Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The Bible as Blank Slate

In an ongoing, multi-part series called Blogging the Bible on Slate, David Plotz offers comments on his first reading of large parts of the Hebrew Bible. At his best he is superb. He is selling innocence and a new viewpoint—two commodities you might have believed the world was fresh out of when it comes to the Bible, the mightiest text of all, most famous and most exhaustively-studied book known to man. Yet, amazingly, it is all new to Plotz, and his loss is our gain: we experience his fascination, excitement, and occasional joy alongside him as he discovers the narrative genius and moral profundity of the good book.

But to reach these peaks of fine writing Plotz’s readers must slog through the usual nonsense about the alleged contradictions and cruelties of the Hebrew Bible, written with as much vigorous outrage as if these observations had just occurred to mankind yesterday afternoon. Worse is Plotz’s passivity: repeatedly he writes (frankly and openly) that “I don’t know” or “I wonder”—but virtually never cracks a book or calls in an expert to find out. He waits for the answer to come to him, in the form of emails from readers. His commentary suggests a whole new way to do research: if you want to learn about topic X, write an essay about it and your readers will teach you.

This lack of curiosity may be deliberate. In his introduction to the series, Plotz tells us that his aim is to “find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.” Undeniably this approach has its moments. When David sings his lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, Plotz doesn’t recognize this most famous elegy in the history of the world. Yet he does recognize its greatness (all on his own, not because anyone tipped him off); and he is unfailingly honest about his ignorance. “David sings a gorgeous lament about the deaths [of Saul and son]. (Hey, language mavens! This song is the source of the phrase: `How the mighty are fallen.’)”

But innocence can be overdone—to the point where you question the author’s competence as a literate reader. In the middle of his discussion of Leviticus 19, which Plotz calls the “most glorious chapter of the Bible” (a lovely phrase), we read: “’Love your fellow as yourself’—Ever wonder where Jesus got ‘Love thy neighbor’? Not anymore.” The most famous sentence in the Hebrew Bible is news to Plotz. What does a man know if he doesn’t know this? Not that Plotz is alone in his ignorance—but ignorance this dramatic makes a peculiar basis for offering yourself as a commentator.

Of course any way you look at it, it takes plenty of swagger, arrogance, or what you will to write a commentary on a book you have only read in translation, consulting no commentaries in the process. Plotz notes that “In second Creation [the story beginning in Genesis 2:4], the woman is made to be man’s ‘helper.’ In Chapter 1 they are made equal.” But this word “helper,” which troubles Plotz, originates in one of the most celebrated untranslatables of the Bible. God actually says, in Genesis 2:18, that He will create Eve to be ezer k’negdo; the King James Bible translates, “I will make him [Adam] an help meet for him” (whence the word “helpmeet”). Actually the preposition neged (as in k’negdo) means “in sight of” or “standing opposite to” or “over and against.” The sentence ought to be translated, “I will make him a helper standing eye-to-eye with him,” or “a helper as his counterpart”—as most modern commentaries point out. Eve is Adam’s assistant, but she measures up to Adam; she is Adam’s counterpart; in no sense is she a lesser human being. Hence one of the most astounding sentences in the Bible, which Plotz passes over without a word, in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” A man will leave his parents, a man will cleave to his wife? Ancient listeners would have stopped dead in their tracks. But Plotz keeps right on going.

It is sadly typical of modern intellectual life that Plotz is willing to be honestly, innocently surprised by nearly anything in the Bible except its frequent departures from anti-feminist type-casting. But his most serious error is to misrepresent the very process of Jewish Bible reading. He calls himself a “proud Jew” (more power to him); he acknowledges the immense quantity of rabbinic Bible commentary (in the Talmud and midrash) of which he is ignorant. But he fails to grasp that normative Jewish authorities do not read the Bible alongside the Talmud but through the Talmud. Thus he includes, for example, the usual tiresome stuff about all the death sentences imposed by Biblical law. But as Judaism reads these verses, there are no death sentences in the Bible: the Talmud (for better or worse) erects such elaborate procedural protections for the accused in capital cases that it virtually rules executions out. Which has been pointed out innumerable times before.

It might be fairest to say in the end that Plotz’s sins are the sins of his era and medium, but his virtues are his own. He is sometimes rambling and shallow—but Internet prose encourages shallow rambles. He is ignorant of religion and the Bible, but so are most educated people nowadays. On political topics he speaks with the freshness and spontaneity of a wind-up doll—after the defeat of the Israelites at Ai, Plotz writes, “A devastated Joshua tears his clothes in mourning, and tries to figure out what went wrong (Don’t you wish our leaders took war as seriously?)” But that’s life in America’s intellectual elite. On the other hand he writes with honesty and integrity and—on the whole—a sharp eye for brilliant prose and deep moral philosophy. Blogging the Bible is illuminating in more ways than one. Enjoy it, but read at your own risk.



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