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I have always been a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one. Several weeks ago, I made a rare visit to synagogue for a cousin’s bat mitzvah and, as usual, found myself confused (and bored) by a Hebrew service I couldn’t understand. During the second hour of what would be a ceremony of NFL-game-plus-overtime-length, I picked up the Torah in the pew-back, opened it at random, and started reading (the English translation, that is).
I was soon engrossed in a story I didn’t know, Genesis Chapter 34. It begins with the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem, the son of a local chief named Hamor. Shechem and Hamor visit Jacob and his brothers to resolve the mess. Hamor begs on Shechem’s behalf: Shechem loves Dinah, he says, and yearns to marry her. Hamor and Shechem offer to share their land with Jacob’s family and pay any bride price if only Dinah would be Shechem’s wife.
Jacob’s sons pretend to agree to this proposal, but they insist that Shechem and all the other men of his town get circumcised before the marriage. Shechem and his father accept the demand. They and their fellow townsmen get circumcised. Three days after the circumcision, “when they were in pain,” Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi (who are Dinah’s full brothers) enter the town, murder all the men, and take Dinah away. After this slaughter, Jacob’s other sons plunder the town, seize the livestock and property, and take the women and children as slaves. Jacob, who hasn’t said a word in the chapter till now, complains to Simeon and Levi that other neighboring tribes won’t trust him anymore. “But they answered, ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ “
This is not a story they taught me at Temple Sinai’s Hebrew School in 1980: The founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel lie, breach a contract, encourage pagans to convert to Judaism only in order to incapacitate them for slaughter, murder some innocents and enslave others, pillage and profiteer, and then justify it all with an appeal to their sister’s defiled honor. (Which, incidentally, may not have been defiled at all: Some commentators, their views dramatized in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, think Dinah went with Shechem willingly, and even the language in the two translations I looked at is ambiguous. One says Shechem “lay with her by force,” while the King James say he “lay with her, and defiled her.”)
Like many lax but well-educated Jews (and Christians), I have long assumed I knew what was in the Bible—more or less. I read parts of the Torah as a child in Hebrew school, then attended a rigorous Christian high school where I had to study the Old and New Testaments. Many of the highlights stuck in my head—Adam and Eve, Cain vs., Abel, Jacob vs. Esau, Jonah vs. whale, 40 days and nights, 10 plagues and Commandments, 12 tribes and apostles, Red Sea walked under, Galilee Sea walked on, bush into fire, rock into water, water into wine. And, of course, I absorbed other bits of Bible everywhere—from stories I heard in churches and synagogues, movies and TV shows, tidbits my parents and teachers told me. All this left me with a general sense that I knew the Good Book well enough, and that it was a font of crackling stories, Jewish heroes, and moral lessons.
So, the tale of Dinah unsettled me, to say the least. If this story was strutting cheerfully through the back half of Genesis, what else had I forgotten or never learned? I decided I would, for the first time as an adult, read the Bible. And I would blog about it as I went along. For the millions of Jews and Christians who know the Bible intimately, this may seem obscene: Why should an ignoramus write about the stories and lessons that you know by heart and understand well? I don’t intend any kind of insult. My goal is not to find contradictions, mock impossible events, or scoff at hypocrisy. Nor am I quite stupid enough to pretend that Judaism (or Christianity) is just the Bible. Jews are not only the People of the Book but the People of Many Books. There is the rest of the Hebrew Bible—the Prophets and Writings, the vast commentary of the Talmud, the stories of the midrashim, and thousands and thousands of years of other law and story and commentary. This 4,000years’ worth of delving and discussion is totally unfamiliar to me—I can’t hope to compete with its wisdom. Nor is there any shortage of modern advice on how to read the Bible. (Just look up “How to read the Bible” on Amazon.) There are experts to tell you why the Bible is literally true, others to advise you how to analyze it as history, and still others to help you read it as literature. You can learn how to approach it as a Jew, a Catholic, an evangelical Protestant, a feminist, a lawyer, a teenager.
So, what can I possibly do? My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I’m in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?
I’ll spend the next few weeks (or months) finding out. I’ll begin with “in the beginning” and see how far I get. My wife, struck by my new biblical obsession, gave me a wonderful Torah translation and commentary for Hannukah, the Etz Hayim,which was prepared by conservative Jewish scholars. I’ll read that and dip into the King James and other translations on occasion. (But I’ll avoid most commentary, since the whole point is to read the Bible fresh.) I’m sure I’ll repeat obvious points made by thousands of biblical commentators before; I’ll misunderstand some passages and distort others—hey, that’ll be part of the fun. I hope you’ll tell me how I’ve screwed up by e-mailing me at email@example.com.
Browse the complete Blogging the Bible series.