The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bibleby Jonathan Kirsch
Sex. Violence. Scandal. These are words we rarely associate with the
"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.
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 waitit 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.
- Random House Publishing Group
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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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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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.
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.
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.
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.