Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Bible I Love

The Bible is the greatest achievement of western culture. I say that without a touch of irony, because I believe it – if I have a reservation, it is only about whether ancient Israel should be considered “western.” But I’ll move past that reservation because the Bible is foundational to the west. It is the bedrock upon which our art, literature, music and philosophy rest. Our world would be unrecognizably different were it not for the Bible.

The wonder of the Bible is in its vastness, its complexity, its vivid narratives, its passionate polemic and its gentle expressions of love. An anthology – some would say an anthology of anthologies – spanning more than 1,000 years of the greatest writing of the ancient Middle East, the Bible takes us from the beginning of the world to its end. It’s hard to be more comprehensive than that.

The Bible is endlessly enjoyable, filled with familiar stories that form the background of our lives and less familiar ones that may shock people who think they know what’s within its covers. It is both high art and lowdown, raucous entertainment.

It is important, I think, that it be appreciated as art. The many authors of this text were adults writing for adult audiences. They wrote complex texts that can support a multitude of readings; they are meant to be studied, torn apart, argued over. They span a wide variety of styles – prose and poetry, fable and fairy tale, domestic and wartime drama, thoughtful and probing essays, warnings and celebrations.

The Bible is many, many things. What it is not is a factual history or a science textbook – and it is the insistence that it fill these roles that leads to the intolerance and demagoguery that is too often associated with those who claim to live by “the Book.” I would argue that taking the Bible literally as either history or science is in fact an insult to its authors, a manifestation of deep disrespect for their achievements as artists.

Yes, the Bible is meant to teach us, but not in this literal fashion. Various portions of the Bible – in particular the Gospels – are in fact quite direct in pointing to the parable as their preferred form of storytelling. It’s not just the stories Jesus told directly that should be understood as parables.

I’ve spent most of the past year teaching about the story I consider to be the heart of the Bible – the David narrative in the books of Samuel . In my view, everything that comes before David in the Bible looks forward to his reign, and everything after looks back. Seen in this light, the stories of the patriarchs, of the exodus, and especially the tales of the judges all are told to prefigure the coming of David, whose kingdom represents the height of earthly power for the sons and daughters of Israel. Afterward, beginning with the reign of his son Solomon, things begin to fall apart and nothing that subsequent rulers, prophets and military leaders can do will restore the glory of the time of David.

It is, of course, a story that has strong parallels to the much later legend of Arthur. But the David story as told in Samuel (and the first few chapters of I Kings) is more complex, more believable and more memorable than that of Arthur (which I also love, but which has to yield ground to the David narrative). David combines domestic drama -- his many wives; the betrayal that allows his marriage to Bathsheba; the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon; the revolt led by his son Absalom – with the military exploits of David and Saul, and the religious narrative focusing on the life of the prophet Samuel, the anointing of Saul and David, and the subsequent prophecies of Nathan.

The storytelling in Samuel is vivid, the detail is stunning. Although there is no undisputed archaeological evidence of the united, prosperous kingdom of the Jews described in these texts, the power of the narrative is so strong that I tend to believe there was a real David, and that his story – a prime example of a “warts and all” biography – was written down close to the time of his life. Although a popular theory holds that Samuel is part of what is called the Deuteronomistic history, composed or compiled after the Babylonian exile, I suspect that the David story was an existing narrative that was edited and woven into the larger narrative cycle.

That doesn’t mean I believe the David story is accurate history, just that there is a core of truth on which the story is built, much in the manner of a historical novel.The author of Samuel shaped the David story as a work of art, designed for impact. We are meant to see -- and we do see -- David as Messiah, as the pinnacle of Israelite history and culture. We are meant to understand that his unwavering faith in Yahweh places him there, despite his otherwise very human failings.

Chronicles retells the David story without the warts. It's still a majestic story, but it doesn't have the immediacy or the impact of Samuel. It's respectful and respectable -- as the Samuel telling manifestly is not. Chronicles contains no hint of the betrayal of Uriah, for example. We don’t hear about Saul’s gradual descent into madness, leading to his deadly pursuit of David through the wildernesses of the Holy Land. When David’s first wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, watches the procession that brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, Chronicles dutifully repeats the Samuel author’s observation that while watching David dance ecstatically she “despised him in her heart,” but leaves out the compelling detail that a good part of the reason for her displeasure was that while David was dancing, his short ephod flipped up, exposing his genitals to the view of everyone in town.

It’s details like that that make the David story so absorbing. Like all great literary art, the David story transports us into its world and crowds out doubt. By itself, it would be a staggering achievement. That it is one of so many powerful stories in the collection that is the Bible, makes its existence all the more astonishing.