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If the Jeopardy category is Religion, chances are one of the correct questions will be, “What are the Beatitudes?” That seems to be the summit of the writers’ knowledge of the Bible, and since it is their job to dovetail such knowledge with that of reasonably well-educated Americans, we can assume that it stands as the summit of our Biblical mastery, along with other colorful, half-understood clichés now adrift from the moorings of context: pillar of salt, burning bush, deaf adder, Jezebel, David and Goliath, walls of Jericho.

The Bible, cultural touchstone, has never been considered in the same light as the Bible, book. It is acceptable to appreciate its mechanics in one way only—as a beautiful piece of literature, of unparalleled writing craft. But as reading material—the vehicle for such laic devices as plot and character—it doesn’t get much play in America, as Jonathan Kirsch points out in the introduction to The Harlot by the Side of the Road. Not that there’s a scarcity of scandalous fodder, especially in the Old Testament.

It is a byword of drawing-room naughties that the O.T. is a bodice-ripper of the first water, rife with whores, concubines, vengeful kings, incest, molestation, sacrifice, murder, greed, and other misdeeds. It has been bowdlerized, censored, snipped, banned, and mistranslated in an effort to suppress or at least explain away the appalling and titillating stories that keep the Bible’s pot boiling like a turn-of-the-century penny dreadful. Kirsch’s goal is to retell the episodes with the most Peyton (or Melrose) Place oomph, and then tell us what they were doing in the Bible and what it meant to the people of the time.

He concentrates on seven appalling episodes that will never find their way into Bible Stories for Children, comparing his modern, purplish retellings with the lovely and more austere language of the Hebrew Bible, and then proceeding to pick apart the stories in a search for their veracity, meaning, and usefulness. His interpretations are punched up with colorful touches such as flourishes of Jewish or modern humor: “Believe me,” he has Lot shrugging, “we’re as good as gone already”; the impatient angels sneer, “What is it about the word ‘Flee!’ that you don’t understand?”

Kirsch is correct in assuming that modern audiences do not read the Bible for laughs, as opposed to for reference or inspiration. But he is incorrect in implying that we could not. Once you slog through the begatting, the King James language is quite simple and does little to disguise its meaning—it’s no more coy than, say, the anonymous author of The Pearl. Kirsch includes the text in sidebars so that we may witness that his interpretation is more extrapolation than invention; he uses the Hebrew Bible, a 1917 English translation of the O.T. that closely follows the King James version. Surely the enterprising reader who skips Kirsch and goes straight to the goods himself will be suitably appalled when Lot announces to a drunken, horny mob: “Behold now, I have two daughters that have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes.” When Kirsch posits that the Sodomites complain, “We want to bugger someone!” it is only a comic embellishment on an already alarming episode.

Because it has been endlessly scribbled over—academics say “redacted”—in order to push the contradicting agendas of centuries of priests and prophets, the Bible harbors episodes whose meanings can only be decoded by a strenuous scraping away of such adjustments. As written, these stories are only windows—”tiny, cracked, and dirty,” as Kirsch says in his parsing of a 70-word passage in Exodus (4:24-26), a nettle bush of mystery and horror that taxes even the author’s knowledge of Egyptian mythology, circumcision rites, and traditions surrounding primogeniture.

The Harlot by the Side of the Road is a welcome entry in the growing list of scholarly inquiries into Judeo-Christianity. In its attitude of lively, imaginative curiosity, it bears some resemblance to the book that started all this, A.N. Wilson’s extraordinary biography, Jesus, A Life. But Kirsch’s chuckling cynicism is a far cry in tone from Wilson’s measured optimism; you won’t find anything like Wilson’s awed, humanist retelling of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Kirsch calls the idea of angels as the earthly incarnations of a trickster God “slightly spooky” and wonders if an ancient rabbi was betraying “a certain degree of sexual jealousy” when he wrote, basically, that once a woman (like grateful rape-victim Dinah) has an uncircumcised man, she’ll never go back.

