MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Back now with Day to Day. Self-proclaimed agnostic David Plotz read the Bible a few years ago and he wrote about it for Slate. It had a catchy title, "Blogging the Bible." Well, now, that blog has become a book called "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible." David Plotz is here now. Welcome back to the program.
Mr. DAVID PLOTZ (Author, "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible"): Thanks, Madeleine.
BRAND: You've read every single word of the Bible?
Mr. PLOTZ: I've read every single word of the Hebrew Bible. I'm Jewish. So I actually used a little biblical exaggeration there, which is that I read the whole of what you would call the Old Testament, but what in Judaism is the whole Megillah.
BRAND: The whole shebang. Well, some stories that really are not G-rated and not suitable for young children in Sunday school, you describe...
Mr. PLOTZ: Or for a National Public Radio broadcast, probably.
BRAND: (Laughing) Exactly. So, let's try to sanitize some of the more disturbing or eyebrow-raising stories that you came across, and one of them was your first encounter with the Bible, and you were at your cousin's Bat Mitzvah, bored.
Mr. PLOTZ: I was bored at the Bat Mitzvah and came across the story of Dinah - or Deena, as she's called in Jewish tradition - who is a daughter of Jacob. And she goes out one day, and is raped by a guy named Shechem, who was a local tribesman. But Shechem, after he rapes her, realizes he really loves her and he wants to marry her, so he goes to Jacob and Jacob's sons, who were Dinah's brothers, and says, hey, sorry about the rape. Can I marry Dinah? I'll share my land with you. You can marry the daughters of my tribe, anything, so that I can be with her. And so Jacob's sons say, OK, but the condition is that you and all the men of your town have to get circumcised before you can marry her. And so Shechem says, OK, he goes back. He and all his townsmen get circumcised and while they're in pain, while they're incapacitated from the circumcision, Jacob's sons show up at their town, slaughter them all, sack the town, take their women and children as slaves. And then when Jacob hears what his sons have done he says, hey, you know, it's going to be hard to live in this neighborhood if you're going to be killing everybody like this. And the sons say, what? Do you want our sister to be treated like a whore? And the story ends there. And I thought, if this is here, what else is here that I've missed?
BRAND: (Laughing) So, I don't know. You paint a portrait of a pretty dislikable God. He's vengeful, he's petty, he's an inconsistent disciplinarian, and I'm just wondering as someone who's not completely unfamiliar with the Bible - I mean, you had read parts of it earlier when you are a child - did that surprised you?
Mr. PLOTZ: I think it did, maybe because I'm gullible and I believe what I'm told. So, I believed what have been told by the Episcopal priest at St. Albans and by my rabbi, that God was a loving, merciful and just God, and he may well be. But the portrait of him in the Hebrew bible is not that. It was very, very unsettling to realize how difficult and contentious he is all the time, and how inconsistent he is, I mean, the word you used.
There are two ways out of that. One way, I think and Christians have found this, is that the New Testament does resolve a lot of these issues. If you're Christian I think, you know, you read it and you do find in the New Testament the loving and compassionate God, perhaps, who is a little bit absent in the Old Testament. Then for your Jews, though - and we don't really have that option - there's a long and honorable Jewish tradition of argument with God and of tussling with God. Some of my favorite passages are when humans are bickering with the Lord. The best one is when God is on his way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and he stops by the tent of Abraham and he says, I'm on my way to destroy Sodom and Abraham said, sort of bridles and rises up and says, what can you, you know, the most merciful God, you know, the great meter-out of justice, can you destroy the city if there are even 50 innocent people who lived there. And God sort of scratches his Godly head for a second and then says, yeah, I guess if there are 50 I can't do it. And Abraham says, what if there are 45? And God says, OK, not if they're 45. Abraham says, 40. And Abraham talks Him down.
BRAND: So, he's bargaining with God?
Mr. PLOTZ: He's bargaining in this moment of certain negotiation and argument is deeply moving and powerful, even - but God of course, is on the wrong side of it. God is on the side of collective punishment and genocide, and Abraham is on the right side. So it's an argument with the Lord as being a sort of faith and a form of religious practice.
BRAND: So, what are you trying to do with this book? You are - it's basically annotating, I guess, and then being a little cheeky about it, I have to say.
Mr. PLOTZ: Yes. The goal is to show what happens when an everyday person, when an average Joe, if you will, reads the book for the first time and encounters it directly. And so much of what the encounter we have for the Bible is mediated through rabbis or historians or anthropologists or priests or ministers, and there is very little direct congress with this book. And I'm hoping that just my, you know, my very naive and I hope funny in a reverent curiosity about this is infectious and it that makes people, you know, look twice at this book and remember how beautiful and how interesting and odd and glorious it is.
BRAND: Well, do you worry at all about being offensive or sacrilegious?
Mr. PLOTZ: People take offense, of course they take offense. But I don't think that my writing about the Bible is any more irreverent or funny or bawdy than what's already in there. So, going to the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal this is great moment when Elijah, who's a Jewish prophet, is facing off against these wicked prophets who worship this false god, Baal. And they're having a contest to who can sort of get their god to do something. And the prophets of Baal, the 850 prophets of Baal are shouting and chanting and praying and renting their clothes and nothing is happening. And Elijah, like a kind of a Judean Don Rickles is making fun of them. He's saying, huh, where is your god now? Where is your god? Is he on a walk? Is he in the bathroom? And it's just a hilarious moment.
BRAND: So, you started this whole project off as an agnostic and I'm wondering after you finished this year-long meeting expedition of the Bible, did that change your opinion of either God or Judaism or your role in it?
Mr. PLOTZ: It did. My relationship with God is not a relationship of solace and peace anymore. It's a relationship of conflict. The atheist in my acquaintances say, you know, give it up, forget it. Who needs it? And then the Christians my acquaintance say come on, move on to the New Testament, accept Jesus. T hat will resolve it. But I do think that there is a great Jewish tradition of saying, you know, this is the tussle that we're in, and let's tussle together.
BRAND: David, thank you.
Mr. PLOTZ: Thank you, Madeleine.
BRAND: David Plotz is the author of the new book, "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible."
COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.
BRAND: I'm Madeleine Brand.