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The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible

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Overview

"The stories you are about to read are some of the most violent and sexually explicit in all of Western literature. They are tales of human passion in all of its infinite variety: adultery, seduction, incest, rape, mutilation, assassination, torture, sacrifice, and murder. . . ."

Sex. Violence. Scandal. These are words we rarely associate with the sacred text of the Bible. Yet in this brilliant book, Jonathan Kirsch recounts shocking tales that have been suppressed by religious authorities throughout history. Kirsch places each story within the political and social context of its time, delves into the latest biblical scholarship to explain why each one was originally censored, and shows how these ancient narratives hold valuable lessons for all of us.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Arguing that several stories in the Bible have often go untold because of the graphic nature of their sexual content, writer and attorney Kirsch here sets out to retell the stories, ranging from the "sacred incest of Lot's daughters" to the rape of David's daughter, Tamar, in contemporary language, using dialogue and descriptive detail to make the stories more accessible to today's readers. The stories may be surprising to those whose only familiarity with the Bible is from childhood, since they deal with such adult issues like prostitution, incest and rape. For example, the chapter on "Lot and His Daughters" continues the story past the usual Sunday school ending. Since Lot and his two daughters are the only survivors after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, each daughter in turn seduces her father and conceives a child in order to continue the human race. After each story, Kirsch attempts to put the story into context with his own critical analysis and the interpretations of other biblical scholars. The author also includes a chapter on methods of reading the Bible and a helpful bibliography. Kirsch succeeds in bringing these ancient stories to vivid life, and in revealing the human passions and frailties often left out of the telling of familiar Bible tales. May
Library Journal
Kirsch, an attorney and book critic, retells some of the juicier stories of the Bible in contemporary language. He expands upon the original biblical text to make the stories highly readable and includes with each the original text in modern translation and a brief sketch of the scholarly research and the speculation surrounding it. For those to whom Bible stories suggest "Disneyesque animals and simple uplifting moral lessons," this book may be a bit of a shock. Kirsch shows that the Bible is not a children's book. Then, as now, rape, incest, prostitution, murder, and strange religious cults were a part of life. As Kirsch says, "The Bible is a map of the human heart, and no secret chamber or hidden passage is left out." Kirsch contends that returning to the Bible can offer insight into modern issues. Mostly, however, he offers an irresistible popularization of some unfamiliar stories. Some readers will enjoy it; others will be highly offended. Recommended for public libraries.C. Robert Nixon, MLS, Lafayette, Ind.
Kirkus Reviews
An amateur Bible student's attempt to deal with the complexities of biblical sexuality.

The oxymoronic subtitle says it all. Biblical episodes used for millennia for moral instruction are far from forbidden. And yet, in the unmistakable cadence of the tabloid TV narrator, L.A. Times book critic, novelist, and lawyer Kirsch guides us with wide eyes toward several biblical episodes containing incest or rape: "You mean that's in the Bible? Yes, dear reader, that's in the Bible. But wait—it gets worse." And so does Kirsch's retelling of these stories. Whether the typically sparse, clinical Hebrew Bible text is about Lot and his daughters, the rape of Dinah, or Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (the harlot of the title), Kirsch's novelistic retellings have all the subtlety of a tabloid tale. In treating the title episode from Genesis 38, for example, in which the childless and widowed Tamar poses as a harlot to trick her father-in-law into impregnating her, the author calls it "an erotic fairy tale," even though all the details of Tamar's swaying breasts and "strange hunger" are his own invention. Kirsch pens in a description of Tamar's veil falling off, then speculates about how Judah's fervor might have been affected by the discovery that the harlot by the side of the road was his neglected daughter-in-law. While such fictionalizations surely eroticize the original texts, they purposefully cleanse them of any supernatural qualities. Lot's angels with blinding light become mere hunks with house lanterns. While Kirsch displays some familiarity with classical Bible critics, he appears perplexed by the concept that the Hebrew Bible's theology isn't Canaanite: "Another curious feature of the Hebrew Bible is the absence of a female counterpart to God."

A retelling for those so unfamiliar with the sex and violence in the Bible that they think it merits a PG rating.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345418821
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 674,441
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Kirsch , a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the author of two novels, writes and lectures widely on Biblical, literary, and legal topics. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, and a former correspondent for Newsweek, he lives and practices intellectual property law in Los Angeles.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2003

    An Entry-way into the Bible

    An excellent way to draw the reader into the Biblical world. At first, I thought Kirsch's technique of telling the Biblical verses as stories in modern-day language would be off-putting; I wanted pure commentary. But I was wrong. He provides the verses side-by side with the stories, and then continues on with discussions of authorship, cultural, historical & biblical backgrounds, theories as to meaning, etc. Thus you get the best of both: stories which are accessible to our modern-day minds along with analysis, background & theory. In addition, his bibliography is extensive and I am looking forward to reading several of the books he highly recommends. This book is for the believer & non-believer alike. Very much worth reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2001

    For Both Bible Readers and Non-Bible Readers!

    I learned so much that I was never taught about the Bible by reading this book. Some people may be enlightened while others may be offended by the scholarly interpretations of the Bible in this book. This book is more text book than page turner but truly a quality read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2000

    Great fun and thought provoking

    Those of us who have read the entire Bible always knew that it was loaded with sex and violence. Unfortunately, few chose to elaborate on this side of the stories as they do with more uplifting episodes. Kirsch has done this, taking some bare bones stories and fleshing them out. Of course, what Kirsch writes is very unlikely to be what really happened, but, his extensions of the original stories can certainly provoke thought. There are many other stories I would have liked to see Kirsch tackle, such as Esther and The King of Persia, Ruth's seduction of Boaz, etc. But, one man cannot do everything. My only hesitation about recommending this book is the subtitle: 'Forbidden Tales.' Who exactly forbad these stories? And why didn't they tell me about it? Kirsch seems to be trying to reach the prurient interest crew and those who would like to tear down the Judaeo-Christian ethical standards by pointing out some of the skeletons in the closet. The book is too good to pander to that sort of reader.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2000

    Rape, Incest, Betrayal...not in Hollywood, but in the Bible

    Check your Sunday school lessons at the door, here's the nitty gritty of the Bible. Kirsch does take some liberties filling in, but the Biblical writers were a little scarce in detail. I'd love to take this book to the local priest and ask him why we don't get to hear these stories.

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