I heard about David Plotz’s “Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible” on To the Best of Our Knowledge, and it sounded like an interesting read. The premise is that Plotz was at his cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, and it was a long one, and he got bored, so he picked up the Bible and started reading. He opened randomly to the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who was raped by a young man from a neighboring town, who then wishes to marry her. He and his idol-worshiping father go to Jacob to ask for Dinah’s hand. Jacob’s sons agree, as long as all of the men of the town agree to be circumcised. They agree, and on the third day following the circumcision, when they are helpless due to pain, Dinah’s brothers swoop in and murder all of the men, plunder the town, and take the women and children as slaves. Wow.
I knew about this story, but not from reading the bible. I had read The Red Tent several years ago, which I LOVED. But Plotz had not, and his thought was that if there was this interesting and amazing story that he hadn’t heard of in Bible Study, what else might he have missed? So he decided to go back and read the entire Old Testament, and chronicle his findings on Slate, where he is editor.
Being a devout atheist, I also am woefully ignorant of the contents of the Bible. I took a class called “Bible as Literature” when I was in college, and I loved it, but the writing is dense and old enough that I could never really stick with reading the Bible on my own. So the idea of a cliff notes, somewhat lighthearted reading sounded very appealing to me. And appealing it is. Here’s an example, from The Book of Leviticus, chapters 8 – 10.
Here’s an episode they probably skip at your church. God, who’s been uncharacteristically quiet for the first chapters of Leviticus, returns with a vengeance. Moses ordains Aaron a priest – the ordination requires dabbing blood on “the ridge of Aaron’s right ear,” on his right thumb, and on his right big toe. Soon afterward, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, who are also priests, offer incense to the Lord. But rather than the prescribed incense, they give God “alien fire.” Boom! God incinerates them on the spot. More like a drug lord than a prophet, Moses tells Aaron his sons got what they deserved, and orders some cousins to drag the bodies away and drop them outside the camp. All they did was burn the wrong incense! Is the Lord really that petty? But maybe there’s an important lesson here: The rituals that seem so picayune and random really matter. A few verses later, God lectures Aaron: “You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the impure and the pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the law which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” In other words, God seems to be saying that the deaths were not the merciless act of vindictive deity. They were a warning to mind the details.
It was interesting to me to see the progress of attitudes through the books of the Bible, from this God who seems perfectly willing to smite people for any infraction, and a people who not only vanquish their enemies, they revel in the violence, to the last chapters, which appear to be more like what is coming in the New Testament, the apocalyptic stories and warnings, talk of Heaven, and precursors to the story of Jesus and some of his teachings. The Bible is such a fundamental book in our culture, and has had such a profound effect on so many aspects of life, that I have often felt that I had a large hole in my education. I’m not saying that reading this book filled me in as well as reading the real thing, but I do feel like I understand The Old Testament, and also some of the culture of Jesus’s time, a bit better.
I wish that Plotz had done the same with the New Testament. I think he’s leaving that to a casual Christian somewhere.