I’ve always been a proud Jew, but never a very observant one. I believe in God, but only in a please-please-desperation-prayer kind of way. I’ve never met a pig I didn’t want to eat. I say the Lord’s name only to take it in vain. I don’t have any other gods before Him, but mostly because I haven’t looked for any. I rarely remember the Sabbath day, and never keep it holy. I go to the synagogue about as often–and with about as much pleasure–as I go to the DMV.
But not long ago, I made one of those rare synagogue visits for my cousin Alina’s bat mitzvah. As usual, I found myself confused (and bored) by a Hebrew service I couldn’t understand. During the second hour of what would be an NFL-game-plus-overtime-length ceremony, I picked up the Torah in the pew-back, flipped it open at random, and started reading (the English translation, that is).
I landed on Genesis, Chapter 34. I was immediately engrossed–and horrified-by a story I didn’t know.
It begins with a young man named Shechem raping Dinah, who’s the daughter of the patriarch Jacob. (Someone is in the kitchen with Dinah.) After the rape, Shechem realizes he actually loves Dinah, speaks to her “tenderly,” and decides he must marry her. He and his father, a local idol-worshipping chieftain named Hamor, pay a conciliatory visit to Jacob and his sons, Dinah’s brothers. Hamor pleads: My son loves Dinah and yearns to marry her. Hamor and Shechem offer to share their land with Jacob’s family, marry off the women of their clan to Jacob’s sons, and pay any bride price if only Dinah will be Shechem’s wife. (I should note that Shechem and Hamor aren’t suckers: They’re also eager for the marriage so they can get their hands on Jacob’s land.)
Jacob’s sons pretend to agree to their proposal, but on one condition: Shechem, Hamor, and all the men of their town must get circumcised before the marriage. Shechem and Hamor accept this. They and their fellow townsmen get circumcised. And here is where the story turns macabre. Three days after the mass circumcision, “when they were in pain,” Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi descend on the town, spears drawn, and murder all the incapacitated men. Then Jacob’s other sons plunder the town, seize the livestock and property, and take the women and children as slaves. Jacob, who hasn’t said a word in the chapter till now, complains to Simeon and Levi that, because of the massacre, neighboring tribes won’t trust him anymore. “But they answered, ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’”
Needless to say, this isn’t a story they taught me at Temple Sinai’s Hebrew School back in 1980. The Garden of Eden, David and Goliath, Noah’s Ark, sure. But the founding fathers of Israel lying, breaching a contract, encouraging pagans to convert to Judaism only in order to cripple them for slaughter, massacring defenseless innocents, enslaving women and children, pillaging and profiteering, and then justifying it all with an appeal to their sister’s defiled honor? And the tale of Dinah isn’t hiding way in the back of the Bible, deep in Obadiah or Nehemiah or one of the other minor-league books no one ever reads. It is smack in the middle of Genesis, the one book of the Bible even ignoramuses think they know.
Like many lax but well-educated Jews (and Christians), I had long assumed I know what was in the Bible–more or less. I read parts of the Torah as a child in Hebrew school, then attended a rigorous Episcopalian high school in Washington, D.C., where I had to study the Old and New Testaments. Many of the highlights stuck in my head–Adam and Eve, Cain vs., Abel, Jacob vs. Esau, Jonah vs. whale, 40 days and nights, 10 plagues and Commandments, 12 tribes and apostles, Red Sea walked under, Galilee Sea walked on, bush into fire, rock into water, water into wine. And, of course, I absorbed other bits of Bible everywhere–from stories I heard in churches and synagogues, from movies and TV shows, from tidbits my parents and teachers told me. All this left me with a general sense that I knew the Good Book well enough, and that it was a font of crackling stories, Jewish heroes, and moral lessons.
But the tale of Dinah unsettled me, to say the least. If this story is strutting cheerfully through the heart of Genesis, what else had I forgotten or never learned? I realized that I needed to read the Bible–really read the Bible–for the first time in my life. I would begin with “In the beginning,” and see how far I got. That’s how “Good Book” began.
For the millions of Jews and Christians who know the Bible intimately, this project may sound obscene or at least absurd: Why should a numbskull beginner interpret the Bible stories that you know by heart? I didn’t intend any kind of insult. My goal was not to find contradictions, mock impossible events, or scoff at hypocrisy. I was reading out of genuine curiosity and fascination. I needed to understand the book that has shaped my religion and my world.
I also knew enough to know that Judaism and Christianity aren’t just the Bible. Judaism is built on thousands of years of commentary, interpretation, and law. This library of wisdom was totally unfamiliar to me, and I couldn’t hope to compete with it. Nor did I expect to solve Biblical mysteries that have baffled readers for centuries. I was coming very late to the game. There are books to tell you why the Bible is literally true, others to advise you how to analyze it as history, and still others to help you read it as literature. There are experts standing by to teach you how to approach the book as a Jew, a Catholic, an evangelical Protestant, an archeologist, a historian, a feminist, a lawyer, an athlete, or a teenager.
So, what could I possibly do? I have one–and only one–advantage over the experts, which is that the book is fresh to me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to know. My goal was pretty simple. I wanted to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I was in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I was fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So what would happen if I approached my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents, if I ignored commentary and learned experts, if it was just me and the word(s)? What would delight and horrify me? How would the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School? How would it change me? Would it make me more faithful or less? I have two small children: Would it teach me how to teach them about God?
The answers are in my book about the Good Book. Go here to read an excerpt.
David Plotz is editor of Slate, the award-winning online magazine, and author of the book “Good Book,” based on his “Blogging the Bible” series in Slate.