Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Harlot by the Side of the Road by Jonathan Kirsch

Okay. Get ready for this.

The theological revisionism that we find within the pages of the Bible is probably the work of priests and scribes who lived around the time of King Josiah, a distant descendant of David and a fierce religious reformer of ancient Israel. In 622 B.C.E., a book of sacred law mysteriously turned up in the Temple at Jerusalem; it was the Book of Deuteronomy, according to recent Bible scholarship, or at least a significant chunk of it. Deuteronomy embodied a new and stern theology that blames all of the woes of ancient Israel on the breach of God’s covenant with Moses. By worshipping strange gods and goddesses, thereby defying the “statutes and ordinances” of divine law, the author of Deuteronomy declares, the Israelites will forfeit the blessings that God promised to his Chosen People and, instead, call down upon themselves the curses that are set forth at length and in bloodcurdling detail in the Book of Deuteronomy.

“I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse,” says Moses in Deuteronomy. “Therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and they seed” (Deut. 30:19).

Significantly, the influence of the Deuteronomist can be detected in several other books of the Bible: Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings, all of which are known among scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. And the Deuteronomist displays a none-too-subtle agenda throughout these several books of the Bible: he too seeks to validate the royal house of David as the legitimate rulers of Israel, but he also seeks to explain the unhappy destiny of Israel by blaming various of David’s descendants for committing “abominations” in violation of God’s law. One king after another “did that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” the Deuteronomist insists, and that is why God withdrew his blessing from his Chosen People.

The sorry and squalid history of the descendants of King David gives the Deuteronomist much to complain about. David is not faultless, as we have seen, and Solomon commits the ultimate sin of worshipping pagan gods and goddesses. All but one of David’s descendants are found wanting by the Deuteronomist in one way or another. Only a single Davidic monarch is singled out for unqualified praise—King Josiah, a white-hot religious reformer who transformed the religious practices of ancient Israel in the early seventh century B.C.E. Until Josiah came along, and the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered, the religious practices of ancient Israel encompassed the worship of Baal and Asherah, the adoration of the sun and the moon and the stars, even the sacrifice of children to the god known as Moloch (2 Kings 23). To the joy of the Deuteronomist, Josiah vows to purge the nation of Israel of all but the strictest form of worship.

Josiah has been characterized by some contemporary critics as Davidus redivivus—a resurrected David—and the otherwise obscure king is praised even more lavishly than David by the biblical authors because of his efforts to purify the faith of ancient Israel. King Josiah is credited with purging the Temple of paraphernalia for the worship of Baal and Asherah, pulling down “the houses of the sodomites” where women were put to work at making such paraphernalia, suppressing the worship of pagan gods and goddesses at the altars and “high places” in Jerusalem and elsewhere around ancient Israel, slaying the renegade priests who presided over such ceremonies, and burying the sites of pagan worship under “the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:4-20). For his efforts, King Josiah is described with a fervor that the Deuteronomist reserves for only one other man in all of the Bible—the prophet and lawgiver, Moses.


“And like unto him was there no king before him,” the biblical author writes of Josiah, echoing the very words and phrases that are used to describe Moses, “that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him” (2 Kings 23:25).

Because Josiah alone enjoys such unreserved adulation, contemporary biblical scholarship suggests that the books of the Bible known as the Deuteronomistic History were first composed while Josiah sat upon the throne. Indeed, the Book of Deuteronomy itself has been called a “pious fraud” because the book is presented as one of the Five Books of Moses—“These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1)—when Deuteronomy was obviously composed by a different (and later) author than the ones who composed the other four books. The authors of the Deuteronomistic History lionized King Josiah, the otherwise obscure monarch under whom they lived and worked, because they endorsed his policy of centralizing and standardizing the worship of Yahweh to the exclusion of the other gods and goddesses that the Israelites seemed to find so alluring.

So the Bible, as we know it, preserved a snapshot of the court politics and the theological priorities at a single moment in the long history of ancient Israel. But the doing of “that which was evil in the sight of the Lord” by the Israelites and the monarchs who ruled them does not end with Josiah. The kings that come after Josiah are no better than the ones that came before him, according to the author of the Book of Kings, and the Davidic line comes to a final and sorrowful end with the Babylonian Conquest and the destruction of the Temple. As it turns out, no descendant of David will take the throne again. So the biblical authors find themselves with an awkward question to answer: If God has promised King David that his descendants will sit on the throne of Judah “for ever,” when and how will God’s promise be kept?

