ASIMOV’S GUIDE TO THE BIBLE is Isaac Asimov at his professional and informal best. With its careful scrutiny of Biblical places, events and characters in light of secular sources, it is an important fund of fascinating knowledge for any reader of the Bible—and also absorbing reading for anyone with an interest in historoy. For the Bible is, among other things, an important source of the history of the first 4,000 years of human civilization. Along with explications of such historical phenomena as the place in the world of David’s kingdom, Dr. Asimov offers informed speculations on the real nature of The Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, and many more historical and legendary events, places, and people. “I cannot pretend that I am making any significant original contribution to Biblical scholarship,” says Dr. Asimov; yet by bringing the breadth of his scientific and historical erudition to bear on the Bible, he has added a new dimensions to studies of the Bible’s secular side.
This is a terrific book. Being, however, Asimov’s major opus about religion, it offends a lot of people.
Basic rule of thumb—if you have problems with modern Biblical scholarship, you’re going to hate this book and may as well ignore it.
I’ve gone through three distinct stages in my own reaction to the book, coming as I do from a strong religious background.
Stage one was shock and outrage. It was really quite a blow to my faith, all these terrible things the Good Doctor says about the early parts of Genesis. (Not to mention the rest of the Bible.) I mean, I knew he was a Godless Atheist™ who believed in evolution and all that, but, really—all this stuff about Genesis, source criticism of the Pentateuch, the number of Isaiahs, the date, historicity, and meaning of Daniel. And this is just in volume one!
Stage two was condescension. Well, what could one expect from a Godless Atheist™ who believed in evolution and clearly doesn’t understand God and true religion at all. I at least knew better than Asimov.
(I’m sorry to say I even sent him a few letters calling him to repentance. It’s horribly embarrassing and I can only hope that they’ve been destroyed. Please, please, please...)
Stage three is acceptance. Asimov says a lot of things about the Bible that I still don’t agree with, but I can put that down as a difference of faith and leave judgment to God. (One of the advantages of believing in God is that you can leave sticky things like judging other people to him and avoid judging others entirely yourself—an advantage, alas, of which too few of the devout avail themselves.) Asimov also says a lot of things about the Bible that I didn’t believe thirty years ago but have come to accept since. (Heck, he’s even converted me to organic evolution, the Godless Atheist™!)
And Asimov says a lot of things about the Bible that I didn’t know then, would never have known in all likelihood if I hadn’t read the Guide to the Bible, and have never had any problems accepting, things which enrich and have enriched my own understanding of this large, complex, and obscure book from the first time I read the guide.
More to the point, however, is that Asimov himself deeply loved the Bible. True, he didn’t think much of it as theology, but he saw in it a deeper ethical message that seems to be missed by most of the people I know who scream about needing to believe the first ten chapters of Genesis are literally true. He admired it as history, he admired it as literature, he admired it as a record of humanity’s striving for something better, and he admired it as pointing the way to better ways we should be living and dealing with one another.
That message in Asimov’s religious works is here far more muted than it would become in The Story of Ruth, but it’s still there. Here, however, his love for the Bible as a fascinating book to study and to understand comes through clearly—and to Asimov (and to me) the first step in understanding the Bible is understanding who the heck are all these people it’s talking about, and where did they live, and what else do we know about them.
This is not a commentary. Asimov lacked the ability to write one, and he admits it in the introduction. To be sure, he tends to explain what such-and-such a passage means, but that’s not his overriding theme. His overriding theme is to give the background material that many a modern reader of the Bible lacks altogether, the knowledge of peoples and places and hard-to-pronounce names we stumble over. Asimov here brings the world of the Bible alive, gives us a map and compass, and sets us off to explore on our own.
This is a terrific, terrific book. I know an awful lot of people who really need desperately to read it.