May 16, 2006


Blogging the Bible: What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book? (David Plotz, May 16, 2006, Slate)

I have always been a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one. Several weeks ago, I made a rare visit to synagogue for a cousin's bat mitzvah and, as usual, found myself confused (and bored) by a Hebrew service I couldn't understand. During the second hour of what would be a ceremony of NFL-game-plus-overtime-length, I picked up the Torah in the pew-back, opened it at random, and started reading (the English translation, that is).

I was soon engrossed in a story I didn't know, Genesis Chapter 34. It begins with the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah by Shechem, the son of a local chief named Hamor. Shechem and Hamor visit Jacob and his brothers to resolve the mess. Hamor begs on Shechem's behalf: Shechem loves Dinah, he says, and yearns to marry her. Hamor and Shechem offer to share their land with Jacob's family and pay any bride price if only Dinah would be Shechem's wife.

Jacob's sons pretend to agree to this proposal, but they insist that Shechem and all the other men of his town get circumcised before the marriage. Shechem and his father accept the demand. They and their fellow townsmen get circumcised. Three days after the circumcision, "when they were in pain," Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi (who are Dinah's full brothers) enter the town, murder all the men, and take Dinah away. After this slaughter, Jacob's other sons plunder the town, seize the livestock and property, and take the women and children as slaves. Jacob, who hasn't said a word in the chapter till now, complains to Simeon and Levi that other neighboring tribes won't trust him anymore. "But they answered, 'Should our sister be treated like a whore?' "

This is not a story they taught me at Temple Sinai's Hebrew School in 1980: The founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel lie, breach a contract, encourage pagans to convert to Judaism only in order to incapacitate them for slaughter, murder some innocents and enslave others, pillage and profiteer, and then justify it all with an appeal to their sister's defiled honor. (Which, incidentally, may not have been defiled at all: Some commentators, their views dramatized in Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, think Dinah went with Shechem willingly, and even the language in the two translations I looked at is ambiguous. One says Shechem "lay with her by force," while the King James say he "lay with her, and defiled her.")

Sadly that's about the level of understanding you'd expect, that her honor depends on her whims.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2006 11:17 PM

Well, OJ, it's a woman's right to choose. End of problem, right?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at May 16, 2006 11:42 PM

Now, he would be even more confused had he read just 4 chapters over, where Judah refused to let his youngest son marry a woman (Tamar) who had the unfortunate role of being married (sequentially) to two of his other sons (both of whom died).

So Tamar (to fulfil her family line, because she was childless) disguised herself as a temple prostitute and seduced Judah and (being the wise woman she was) kept his credit card. When she became pregnant, ol' Judah thundered that she should be burned as a fornicator. On the way to the barbeque, she casually produced the card, and informed everyone that this was the father of her baby. She was spared, and Judah pronounced her more righteous than he, because she worked around his refusal to let the youngest son marry her (to pick up the dead brother's mantle, as had already happened once).

Weird, but interesting. Judah started the whole mess by marrying outside the faith, and Tamar was declared righteous (and then gave birth to twins, a sign of blessing) despite acting like a whore (with her father-in-law, no less). And the eldest son, Perez, was in the line of David (and ultimately, Christ).

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 16, 2006 11:55 PM

The Bible is primarily a history, not a moral commentary. In this case, however proper their understanding of Dinah's honor, Simeon and Levi were the moral predecessors of the Islamists.

Many people don't realize that Jews and Christians are not the heros of the Bible.

Posted by: pj at May 17, 2006 7:44 AM

No, they didn't kill her being raped, which would be wrong.

Posted by: oj at May 17, 2006 7:54 AM

They didn't kill just the rapist either.

Posted by: pj at May 17, 2006 8:06 AM

Sure, they overreacted a bit.

Posted by: oj at May 17, 2006 8:11 AM

Isn't it a biblical construct that the crimes of the fathers are visited on the sons?

Posted by: erp at May 17, 2006 11:19 AM

You have to be really, really culturally ignorant to think that the stories in the Old Testament (or New, for that matter) are about characters of impeccable moral virtues.

Posted by: b at May 17, 2006 11:42 AM

No, b, they just think that the events were re-written to push the party line. It's what they do, and they're the good guys, just ask them.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at May 17, 2006 5:36 PM

Bible stories do indeed impart moral lessons.

And Biblical characters are certainly flawed. Their behavior, and their response to that behavior, and the response of others to that behavior---and our reactions and thoughts on all of the above, as observers and participants---is part of the moral education they provide. In fact, if Biblical characters were not flawed, the Bible would be immeasurably less readable.

In this particular case---the rape of Dinah---it is not possible to understand the full impact of this story unless one reads the blessings/curses/prophecies/remarks that Jacob relates to his twelve sons on his deatbed (Genesis, Chapter 49). With no holds barred, he curses Shimon and Levi; berating their murderous anger, he tells them that they would have no inheritance in The Land.

Indeed, according to tradition, after the reconquest of Canaan and distribution of territories, the tribe of Shimon was incorporated within the area allotted to the tribe of Judah; while the Levites, having been selected to serve the priests (as the result of having "redeemed" themselves by--ironically-- committing violence once again, though this time for reasons deemed holy--Exodus, 33:26ff.) were not allotted anything except the six "Cities of Refuge."

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 18, 2006 6:03 AM

If God had a blog would it be the bible (or some other holy book)?

Blogging the bible is like blogging a cookbook. Unless you make something out of it, you miss the whole point. Questioning the ingredients or methodology may (or may not) enlighten you as to the finished product.

You will find in the bible whatever it is you are looking for. Whether it is solutions to your problem or problems to the solution, you will find them. It's not hard to shoot holes in the story of mankind's first family, and it's not hard to see the message in this simple story. God's second greatest gift to you is the ability to reason (You know, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.), don't stop using it when reading God's message.

The bible: inspired by God, but written by humans. God made man in his own image, and man has being trying to make God in his ever since.

It will be interesting to see if David Plotz develops a self-righteous attitude as he digests the bible which appears to happen to a lot of people who do as he is doing. Will he demand tolerance for his beliefs and display intolerance for the beliefs of others? Will he claim he can only be judged by God, but will pass judgment on others? Such is the way of the recently converted.

Yea, verily I say unto thee. Go forth and do likewise.

Posted by: scout29c at May 18, 2006 1:14 PM