The Bible as Literature

Paul Greenberg

12/28/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Dear Pedant,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your criticism of a column of mine savoring the fall weather in the spirit of Ecclesiates, the perfect book of the Bible to read in the autumn of the year and, for that matter, the autumn of life.

I'm grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to vent about an approach to the Bible that long has bothered me - an approach that treats the Book as a religious tract of the more doctrinaire sort rather than the great piece of literature it is.

My sin, it seems, was to conclude that column by saying: "Ecclesiates had it right from first to last: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart."

That kind of advice always offends those who prefer their religion grim, their Bible unrelenting, and who never miss a chance to display their superior knowledge of the Word.

Your letter begins with the kind of faint praise that is the hallmark of the pedant. You inform me that my writing "is nice and your piece does capture my feelings about October here in Virginia, too. But you imply an ending to Ecclesiates with the ninth chapter. There are three more. The real conclusion to Solomon's ruminations."

You write as if you had just psychoanalyzed King Solomon, to whom tradition attributes this wise little book, and so know what he really meant to say. Thank you, but I would prefer to let His Majesty speak for himself; he wrote better.

While we're being pedantic, I did not imply that Ecclesiastes ended three chapters before it does. Rather, you inferred that I was referring to the text literally, rather than using a figure of speech to sum up the book's comprehensive wisdom - "from first to last." After all, the first words of the book are not "Vanity of vanities," either, but rather "The words of the Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem."

There is a difference between imply and infer, or used to be, and it needs to be preserved. So does the integrity and range of the English language in general, which is in constant danger of erosion as definitions are blurred or lost altogether.

As a sample of both condescension and condemnation, it would be hard to top your explanation of why you wrote me: "I just wouldn't want people to think of you as biblically illiterate. We have enough of those people posing as writers."

Indeed we do. I feel as if I'm corresponding with one at this moment. For there is no one so illiterate as the literal-minded. That's also the big problem with the current spate of atheist best sellers; they approach the Book as if it were a literal explanation of how we got here, not as a revelatory insight into our nature and our relationship with each other and the divine.

Do you think a belief or disbelief in the theory of evolution, or even an agnostic suspension of judgment about it, has ever affected how anyone actually lives, treats others or seeks to restore his soul? That's the difference between a scientific theory and a towering, ages-old work of faith and literature like the Bible.

At the risk of shocking those who would never entertain a critical thought about Holy Writ, let me confess that those last chapters of Ecclesiates always had the sound of moralistic tidying-up to me, a snap answer to unanswerable questions. They're much like the unconvincing Happy Ending appended to the story of Job, which only blurs the profound questions that book raises about justice in this world rather than answering them.

Your literal-minded reading of Ecclesiastes brings to mind those who are at pains to explain that the Song of Songs, also attributed to Solomon, really isn't the sensual love song it is but some kind of platonic allegory about divine love, as if God's love could have nothing in common with the human kind. Are we not made in His image?

Is this a profanation - to read the Bible as literature, even to criticize it as such? I would submit that reading the Word with a critical eye is not to denigrate it but to appreciate, and apprehend it, in a different, literary light. Granted, the Bible is more than literature, but that doesn't mean it isn't literature, too.

It's sad, the extent of biblical illiteracy in a nation rooted in the values of Pilgrims and Puritans - and in which the religious impulse continues to play so great a part, whether we're talking about Martin Luther King Jr. or the sudden emergence of a Baptist preacher like Mike Huckabee in the presidential sweepstakes.

Surely a literal-minded pedantry can only discourage people from appreciating the Bible as the literary masterpiece it is. Presenting the Bible as just another moralistic tract, rather than in all its literary and poetic glory, only disguises its greatness. It would be like reading Shakespeare for the plots and not the inexhaustible language. How perverse.

What rich and enduring literature this Book is - always human even as it is divine, ever relevant even as it is timeless, as majestic and moving in the English of the King James Version as it is by turns tender and thunderous in Hebrew.

It's long been my fancy that the Five Books of Moses were handed down at Sinai in Elizabethan-Jacobean English, and only then translated into ancient Hebrew. I agree with Robert Alter, whose literary approach to Biblical narrative has made him the leading biblical translator of our time: While the authors of the KJV may have been deficient in Hebrew, translations ever since have been deficient in English. The treasure of the English tongue has seldom if ever been so wondrously displayed. How not wonder at such, yes, literature?

There. I feel better now. This has been great therapy.

Bless your heart,

Inky Wretch