Good Book: The bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous, and inspiring things I learned when I read every single word of the Bible.
David Plotz (2009, HarperCollins)
Like reading all of a dictionary or encyclopedia, reading the Bible straight through is a slightly mad undertaking, but one which can be enlightening. A few years ago, David Plotz, the editor of Slate, undertook to read the Bible and write about it. (The Hebrew Bible, that is: Plotz is Jewish, so we’re on our own with the New Testament.) His goal was simple: “I wanted to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.”
Plotz does not make use of any critical apparatus; he reads in English, and with a minimum of commentary alongside. That’s a good thing for his purpose, as the sharp corners are not cushioned. Sandwiched between the familiar Sunday School tales, he finds the stories that are left out because they are too racy for children or because they make our heroes look bad. What do we really know about Jacob’s character, or King David’s? What a motley collection of swindlers, womanizers, and idolators even the best of them are!
To say nothing of God, whom Plotz finds choleric, capricious, and capable of slaughtering thousands at a whim. In the first several books, God is present in person, as it were; later on, He speaks mainly through prophets. He’s a maddeningly inconsistent figure, sometimes punishing people for doing what He commanded them to do. Of course, as He points out to Job, He doesn’t owe you and me any explanations. “Job is the paramount example of what I would call the Messy Bible, a story that’s far more complicated, ambiguous, and confusing than its popular version.”
His project in reading the Bible is analogous to my purpose in these reviews, reading things so that you won’t have to. If you already have a warm relationship with the Bible, you may find Plotz too flippant, but he does get to the heart of the matter: “We talk about the Bible as if there is only one. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from these months with the Good Book, it’s that we all have our own Bible. We linger on the passages we love and blot out, or argue with, or skim the verses that repel us.”
Plotz comes out at the end rather less of a believer than he was at the beginning, and for that I have to give him credit. His tone may be irreverent, but his purpose is authentic; wrestling matches, if fair, are unpredictable. I appreciated that, though, on the grounds that all truth is God’s truth, and Plotz is expressing genuine outrage and astonishment, as they occur to him. “Why would God kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in killing them?” Because he’s reading on his own, he has to come to his own conclusions. “This argument has weakened my faith, and turned me against my God. Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engaging with God.”
So reading the Bible may be hazardous to your faith, but it might be worth it.
Email edition, May 1 2014