David Plotz, Blogging the Bible

An offhand encounter with a dramatic Bible story inspired David Plotz to take a new look at the Old Testament for the online magazine Slate.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Daniel Pinkwater is making his list and checking it twice for good children's books. But first, a comparatively thicker tome.

About a year ago, David Plotz's mind was wandering at a bat mitzvah service, so he reached forward to pluck a book from the pew in front of him and soon found himself engrossed in a story of sex, deception and murder. It was Genesis Chapter 34. Which got him to thinking, has the Bible been just a bit oversold as the Good Book?

David Plotz is the deputy editor for the online magazine Slate, where he writes the feature Blogging the Bible. He joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID PLOTZ (Slate): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You've described yourself as a, quote, "proud but not terribly observant Jew." So Genesis 34 was a revelation.

Mr. PLOTZ: It wasn't Revelation, because Revelation comes much later, but it was a revelation because...

SIMON: Oh, my gosh, I made the mistake off getting on the wrong foot...

Mr. PLOTZ: Of the wrong book. It's the wrong book.

SIMON: A recent expert...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLOTZ: But Genesis Chapter 34, so I open it, it's the middle of Genesis and it's the story of Dinah, who I'm sure many listeners know is the daughter of Jacob. And she goes out one day and she is raped by Shechem, the son of a local chieftain. And then Shechem and his father come to Jacob and his sons, to Dinah's brothers, and say, sorry about the rape. Shechem really loves Dinah. He'll do anything to marry her. Jacob's sons say, okay, that's fine. We'll do that. There's one condition, which is that you and all the men of your town have to get circumcised. And so Shechem and his father agree and they go back and they're all circumcised. And right after they're circumcised, Jacob's sons show up at the town and kill them all, take their women and children as slaves, take their land.

And so I read this story and I wondered, you know, if this is sitting here in the middle of my Bible, what else am I missing? What kind of terrible things and what sort of wonderful things am I missing by not ever having read it?

SIMON: Hmm. I want to give people a flavor of what you write. And if I could ask you read a section from the story of Samson.

Mr. PLOTZ: Samson, it soon becomes clear, was the original meathead, born 3,000 years too early to be a hockey goon or the fraternity rush chairman. On the way down to the wedding, his own wedding, Samson tears a young lion apart with his bare hands. Later, he eats honey from the carcass of the lion. At a post-wedding party, Samson bets Philistine guests they can't solve his riddle, which is about the lion and the honey.

The riddle stumps the Philistines for three days, so they threaten Samson's new bride, saying they'll kill her and her dad unless she coaxes the answer out of him. She nags and wheedles and cajoles her husband for four days. Samson, clearly not the sharpest sword in the scabbard, tells her the answer. She immediately tells the Philistines, who solve the riddle. This enrages Samson, who also seems to think that the Philistines have slept with his wife. He tells them, quote, "You plowed with my heifer."

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Have their been times when you're just been a line of jokiness, if you please, that you've just refused to cross?

Mr. PLOTZ: Maybe there is and I don't recognize it. But I sort of think that the Bible inoculates you from that, because when you actually read the book, it's constantly full of the most outrageous sexual jokes, incredible violent jokes, jokes at the expense of all kinds of different people told with great cruelty. And so the Bible tells us - this bawdy, funny, sometimes vicious book.

SIMON: Hmm. Now, you must hear from people that think what you're doing is irreverent.

Mr. PLOTZ: I have had a huge response to the Bible blog. There are a few people who are really outraged by it. For the most part, even the people who think it's irreverent recognize and appreciate that I'm taking seriously this book that they all love and find so dear to them and so important to them. And I think what people respond to most of all is this idea of a fresh eye, and that for them the Bible has been kind hijacked by their rabbi or their pastor or their priest. And it's been doled out in these small portions to them, always with a very clear moral lesson attached to it.

And I think what happens when you - someone like me reads it just straight through and reads all of it, is that it gets much messier, but a lot more interesting and more fun, and that you're allowed to read it with a kind of independence of mind and freedom that people haven't felt they've had their churches and synagogues.

And so even if they're outraged by a particular joke that I've made, they like the idea that it's a book that they can make jokes about.

SIMON: In your judgment, does God seem to change from book to book?

Mr. PLOTZ: Yeah. In the beginning, in Genesis, there's this very closely intimately connected God, a God who kind of wanders around on the Earth, talks to Adam and Eve like a father. Later on, God becomes sort of this much more distant figure who only communicates through one or two people and issues sort of awesome commands, but at a great distance.

And then there are whole sections, in the parts that I'm reading - right now in the Book of Kings, in particular - where God is nowhere in sight, and occasionally will toss off an order to one of his prophets, but basically has said, I'm tired of you, you stiff-necked people, I don't want to have anything to do with you.

The one constant is that God is always disappointed with us. It's this process of God being disappointed and us trying to live up to what he wants and never managing it because we disobey his laws.

SIMON: We've talked about the stories and the jokes and the violence. What about the majesty? Do you notice that in the Bible?

Mr. PLOTZ: Yes. When I started out to read this book, I expected to be bored and troubled and annoyed all the time. Once you start to read it, it's filled with this unbelievable richness. First of all, they're great stories on any level. And there's a reason the stories seem familiar, because they fit the pattern of what a great story is. And then it puts you in this kind of frame of moral contemplation, which is unusual and really fun.

SIMON: You're blogging the Old Testament. Any plans for the New Testament or any other holy book, for that matter?

Mr. PLOTZ: I don't think I'm going to continue to the New Testament, because I'm Jewish, and I think Jewish and Christian readers give me a lot of leeway to write about the Old Testament because that's my book. I think when you get to the New Testament, which is not my book, I think people might not appreciate it as much. And a lot of people have said, oh, you should really blog the Koran or blog this or that, and I - I'm not ready for that. Someone else should do it.

SIMON: Is it possible that blogging the Bible has made you a little more faithful?

Mr. PLOTZ: It's made me more contemplative. It's made me think about moral questions which I happily ignored for the fist 36 years of my life. Because you're presented with God demanding terrible things, people behaving badly, and yet all within this framework of searching for what is right and how are we to be faithful and how are we to be moral. You're constantly presented with these difficult moral questions and disturbing questions. And it's incredibly engaging.

SIMON: David Plotz, the deputy editor of Slate. You can find a link to his blogging the Bible on our web site, npr.org. Mr. Plotz, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PLOTZ: Thank you, Scott.

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