David Plotz was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, April 11, to discuss “Blogging the Bible.” An unedited transcript of the chat follows. To learn more about the project, click here. Browse the complete Blogging the Bible series or read the latest entry, “The Book of Job’s Enthralling, Baffling Conclusion.”
David Plotz: Hello. This is David Plotz of Slate, and I am looking forward to talking with you about the Bible and Blogging the Bible. Please ask away.
Columbus, Ohio: Hi David! I love Blogging the Bible—I’ve been reading it since day one and I look forward to your new installments. Are you enjoying the reading, or do you find yourself kind of pushing through, like doing assigned reading for college?
David Plotz: It depends on the book. I’ve been reading the Book of Job this week, and that is pure delight. I’d never read it before and it’s thrilling to engage with a story that is so important and beautiful and demanding. I just finished it, and the last few chapters are stunning. So in the case of Job, it’s a much better read than anything else on my night table. On the other hand, Prophets and Psalms nearly killed me. That’s not to say there aren’t fine passages, and important chapters and pressing issues in them, but they are a total chore to read front to back.
Arlington, Va.: What’s been the most surprising thing in blogging?
David Plotz: The most surprising thing. Hmm. I guess it’s how morally complicated the book is. When you hear “The Bible,” you think: morality, righteousness, the goodness of God, the holiness of it all. And then you read the stories themselves, and they’re incredibly confusing, morally. The Bible, at least the Hebrew Bible, does not offer clear guidance about how we are supposed to behave. What kind of lesson do you learn from the stories in Joshua, where God orders the wholesale slaughter of the other tribes in the Promised Land?
What is so demanding, and exciting, about the book is the way it pushes you to face moral complexity, and not settle for the simplest, easiest lesson.
Potomac, Md.: In your reading, are you looking at any secondary sources for guidance, such as the commentary in the footnotes in Etz Hayim?
David Plotz: I try to avoid commentary as much as possible. One of my translations has no commentary at all in it; the other has a few footnotes that I try to ignore. Avoiding commentary is a conscious effort. I want to encounter the book as rawly as possible. Most people encounter the Bible through someone else—as their rabbi or pastor or professor or priest interprets it for them. My goal for Blogging the Bible is to read it with as clear a mind as possible.
This means, of course, that I massively misinterpret certain passages, because I don’t have sufficient education and context to understand them, and it means that I skip important verses or stories, and miss connections. But that’s okay. The value of the experience for me as a reader (and as a writer) is to make sense of my holy book for myself—not to succumb to the interpretation that someone else imposes on it.
Atlanta: Blogging the Bible is such a great concept. What gave you the idea?
washingtonpost.com: Introduction to Blogging the Bible(Slate, May 16, 2006)
David Plotz: I was at my cousin’s bat mitzvah, and bored out of my skull by the long ceremony, so I picked up the Torah in the pew in front of me, and opened it at random. I landed in the middle of Genesis, at the story of Dinah. I had never heard of it. She is the daughter of Jacob. One day she goes out and gets raped by the son of a local chief. He comes to Jacob and his sons (Dinah’s brothers) and says he wants to marry her, he loves her, will pay any bride price for her. Jacob’s sons say, okay, but one condition. You and all the men of your town have to get circumcised first. The guy agrees, they townsmen circumcise themselves. While they are recovering (and thus weakened), Jacob’s son show up in the town and kill them and take their women and children as slaves. I read this story and thought: Wow! Here are the founders of Israel tricking people into conversion in order to kill them, and this story is not somewhere deep in Jeremiah. It is right in Genesis! The book everyone knows! I started wondering, if that is here, what else have I missed. I realized that I was a well educated man who was totally ignorant of his holy book, and I thought I have to read it. And once I started reading it and wouldn’t shut up about it, my wife had the great idea that I should write about it. Long answer for a short question!
Alexandria, Va.: Have your feelings regarding the validity of the Bible as word-of-God changed as a result of this project?
David Plotz: Good question. I don’t think my feelings have changed. I did not believe the Bible was dictated by God before, and I still don’t. I believe it was written by human beings who were inspired by religious feelings, by people who felt close to god and inspired by God. But I didn’t think, and still don’t think, that God himself wrote or dictated or guided it. My view is that it is a work of man, inspired by godly feelings.
Burke, Va.: I have studied the Bible for years, and agree with you that when I read a passage with no knowledge of other factors (when it was written, audience written for, etc), I miss so much. Would you consider continuing this project after you finish a once-through without commentary? Do a second reading, this time with commentary? See what you understand differently, and what seems the same?
