May 21, 2009

(++++) IN ITS OWN WORDS, MORE OR LESS

Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. By David Plotz. Harper. $26.99.

     The Yiddish word “plotz” means “to burst,” usually from strong emotion, and there are times during Good Book when a reader will wonder whether David Plotz will plotz at what he finds in the Old Testament. He doesn’t, and neither will readers, but Plotz’s plodding through everything from Genesis to 2 Chronicles produces plenty that surprises him and much that will likely surprise readers, too.

     Plotz professes himself a committed but essentially secular Jew who had never read the Bible until he undertook a year-long project to do so, originally for Slate, of which he is editor. He started the project, he says, after reading a bit of the Bible that he found appalling: the rape of Dinah in Genesis, in which Jacob’s daughter is raped by a prince who subsequently wants to marry her; and Jacob’s sons say they will accept the union if the prince and all his people are circumcised; and the prince agrees; and while the prince and his subjects are recovering from the pain of the procedure, Jacob’s sons sneak into their city and murder every man, steal their possessions and enslave their women and children. This is tribalism at its ugliest and bloodiest, and Plotz was surprised to find evidence of it, again and again and again, throughout the Bible. He was equally surprised to find a capricious, vicious, inconstant and inconsistent God, a God demanding a hereditary priesthood, a God favoring clever schemers over his own elsewhere-established order, a God who generally could not be trusted, and emphatically not (most of the time) a god of the meek, the mild or even of justice.

     Plotz’s surprise is a touch, well, surprising. He must have been thoroughly insulated from the Bible, and discussions of it, for a great many years, if he truly considered the book internally consistent and a portrait of a firm but loving God. Even lay readers have little trouble finding weirdness and swept-under-the-rug inconsistency in the Bible, including some that Plotz, for all his line-by-line reading, manages to miss. Novelist and Los Angeles Times columnist Jonathan Kirsch, for example, included in his The Harlot By the Side of the Road not only the Dinah story and several other tales that shocked Plotz, but also one extremely peculiar episode that Plotz overlooks: Exodus 4:24-26, in which God tries unsuccessfully to kill either Moses or Moses’ son, and is held off when Moses’ wife, Zipporah, does an impromptu circumcision of her son and throws the foreskin at God’s feet.

     Yet it is Plotz’s sense of nearly childlike wonder, coupled with his apparently unlimited capacity for surprise, that makes Plotz’s Good Book so attractive. Again and again, he is amazed to learn what is actually in the Bible. Leviticus 13: “The author has an obsession with leprosy.” Deuteronomy 26: “This is a very boring chapter.” Joshua 24: “Sometimes, the most fascinating parts of the Bible are the bits that have been left out.” Plotz summarizes every book at the start of his chapter about it, and also gives each one a cute subtitle. Judges: “The Meathead and the Left-Handed Assassin.” 1 Samuel: “The Bible’s Bill Clinton” (that one is a stretch, even for Plotz). Jeremiah: “The Prophet and the Lustful She-Camel.”

     Sometimes the subtitles reveal holes in Plotz’s approach to the Bible. The one about Isaiah (“The Jesus Preview”) shows that he sees the book as a unified totality, when longstanding Biblical scholarship – some of which Plotz says he has read, although apparently he missed this element – subdivides Isaiah into three parts, and it is the material from Deutero-Isaiah (particularly) and Trito-Isaiah that Christians interpret as prophesying the coming of Jesus.

     Plotz likes to put his Biblical ignorance “out there” in amusing ways, but he tends to be unaware of shortcomings in his own thinking about the Bible through which he is marching. Midway through Good Book, Plotz visits Israel to see some of the sites (and sights) mentioned in the Bible, and comments that “wishful thinking is the foundation of Bible tourism.” It does not seem to occur to him that wishful thinking can be seen as the foundation of the Bible itself, and indeed of religion in general: things must have a purpose, our tribe must be better than those others, God must back us and grant us strength, and all the rest of it.

     Despite the shortcomings of Plotz’s deliberately na├»ve approach, or perhaps because of them, Good Book is an amusing, entertaining read that actually does a good job of explaining “the messy Bible” (as Plotz calls it), including many of its self-contradictions, tribalisms, acts of viciousness, and of course implausibilities. It is fun to read Plotz’s dismissal of Zephaniah, a minor prophet (“that term doesn’t do justice to the dinkiness, the negligibility, the puniness of Zephaniah”) – and then, on the next page, to read about the first appearance of Satan in the Bible (in Zechariah) and find out that the word simply means “accuser” or “adversary” and that Satan “appears to be more like God’s lawyer” than anything else. Plotz’s final chapter (“Should You Read the Bible?”) comes across as a touch argumentative and even holier-than-thou, but he makes up for it with an appendix of Bible lists that includes the 12 best pickup lines, 11 best miracles, 13 “spectacular murders,” eight “trippiest and most important dreams,” and more.

     Good Book both parallels and stands at the opposite extreme from the intense, erudite (but still breezy), analysis-packed studies by Bart D. Ehrman (Lost Christianities, Misquoting Jesus, Lost Scriptures and other books). Ehrman focuses on the New Testament and can read it (and the Old Testament as well) in the original languages. Plotz, in contrast, is an English-language-only Everyman, picking his way through multiple translations of the Bible and trying not only to reconcile the book’s contents but also the different ways translators present them. The result is that Good Book is more interesting than instructive, more of a “how about that?” book than a deeply thoughtful one. But it is a fascinating and often very funny excursion through one of the world’s most influential texts. It may upset readers who think they “know” the Bible because of what they have been taught about it, but that is part of its point: what you think you know about this particular book is likely to be a sanitized version of what is really there. So by all means read Good Book, and then the Good Book itself if you think Plotz has gotten a good deal of it good and wrong.

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