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The Greatest Story Never Read

Joseph Epstein gets around to ‘In the beginning’

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Academics, I’m told, used to play a game at parties in which each person confessed to some great work he or she should have but never got around to reading. Stakes in this game rose quickly. One might begin by allowing one has never read The Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione and, a few drinks on, end by admitting to never having read Romeo and Juliet. I never attended a party where this game was played. A pity, too, for I could have trumped everyone in the room by announcing, as I am here, that I have never read the Bible. 

Breakfast with the Bible

Mark Anderson

When I was a small child, my father read portions of a child’s Bible to me. I recall the story of the Garden of Eden, of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, of Jacob outwitting his brother Esau for his father’s blessing, of Joseph’s brothers mauling him and leaving him for dead, of David with his slingshot defeating Goliath, of Solomon’s decision about the two women disputing possession of a child. At 13, a bar-mitzvah boy, I read a few paragraphs of the Bible, my Torah portion, to the northside Chicago synagogue congregation of Ner Tamid. In later years, I read bits of the Bible, when studying Paradise Lost or reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. But that is as far as it went. 

Until six or seven weeks ago, when I determined to read the Bible straight through, which I am now doing. The dreariness of the so-called New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens—may have been an unconscious motive for my doing so. The Bible is advertised as the greatest story ever told, and, as a literary man, I would be foolish to depart the planet without having read it. Is the Bible the greatest story ever told? I’ll let you know when I get to the end at page 1130; I am currently only at 251. Miles to go, as the poet said, before I sleep. 

 I generally read three chapters a day, with my breakfast, and just this morning I have come to The Book of Judges. As a literary snob, I am of course reading the Bible in the King James Version. Marvelous stuff, though there is a small price to pay. What one gains in lilting rhythm and elegant vocabulary, one sometimes loses in repetition. A brief example from The Book of Joshua, where one reads: “.  .  . Joshua waxed old and stricken with age. .  .  . And Joshua called for all Israel, and for their elders, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and said unto to them, I am old and stricken with age.” 

Longueurs there are in plenty. One must gird one’s loins and keep one’s mind on the job when the begats begin, or when the land of Canaan is divided among the 12 tribes of Israel, each portion of land specified in a thicket of proper names. Preparation of animals for sacrifice is set out in detail of a kind likely to drain the color from a vegan’s cheek. 

Violence can be swift and unremitting. Should Israel not obey the Lord in all his commandments, “they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish off this good land which the Lord your God has given you.” The God of the Old Testament does not, unlike American democracy, offer much in the way of second chances. 

When encouraging people to read the great but formidably long books—-Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—I tell them they have to read them religiously, by which I mean in small portions, but relentlessly, showing up at the same time every day for the job. 

Have I been reading the Bible religiously in the word’s more fundamental sense? Although I intend to read through both the Old and New Testaments, in the Old Testament I can, as the kids used to say, identify; these are my people being written about. I feel a small but real satisfaction when I get through my morning’s Bible reading, as if I have done the right thing. Thus far I cannot say that I have felt that special frisson that is associated with religious emotion. 

As someone more and more impressed with the mysteries of life, and less and less impressed with science and human explanations of those mysteries, I find a certain comfort in reading the Bible, with its miracles, feats of endurance, and obedience to a higher power. Reading my daily portion, I like to think that I have not given up on God. More important, while reading it, I hope that God has not given up on me.  

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