This is an incredible book, the first, I think, I have ever read written with the unabashed perspective that the Bible is not the holy writ of God but a hobbling together of ancient Hebrew folklore and political tracts, no more divine than the works of Shakespeare or Milton. That makes it worth reading in and of itself, but its joys go far beyond that. A collection of stories from the Bible that no God-fearing believer wants to admit are in there, it goes on through their retelling and critical analysis to make the case that just as the stories of goodness and selflessness in the Bible to teach us something, these stories about incest, rape and mass murder are there to teach us something, too, and it is to our own detriment to not heed their warnings.

The most compelling story, I think, is the one about the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34). Briefly, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped by Shechem, a princely Canaanite suitor, who then begs for her hand in marriage. The bride-price, demanded by her borthers, is the circumcision of every man in Shechem’s kingdom. After the ritual is carried out, the weakened Canaanites—recovering from their ordeal—are easy targets for Dinah’s brothers who kill them all, much to the dismay of Jacob.

At the first house they encountered, Simeon and Levi unsheathed their swords and shouldered open the door with a loud crack that awakened only a pair of servant girls who were bedded down on the floor near the stove. The girls looked up, bleary and confused, as Simeon and Levi stalked past them in search of the room where the master of the house slept. As soon as the kitchen girls noticed the swords Simeon and Levi were carrying, they began to wail. And so, when Levi finally found a man with a black beard on a pile of bedding in a back room, the poor soul was already awake and alert as Levi dispatched him with one short blow to the neck.

The same brutal operation was repeated in dwelling after dwelling, tent and shack and house, as Simeon and Levi stalked through the streets of Hamor’s town and methodically did their work. They were shepherds, and they knew how to dispatch a living creature swiftly and efficiently. Now they put their expertise to a new use, although they held their victims in somewhat less regard than they would a beast being slaughtered for their table.

Now and then, one of the men of Hamor rose from his bed and seized a staff or a sword in a desperate attempt at self-defense, but two armed men on their feet were always more than a match for some bedridden soul whose private parts were bloody and bandaged. By sunrise, they had slain all but two of the newly circumcised men in the town, and the last house they visited belonged to Hamor and Shechem, who were awake and astir but unsuspecting, still lingering in their beds and waiting to be called to breakfast by one of the servants.

Hamor half-rose in his bed when he saw Simeon and Levi at the threshold, but they reached him before he could cry out, and a single blow with the cutting edge of a sword across the neck silenced him forever. Shechem appeared behind them, bellowing like a bull, but no one but the servants was left to hear the sound. With another strike of the blade, Shechem, too, was dead.

Blood-splattered and breathing heavily, Simeon and Levi searched the house from room to room until they found Dinah in the richly decorated bedchamber that had been set aside for her until her wedding day. Their sister stared at them with an expression of horror that they had never seen before, not even on the faces of their victims and the bystanders who had witnessed the slaughter.

“Come, sister,” said Simeon, taking her by the arm and leading her toward the door of the house, “we are here to take you home.”

That’s from Kirsch’s retelling of the biblical tale, which he’s based on ancient rabbinical sources that provide much more detail than what has come down through the ages in the Bible.

When Simeon and Levi return to their father, Jacob is horrified by what they have done, knowing that the people they have slain are from a nation far more populous than their own, and that the sons have likely brought a final retribution down upon their heads. Their response to Jacob’s outrage is the simple and direct, “What would you want us to do? Should our sister be treated as a whore?” Kirsch quite interestingly draws the parallel between these two schools of thought—to bend in the face of outrage to help keep good relations and to strike back with greater outrage when outrage is visited upon you—with the two, and often conflicting, essential lessons of the Bible, as well as the two arcs of modern Israeli foreign policy. And in doing so he equates nations with people when it comes to dealing with strangers.

The other stories in the book are just as interesting an bear repeating:

Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). Having narrowly escaped the carnage brought down on Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his two daughters face the possibility that they are the last survivors on earth. In order to insure the continuation of their race, the two girls ply their father with wine and couple with him while he’s in a drunken stupor.

Tamar and Judah (Gen. 38). Tamar, a Canaanite widow of an Israelite, is involved in a failed “levirate marriage”—a custom that obliges a man to impregnate his dead brother’s widow if the brother dies without a male heir. Since her brother-in-law has failed to sire the child who has been promised her, she positions herself at the side of a road, disguised as a harlot, to seduce—and be impregnated by—her father-in-law, Judah.

