What I learned from reading the entire Bible.
In 2006 and 2007, David Plotz blogged the Bible for Slate, starting with "In the beginning …" and reading right through to the end. This week, Plotz publishes Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, a book sparked by the Slateproject. You can buy Good Book here. The following is adapted from the book.
Should you read the Bible? You probably haven't. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I've ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.
Slate V: You read that in the Bible?
Maybe it doesn't make sense for most of us to read the whole Bible. After all, there are so many difficult, repellent, confusing, and boring passages. Why not skip them and cherry-pick the best bits? After spending a year with the good book, I've become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read. Let me explain why, in part by telling how reading the whole Bible has changed me.
When I was reading Judges one day, I came to a complicated digression about a civil war between two groups of Israelites, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. According to the story, the Gileadites hold the Jordan River, and whenever anyone comes to cross, the guards ask them to say the password, shibboleth. The Ephraimites, for some unexplained reason, can't pronounce the sh in shibboleth and say "sibboleth" instead. When an Ephraimite fails the speech exam, the Gileadites "would seize him and slay him." I've read the word shibboleth a hundred times, written it a few, and probably even said it myself, but I had never understood it until then. It was a tiny but thrilling moment when my world came alive, when a word that had just been a word suddenly meant something to me.
And something like that happened to me five, 10, 50 times a day when I was Bible-reading. You can't get through a chapter of the Bible, even in the most obscure book, without encountering a phrase, a name, a character, or an idea that has come down to us 3,000 years later. The Bible is the first source of everything from the smallest plot twists (the dummy David's wife places in the bed to fool assassins) to the most fundamental ideas about morality (the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality that still shapes our politics, for example) to our grandest notions of law and justice. It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Just as an exercise, I thought for a few minutes about the cultural markers in Daniel, a late, short, and not hugely important book. What footprints has it left on our world? First, Daniel is thrown in the "lions' den" and King Belshazzar sees "the writing on the wall." These are two metaphors we can't live without. The "fiery furnace" that Daniel's friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions' den, sealing in a holy man who won't stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus. Daniel inspired the novel The Book of Danieland the TV show The Book of Daniel. It's even a touchstone for one of my favorite good-bad movies, A Knight's Tale. That movie's villain belittles hero Heath Ledger by declaring, "You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting"—which is what the writing on the wall told Belshazzar.
While reading the Bible, I often felt as if I had finally lifted a veil from my eyes. I learned that I hadn't known the true nature of God's conflict with Job, which is the ur-text of all subsequent discussions of obedience and faith. I realized I was ignorant of the story of Ruth. I was unaware of the radical theology of Ecclesiastes, the source of so many of our ideas about the good life. I didn't know who Jezebel was, or why we loathe her, or why she is the painted lady, or even that she was married to Ahab.
Not to sound like a theocratic crank, but I'm actually shocked that students aren't compelled to read huge chunks of the Bible in high school and college, the way they must read Shakespeare or the Constitution or Mark Twain.
That's my intellectual defense of Bible reading. Now a more personal one. As a lax, non-Hebrew-speaking Jew, I spent my first 35 years roboting through religious rituals and incomprehensible prayers, honoring inexplicable holidays. None of it meant anything to me. Now it does. Reading the Bible has joined me to Jewish life in a way I never thought possible. I trace this to when I read about Jacob blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh at the end of Genesis. I suddenly realized: Oh, that's why I'm supposed to lay my hand on my son's head at Shabbat dinner and bless him in the names of Ephraim and Manasseh. That shock of recognition has been followed by many more—when I came across the words of the Shema, the most important Jewish prayer, in Deuteronomy, when I read about the celebration of Passover in the book of Ezra, when I read in Psalms the lyrics of Christian hymns I love to sing.
You notice that I haven't said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.
After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.
When I complain to religious friends about how much He dismays me, I usually get one of two responses. Christians say: Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament.
The second response tends to come from Jews, who razz me for missing the chief lesson of the Hebrew Bible, which is that we can't hope to understand the ways of God. If He seems cruel or petty, that's because we can't fathom His plan for us. But I'm not buying that, either. If God made me, He made me rational and quizzical. He has given me the tools to think about Him. So I must submit Him to rational and moral inquiry. And He fails that examination. Why would anyone want to be ruled by a God who's so unmerciful, unjust, unforgiving, and unloving?
Unfortunately, this line of reasoning seems to leave me with several unappealing options: 1) believing in no god; 2) believing in the awful, vindictive God of the Bible; or 3) believing in some vague "creator" who is not remotely attached to the events of the Bible, who didn't really do any of the deeds ascribed to Him in the book and thus can't be held responsible for them.
The Bible has brought me no closer to God, if that means either believing in a deity acting in the world or experiencing the transcendent. But perhaps I'm closer to God in the sense that the Bible has put me on high alert. I came to the Bible hoping to be inspired and awed. I have been, sometimes. But mostly I've ended up in a yearlong argument with God. Why would He kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in it? What wrong did we do Him that He should send the flood? Which of His Ten Commandments do we actually need? Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engage with God.
As I read the book, I realized that the Bible's greatest heroes—or, at least, my greatest heroes—are not those who are most faithful, but those who are most contentious and doubtful: Moses negotiating with God at the burning bush, Gideon demanding divine proof before going to war, Job questioning God's own justice, Abraham demanding that God be merciful to the innocent of Sodom. They challenge God for his capriciousness, and demand justice, order, and morality, even when God refuses to provide them. Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.