David Plotz: I think I will need a vacation after the first reading. Lots of trashy romances, perhaps! That’s a very interesting idea. I will think about it.
One problem with doing a reading with commentary is: Which commentary? There is so much out there that you could drown in it.
Annapolis, Md.: Was your decision to read the entire Bible based on any kind of world-historical crisis or moment that made you feel you wanted to be better acquainted with it (such as the newly-visible post-Sept. 11 clash between Christianity and Islam, or the longer clash between Islam and Judaism, or the even-longer clash between Christians and Jews) or was your decision based on more personal reasons? If so, what were they?
David Plotz: Interesting thought! I had never considered that, but I bet there is some part of it that was inspired by just that. I started reading just as my own wife (who is also Jewish) started working on a book about young evangelical Christians. Our encounters and friendships with those Christians got me thinking about the things that Jews and Christians share. And 9/11, of course, had me thinking about the Jewish-Christian-Muslim conundrum (especially since my wife is Israeli). So yes, I think it did!
New York: Hello. When you discuss certain parts of the Bible, doesn’t it matter whether they are read through a Christian lens or from a Jewish standpoint? Do you at least discuss how each would view the passage? It would seem that would be vital to understanding the Bible for a believer in either faith.
David Plotz: Yes, of course. I am a Jew, and very clear about that as I read, and I write explicitly as a Jew responding to Jewish holy texts. (Which is not to say I ignore passages that clearly influence Christianity, as in Isaiah, for example). This is why I think it would be difficult for me to blog the New Testament. My encounter with the book would be as an alien—I couldn’t give it the same kind of reading I can give to the Jewish books.
Arlington, Va.: Hi David. I’m really enjoying the Blogging the Bible entries. I’ve long believed that the stories in the Bible say very little about God and very much about the people who wrote the books. They attributed bad luck (plagues, droughts) to divine disfavor and good fortune to God’s blessing, as was true of most primitive cultures. So in that light, what has your reading taught you about the ancient pre-Israelites and Israelites? The stories seem to be a mix of nobility and mercy with brutality and venality, much like people today. Perhaps there truly is nothing new under the sun.
David Plotz: I think you can read the Bible as anthropology, though I am trying not to do that. The Israelites and pre-Israelites have all kinds of appalling laws, and do all kinds of appalling things to their enemies. On the other hand, what continually astonishes and delights me is that here you have a book that is thousands of years old, written by a small primitive tribe, and they are grappling with the same moral and philosophical issues that we think about today, and with as much sophistication. Those laws in Leviticus 19 (I think) about how to treat the poor, the blind, the deaf—those are as profound and persuasive today as anything we write ourselves.
I am amazed to see that there is a fundamental human moral sense, and that it could be obvious to a primitive ancient tribe.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you know of any similar projects that you may have inspired/paralleled (for example, a Muslim openly and objectively diving into the Quran)?
David Plotz: Not the Koran. I saw one non-Muslim try a Blogging the Quran, but he gave up very quickly. But lots of other “Blogging the…” projects have sprung up in the wake of Blogging the Bible. Several New Testaments, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, a Taoist text I had not heard of, even the Federalist Papers.
A number of people have encouraged me to do the Quran, but I am not going to touch it.
Wife’s book: So really … when is she publishing that book? I’ve been waiting for months (really) to read it because I loved her New Yorker piece about the college students at Liberty University. I know its not germane to the blogging the bible series … but here’s a follow-up. Do you have plans to publish the series?
washingtonpost.com: God and Country: A college that trains young Christians to be politicians.(New Yorker, June 27, 2005)
David Plotz: Ha! It’s coming out in September. God’s Harvard, by Hanna Rosin.
I am going to do a book based on Blogging the Bible, coming out in 2008 from HarperCollins. Any title ideas?
New Testament Blog: Do you think that Slate would continue the blog with another person doing the New Testament?
