Good Book

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Good Book arises out of an online project of political journalist David Plotz, editor of the online magazine Slate. Plotz devoted a year to reading the Old Testament and writing a series of essays about it for Slate under the heading Blogging the Bible. A marginally religious Jew who attended Hebrew school as a child and an Episcopalian high school where the curriculum included Bible study, Plotz thought himself reasonably familiar with Scripture. However, leafing through the Bible during a young cousin’s bat mitzvah, Plotz was startled to come upon a brutal story he did not recall: In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped, and her brothers’ revenge is bloody and complete; they kill not only the rapist but also all the men in his village, and they enslave the surviving children and wives.

Plotz’s commitment to read and write about the Old Testament grew from his initial surprise, both at this portrayal of the sons of Jacob as cruel and unrepentant outlaws and at the fact that he had never heard the story even though it occurs so near the beginning of the Bible. Plotz felt his situation was typical of many who hold traditional Christian or Jewish beliefs but have read little actual Scripture. He could approach the text from a position of ignorance, experience it for the first time, and find out what impact that might have on his point of view or even on his life.

Good Book follows the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) in its traditional Jewish arrangement, from Genesis to Second Chronicles. Plotz read from several modern English translations, including the Jewish Publications Society, King James, New Revised Standard, and New International versions. Each chapter in Good Book is devoted to one book of the Bible, with a few exceptions. The twelve minor prophets are covered in a single chapter, Lamentations is paired with Ecclesiastes, Ezra is paired with Nehemiah, and First and Second Chronicles are combined. Each chapter has a jaunty, humorous subtitle supplied by Plotz, such as “The Meathead and the Left-Handed Assassin” (Judges) or “The Prophet and the Lustful She-Camel” (Jeremiah). Further subheadings indicate which chapter is under discussion.

Plotz found that supposedly familiar Bible stories and heroes were not as he remembered; he realized on closer reading that complex characters and plot details rarely made their way into sermons or Hebrew school lessons. Right from the beginning, he found that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not the models of faith and righteousness he had anticipated. Plotz is particularly dismayed by Jacob (for whom Plotz’s young son is named), who callously tricks both his father and brother so he can receive the deathbed blessing Isaac intended for his older son.

God in the Old Testament seems to Plotz to resemble a bad father. He is inconsistent (when he threatens his people but does not follow through) and unnecessarily cruel. Plotz is particularly disturbed by the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, the slaying of their firstborn children, and the deaths among Pharaoh’s armies, less because of the carnage than because God states that these horrible things are designed to be remembered; His people will tell stories about them for generations to come: What kind of insecure and cruel God murders children so that His followers will obey Him? This is the behavior of a serial killer.what’s upsetting is that God takes delight in [the Egyptians’] suffering.

Punishments for sin are harsh; insulting one’s parent incurs a death sentence, the sin of a single individual can destroy an entire nation, and God assures the Israelites that children will suffer for their parents’ sins. Although he claims patience, God often reacts angrily when humans fail him and is quick to punish or even kill them in great numbers.

Plotz is also surprised by the Old Testament’s portrayal of Satan. In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is first mentioned in the book of the minor prophet Zechariah. The Hebrew word for Satan translates as “accuser” or “adversary,” but Satan does not even speak in Zechariah; he simply stands beside God. Later, in the first chapter of Job, Satan argues with God, suggesting that Job only loves God because of his good fortune; Satan is then allowed to test...

(The entire section is 1772 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 6.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 28.

The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2009, p. 10.

Newsweek 153, no. 9 (March 2, 2009): 12.

Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2009, p. A13.