Saturday, September 10

Good Book – David Plotz

Bored during his cousin’s bar mitzvah service, “Proud, but not very observant” Plotz idly picked up and opened the Torah in front of him. It opened to Genesis, and Plotz began reading the story of the rape of Dinah. Her rapist, Sechem, son of “an idol-worshiping chieftain,” decides he’s in love with Dinah, and asks to marry her; Dinah’s father and brothers acquiesce, with a couple of conditions, then attack the chieftain’s tribe while its’ men are incapacitated. The story shocked Plotz -
The founding fathers of Israel lying, breaching a contract, encourage pagans to convert to Judaism, only to cripple them for slaughter, massacring defenseless innocents, enslaving woman and children, pillaging and profiteering, and then justifying it all with an appeal to their sister’s defiled honor? Not on the syllabus
For a while, the story of Dinah preoccupied Plotz – he talked about with women named Dinah, and found different versions of the story (maybe Dinah went willingly with Sechem) and varying interpretations of the lessons the story was intended to teach.
Plotz had thought he knew the Bible, at least broadly – in addition to Hebrew School he attended an Episcopalian high school that included religious education in the syllabus, and he’d had the usual popular culture exposure to Bible stories, from testaments Old and New. Reading this section of Genesis caused him to reconsider – what else had been edited out? He decided to read the Torah, or Old Testament, verse by verse, in order, noting his responses to each chapter as they were read. Good Book is those reflections, bound.
Amazon recommended Good Book when I added several of AJ Jacob’s accounts (reviews forthcoming) to my basket. I’ve long been intellectually interested in religion, which is what attracted me to both Jacob’s Year of Living Biblically and Good Book in the first place. In my youth I read the Bible cover to cover three times over a six- or nine-month period, though clearly not with the rigour of Plotz and, I suspect, quite a big of skimming, particularly over the begetting sections. I certainly didn’t make the connections Plotz did, and I’m impressed by his connection of events and people from one book with intersections and recurrences in subsequent sections.
What kept me reading, though, was Plotz himself. His writing is snarky, thoughtful, shocked, considered, and above all else intelligent. I made note of so many examples that my copy of Good Book is markedly thicker at the bottom (where I’ve turned over corners) than the top, and were I to cite even a quarter of them this review would be excessive. However it would be a disservice not to give at least a flavour of Plotz’s style.
Fittingly, I’ll start with Genesis, and the story of Abram (who becomes Abraham) and Sarai/Sarah, who flee famine and attempt to con first Pharaoh and then a king by pretending to be siblings instead of spouses; God sends a plague to the former for admiring Sarai’s beauty (which “seems unfair of the Almighty. It’s Abram and Sarai who tricked Pharaoh – why should the Egyptian get punished for ogling Sarai?”), and warns off a lecherous King Abimelech in a dream (“Not explained – why would Abimelech want to seduce Sarah, who is at that point nearly ninety years old?”)
God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising him “all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding.” God is a kind of celestial Donald Trump: He can’t go a chapter without a new real-estate deal. By my calculations, He promises land to Abraham at least four separate times, and each time the boundaries are different. (Promised land, indeed.)
I’m sure most people are familiar with the sacrifice of Isaac, where God tells Abraham to kill his beloved son on an altar to demonstrate his religious fidelity. Isaac is spared at the eleventh hour, but
As a father I find this nearly impossible to read. The repetition of “my son” is devastating. Abraham does not try to distance himself from Isaac, to separate himself from the child he must kill. Isaac remains “my son,” “my son.”… This is, of course, another story adopted and repurposed in the New Testament; but in the Christian version, God does sacrifice the son. I’m a sucker for a happy ending, so I’ll take the Genesis version, complete with deus ex machina and the saved child.
Chapter 23 gets the (natural) death of Sarah out of the way before using eighteen verses to discuss land negotiations, a theme common throughout the text, which Plotz points out is as relevant and consuming in that region now as it was 3,500-odd years ago. Chapter 25 causes him to reflect on why antediluvian people were so long lived, and even after the flood it is not uncommon for Bible characters to live for over a century, usually with little or no infirmity -
