Book Review: The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages
The Bible continues to be the best-selling book in history, perhaps because each reader can identify with some aspect of its ancient text. It is this notion that informs the essays of the 24 novelists, poets, scholars, and journalists who answered Andrew Blauner’s call to write an essay centered on a Biblical book or passage with personal meaning to them.
In The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages, some write about abandoning the faith traditions of their childhoods, whether Judaism, Catholicism, or evangelical Protestantism. In his introduction to the book, Adam Gopnik – who, like Blauner, is an author and New Yorkerwriter – goes so far as to say,
“[The Bible’s] stories have long ago fallen away; we known that almost nothing that happens in it actually happened, and that its miracles, large and small, are of the same kind and credibility as all other miracles that crowd the world’s great granary of superstition.”
Gropnik’s dismissive view aside, many of the book’s contributors share with us why a particular biblical portion resonates with them and show how such texts lend themselves continually to new interpretations.
Avi Steinberg, for example, reimagines the snake in the Garden of Eden as Adam’s brother. These two characters, the Human and the Snake, are born of the same father, yet one is favored and the other is not. One has been given the mantle of leadership; the other has gotten nothing. Like all brothers in the Book of Genesis, Adam and the Snake quarrel over inheritance: Who will be given the right of dominion? Steinberg suggests that this conflict in Eden is the first and archetypal instance of brothers at war.
The table of contents features familiar personalities such as Cokie Roberts, Lydia Davis, Colm Tóibín, and Al Sharpton; other names will be new to most readers. Some essays are short and perfunctory; others delve deep into theological matters, often reflecting on personal loss or hardship.
For example, Egypian-born André Aciman, distinguished professor of comparative literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, has written a moving essay about loss and blessing in “Deuterogeniture, or How I Killed My Grandmother.”
Edwidge Danticat, whose memoir Brother, I’m Dying was a finalist for the National Book Award, writes powerfully about reading the Bible with her mother as she is dying from ovarian cancer and finding solace in the Book of Revelations.
In “The Book of Ruth,” Lois Lowry, a children’s author and a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, tells the story of the marriage of her son, a United States fighter pilot serving in Germany, to a German native. It tells of the birth of a granddaughter and of the tragic death of the beloved son. The choices made by the members of the family bring the essay to a powerful conclusion that, for me, was the emotional highpoint of the book.
While some of the essays deal with sad subjects, others elicit a smile.
Cokie and Steve Roberts, who have often written about their Catholic-Jewish marriage, bring freshness to that theme by linking their experience to the story of Moses and Zipporah in the second chapter of Exodus. After killing an Egyptian taskmaster, Moses flees to Midian, where he marries Zipporah, who gives birth to a son, Gershom. God then appears to Moses in a “burning bush,” telling him to go back to Egypt to free his people. As Zipporah is not Jewish and Gershom is not circumcised, God seems to have second thoughts about Moses’s fitness as the liberator of the Jewish people. Realizing the importance of the covenant between God and the Israelites, Zipporah takes it upon herself to circumcise her son. Zipporah never converts to her husband’s faith, but she respects and honors one of its core principles.
For Cokie and Steve Roberts, this story exemplifies what partners in a healthy mixed marriage do: care enough to understand and embrace what’s important to each other. Zipporah’s lesson, they suggest, applies to all couples in all unions and for one simple reason: Every marriage is really a “mixed” marriage. Every marriage requires that in times of turmoil, each partner has to say, “I stand with you. We are in this together.”
In “Desert Stories,” poet Kathleen Norris sums up the collection nicely: “[The Bible] is meant to keep reaching out to us and, despite our inattention and indifference and infernal self-absorption, every now and then it hits us in the gut.”
Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is immediate past-chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.