Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is the Bible Literature?

A freelance designer named Adam Lewis Greene is getting a lot of attention for the publication of a new Bible that is meant to maximize readability - both in terms of its layout (which is free of all of the chapter and verse numbers, notes, etc) and its translation.  It's called Bibliotheca and you can check it out here.

Greene funded this project through Kickstarter and was surprised by the enthusiastic response - exceeding his number almost overnight.  When asked to explain the popularity of the project he mused that "readers are ready to enjoy the Bible as the great literary anthology that it is, rather than as a text book.  The idea for the Bible as story is moving and spreading rapidly."

I'm not sure why he seems to present the idea that the stories in the Bible are exciting and moving as novel. As far as I know, it's been called "the greatest story ever told" for quite some time.  He does mention biblical scholars such as Robert Alter as inspiration for this idea and I do agree that Alter has done a lot to help people appreciate the literary aspect of the Hebrew Bible but it the Bible actually a work of literature?

For starters, no one really knows what literature is.  In an essay called "What is Literature" Simon and Delyse Ryan explain that "the quest to discover a definition of 'literature' is a road that is much traveled though the point of arrival, if ever reached, is seldom satisfactory."  For instance, what are we to make of the many genealogical passages or the various censuses that are taken?  What of the extensive building instructions for the Tabernacle and its vessels or the many details regarding the laws of Kashrut or the proper performance of holiday ritual?  From the second half of the Book of Exodus on there is precious little story-telling going on.  True, Walden, despite its long lists of crops and supplies, is considered a work of literature as is Moby Dick with its arduous and lengthy exposition on the processing of whale blubber.  But just why are those stories included in Genesis and Exodus (and a few others scattered through the other books)?

There's a principle in Jewish thought called "derech eretz kodmin l'Torah" which translates as "proper behavior proceeds the Torah."  This means that before we can fully engage with the Law (the word Torah actually comes from the word "instructions") we need to learn to live in an ethical way - implying that the whole edifice of the Jewish way of life is predicated on first learning what it means to be a mensch and then getting the details of how to properly fulfill the opportunities presented by the ritual.  The purpose of the stories, therefore, is not to entertain or to chronicle the history of a people, but rather to teach that people how to conduct themselves.  The same is true for all of the works of the prophets of whom it is said that they "came only to rebuke" (the people).

So whereas I applaud Mr. Greene for a beautifully designed series and some clever thinking in terms of his content, I would humbly beg to differ regarding his characterization of the Torah as literature.  It's much more complex than that.

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