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Friday, April 29, 2005

Bibles in the Classroom? YEE HAH!!!!

Roy lets us know that there is a movement afoot to teach the Bible as literature in public classrooms. Can I tell you how excited I am about this? My father was a minister and a biblical scholar with a PhD in philosophy from Boston University who also studied at Harvard and could read and write seven eight* languages, including Hebrew, Sanskrit and Aramaic, in addition to being a professor of Classical Greek and Latin (nobody is quite sure what happened to me -- mostly we nod indulgently and blame it on the drugs). Anyway, he had a pretty amazing mind for a kid from a hillbilly family in rural Tennessee. So over the years I have studied me some bible, and it is quite a profound piece of literature. I am tickled pink at the thought of kids actually reading it in public schools.

Since the Bible can be a bit dense and sprawling, it will obviously require some sort of companion text book, and I would like to suggest one: The Book of J by Harold Bloom. Bloom is probably most famous for writing The Western Canon and The American Religion, but his seminal Book of J is my personal favorite.

Although scholars argue over authorship, most agree that the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) were the result of several authors -- the original author J (or "Jahwist," for Jehovah/Yahweh), E (or "Elohist", for Elohim, another name of God), P (for "Priestly," considered to have largely authored parts of Leviticus) and D (for "Deutoronimist"). A much later contributor is known as R, for "Redactor," who probably re-wrote many parts in later eras to adopt the text to conform to changes in dogma.

Bloom posits that J was a woman who was a member of the court of King Rehoboam, son of Solomon and grandson of King David. Rehoboam's reign was purportedly one of decline, and Bloom imagines J writing many of the strands of the books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers as a satire of courtly life, looking back fondly at David's era and fashioning the commonly told stories as a criticism of her own time she could not tell directly:
J was no theologian, and rather deliberately not a historian.... There is always another side of J: uncanny, tricky, sublime, ironic, a visionary of incommensurates, and so the direct ancestor of Kafka, and of any writer, Jewish or Gentile, condemned to work in Kafka's mode.
Bloom hypothesizes J was a woman (admittedly with no proof) because he finds the author to be largely sympathetic to the women characters, and of the opinion that the men (including Jehovah) consistently behaved in less than admirable fashion:
None of J's male personages, Yaweh included, ever surmount their childlike and also childish qualities. The only grown-ups in J are women: Sarai, Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar. Isaac is always a baby, Abram and Judah easily fall into childishness, and the two men of acute sensibility -- Jacob and Joseph, father and true son -- remain wonderfully spoiled and gifted temperaments, childlike in the extreme, until they die.
Bloom reserves his highest praise for Tamar, whose story is rarely told unabridged in fundie circles. Tamar marries Er, son of Judah, who is so wicked Yahweh slays him. The law says that if a man dies his brother must marry his widow and knock her up. Too bad for Tamar; Onan is a world-class beat-off (he "went in unto his brother's wife, he spilled (the semen) on the ground"). Yahweh is monster pissed and he strikes Onan down, too. Judah gets a bit worried about the mortality rate of Tamar's husbands, so he drags his feet about sending in his third son, Shelah, to get the job done.

The crafty Tamar is not about to be cut out of the picture, however. She trusses herself up like a two-dollar whore and goes to Timnath, when Judah goes there for sheepshearing. He spots her sitting by the side of the road after he's had one too many Cosmopolitans; she's veiled and he doesn't recognize her. He asks her if she's got the time. She says let's go, baby, and they do the dirty deed, breaking about half the Commandments on the spot.

He pledges to give her a sheep in payment for her services, and until his man delivers it to her she asks him for the pledge of his signet, bracelets and staff. But when the man comes to deliver the kid -- no Tamar.

Well, Judah goes home and shortly thereafter someone tells him his unmarried daughter-in-law is up the stick. "Bring her forth and let her be burnt," says Judah. But then Tamar presents the signet, bracelets and staff, and asks "who are these?" Judah sheepishly admits it's his own fault for withholding Shelah, and she is less wrong than he is; Tamar thus outflanks Judah, and wills herself into the story as the Bearer of the Blessing.

Says Bloom:
A woman of the people, with no previous connection to the House of Israel, [Tamar] is presumably Judah's choice for Er precisely because of her vitality. Indomitable, she does not accept defeat, whether from Er, Onan or Judah. Her will becomes the will of Yahweh, and ten generations later leads to David, of all humans the most favored by Yahweh. Pragmatically Tamar is a prophetess, and she usurps the future beyond any prophet's achievement. She is single-minded, fearless, and totally self-confident, and she has absolute insight into Judah. Most crucially, she knows that she is the future, and she sets aside societal and male-imposed conventions in order to arrive at her truth, which wil turn out to be Yahweh's truth, or David.
The translation Bloom uses does not sanitize the bawdy tales of the Torah with obscure and archaic language; he's quite graphic about Noah lying on the ground drunk while his son Ham "enjoyed his father's nakedness" (whatever that means). He calls Noah "the first alcoholic," quoting the poem by G.K. Chesterton, "I don't care where the water goes if it doesn't get into the wine." He's also quite clear about the daughters of Lot, who -- concerned about the shortage of local men -- set out to get Dad drunk and seduce him.

I told my friend Linda M. many of these stories one time, and she didn't believe me. She was dead sure I was making them all up. I got a call in the middle of the night after she had started reading the Bible. "That's the dirtiest book I've ever read!" she screamed.

So I wholeheartedly applaud any attempt to put the Bible as literature into the school curriculum. What's that you say? They won't be teaching "those parts?" Well, my friend, then they are not teaching the Bible as literature, what they intend to do is pursue religion in the classroom -- their religion, which has almost nothing to do with the Bible as far as I can tell -- and that violates the separation of church and state.

You can't have it both ways. It's either all or nothing - dirty bits too, or no go.

(BTW, did I mention that my dad's dissertation was on how the stories of the Old Testament had their origins in Egyptian myth? I come by this strain honestly.)

* my sister corrected me