Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Good Book, by David Plotz

David Plotz, editor of Slate magazine, was a mildly-observant Jew. While bored during a bat mitzvah, he idly flipped through a copy of the Torah (Old Testament) and was surprised to read a passage about the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Rape, duplicity, and murder? In the Holy Scriptures??

He realized that he had never sat down and actually read the book his religion and culture were based on. So he started blogging his experience, one long chapter of genealogies at a time.

That was a couple of years ago, and now Plotz has edited his blog posts into a book called The Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, available now.

Plotz has two primary takeaway messages. First, he argues that too many people are not familiar with the Bible, and they are missing out on the wellspring of much of our mutual culture. He was continually surprised to finally read the origins of certain catchphrases such as "Into the Lions' Den" and the original usage of MLK's "I have a dream." Common plot devices such as mannequins propped in bed to foil assassins had their origin in the Jewish scriptures. As Plotz writes:

"Not to sound like a theocratic crank, but I'm actually shocked that students aren't compelled to read huge chunks of the Bible in high school and college, the way they must read Shakespeare or the Constitution or Mark Twain."

His second point was less pleasant. Have you ever known somebody that seemed more or less normal until you investigated further and found out the dark and sordid truth about her character? That's what Plotz discovered about the Bible's number-one character: Jehovah. He writes:

"I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love."

Of course, as Plotz blogged his WTF moments ("God killed seventy thousand people with plague because King David conducted a census? That God himself ordered David to do??") he was naturally bombarded with apologists of two kinds. Jews wanted to punt to mystery, arguing that our ways are not God's ways so we can't judge him by human standards. Plotz rightfully argues that if God made him to be a rational person, then he can rationally find God to be irrational. If God has a problem with that he only has himself to blame.

Christians, on the other hand, wanted Plotz to just overlook those difficult Old Testament passages--the ones that they themselves ignore quite easily--and remember that's it all setup for the New Testament's Jesus to make everything right. "Sure, God may have been a bit, um, brusque in the OT, but thanks to Jesus we all get to live in Heaven someday! Doesn't that make up for the genocides and stuff?" In a word, Plotz says, No.

"I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament."

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