Is the Bible the most popular book ever, or merely the least read?
In his novel The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux’s brilliant but deranged protagonist, Allie Fox, believes the Bible contains vast stretches, like an unexplored continent, that have never been read.
I thought about Allie Fox while reading a Publishers Weekly item on scholar Douglas A. Knight and his new book, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us.
Take Job, for example. Everyone knows the story of Job — pawn in a wager between God and Satan, he suffers the loss of children, wealth, status, and on top of everything, is afflicted with boils.
Job endured his miseries with patience, right? That’s why the phrase “the patience of Job” is a well-worn cliche. Right?
Wrong! Here’s Knight on the matter: “People today think of Job as patient. He was not. That Job was only in two chapters. The rest of the book he was asking questions and demanding of God to give an account of why he is suffering when he did nothing wrong.”
So, okay, the Bible’s a tough slog and not as many of us tackle as we should, but anyone who does read, say, The Book of Job, will not be surprised by Knight’s revelations…right?
Wrong again! Even those reading the Bible, blinded by received wisdom, sometimes misunderstand some of the plainest passages.
For example, when I was growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church — and who puts more stock in the letter of the Word than Baptists? — I frequently heard preachers extolling Job’s patience from the pulpit.
Imagine my surprise when I finally got around to reading Job for myself, in my late teens or early 20s. I was astounded by what the text actually says. Job isn’t patient at all, and while he might not quite curse God, he does grow indignant and impolite in his demand for a divine explanation for the injustice he suffers.
I was also impressed by the complicated, almost theatrical, structure of this ancient book, which put me in mind of the Greek tragedies — Antigone, Oedipus, The Trojan Women — which I had lately read in college English. This book was far richer, more complicated and textured, than the version I had been taught in Sunday School.
“Job gives us license to ask the hard questions. It gives us the freedom to go ahead and object,” says Knight.
Job is one of many biblical stories examined in The Meaning of the Bible, which is co-written by Amy-Jill Levine, another Vanderbilt professor. As Michael G. Mauldin, senior editor at HarperOne, says, the authors are not out to undermine anyone’s faith.
“Knight and Levine connect readers with a treasure trove of rich insights and information in accessible and engaging prose,” Mauldin says. “They are not writing for fellow scholars.”
Well, yeah, what else would he say? But my appetite is whetted. I can’t wait to get a copy.