to heaven." Allowing us to handle life our way was manís choice from the beginning. Freedom is the ultimate gift of love. I wonder if you see it differently?

Alan Dershowitz: I think Bishop Tutu is totally wrong. God gave up the right to be a totalitarian when He entered into a covenant with Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. He became a constitutional monarch, whose subjects have the right to argue with Him, the way Abraham argued with God about the sinners of Sodom. It insults God to call him a totalitarian.

Question from Lutefisker: Mr. Dershowitz, you stated that there is no Satan in Genesis, yet the snake is obviously, at the very least, a metaphor of Satan. Why do you feel that it is not?

Alan Dershowitz: There is no Satan in Genesis. The first time Satan appears is in the book of Job. He's referred to as "The Satan." It's easy and simple minded to see the serpent as Satan, but it simply blinks reality. God punishes the serpent by making him crawl on the ground and be bruised by humans. That certainly doesn't sound like Satan to me. I think it trivializes the story to make the serpent into Satan.

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Question from Stretchable: I have always thought of the Bible as the flawed work of flawed humans, not as the work of a flawed God. Please expand on your comments on the mistakes of God.

Alan Dershowitz: No one can know, of course, if the Bible is the work of humans, or was inspired by God. If written by God, it gets a B-, because it's full of mistakes, injustices, bad law, bad policy, and inequality. If written by humans, it gets an A+, because it is so ahead of its times, and so prescient.

Question from Greg: Mr. Dershowitz, how can you say that God is not perfect?

Alan Dershowitz: I don't say God is not perfect. God says that He's not perfect. Go back and check the book of Genesis. He repents the creation of man; He admits He made a mistake in the flood. He promises not to do it again. He fails to carry out His threatened punishment to Adam. The greatness of God is His very imperfection, which makes Him a wonderful teacher. All the characters in the book of Genesis are imperfect, as contrasted with Jesus and Mohammed, who are presented as perfect.

Question from Rafic: Did you also study the new testament of the Bible also?

Alan Dershowitz: I studied the New Testament, obviously not as part of my religious background, but for comparative purposes. I also teach it at Harvard Law School. I think of Jesus as the first reform rabbi, a wonderful teacher, who tried to make Judaism less formalistic and more ethical. I think we can all learn a lot from the ethical teachings of Jesus, just as Jesus learned a great deal from the ethical teachings of Hillel and many of the rabbis whose works He studied.

As a Jew, of course, I do not accept the notion that Jesus is the Son of God, or that God has children. Judaism believes in abstract monotheism, a God who cannot be visualized, and who bears none of the physical characteristics of human beings. The virtue of America is that we can all have our own opinions and religious beliefs, and that the government is not allowed to tell us whom they believe is right.

Question from Davetaylor: What are some of the mistakes in the Bible of which you speak?

Alan Dershowitz: Where do we begin? Treating women unequally is probably the most profound mistake in the Bible. God's punishment of Eve, saying that from now on all women will direct their lust toward their husbands, and the husbands shall dominate the wives reflects the double standard against which we have been struggling for millennia. The Bible is simply wrong about the inequality of women, and its view will not prevail over time.

The Bible is also wrong about homosexuality. It is wrong about witchcraft. It is wrong about how to deal with rebellious sons. It is wrong about capital punishment. It is wrong about inflicting the sins of parents on children. It is wrong in ordering the punishing of Amalekites throughout the generations. I could go on and on.

I am not the first person, obviously, to point out these problems. Biblical commentators, even among the most orthodox, have tried to change the Bible for centuries. Jesus changed the Bible in fundamental ways. He abolished the Sabbath and created God's day on Sunday, a clear amendment to the Ten Commandments. Most Christians reject the prohibition on graven images. Virtually everybody rejects the Biblical definition of adultery, which frees married men to have sex with anyone they wish, except married women, and prohibits married women from having sex with anyone. The Bible was a tremendous advance over existing codes and practices, but it is full of errors. Let me mention simply one more: slavery.

Question from Aaron: Since Satanism is a recognized religion in this country, would allowing Christian prayer in school also allow Satanist prayer in school?

Alan Dershowitz: One reason why we should never permit any kind of public, official prayer in public schools, is that we would either have to pick and choose among religions, which would violate the establishment clause, or we will have to permit prayers by witches, Satanists, atheists, and others.

Question from Damon: Do you really believe that any kind of Supreme Being would make agreements with us? Isn't that awfully reminiscent of Greek Mythology where the gods would often interact with humans?

Alan Dershowitz: It's not a question of what I believe. The Bible explicitly talks about a covenant, which was a radical concept. I do believe that Judaism and Christianity were influenced by Greek religion.

I have never understood why we call the Greek religion mythology, while we call Judaism and Christianity something else. What's the difference between many gods and one god? We should have more respect for the brilliance of the Greeks. Some day, people will probably look back at our Biblical stories, and call them Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mythology.

Question from John: Alan, if God has made mistakes, wouldn't He then cease to be God?

Alan Dershowitz: God did make mistakes. He admits them. So perhaps we have to redefine our concept of God.

Question from Durango: As a Jew, does your religion or beliefs follow the Ten Commandments? If so, how closely do you live your life to them? If not, how do your "laws" differ, and subsequently, how closely do you live your life to them?

Alan Dershowitz: Judaism follows the Ten Commandments much more closely than Christianity, because Christianity explicitly changed the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are very clear about why the Sabbath must be on the seventh day. "For in six days, God created the world, and on the seventh, He rested. Therefore, the seventh day must be a Sabbath for you."

Christianity changed the Ten Commandments, and the reason for a day of rest. It made Sunday the Lord's Day -- in Spanish, Domingo, as distinguished from Sabato, the Sabbath. On the first day, the Lord's Day, Jesus was resurrected. Orthodox Jews do not paint images of God, whereas most Christians do.

The Ten Commandments also includes references to slavery Ė twice -- and includes a threat against children, grandchildren, and great-grand children of sinners. Finally, it prohibits adultery, but limits it to married women, not married men. If you want to put the Ten Commandments in public schools, you should at least be honest enough to have four footnotes explaining how Christianity changed them.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Alan Dershowitz: The glory of the Bible is that it has "seventy faces," which means that each of us has the right, indeed the obligation, to interpret it. My interpretation grows out of many years of Bible study, coupled with nearly forty years of legal practice. I am an expert in justice, and I think I can add something to Biblical interpretation through my experience in the realities of justice.

If you disagree, please read my book and then email me at Thank you so much for participating in this continuing dialogue about the most influential book in the history of humankind.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today!

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    The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law

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