What’s most interesting about these two stories is that the children born from these incestuous relationships are part of the Messianic line from Adam to Jesus. In fact, in both cases, if the women in the story had not taken it upon themselves to violate sexual taboos and conceive a child, Jesus might never have been born. At least that’s the argument Kirsch offers and, in part, he’s right because of the huge deal the Bible and the God that resides within it makes about the bloodline running from Adam through Noah, Lot, Judah, Abraham, Moses, David and eventually to Jesus. But on the other hand, if these women had done what other parts of the Bible tell them to do and not slept with their male relatives, I suppose God the Father would have just picked another virgin to impregnate with his seed.

Zipporah and Moses (Exod. 4:24-26). Moses, his wife, Zipporah, and their son Gershom are camped at an oasis while en route to Egypt. In the middle of the night, God (Yahweh) appears and attacks Moses. Zipporah uses the blood ritual of circumcision to defend her husband and son.

This one is really interesting. Kirsch believes it may be a fragment of a much older folktale, one in which Yahweh is more of the trickster god, not God the Father we have all been taught to believe in. I wish I could remember the name of that author I heard about on NPR, the one who wrote the book talking about the four different personalities of God contained in the Bible, one of which was a trickster like Loki in Norse mythology or some of the animal spirits in Native American cultures. Why this fragment is in the Bible at all is an even greater mystery.

Jephthah and his daughter (Judg. 11). Jephthah, a mercenary, is asked to lead the armies of Israel against an invading force from a neighboring kingdom. He accepts the offer and impulsively promises God that, in exchange for victory, he will sacrifice whoever first comes out of his house to greet him on his return from battle. He emerges victorious from the conflict but, to his horror, has no choice other than to sacrifice his only daughter to fulfill his vow. She goes willingly to the slaughter, but only after taking two months to go to the mountains with her friends and “bewail her virginity.”

This can be viewed as a retelling of the Abraham and Jacob story, but this time God does not stay the hand of the father in the slaying of his child.

And there's more evidence that the God of the Bible may not always be the God we have been taught to think of. This story seems like a prime example of Yahweh as interpreted by that guy from NPR, the god who is where he wants to be and not where he doesn’t want to be. By the way, my curiosity got the better of me the other night and I went on the NPR website and tracked down that guy and his book. His name is Harold Bloom and his book is Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. I ordered it off Amazon.com. We’ll see how long it takes me to get to it.

The Traveler and his concubine (Judg. 19-21). A traveling Levite and his concubine are forced by a storm to seek shelter in the town of Gibeah. They are taken in by a countryman and his daughter. The men of Gibeah—members of the tribe of Benjamin—surround the house in the night and demand the Levite be sent outside so that they might sodomize him. Instead, the Levite and his host offer up the concubine and the host’s daughter to satisfy the mob. The concubine is gang-raped to death. The Levite brings her body home, dismembers it, and sends the pieces to the four corners of Israel in the hope of inciting a war of revenge against the tribe whose men killed her.

Another retelling of another tale from earlier in the Bible, the one of Lot who offers up his daughters for the sexual appetites of an angry mob, but this time there aren’t any angels to keep the women safe. And, according to Kirsch, the ugliness and brutality captured in this tale are only a precursor for what’s to come when the war it prompts gets into full swing.

Tamar and Amnon (2 Sam. 13). After a sordid affair with Bathsheba, King David arranges for the death of her husband so that he might marry her. Shortly thereafter Amnon, David’s oldest son and heir apparent to the throne of Israel, falls desperately in love with his half sister, Tamar. Amnon feigns illness and asks the king to send Tamar to nurse him back to health. When she arrives, he rapes her and throws her out in the street. King David hears about this outrage but does nothing.

What’s most interesting about the story of David told in First and Second Samuel is how it evidently differs from the same story told in First and Second Chronicles, which Kirsch says contains a cleaned-up version of the story, which show this King of Israel in a much more favorable light. It’s puzzling, however. Why include both stories in the Bible? Why not make the nasty one apocryphal? When were they each written? And when was it decided that they would be included in the Bible? If I had more free time, this might actually be something I would pursue, trying to piece together the pieces of the Bible and how they came to be there.

