When David Plotz set out to read every word of the Old Testament, he discovered gruesome smitings, rampant misogyny, and a God who’s a lot like Donald Trump. The author of Good Book talks to The Daily Beast about what his Biblical journey begat.
When David Plotz, the editor of Slate, opened to Page 1 of the Old Testament, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Plotz was, by his own estimation, an inattentive Jew, a biblical ignoramus. But Eden can be bliss, and Plotz’s determined innocence informs Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.
Good Book is a mercilessly funny one; imagine Sunday school taught by Jackie Mason. Isaac is the “Harpo Marx of Genesis”; Joseph, son of Jacob, is a “nasty little tattletale”; and “Onan’s sin, ‘onanism,’ is not masturbation, it’s birth control.” But Plotz is out for more than wisecracks. He tries to make sense of the God of the Hebrew Bible, sweating out the smitings and plagues and trying wrap his head around his own faith. He talked to The Daily Beast about his journey from Genesis to Malachi and whether he came out a better person.
“Here you have tricking people into circumcision; you have the slaughtering of animals. If that’s there, what else did I miss?”
Before you started this project, on a scale from 1 to 10—10 being a rabbi and 1 being someone who is vaguely aware he is Jewish—where did you fall?
Well, I was circumcised, I was bar mitzvahed, and I had married an Israeli woman, so I definitely knew that I was Jewish. I would probably be a four. I was raised in Reform Judaism—I was in tune to it.
And your interest in the Hebrew Bible was piqued when you read about Dinah being raped?
I was at my cousin’s incredibly boring bat mitzvah, and I opened [the Bible] at random to the story of Dinah and read the story about how she’s raped and the rapist wants to marry her. Her brothers, who are Jacob’s sons, say, “Yeah, you can marry her, but you and all the men of your town have to get circumcised.” So the rapist says, “That’s great,” and the men come back and get circumcised. While they’re recovering from the surgery, in pain and incapacitated, Jacob’s sons show up and slaughter them. They take the women and children as slaves and sack the town. When Jacob complains about this, they say, “What, you want our sister to be treated like a whore?”
I read that story and thought, 'Goodness gracious, this is not anything I ever learned.' Here you have tricking people into circumcision; you have the slaughtering of animals—it’s appalling. If that’s there, what else have they never bothered to teach me? What else did I miss?
How good a beach read is the Bible?
I liken it to The Odyssey or Dostoyevsky. When you start it, it’s very forbidding because the language is so different, the rhythms are different, the stories don’t follow progressions—things double back on each other in ways that don’t make sense. But once you get in the mind-set, it becomes quite easy and delightful to read. So my view is that if you can get through five or ten chapters of Genesis, then you can get through the whole book.
You encountered all these mistakes in the Bible, like the fact that God creates insects twice.
God creates the universe twice. Genesis, Chapter 1 has this famous beginning: God created the earth. And then, in Chapter 2, he creates it all again, and he creates man again, and he does it in a completely different way. If I were a biblical literalist—and thank God I’m not—I would have no idea how I would make sense of this because there are two creations. No one who ever read this book with any degree of intellectual honesty could think that this is a single story and it all coheres. It doesn’t.
You write that God is not a particularly likable character. His attitude toward women is like “Norman Mailer on a bad day.”
He doesn’t like women very much, particularly early on. With the exception of maybe a half-dozen women, every woman is described as a whore or a prostitute and she’s turning tricks in one way or another. That’s very weird. The women are very manipulative and vicious and the treatment of them is incredibly derogatory.
Another surprise: The early chapters turn out to be largely about real-estate deals.
God has this Trump-like quality where he will make a promise—he’ll promise Abraham one particular area of land for the promised land; and a chapter later he’ll promise the land again but the boundaries will be different; and then the chapter after that he’ll make another deal and promise even more; and then later it’s an entirely different set of borders. You wouldn’t trust any covenant with him because he’s constantly going to be shifting the borders around. Real-estate negotiation, in Genesis in particular, takes up a third of the book: Who owns it, who should have it, where is it? There’s a whole Florida real-estate angle to it.
Did you consult study any guides as you were mucking your way through?
My view is that I was an average Job. This is an encounter between a man and his book, and that I was just gonna read it, like I read anything else. I’m sure I made incredible theological errors and took things out of context and misunderstood things all the time, but so what? It’s the joy of reading something for yourself without it being mediated through somebody else.
There’s a revelatory moment when you realize exactly who it is you’ve named your son after.
At the time I started the book, I had one son, Jacob. Jacob is a family name in [my wife] Hanna’s family. But I always thought, Here’s Jacob, he’s the great patriarch, he’s the great father of Israel, beloved of God. And then I actually read the story, and he’s such a slippery character, out of Glengarry Glen Ross or something. He’s a con artist; he’s a total trickster. He has this wonderful brother Esau, who goes down in history as a villain. But Esau is sweet and forgiving and good to his brother and wants nothing but the best, and yet Jacob is the one who gets to be the hero and gets all of God’s love and gets the land and gets to be the father of God’s chosen people.
So after making it all the way through Malachi, are you a better person?
I'm definitely not a better person by the standards of any rabbi. I never went to synagogue much but I certainly haven't increased my attendance. But I think I'm a better Jew in one sense. I realized that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a very difficult character. He's erratic, he's vindictive, he's not merciful…. He promotes genocide. He smites often just for the joy of smiting. As a reader and as a Jew it was disturbing to find that this God was not a God of love and mercy and justice.
If that is what God is, then why would you want to have a God like that? If you're Christian, the New Testament resolves that; God is much more merciful and good and just. But if you're a Jew, you don't have that. The tradition in Judaism, and I think Good Book is distinctly part of this, because everything is so difficult and morally confusing, we just spend a lot of time arguing about it. The great tradition in Judaism is all this Torah commentary, the Talmud and stories from the Torah. … That's why Jews predominate in the argumentative professions. Because we're given this book which is not obviously a guide to morality and the guide to a loving God.
So in that sense I do think I'm a better Jew. In the sense that I am now on high alert and in a fight with the Bible and in a fight with God and struggling with questions that it raises. Basic fundamental moral questions about what God should do and what's just, our moral responsibility.
Imagine a busy person who has the list of great books ( Ulysses, War and Peace) they want to read someday. Where does the Bible go on the list?
I think it has to top the list if you're living the United Sates or the West. Because nothing, absolutely nothing in the culture compares in terms of its influence. Its influence on our language, on our ideas of what stories are. Its influence on our law, on our legal system. Its influence on direct political action at the moment, in the sense that there are so many people who are guided by this book that if you don't understand what's motivating them then you can't possibly engage with them as fellow citizens.
But if you don't have time to read the Bible, then you can just read Good Book because it will give you all the good stuff of the Bible but it's much shorter. And also you can keep my book in the bathroom, which you can't with the Bible.