Slate editor's account of a close reading of the Old Testament is disturbing -- in a good way.
Let's cut to the chase: Any reasonably educated, thoughtful reader of the Old Testament, or Torah -- every word, not just takeout stories -- will pull up shocked at the gratuitous, gleeful gorefests.
That's what happened when Slate editor David Plotz sat down with it, not as a scholar, cleric or mystic, but simply as a curious, respectful reader. The result, "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible," is often very funny, but at heart it's a melancholy book.
Plotz, a secular Jew who went to both Hebrew school and an Episcopalian high school, knew the stories of Old Testament heroes such as Daniel and Esther. But he was horrified to find that their triumphs, like those of many other central figures, trigger bloodbaths in which the Israelites kill innocents with no reason, no mercy and no punishment by God, who often eggs them on.
The Torah is also awash in wisdom and beauty, and Plotz rejoices at that. And reading it helped him to understand how Jews have endured as a people through the centuries while other biblical tribes are long gone -- because their stories and laws, as well as their history since, have bound them together and set them apart.
Plotz is well aware that biblical complexities and contradictions have kept scholars, Talmudic and Christian, busy for centuries, and that he's no scholar. And he knows better than to project modern values on ancient peoples.
But story after story of unprovoked murder, some of it genocidal, unleashed by the Israelites and/or their God, rattles him. And common explanations -- it's just a story, or God is wrathful; deal with it, or "become a Christian" if you want a more merciful God (lots to say about that one, but no room here) -- don't wash for him.
"The principal task of priests and rabbis has been cleaning up the Bible, taking complicated stories and bringing order to them," he writes. "But it is an artificial order, with a much neater morality than we find in the real book. ... Some of the heroes are intolerable; some of the villains are admirable, and God himself is often unreasonable. This messy Bible is truer to our actual world -- where the good do evil and the evil do good, where people suffer for no reason -- than the idealized Bible is. ... That's why we should read [it] for ourselves, to confront the complexity that the idealized Bible avoids."
But in doing so, Plotz found himself deeply sobered. Ultimately, this is a heartbreaking book, despite its humor (for example, Plotz dryly notes that when Noah made landfall with Earth's precious few surviving creatures, he sacrificed an animal) and joy in the less bloody books (like Ruth). And it's priceless for those of all traditions who see value in posing unanswerable questions to each other, and to God himself.
Pamela Miller is a night news editor and former religion writer at the Star Tribune.