The obvious answer, and the one I believe, is “It’s not true, that’s why.” But I wonder why the authors of the Bible *believed it to be true. At the time Genesis was written down, 1,000 years after Abraham was supposed to have lived, the Israelites who drafted it had normal life spans. Why did they credit their ancestors with such superhuman health? Was their theory that man got weaker the farther he got from creation? Modern scholars of folklore would probably attribute [it] to the normal process of mythmaking… the heroes grow grander and grander. Their towers reached the sky; they fought giants and met angels; and they lived almost forever.
This is only half of the extracts I’d like to cite, from Genesis alone; there is no way to include everything I’d like to without substantially breaching the Copyright Fair Reproduction Act! A few areas of note that I found particularly amusing, insightful or otherwise interesting – there are several instances where Plotz discovers that even things he knows he knows about the Bible are false (like the Ten Commandments); his discussion of why there are so may prostitutes is scattered through the text and insightful; there’s startling cruelty, violence and murder, much of it directed by a sadistic and often irrational God, particularly in Judges; and there’s the refrain of land – in the “morally repellent” Book of Judges
Jephthah tells the king, “Do you not hold what Chemosh your God gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything the Lord our God has given us to possess.”
And there, my friends, you have practically the entire history of Israel, of the Middle East, and of planet Earth, in two short sentences. Your God says it’s yours. Our God says it’s ours. Meet you at nine AM on the battlefield.
Chapters 5 – 7 of the Book of 1 Kings:
A hilariously magnificent passage pays tribute to Solomon’s wisdom. It’s essentially a list of everyone he’s smarter than… He writes 3,000 proverbs and 1,000 songs. He’s a botanist, an ichthyologist, and an entomologist; a poet, a musician and a judge; a joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker.
In chapter 18 of the same book, there’s a showdown between the prophet Elijah and Jezebel’s priests. Elijah, by the way, is a forerunner of Christ, performing the same miracles of food from nothing (in his case oil and wheat), and resurrects a child from the dead. But back to the battle of the gods:
My god versus your god, for all the marbles. “How long will you keep hopping between two opinion? If the Lord is God, follow him; and of Baal, follow him. Elijah proposes an incineration contest. He’ll get one bull and 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah will get another,. Each side will call on its god or gods, and whichever wide can make the animal go up in flames worships the true Lord.
The rival priests go first. They shout to Baal all morning long, to no effect. Elijah interrupts their fruitless prayers with a ripsnorting insult-comic routine, a hilarious, sardonic attack on Baal and his silence. When noon comes, “Elijah mock[s] them, saying, ‘Shout louder! After all, he is a god! But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.’” Reading this, you can imagine exactly what kind of man Elijah was – brilliant, blunt and sarcastic. (Oh, and even better: “on a journey” is an ancient euphemism for “in the bathroom.” Baal is on the pot!)
Above all, Plotz highlights
how often the Bible shows its seams. My childish notion was that the Bible was a singularity, a unified whole, but the more I read it the more I see it wrestling with itself.
When I was an adolescent I saw this as evidence of an inconsistent and inconstant deity, and I viewed the insistence on paying homage (have no other gods but me, honour the Sabbath and keep if holy) as the hallmark of a jealous and insecure Lord. I wonder now how biblical literalists reconcile these discrepancies, but my point is that Plotz’s narrative illuminated the connection between these instructions and the survival of Judaism – following the letter of the Torah, engaging with the text, the Talmudic precepts and laws, have kept the Jews coherent, unassimilated and viable for over three millennia, and that’s not by accident.

It takes Plotz 184 pages to address the fact that, claims to the contrary, there’s no archaeological evidence for a long-lasting, significant Israelite civilisation in the Ancient world – far from the Bible accounts of “a mighty nation that destroyed Pharaoh, killed 185,000 Assyrians in a night, and exterminated every non-Jew in the Promised land, the physical evidence suggests that Israel-Judah was a tiny, short-lived nation. It existed for a few hundred deeply troubled years, buffeted by mightier surrounding civilizations.”
This is not a scholarly work, but it is considered, thoughtful, researched (increasingly, as Plotz delves deeper in to the Torah), and there's some additional information at the end of Good Book about his process and progress. Most of all I was interested in how reading the Torah from cover to cover, complete with reflection, discussion and context, affected his own belief system. If any of this sounds interesting to you, go forth and read! I've already loaned my copy to a friend. - Alex

1 comment:

Alex and Lynn Ward said...

Hey Alex, sounds fascinating. Add me to the list of interested borroewers.