The Bible. Varying editions (Collegeville, MN: St. Johns University Press; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), varying dates. Sacred Heart University Library: REF BS192.A1 1970 .L6. Reviewed April 1, 2014.
A sprawling, disorganized, and digressive anthology, The Bible reflects either too many or not enough editorial hands. Though sweeping in scope and subject matter, it is frequently repetitive, inconsistent, and difficult to understand. It's a challenge to read at every turn. As it is, the editors buried the lead.
Often times the purported values of The Bible's authors are blatantly contradicted by the conduct of some of its leading characters. In Genesis, the opening text, Abraham is persuaded by God's expansive promise of future real estate and redemption, but cheats on his wife and abuses his children and household servants. His grandson Jacob, a charming, fugitive swindler, is haunted by extraordinary dreams (wrestling with an angel; climbing a ladder to heaven) but at length degenerates to a self-pitying old man. Father of 12 sons, Jacob's 11th (Joseph) is a schmoozer worthy of Washington's K Street lobbyists, who fast-talks his way into Pharoah's court and then leads his truant and murderous brothers on a wild-goose chase during a disruptive famine. Moses, a trail-blazing stutterer with a divining rod, leads their descendants out of Egypt.
Later in the anthology we meet Jael, audacious woman with a lethal tent peg, and Hannah who braves the stigma of reproductive difficulties only to give birth to Samuel, king-maker and un-maker extraordinare. Ominously, Samuel also hears voices such as God's. Apparently on impulse he anoints David (a rural teen-ager). As king David unexpectedly proves himself to be a brilliant guerilla commander, dauntless terrorist, and authoritarian ruler with a penchant for beautiful women. As a poet David is oft-quoted elsewhere in The Bible, such as his plaintive "My God, why have you forsaken me?" His son Solomon, an insufferable know-it-all, seeks to globalize Israel's real-estate franchise only to have his spoiled sons blow it all up.
After David and Solomon narrative coherence breaks down, and the editors seem to have lost control of the text. The reader encounters a succession of prophets who offer trenchant social and political critiques served up with generous helpings of self-promotion. The reader encounters tedious volumes of pithy sayings, "I told you so" rants from Jeremiah, and deranged episodes with Ezekiel and Hosea. The themes of terrorism and irregular warfare return with Judas Maccabeus, who in turn paves the way for the tense stories of the New Testament against a backdrop of Roman imperial aggression and local corruption.
Jesus now takes center stage as the primary character, but his career is reported four times with varying and inconsistent emphases. Gifted with storytelling and the common touch, he meets what Scottish author J.K. Rowling once termed a "sticky end" at the hands of a political conspiracy worthy of House of Cards. But his story does not end --his followers proclaim his new and risen life with a resonance peculiar and powerful for those caught on the social margins. This Occupy-like movement begins to attract notice and opponents, one of whom (Saul of Tarsus) suddenly becomes the movements' chief spokesperson. Unquenchably talkative, the probably bi-polar Paul is framed on trumped-up charges that wind their way through the Roman legal system. Far from stopping him, this legal process gives Paul a platform from which he either mesmerizes or alienates his successive hosts.
After series of obscure and short letters, this digressive anthology concludes with Revelation, a bizarre hallucination of the end of all things, and a pastiche of slightly inaccurate quotations from the rest of the anthology. Wiser editors would have deleted it as unhelpful second-guessing that distracts from the book's main emphases.
Only nearly hidden in the middle of the anthology can the reader find the two most startling documents. The wealthy insider Job endures bankruptcy and disease only to argue with his friends and God in some of the anthology's most eloquent and memorable passages: "A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last," or elsewhere, "born to trouble as sparks fly upward." Job's querulous former friends try to talk him down until God forcibly silences him: "who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge" --while simultaneously concealing God's refusal to answer Job's devastating accusations directly. Some pages later a certain preacher (Ecclesiastes) resoundingly and repetitively declares that all is vanity: "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, but time and chance happen to them all. . . . Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." Try telling that to a University crowd.
Had the editors of this anthology taken his advice to heart, and positioned the Book of Job first and Ecclesiastes last, the focus of the whole thing might have been much clearer. As it stands, this anthology is best read with some assistance either in a self-critical community or from specialist scholars, and the reader is well advised to take The Bible's more exotic passages lightly. Consider Elijah or Mary: who knew that messages from angels could have such far-reaching consequences?
--Gavin Ferriby (N.B. I have disabled comments on this post for reasons that anyone who writes for the web will understand -- the forest of trolls. And thanks for reading!)