Harlot bears an even closer relation to Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a lyrical exegesis of Greek myth that both explores and explains the hearts of the people who created these stories. Less rapturous and circular than Calasso, Kirsch seeks to “place” the most prickly and inaccessible of our creation myths in the psyche of our culture.

Such a book is bound to have moments that are inherently amusing, like the story that begins, “One hot afternoon, as the story is told in Genesis, God*…” Not only does God merit an asterisk, but Kirsch goes on to explain that “I will use ‘God,’ ‘the Lord’ and ‘the Almighty’ to refer to the deity,” presumably in case we think he means someone else. But it is interesting that the name of God is, in fact, in question throughout this book, especially insofar as the precision of the name addresses the question at the heart of Christianity, Judaism, and to some extent Islam—the nature of God.

If Job asked why God had forsaken him, readers of the Bible might ask why he would allow such terrible sins to be committed in his name and what purpose their inclusion in his Word is meant to serve. Hard-core Christers should stay away, unless they really want to wrestle with those unanswerable lapses in logic the littlest Sunday-school student can’t help but notice, the ones that suggest we are ruled by a God with a Dagwoodesque compulsion to nap on the job, a vile temper, and a talent for delegating that leaves Him free to golf six days a week.

Kirsch kicks off his book with the untold story of Lot: how he offered his virgin daughters to a howling mob, how both girls got him drunk and seduced him, and how he enjoyed the favor of a God who had made a covenant with his uncle Abraham and was now obliged to protect Abraham’s no-good relatives. (Then as now, it really is who you know.) After gleefully reporting this unlovely family history, Kirsch rolls up his sleeves for a closer look.

In interpreting the Lot story, he debunks the condescending but useful (for apologists and infallible-godders) presumption that in old times such abhorrent practices as offering a child’s virtue as a bribe must have been common. Kirsch suggests that there is no good reason for Lot’s actions other than that they are those of a “tragic buffoon,” a drunkard and coward so thickheaded he’d haggle with guardian angels over the terms of his rescue. In the endnotes, Kirsch quotes C.J.H. Wright’s “Family” entry in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: “[T]here is much in the [Old Testament] to indicate that love, joy, care, and honor were to be found in the Israelite home,” Wright remarks rather stiffly.

Kirsch’s exploration of the incest matter is trickier. He correctly blames Freud for rewriting our history of incest prohibitions—it isn’t enough to believe it’s wrong for us; in order to trust an infallible God, we must be certain it is wrong in the Manichaean sense. But it is also partly a linguistic fiddle-faddle that has convinced us that incest has always been considered an evil act in every earthly culture. The word “taboo” has come to mean forbidden, but like the sacred act of cannibalism, incest was “taboo”—a heavily proscribed but very real activity—in many ancient cultures. (Incest in the name of financial preservation is not extinct—taboo in both the old and new sense, it is still practiced among European royalty scrambling to hold onto the few titles not auctioned to cattle barons or sold with full royal fanfare to shopkeepers’ daughters.)

As fascinating a read as it is, The Harlot by the Side of the Road is also a reassuring text for modern readers who approach the Bible already intimidated by its riches. It’s easy to skip past vague or jarring sentences—or whole episodes—on the assumption that they make sense to someone, just not to me. Kirsch doesn’t skip them; with the fussiness of a fundamentalist and the free-ranging curiosity of a scholar, he pays special attention to the parts that seem out of place. God’s night attack on Moses, and Zipporah’s very strange rescue of her husband, really is as weird as it looks—weirder, once you fill in the background. Should King David’s absence from the moral aftermath of Tamar’s rape by her half-brother Amnon raise some questions about his judgment? And isn’t it a little…pagan of Jephthah’s doomed daughter to take handmaidens to a grove where they will “bewail [her] virginity?”

Kirsch says it is so pagan, in fact, that Seila served the role of a sacrificial goddess-concubine in the eyes of ancient readers comforted by a bridge between the old gods and the new. Uncovering such a bridge and explaining its necessity is what Kirsch does best. In his vivid, leaping prose, Bible stories are revealed as rich, difficult, cautionary webs of meanings and beliefs so ancient that their weak resonances can only be picked up by the most attentive listener.CP