I was left troubled. The misogyny, militarism, and nationalism were more pronounced and inescapable than I had encountered in tackling the books individually, in no particular order.
My new awareness of different authorships and the late date of much of the composition, with J only one of the masters, casts doubt on many of the details of the earlier books of the Bible — especially those about Moses. Hearing more than one scholar question the very existence of Moses demands a response.
The Five Books of (or about) Moses and the poem about Job, especially, flow from the deepest recesses of antiquity and are rooted in the most central problems of humanity.
Rather than turn away from the Biblical trove, blaming it for the tribulations of modern humanity, I have a renewed conviction that answers and cures are found in soulfully addressing the pages of the perplexing anthology we know as the Bible, when we open ourselves honestly.
My approach, I repeat, is not that of the fundamentalist who reads it as if preparing for a courtroom decision. Mine is more like a theatrical production. In that regard, the figure of Moses is real, in a ways that render the question of whether he actually ever walked on the face of the earth is irrelevant. Ditto for Job. They’re more real than mere mortals, actually, and we need them. Think of Hamlet, if you must, or King Lear.
I’m a poet, among other things, and my reading of these books in sequence has enhanced my appreciation for them as poetry and in-the-gut stories — expressions of experience encompassed in metaphors, which can never, ever, be turned into neat dictionary entries or legal precedents or moralizing tales.
I keep returning to the image of two Jews sitting on facing seats in a railway car in Europe after World War II. The event, as related by a Quaker observer, as I recall, had them vociferously arguing over a text open on the small table between them. Slowly, he realized that one was speaking in one language while the other was doing so in a second, but they understood each other with no need of translation. More remarkable, though, was that they were squabbling over a page in yet a third language. And here he was, retelling this in his own native language, a fourth.
To me, in other words, these texts are not simply about some distant time and peoples. They are about us, now, if we sweep away all the contemporary clutter that clouds our vision. At their best, they speak the language of the heart.
To me, then, the way out of our own misogyny, militarism, nationalism, environmental disaster, and so on can be found in wrestling with these pages. The book of Revelation itself points to the miraculous Tree of Healing at the very conclusion, found flourishing next to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that opened all the travails that are reported in the Bible. We have to go back to the scene of the crime, as it were, if we want to solve the case that is us, guilty or innocent.
The Bible is not the only ancient expression of our ancient roots. I’m indebted to the Zen Buddhist American poet Gary Snyder for his insights along these lines, especially in his books Earth House Hold and The Old Ways, and to Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, with its many pieces from “primitives” around the world. Snyder, in fact, has said that a poet needs to be conversant in at least one form of arcane knowledge. We in civilized societies lose much in our bargain with the Devil, and we need to remember how much of our comfort and ease come at a cost to the psyche. Maybe you and I will discuss that in the future. Me? I’m not yet ready to give up my computer.
Charles Fager’s Three Quaker Bible Studies: John, Mark, First Corinthians takes an unconventional tact, “to think of the Bible not as a book of answers but rather one of questions.” As he explains, “I will be looking not so much for doctrines and precepts as for challenges and queries. Or as early Friends would put it, I will be seeking … for the words of God, rather than some final, dogmatic Word.”
For him, passages that outwardly conflict – say on an issue like divorce – allow for deeper investigation and reflection.