Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Harlot by the Side of the Road

The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, by Jonathan Kirsch is not so much about "forbidden tales". They're tales that are right there in the bible (I went and looked up a couple of them on my own). But they're the stories that priests and pastors and Sunday School teachers don't dwell on or even approach because they don't fit into the common narrative of the judeo-christian faith.

I would imagine that most folks from a Christian background would be unfamiliar with the stories in the book (according to the author, Rabbis also avoid these stories). I was familiar with a few, only because of my Art History background and a possible penchant for incestuous scenes in previous centuries. For example, one of the stories that Kirsch illustrates is that of Lot and his daughters. Lot and his family, as some of you might know, lived in Soddam, a city which God destroyed but allowed this one family to escape. As they were leaving, Lot's wife "looked back" and was immediately turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters eventually ended up in an isolated place and thought that the whole population of the world was destroyed. So, the daughters had sex with Lot to repopulate the earth. Look it up. Genesis 19:31-38.
(Hendrick Goltzius, 1616)

Actually, from my own experience of growing up in a conservative Lutheran church, I remember very well the story of Lot and his wife, but I certainly don't remember being told the bit with the daughters. Our church was not the kind that entertained questions of any kind, so, "Why did his wife turn into SALT?" was the sort of thing that was answered with, "Why don't you sit there and be quiet?" And my family wonders why I don't want to go to church with them.

Kirsch copies various texts from the Bible, and then narrates it again for folks who have trouble parsing out the language. Then, he examines the history of the story and any cultural issues in the past or present that might apply. So, for the story of Lot and his daughters, he'll suggest that Lot, who was clearly not a righteous man, was more of a classic buffoon and the story would surely have "gripped the ancient reader." Oh, and I forgot the part where Lot offers his daughters to this angry mob of people to rape? That's because, Kirsch explains, the head of household must do absolutely anything he can to appease his "guests".

Kirsch's point, which he reiterates frequently, is that the bible is chock-full of these crazy stories which, in fact, do not carry a moral or didactic tale, but are simply entertaining and complex. "I hope to take back the Bible from the strict and censorious people who wave it in our faces and to restore it to the worldly man and woman who will appreciate the flesh-and-blood passions that are described in the Holy Scriptures." His approach is similar, but not as damning as Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which challenges the idea that the Bible is the directly translated Word of God but rather just a bunch of made-up stuff that's been deliberately or casually mistranslated for hundreds of years. Ehrman ultimately rejects the bible completely, which is not what happens to Kirsch at all.

I thought the book was really well-put together. I usually read a chapter, then was like, "No way." and then I'd go look it up in my own dusty Bible, then I'd tell my husband, then I'd read another chapter. Kirsch refers to a bunch of feminist Bible scholars (I didn't even know there was such a thing!) that I'd like to check out as well.

So we might conclude from an open-eyed reading of the forbidden texts of the Bible that the fundamental truth is that there is no fundamental truth. Instead, we are invited to join the rest of humanity in a restless, ceaseless search to discern some moral order in a chaotic universe. We are challenged by the Bible itself to figure out who God is and what God wants - and that is the most disturbing revelation of all.

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