Commentary: Bible: The Long and Short of It
How do we think of Bible stories—as literal history, or as poetry intended to give us the deepest sense of the sacred?
Sometimes we toggle back and forth as if we can’t quite make up our minds. Take Jonah, for instance, who lived inside a whale for three days. Shall we picture him at a little desk with a candle on it, writing verses to God?
We understand that he and his story are allegory, meant to teach that there is no hiding from God and no sin so great you can’t repent and be forgiven (which is why we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur). Yet, who would want to give up the charming image of a real Jonah sulking under the gourd vine because, despite his warning the city of its impending destruction—“Yet 40 days, and Ninveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)—God is busy forgiving everybody there?
These questions can be asked with a certain bemusement now, when there has been an outbreak of books about biblical characters. I include myself in this outbreak. In Biblical Women Unbound: Counter-tales (Jewish Publication Society), I, too, toggled. I wrote about women (Sarah, Yael and others) who assume mythical attributes but seem powerfully real. I consulted the midrash and added to them or proposed my own, finding it a strong imperative to stay within rabbinic tradition. I called what I had done new midrash (filling in gaps, adding to stories and bouncing my counter-tales off early midrashic writing). A number of contemporary writers are also feeling the desire to adorn biblical stories. Some want to bestow feminist liberation on biblical women, complete with prurient elements. Fictional romance about the Bible is a genre of its own, incorporating into the lives of biblical women sexual adventures of Marilyn Monroe proportions.
The matriarchs, in particular, have never been in such demand. Some writers have managed to keep a sense of respectful distance, but a number have entered tents without so much as a “may I?” and followed the steamy path of what used to be called “bodice-rippers.” They have piled sensuous details onto their portraits, especially erotic ones. Not that the Bible doesn’t yield space for that, but how modestly.
One example is a series of popular, fat volumes, each dedicated to a biblical female, by Marek Halter, an Israeli who writes in French (oh, those French!).
Novelist Anne Roiphe, in her recent book Water From the Well (William Morrow), takes a different approach. She also traces the matriarchs’ narratives, but with a crisp and witty style that makes for a smooth mix of folktales, legends and intelligent conjecture.
It would be ungrateful to complain of Roiphe’s frequent use of “she must have been” or “it must have seemed to her.” Put these down to her respect for the text or the refusal to write romance.
Overall, though, the biblical qualities—brevity and terseness—that appeared a marvel of restraint to the great literary critic Eric Auerbach are in danger of being overwhelmed by verbal painting as detailed as that of any Dutch master. Or, in a less flattering comparison, as if Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah and Leah were so many Barbie dolls in need of new outfits.
The scholar James L. Kugel wrote The Bible as It Was (Belknap) to separate original Bible narratives from stories that grew around them like the briars about Sleeping Beauty.
One day soon, perhaps someone may want to write Women of the Bible as They Were, and restore terseness, brevity and mystery to their grandeur.