Search for Bible's Meaning Takes Authors Down the 'Literal' Road

A pair of scholars analyze events but miss the inspired message

The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism

By Regina M. Schwartz

University of Chicago Press

211 pp., $22.95

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

By Jonathan Kirsch

Ballantine Books

378 pp., $27

One of the great inconsistencies for readers of the Bible is also its cornerstone - God. The same God who lovingly preserves Noah, his family, and all the creatures in the ark, also appears to mercilessly destroy everything else.

Although one can easily dismiss Noah's tale as myth or metaphor, this dualism keeps popping up in the Scriptures. Is the Lord both creator and destroyer? And why is there so much violence, so much evil, in the Bible?

In The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, Regina M. Schwartz states that violence is at the very heart of monotheism. God, she says, "excludes some and prefers others." Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who murders because God has rejected his sacrifice, "kills in the rage of his exclusion."

Like Cain, Schwartz insists, the ancient Israelites found their identity in violence, forcibly excluding all "outsiders," in order to define themselves as God's chosen people. She also reaches a horrifying conclusion: The violence so pervasive in Western society is Bible-based, "because of the enormous cultural weight the Bible has had through its interpretations and disseminations...."

While no one will argue that the Scriptures have been used to justify some of the most monstrous acts of mankind, it's hard to envision how the Bible could be the fount of society's problems. Genocide, rape, and all manner of perversity are in the Scriptures, but there are also numerous examples of mercy and loving compassion. Why the author feels that these have not proven equally influential in Western thought is not explained.

"The Curse of Cain" is intriguing, but ultimately not satisfying. How do polytheistic cultures generate brutality, if monotheism is the problem? Why is the West so violent, given Jesus' distinctly nonviolent message? And didn't Paul's mission to the Gentiles remove the "outsider" concept from Christianity? Schwartz, a professor of English at Northwestern University, neither asks nor answers these questions. She relies heavily on psychological literary analysis to get her points across.

Jonathan Kirsch tackles the sex and violence issues of the Bible in an entirely different way in The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. He documents the long-standing suppression of many of the more lurid tales by Jewish and Christian clergy over the centuries.

Kirsch covers about a dozen of the more sensationalistic tales of the Old Testament (Lot, Dinah, Moses, and King David all put in appearances). It's fascinating to see how ambiguities in the ancient Hebrew have served to cover up a multitude of misdeeds. And as Kirsch also points out, "The Bible is littered with the artifacts and relics of ancient beliefs and practices that come as a surprise to anyone who has been taught to regard the Bible as a single-minded manifesto of ethical monotheism."

Kirsch is a journalist, a lawyer, and an amateur Bible historian, and his zest for unveiling the "true" versions of the stories is refreshing. Unfortunately, the book includes his own lengthy and elaborate retellings of the tales. These are more enthusiastic than insightful, and tend to reduce the Scriptures to something resembling the steamy headlines of a newsstand tabloid.

"The Curse of Cain" and "The Harlot by the Side of the Road" vividly illustrate the sweep of the Bible. There are many approaches to exploring its contents. But the timeless message of the Bible goes far beyond titillating explanations of human behavior. Its teachings urge us to see a God that consistently leads man away from violence - from conflict to peace, and from hatred to love.

* Judy Huenneke regularly reviews books on religion for the Monitor.

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