It feels very wrong to write a book review of The Bible, but it would also feel wrong to not get the Cannonball Reads credit for reading it- so here we are! I’m splitting this review into two, one review for the Old Testament and one review for the New Testament- not only does this make sense thematically, but this way I also get double the book reading credit! Although my hesitations in writing this review are also many, I’m also hopeful that God, if he exists, and his biggest fans, who definitely exist, take my constructive criticism well…
My reasons for wanting to read The Bible were many, but three are worth noting: 1) I wanted more understanding (or at least awareness) of all of the Biblical references in the novels, films, songs, etc., that surround me in my otherwise secular life; 2) I wanted to evaluate the source material for Biblical moral authority; and 3) I was hoping the Word of God might spark something in my agnostic/atheist soul. Finally, a quick note on versions: I read the Good News Bible, as that’s what the United Church gave me as a child (I’m assuming that the King James version is fairly similar, but don’t know as I haven’t read it).
As a starting point, can I just say this book is a BEAST to read? The Old Testament is 900+ pages of very thin paper (literally bible paper). (If I thought Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings was a lot of book, it was only because I hadn’t read this Book yet.) The Old Testament is 39 books of various lengths which move roughly chronologically forward in time, beginning with the creation of the world (Genesis) all the way through to Jesus (he gets his own Testament). Most books are stories about various ‘historical’ figures and events (I’m putting historical in brackets, as science is not super supportive of a lot of these individuals being actual historical individuals). The books that do not focus on figures and events focus instead on the following: a) laying out biblical laws (see: Leviticus and Deuteronomy); b) serving as the group hymnbook/poetry collection (see: Psalms and Song of Solomon) or c) recording collective ‘wisdoms’ (see: Proverbs).
Looking more in depth at the chronological ‘historical’ figures and events books, the first two books, Genesis and Exodus, play a starring role. These two alone were where most of the non-Jesus Bible stories that I knew came from- they give us Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Moses and the Burning Bush and the parting of the Red Sea, among others. There are also smaller sections in the other books where well-known stories pop up (ie: David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Job and his patience, Jonah and his whale, Ezekiel and his wheel, etc.). The farther we move out from Genesis and Exodus, however, the less touchstone-y the books felt- by the end we’re into books named after prophets that I’d never heard of (see: Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Nahum, Haggai, etc.), and whose stories seemed repetitive and added little new material (people aren’t following the laws, people should follow the laws, God chose us as his people, etc.).
From a content perspective, I had an awful lot of thoughts as I was reading. A small sampling:
- How much of this is historically accurate? How much was intended to be metaphor? If I read it as metaphor can I make more/any sense of it?;
- There is a footnote that says that the Red Sea was actually misnamed/mistranslated and ‘Red’ was instead supposed to be translated as ‘Reed’ with TWO ee’s, which was apparently a marshy area in the Nile estuary, nowhere near the Red ‘with one E’ Sea. Why was this fact never included/ explained to me before? Drying up a marshy estuary seems much more plausible than drying up the Red Sea;
- Who is editing this for readability? Why are there so many tedious family genealogies?;
- Who is editing this for plot? How are there so many Game of Thrones plots (ie: incest, rape, murder) and yet also so may gaping plot holes (Early book: God will punish children for the sins of the father. Later book: God doesn’t punish the children for the sins of the father. He’s never done that, who told you that?);
- This is really reminding me of American Gods. Not only is the Old Testament God not consistent, nice or reasonable, but he is also obsessed with having his worshippers worship only him and with stamping out the worship of other gods (which he also says don’t exist, which seems odd- if they don’t exist, why would you be so angry that they’re being worshipped?). All of this is highly suspect;
- There are a lot of rules here that don’t make logical sense, at least not in the present (ie: dietary restrictions, physical dimensions that a temple must meet, what garments you can wear, why only certain men can be priests, etc.). Nothing in here is changing my mind about why some Rules are still cited as moral authority while we totally ignore others, and there is nothing here to allow for a solid argument as for why homosexual marriage should be prohibited or women should be subservient, etc.;
- Moses was running a racket. He goes up on a mountain, hears a voice from God that no one else can hear, and suddenly only Moses’ brother and his brother’s sons can be priests? And priests are entitled to eat the majority of the offerings of meat, oil and grain that everyone else is required to give in order to be ‘ritually clean’? I smell social control, not the divine Word; and
- This book does not have moral high ground- at multiple times, men offer up their virgin daughters to mobs of men in order to save a grown male stranger from being sodomized, and this is lauded as the right move. WTF?!?!.
While there is so much more that I could talk about, I still have a whole other Testament to read. Accordingly, its final evaluation time and I give this book 1 star out of 3:
- Cultural understanding: Ding ding! Gold star! I had no idea how many cultural reference points were in here, and I’m definitely picking up on more biblical references in the culture that I’m imbibing. This week’s most pertinent example: the Israeli approach to Gaza and the West Bank has taken on a new perspective now that I know that the Old Testament God promised the Jewish people that he would kick out the people who lived in the land that is now Israel and give it to them, the Chosen People;
- Moral authority: zero stars. Disappointingly, the more I read of the Bible, the less moral authority I saw in it. You can’t throw your virgin daughter to the mob to save a strange man and retain the high ground; and
- Spiritual spark: zero stars. Rather than inspiring me, reading the Old Testament cover to cover confirmed what I’d suspected but hadn’t really wanted to acknowledge: this Book is more human and less divine. In particular, it reflects the norms and values that arose out of a specific geographical space and specific temporal period (ancient Levant), and these are norms and values that I don’t share. The God I’m looking for, if she exists, wouldn’t be this petty, tyrannical, contradictory or sexist. (She’d also have a better editor).