David Plotz: I think that’s a great idea, and have been taking quiet soundings, looking for a Christian who could take a similar approach. Suggestions welcome…
California: I love love love love love your blog—I think it is so interesting on a number of fronts. Recently there was a discussion on The Washington Post site to discuss the lack of religious education of the American public. Given that you were raised in a Jewish household but not aware of so much of what is in the Bible (Torah included), do you think that Americans suffer because of their lack of understanding of the scriptures (all, not just the Bible)?
washingtonpost.com: Live Online Transcript—Books: ‘Religious Literacy’(washingtonpost.com, March 6)
David Plotz: Great question. I have been absolutely astonished as I read the Bible at how many of our shared stories, ideas, phrases, jokes, words, and cliches come from it. I knew, intellectually, that the Bible was the source of stories and language, but it’s totally different to actually encounter it first hand. Today, for example, in Job, God tells the ocean, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther.” This is a line that has been borrowed time and again by generals, kings, leaders, screenwriters. who ever knew it was from Job? So you can’t know your culture unless you know your Bible.
I also think that even people skeptical of religion do themselves a disservice by not reading it. It’s the most important text for most of your fellow countrymen. If you don’t know it, you don’t know what they’re talking about a lot of the time. For your own cultural and political upkeep, you should know it.
And it’s just a great read!
New York: The cartoon accompanying your blog/column—is that supposed to be a generic person, or are we to read more into his appearance as chosen by your artist?
David Plotz: Generic person, but slightly inspired by me. Not much though
Adelphi, Md.: Following up on the beliefs you expressed about the origin of the Bible and the fact that it is not written by God: Do you believe that He does directly communicate with us in any form? And would you elevate the lessons in the Bible above the lessons contained in any other book?
David Plotz: This is where I fall into the great I don’t know. I remain hopelessly agnostic. I hope for God, want God, but can’t make the leap to certainty that others can.
The reason to take the Bible more seriously than other books is that so many of our greatest thinkers have devoted so much energy and time to understanding it. Judaism has a 3,000 year history of commentary on the laws and stories of the Hebrew Bible. That gives a strength and gravity to the Bible’s lesson that, say, “The Secret” or “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” don’t have. It has stood the test of time, and for that you have to pay attention, even if you don’t believe in God.
Washington: To what extent did you find the Bible accepting or resistant to the notion of being collapsed into contemporary phrases and images? Did you ever find yourself frustrated that the text couldn’t be intelligible in your own language, and if so, is that a failure in the text’s alleged timelessness?
David Plotz: Sometimes the modern gloss is a piece of cake (often because we have contemporary stories that have borrowed from the Bible, so I use a modern story inspired by the Bible to explain the Bible. I can’t tell you how many Godfather analogies I used—I have now barred myself from using them—but that’s because the Godfather has such a Biblical vibe!). And sometimes I am totally stumped. There are whole vast passages, particularly in the prophets, where there’s no easy way to make in interesting, or even comprehensible to a modern reader.
Montreal: Hi David. “The Bible,” according to Mark Twain, “reveals the character of its God with minute exactness. It is a portrait of a man, if one can imagine a man with evil impulses far beyond the human limit. In the Old Testament He is pictured as unjust, ungenerous, pitiless, and revengeful, punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents; punishing unoffending people for the sins of their rulers, even descending to bloody vengeance upon harmless calves and sheep as punishment for puny trespasses committed by their proprietors. It is the most damnatory biography that ever found its way into print.” From your reading so far, would you agree that “it is the most damnatory biography that ever found its way into print”?
David Plotz: That’s a fantastic Twain quote. Gosh he could write! I must admit that the God of the Israelites is a cantankerous fellow. He toggles between fury and exaltation, and is eternally disappointed in us in a way that often seems unfair. But, and this goes back to an earlier question, it is the very difficulty of God and his laws that make the book so compelling. If it were easy, and if he were easy, no one would read it, and it wouldn’t have lasted. Humans like a challenge, and pleasing an impossible God is the greatest challenge ever told. (which, I suppose, is why Job is such a buzz!)
Washington: I’m not sure how religious you were before you began the assignment, but do you feel more or less spiritually/religiously connected to Judaism now?
David Plotz: More connected to the tradition, because I know so much more about where it comes from.
I don’t make it to synagogue that much, though.
New York: I was wondering if reading the Bible has given you insight into contemporary politics. Also, I write as “august” on The Fray (Slate’s reader forum) and was wondering if you read or gain insight from the comments there.
David Plotz: Hi august! There are some stories where the modern political analogies jump out at you—I am thinking particularly about King David, who is so much like Bill Clinton in his appetites, his sins, his loves, his faith, his brilliance, his empathy.
The Fray is a great inspiration, and so are reader e-mails.
David Plotz: Thanks so much for the great questions. Please feel free to e-mail me more at firstname.lastname@example.org.