Bible Babel
Making Sense of the Most Talked-about Book of All Time


From the Introduction and Chapter 1

The book begins with some background information about the Bible as a whole before it gets into specifics such as who’s who, what’s what, and where’s where, or modern debates for which the Bible is used on both sides. Although this book assumes no preliminary knowledge about the Bible, some chapters build on others. It’s best to read this book straight through from the beginning. After all, it’s easier to understand how one person can argue that the Bible condemns homosexuality and another that it doesn’t (and both have sound arguments), why David is such a big deal, women get short shrift, Jerusalem is also Zion, and Catholics venerate a virgin Mary, if you’ve learned about the different bibles, some history in and behind the Bible, and are familiar with the drama of translation.

The first chapter describes what the Bible is in the first place, a little about the different ways that people read it, and how to find one’s way around in it — Bible lingo and organization. The second chapter briefly describes the different bibles that exist and gives a whirlwind overview of the Bible’s contents. The third, fourth and fifth chapters tell about history — in, behind, and of the Bible, respectively. (In other words, the third chapter relates the Bible’s telling of history; the fourth chapter illustrates the historical context of biblical passages and books; and the fifth chapter discusses how the Bible came to be.) The sixth and final foundational information chapter deals with translation in history and today. There is no original Bible that we can consult, and few people other than academic specialists and some seminary graduates know biblical Hebrew or koine Greek. So that chapter takes some time to discuss why there isn’t one all-time “best” translation, what makes a good translation, and how translators get there.

The next two chapters, “We’ve Got Issues” and “Quotes and Misquotes,” focus on some of the ways that people use particular biblical texts today. What are those popular texts, and how do they underscore or undermine an ideological point or position? In the process of describing such passages, including their historical and literary contexts, these chapters aim to help readers understand for themselves the texts’ modern uses. Although the matter of women’s roles and expectations would fit well in the Issues chapter, that topic is instead woven throughout the chapter on women characters (chapter 10).

The remaining chapters — on people, places, and things — need little introduction. Jesus gets double-play, in both the chapter on men and the chapter on God. Satan, on the other hand, gets the most complete treatment only in the chapter on things. I didn’t intend to make a theological statement with such organization; but in hindsight, it certainly reflects orthodox Christian theology — Jesus as simultaneously human and divine, and the personification of evil as utterly unworthy of worship. Items associated with Satan such as significant numbers and creatures identified with evil are discussed in the “Flora, Fauna, Etcetera” chapter. Because there are so many ways in which God is identified throughout the Bible, I devote an entire chapter (the last one) to “Naming God.”

The size of this book, and that it is only a single volume, should signal to readers that it is in no way exhaustive. People have been using, studying, and commenting on the Bible from before its ink, so to speak, had even dried. In other words, from before the time that biblical literature was ever even assembled as such, people were asking some of the same kinds of questions about it as we do today and using the biblical texts in any number of ways. This book, then, is necessarily just a tidbit of the feast that is biblical study. Maybe it will stimulate readers’ appetites to learn more. There certainly is more to learn about the Bible (and with every day yet more) than a person could master in a single lifetime. That said, this book also should suffice to provide a respectable level of biblical literacy and to enable its readers to make sense of references to and uses of the Bible — that most popular and controversial book in the world.

Chapter 1

In Which the Intrepid Reader Asks,

“What is the Bible, anyway?”

“The familiar is not the thing it reminds of.” —Jane Hirshfield

Year after year, the Bible tops best-seller lists. Polls show it is the run-away favorite book for Americans of all kinds, and it is considered holy by a full 84% of the U.S. population (footnote: The Harris Poll® #38, April 8, 2008). It comes in every imaginable form. Leather-bound and embossed, in raggedy paperback, pink poofy cover, audio, multi-media, or clutched in the perfectly manicured fingers of Paris Hilton en route to jail. People swear on it in courtrooms. Families record births, marriages, divorces, and deaths in its pages. Soldiers take it into battle, and peaceniks wave it in demonstrations of opposition. The Bible is a singular document of inestimable influence. But all evidence to the contrary, it can be really, really hard to understand. For one thing, it isn’t just one thing.

The Bible didn’t fall out of the sky in King James English. Neither was it etched into stone tablets during a thunderstorm and handed to a tunic-clad Charlton Heston. The Bible grew up over a long period of time, and like anything that takes its own sweet time to mature, it has depth and richness and a few wrinkles, too. Actually, the word Bible means something like “little library.” In this case, not only is the whole Bible a collection of books, but also most of those books are themselves collections — the product of long development and many hands. In other words, the Bible and its individual books are more like a Wikipedia entry growing out of the contributions of various people of faith, than a Hemingway short story composed in one mojito-fueled evening. (Footnote: I see that A. J. Jacobs used the very same Wikipedia analogy, with a bit more description, in The Year of Living Biblically. Even a couple thousand years ago, it was possible to say, “there is nothing new under the sun.” That, from our very own biblical Ecclesiastes.)

And those books don’t all work in the same way. Just as we read the lyrics of a Neil Young song differently than we do directions for setting up a stereo or the arguments of Galileo’s opponents, so the devotional poetry of the Psalms should be read differently than Leviticus’ logistical instructions for consecrating a sacrifice and differently from the early Christian missionaries’ letters of encouragement to new congregations found in the New Testament.

The Bible’s present form — pages bound between two covers just like other books — masks its spectacular complexity and radical difference from anything else you might find on Amazon. Although some of what became biblical was composed by a single author and designed for general consumption, much of what’s in the Bible developed before books even existed, before most people could read, for that matter. They were disparate documents (many reflecting ancient oral traditions) coproduced, redacted, and exchanged among the elite few who could read and write. Yet one can pick up a Bible today and read it just like any modern book, from cover to cover. Doing so is fraught at best, though, because a careful reader will quickly discover that the Bible’s “voice” is really a cacophony.

Think about how many times you’ve heard someone say, “well, the Bible says….” Then another person retorts, “but the Bible also says,” and proceeds to give the argument’s opposite side. For example, the Bible both condemns and commands killing, divorce, religious ritual, and putting family first. Unless you understand the social situations out of which those texts come and something about how they work as literature, the Bible would seem to say everything and nothing. And without knowing something about the Bible’s development, a reader would be understandably flummoxed trying to figure out exactly how many animals were supposed to be on Noah’s ark, based on God’s command first to take a pair then to take seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean animals, … much less, how big such a boat would have to be, Evan Almighty, notwithstanding. The Bible is all around us, yet as alien as E.T.