I remember years ago I found a book being discussed in an article: The Bible as Literature. Instantly I was intrigued. I had tried to read The Bible as History, and disliked it. Later I would read–among other books–Who Wrote the Bible? and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative or The Art of Biblical Poetry. I plan to reread Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament. However, The Bible as Literature both was and was not a disappointment. It was probably technically accurate. That the Psalms said that the “earth clapped its hands” should not be taken literally is probably true. So, too, some of the oldest parts of the Bible were certainly written in Judges and not Genesis. Yet in the book’s dismissive treatment of the Prophets, you could see its general tone. It might be accurate, but it was not respectful–and it did not care about what the real “point” of the David and Goliath story might be, besides its clinical accuracy or inaccuracy, or how it was told.
Anyway, I really believe–because I am not really Orthodox but Conservative as a Jew–that the place of the Bible in Judaism and probably in Christianity is as a spiritual and moral wellspring, something that teaches lessons more than facts. It is indeed literature, but it is sacred literature–and, really, to gut even regular literature of what it “means” is to destroy it. Even a love poem, to the person who has never believed in love, is empty. However, I am going to focus not on the gorgeous writing of–say–the Song of Solomon, about romantic and erotic love, which the Talmud tries to turn into a book about God and the Jewish people and the Catholic community tries to turn into a book about Jesus and the Church. No, I am going to start with the simpler stories of Genesis and Exodus and Judges and Samuel and Kings and Daniel and Esther. Why? I am sure it is fickle, but I have always been a great lover of stories, and I believe these stories inform the moral conscience as much as the Psalms or Proverbs.
Often I wish I had a child, and that I could write a child’s Bible for him or her. I would begin it with the words, “Once there was a girl named Havah.” Havah is Eve’s Hebrew name. If in Elie Wiesel’s Prophets of God, he could write about Adam but squander no time on Eve, Havah would be God’s little girl, wise in the Garden until the serpent tempted her, and then she and the equally disloyal Adamah (Adam) were thrown out of the Garden. Havah and her children, however (and Adamah) were given a gift: they were all human. And humans are always God’s children, no matter how suffering or wicked. And each child born on this earth is a child of God, and at birth has the birthright of human happiness, and if they are good of Heavenly Reward. And this is the first lesson of the Hebrew scriptures. However, though God works with the humans after their being cast out of the Garden, they have several tragic failures: Cane and Avel, the Flood of Noah, and the Tower of Babel. So finally, God comes to a righteous man, Avraham. He will be the founder of the three monotheistic faiths. Through his failures and successes–and those of his wife Sarai, and their servant Hagar, and his sons Ishmael and Yitzak (Isaac)–God builds up Avraham. And finally God tests Avraham, due to some of his mistakes: God tells Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzak. Well, Avraham takes Isaac to the sacred mountain Moriah and is about to do so–but then an angel stops Avraham. God is pleased with Avraham. This is the mysterious end of Avraham’s life and work. After his death, Ishmael and Yitzak both bury their father–the only time when they get along, on behalf of their having different mothers. Because time is short, I will not tell the equally profound stories of Yitzak and Rebecca, Esau and Yaqoob (Jacob), Yaqoob and his wives and sons, and how the family moves to Mizraim (Egypt, the land of suffering) from which they will finally return to the Holy Land, Yisrael.
I give the Hebrew names to convey the wildness of the text, sometimes forgotten by those who read the respectable King James or Catholic translations. It is at best incomplete… Yet it builds in a child a moral universe in which God is good and human beings have a divinely ordained spot in the world. That place is as God’s children… Though I don’t always like quoting him–he is a Christian apologist after all–perhaps the wildness of the Jewish God in whom the words in the burning bush “I Will Be What I Will Be” sum up God’s Name is what C.S. Lewis meant by saying of Aslan, “He is not a tame lion.” Don’t misunderstand me. The God of the Hebrews is loving. He is merciful. He blesses whole generations of peoples for their ancestors. Yet he is also cantankerous, and though he is “slow to anger” he has fire in him too. Sometimes I will write about the real meaning–it is not as bad as it sounds–of God “Being a Jealous God.” Yet not today. I only say that believing in God creates a moral universe whose heart is a passionate God who demands good conduct and eschews the wicked. And that is the Common Core between destroying Sodom (for inhospitality) and providing the 10 Commandments.