I suspect most of us have been burdened by an assumption that expects us to be in harmony with everything we read in the Bible. After all, God is always right, eh? What we haven’t been told is that it’s okay to argue with God – the prophets did it all the time. On occasion, Moses even convinces God that God is wrong: destroying the recently freed Hebrews in the desert would be a stupid move, politically! (Think how it would look to the Egyptians!) Many of the stories are, admittedly, painful, even obnoxious; I suggest that modern readers approach these in the same manner they apply to Greek drama or Shakespeare: Oedipus and Lear are not the healthiest characters in the world, either! More recent literature, such as Gary Snyder’s 1951 He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (Grey Fox Press, Bolinas, California 1979) and Robert Bly’s best-selling Iron John (Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1990) provide excellent demonstrations of how a seemingly compact tale gains social richness, psychological depth, and cultural perspectives once we begin to unleash the latent story enfolded within the shorter manifest narrative.
To my mind, a good place to begin is in facing up to the problems of translation. As a poet, journalist, and novelist, I have an acute love of language – and an appreciation for both its opportunities and shortcomings. Expressing one’s thoughts and feelings on paper is difficult enough in one’s own language, era, and locale. There are even problems of translation in taking a story-teller’s tale, as much of the Bible undoubtedly was, and recording it in writing. For the translator, the problems and challenges are enormous: something is lost in translation! In the hands of a skilled translator, however, something may also be gained. (German philosophy students, for instance, are said to turn to English translations of the writings of Immanuel Kant for this very reason!)