The whole situation reminds me of the website I stumbled across when I was looking for a Bible verse to use in my novel, the one that presented the argument that the very structure and order of the books of the Bible were a divine creation worthy of our awe and wonderment. Look! The books of the Bible rotate like celestial clockwork around this wheel of God’s creation, creating multiple triads of three books from different parts of the Bible, with each triad intimately related to one another. Does that look like God’s design to you? Knowing what I think I do about how the different parts of the Bible were written over centuries and carefully pulled together, looks more like the design of obsessively compulsive humans, trying to justify their own importance and the importance of the God they had created.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The latest audiobook, and in many ways not what I expected. It’s a complex novel that seems to wrestle with the existence of God and the Devil in its clinical approach to the subject of possession. It does everything to convince you that possession is a mental illness, or at least fill you with enough doubt over the question of whether possession is the result of demons invading our bodies or sickness invading our minds that you don’t know what to think about it. And maybe that’s the point. Reagan’s mother, Chris, after all, is an avowed atheist, and it is ultimately she who demands that the church perform an exorcism on her daughter. Whether it is a demon that needs to be driven out or a psychological trick like the one Reagan supposedly played on herself, that no longer matters to Chris. Saved or cured, it doesn’t matter. She just wants her daughter back. But it ultimately fails for me because it doesn’t come down on one side or the other. At the end you still don’t know what brought on the possession, nor even exactly what Father Karras did to end it, and that is particularly unsatisfying.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pendergast! by Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston

A biography of Thomas J. Pendergast, the political machine boss who ran Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1930s and 1940s. Here’s the most interesting part:

In addition to Marceline, Tom Jr., and Aileen, a fourth child, Margaret Ann, lived with the Pendergasts. Carolyn claimed her as her half-sister. Margaret Ann, who went by the last name of Morton, was older than the three Pendergast children but twenty-four years younger than Carolyn. Growing up in the home, but never quite treated like a genuine family member, she always suspected that Carolyn was actually her real mother. Whenever the Pendergasts went on vacation, she was left behind. Margaret Ann “always felt something was wrong,” as she could not accept the difference between her age and the age of her half-sister, whom she called Carrie. In 1966, a private investigator hired by Tom Jr. said of Margaret Ann, “When she grew older, she wondered about it and tried to learn something about the death of her mother and father but Carrie wouldn’t tell her. She feared to ask any of the others.”

Margaret Ann remembered being with Carrie up in the attic of the Pendergast home at 5400 Wyandotte Street when she was a little girl. Margaret Ann was looking through what she called “some junk stored up there in boxes” when she found a document showing that sister Carrie had been married to and divorced from a man before she married T.J. Pendergast. “I never got to ask about it,” she said, “because Carrie saw what I was doing, snatched the paper out of my hands and bawled me out for meddling in other people’s business. She was awful angry. I never saw that paper again. I didn’t look for it either. I was afraid to.” Several years later, as a high school student, a friend told her that he had overheard someone say that she was really Carrie’s daughter. She mentioned this to Carrie “and got a good licking for it.”

As a teenager, Margaret Ann, after a quarrel, was sent to live with Carolyn’s brother, Luke Dunn. Never to return to the Pendergast household, she eventually married and moved to California. Many decades later, the private investigator hired by Tom Jr. located her. The subsequent investigation left little doubt that Margaret Ann was, in reality, Carolyn’s own daughter, father unknown, born prior to her marriage to Tom Pendergast.

Makes me wonder about the lives people lead, the secrets they keep, the lies they tell themselves to conceal them and the things they will do to keep them buried. Makes me also wonder about the power of social morals and taboos, the things people will do under their oppressive influence, and the things they might do different if they were not in place.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What is it about Fitzgerald? I mean, this one wasn’t particularly good, but there are flashes of brilliance throughout the prose. And the descriptions of how people relate to one another are spot on.

Who’s story is this? First you think it’s Rosemary’s, a young movie star on vacation in the south of France, who meets and falls in love with a thirty-something married doctor, Dick Divers. Then you think it’s Dick’s, whose wife, Nicole, was a former mental patient of his, under treatment for a breakdown after her father sexually abused her. (Did I read that? Is that what happened to Nicole? Or did I dream that up on my own. When stuff like that happens in books written before 1950 it’s never very explicit and sometimes it’s hard to remember.) And then you think it’s Nicole’s story, who has grown beyond her need for Dick and has an affair with someone who’s always been waiting in the wings for her. And a couple times Fitzgerald compares Dick to Grant, and he returns to it in the very last chapter, characterizing him as someone called out of obscurity to do great things but then returned to obscurity in Galena and forgotten about.

But as I said before, the way people are described interacting with one another—the young and inexperienced girl falling in love for the first time, the experienced professional essentially deciding to take her after her numerous advances, the wife moving on to a new lover when there’s nothing else for her to do, the lover thinking he has conquered something when in fact he’s had very little to do with it—it’s all so well told and so real, how they feel and how they think and how what they do is just a natural by-product of the other two. Makes me want to read it again.