UPDATE: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has his own take on the Bible as literature. He finds other passages of literary merit, but pronounced the book like a “curate’s egg,” i.e., good in parts. As a former Anglican priest, he is far more familiar with the Bad Book than I am, and his essay is worth reading.
I am pleased to announce that I am halfway through the King James version of the Bible: p. 554, which contains Psalm 76. (I am painfully aware, as I slog through the text, how far I am from the end, and always have in mind that there are 1108 pages.) Things have improved a bit, but I still don’t find it great literature: that is, if someone found this in a used bookstore as an undiscovered text, it would not be touted as a work of ineffable beauty. To me, its significance rests almost entirely on its huge role in Western culture, not on the beauty of its prose.
That said, I have found bits that are stirring, but only bits. Here are a couple from Job:
- “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)
- Chapter 38 of Job, which includes “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth. . . whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it has issued out of the womb?”
- “Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox, Lo, now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.” (Job 41:15-17). [Note: the placement of italics in the Bible seems idiosyncratic to me, though I'm sure scholars have an explanation.]
But really, these are cherry-picked among a gazillion more dreadful verses, and aren’t all that lovely. The tedious bits predominate.
I know that other readers have pointed out passages of “beauty” that I’ve ignored, and perhaps I can’t see that beauty in light of the dreadful message imbued in every book. Job, for example, is a horrible chapter about how Satan gets God to test an upright man by killing his kids, taking his livestock, and then afflicting him with boils. This is an abusive relationship between Job and God: a man is made to suffer for no reason other than to test his faith. What kind of God would do that? If anyone finds morality in that book, let her speak!
My point is that it’s hard to appreciate beauty imbued in such a horrible message, just as it would be harder to appreciate Shakespeare’s prose had he also written Mein Kampf. But maybe that’s only me.
And the Psalms are no better. With the exception of Psalm 23 (and I’m not sure I would have appreciated it had it not been the most familiar Psalm), they take the following form:
- Praise to God for his power and benevolence
- Affirmation that the psalmist is a sinner and a worthless worm
- Request that God smite and confound the psalmist’s enemies
- Request that God give favors to the psalmist
- More blessings to God and promises that the psalmist will be a good boy from now on.
Psalm after psalm after psalm—150 of the bloody things! I’m hoping matters will pick up when I get to Proverbs.
A week ago, Peter Mullen, and Anglican priest and rector of a church in London, wrote a piece in the Telegraph defending the beauty of the Old Testament: “The Old Testament isn’t hogwash, Jeremy Paxman. But Newsnight often is.” (It’s a response to a quote by Paxman that children were being indoctrinated by “religious hogwash,” even though Paxman was apparently goading Richard Dawkins to clarify his ideas.) At any rate, Mullen defends the beauty and inspiration to be found in the OT:
No – the Old Testament is not all hogwash, religious or not. It is one of the greatest examples of human creativity and inspiration.
He then points out to Paxman some of its beauty:
But, come off it Jeremy, even such a sophisticated secularist as yourself must admit that there are whole sections of the OT possessed of a rare and strange beauty:
“And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day….”
Not only is that not beautiful, but it’s grammatically incorrect. There’s an unclear antecedent here: was God’s voice walking? The proper prose would be, “And Adam, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, heard God’s voice.” Mullen goes on:
And passages of numinous spiritual insight, making the hairs stand out on the back of your neck:
“Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground…”
Mullen must have unusually erectile neck hairs. That’s supposed to be beautiful? Give me John Donne over that any day. Mullen goes on:
And such combinations of pity and love as this:
“And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
That one is okay, though hardly world class prose.
Or visionary poetry:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Then said I, Woe is me for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and dwell among a people of unclean lips…”
That’s from Isaiah, and I haven’t gotten to it yet. It is okay, but again, only one sentence out of 845 pages.
There are boring bits. But there is the matchless musicality of the Psalms – “Like as the hart desireth the water brook” – and the erotic beauty of The Song of Songs . .
Again, I haven’t gotten to it, but I’m prepared to believe that the Song of Songs could be lovely. But if that’s the best one can glean out of the huge Old Testament, it doesn’t speak well for its beauty. The Dead, by Joyce, contains far more beauty in a longish short story than I’ve read in the first half of the Bible.
At least regarding that half, then, I’ll have to disagree with Professor Dawkins that it is “a great work of literature.” Really, if this didn’t have iconic status in Western literature, would anybody pick it up at the bookstore?