Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review of Good Book

Rarely do I review a book, and even more rarely do I accept a complimentary copy from a publisher. But—full disclosure—I’m doing both here, and with a good conscience. I hope you read on and come to see why.

The review is of David Plotz’s Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, released last month by HarperCollins. Mr. Plotz, editor of Slate magazine and a self-decribed “non-observant Jew,” based Good Book largely on his recent project of blogging the Bible. As I noted earlier in a brief review of that undertaking, Mr. Plotz’s work offers Christians a rare glimpse of the Bible from outside the traditional bounds of biblical interpretation. For preachers and Bible teachers, Good Book has two very significant benefits: shining new light on some very old passages, and showing how an intelligent, secular writer views the Scriptures when he actually sits down and reads them. But be warned: as insightful as Mr. Plotz’s observations may be, don’t expect them to politely skim over the Scriptures’ more colorful passages. Consider, for example, these thoughts on Joshua 2:
What's with all the prostitutes? There's scarcely an unmarried woman in the Bible so far who isn't a prostitute, or treated like one. Tamar turns a trick with her father-in-law Judah. The Moabite women whore themselves to the Israelites. The Midianite harlot is murdered by Phineas. The loose behavior of Jacob's daughter Dinah sparks mass slaughter. And now Rahab. No wonder they call prostitution the oldest profession—it's the only profession that biblical women seem to have.

I have a rudimentary theory about this. In many tribal cultures, women have been essentially banished from the public sphere in order to control their virtue. We see this today in strict Islamic cultures, where women aren’t even allow to speak to men other than their husbands and relatives. Throughout the Bible, the Israelites have been obsessed with controlling the sexual behavior of their girls and women. That’s why there are so many darn laws about female purity, sexual misbehavior, and intermarriage. Presumably because of these sexual constraints, the Israelite women seem to have played no role in public life. Except for Moses's sister Miriam (and, in passing, Noa and her sisters), there hasn't been one woman since the Exodus who's had any public presence. Perhaps we keep hearing about prostitutes because all the other women were locked up in the kitchen. (pp. 100-01)
How accurate is Mr. Plotz’s rudimentary theory? Off the top of my head, I don’t know for sure. But he’s certainly gotten me thinking along lines I don’t usually consider in studying the book of Joshua.

While many of Mr. Plotz’s observations are surprising and even delightful, the conclusion of Good Book is sobering to say the least. In short, he considers the God of the OT to be “awful, cruel, and capricious” and concludes that “He is no God I want to obey, and no God I can love” (p. 302). Mr. Plotz’s own agnosticism (or even atheism), however, does not take away from what is nevertheless a book overflowing with unexpected insights on the Bible.

For months I’ve used Blogging the Bible as an online resource for Scripture exposition. I’m glad to now have a hardcopy of Mr. Plotz’s book on the shelf with my OT commentaries (as a Jew, Mr. Plotz limits his blogging to the Old Covenant). It’s not your typical commentary—which is precisely what makes it such a uniquely valuable resource.

Mr. Plotz has offered to give an interview with Transforming Sermons, which I hope to do and post here soon. In the mean time I recommend getting your own copy of Good Book.


Blogger jeff said...

I would agree with the assessment. When I preached through Judges I had a woman skip church the entire time with her son so he wouldn't have to hear about all the disgusting things people did with women. I thought that was a bit overboard. I ronically enough, she showed up again on the day I did a sermon about the guy hacking his girl into 12 pieces!

7:26 AM, April 23, 2009  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

It's sad how many Christians want to be cushioned from the very types of reality the Bible itself sheds light on. I'm glad the sister at your church turned up in time for the Benjaminites story. Peace.

9:53 AM, April 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for the review. i found it very interesting.

8:52 PM, April 23, 2009  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

You're welcome. Thanks for letting me know.

9:06 PM, April 23, 2009  

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