Skeptic's views on Bible entertaining, respectful

April 8, 2009 10:04:48 AM PDT
"Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible" by David Plotz.

David Plotz figured he knew the Bible. After all, he knew all the main stories - Adam and Eve, the Ten Commandments, David and Goliath, the parting of the Red Sea.

But then, bored at a cousin's bat mitzvah, he idly flipped through Genesis and was horrified to find a macabre story he'd never heard before.

The story described how Shechem raped Dinah, then later asked to marry her. Her family pretended to agree but demanded that the men of Shechem's town be circumcised first. The men complied, and three days later Dinah's brothers slaughtered them "when they were in pain," and enslaved the women and children.

The tale unsettled Plotz, a proud but not-so-religious Jew. If no one had ever taught him about that story, he wondered, what else hadn't he been told?

So at 35 he decided to read the entire Bible for the first time. He blogged about his observations, a project that eventually spawned this highly entertaining book.

"Good Book" is an intriguing look at the Old Testament from the perspective of an acknowledged nonexpert. Plotz breaks down the chapters in a CliffsNotes style, summarizing key points and opining on their significance.

What emerges are pictures of God and Israelite heroes that are frequently at odds with the sanitized stories most people know.

God often comes across as moody, spiteful and insecure. He avenges a slight by one person by smiting thousands of innocent others, he rewards unworthy men with power and he enforces important rules with frustrating inconsistency.

Consider the Book of Joshua. Plotz describes how the Israelite armies sweep through a number of towns and massacre every resident, all with God's blessing.

"Joshua is a genocidal brute, and God is unfathomably cruel," Plotz writes. "It doesn't matter that God has promised this land to Israel: no god can justify such smug, wanton murder."

Of course, such a literal interpretation might not sit well with some readers. Believers may argue that God works in mysterious ways, or that the stories are meant to be interpreted figuratively or read at a deeper level.

More casual readers are likely to be entertained. Plotz writes with eloquence, wit and frequent humor.

For example, when Samson falls for a Philistine his parents "become the first Jewish parents in history to complain, 'You couldn't find a nice Jewish girl?"'

Plotz also includes amusing appendices such as the Bible's 12 best pickup lines and Plotz's 10 favorite biblical prostitutes. Clearly he's having fun with the entire project.

But the strength of his book is its ability to make a reader think. Similar to the child who said the emperor was wearing no clothes, Plotz says things that Bible readers may have thought but not dared to say aloud - for example, calling God cruel for slaying innocent firstborns.

Plotz spent a full year reading the Bible. He emerges from the effort jaded - a "hopeless and angry agnostic" upset at a God portrayed as "awful, cruel and capricious."

The frustration comes through in his writing, but with a level of humility. Plotz comes across as someone who doesn't accept everything he reads in the Bible but who'd be open to discussions with those of more faith.

People with strongly held beliefs might take offense as Plotz's negative characterizations of God, but they don't seem to be his target audience. He seems to speak more to people who have a passing familiarity the Bible and want a better understanding of what the fuss is all about.

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