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Slate.com editor David Plotz was flipping through the Torah at a cousin's bat mitzvah when he found a tale of murder, rape, and betrayal that he'd never heard of before. Intrigued, he began reading the Old Testament, word for word, and blogging about it on Slate. Jen Phillips spoke with Plotz about his new book, called Good Book, which explores some of the least-known passages from the world's most-read book.
Mother Jones: David Plotz, thanks so much for talking with Mother Jones.
David Plotz: Thank you.
MJ: So we're going to be talking about your book, Good Book, and it's basically—tell me if this is right—it's a collection of your Slate.com series Blogging the Bible?
DP: It's based on my Slate series Blogging the Bible. Blogging the Bible was a series I did for Slate a couple of years ago where I, as the title suggests, blogged the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as Christians would call it, and wrote daily responses to what I was reading. I'd started in the beginning, with Genesis, and just kept going and wrote daily responses, and responded to my readers, and it had a kind of immediacy and quickness that blogs do. But for the book, it had to have a different kind of tone and had to do something different than what I was doing with the blog. So the blog, in order to make a really good book out of it, I rewrote the whole thing and cut out a lot of, there was a lot of extraneous stuff in the blog that didn't really fit in a more considered book.
And I think that one of the most interesting things as a writer and journalist is that so much of first-draft writing these days is in blog form. And the blog-to-book migration is a very interesting migration; it's a new kind of book writing.
MJ: Yeah, I was wondering about that, because the Bible has been so widely interpreted. And in the intro, you're very clear that you're not a scholar. So when you're turning the blog posts into the book, did you do any study of the historical or religious aspects of the Bible?
DP: Very, very little. I did a teeny bit because there were occasional questions that came up and I thought it would be really nice to have a good historical answer here or to know what the scholarship was. But for the most part I tried really, really hard to avoid it because I think the best part about the book is that it's written by somebody who's coming to this book fresh and unspoiled by having this beaten into him by his rabbi or minister or professor. I'm virgin territory. And that kind of independent and naive, curious enthusiasm is the voice of the book and I found myself actually, when I did talk with a couple of scholars as I was finishing things up, that I had this instinct after I talked to them to go and modify things and make them a little more somber and I didn't want that. The book needs to be, the whole point of doing it this way, the whole point of having an "average Job" reading the Bible like this and write about it, is to avoid the heaviness that comes with the Bible and give it this kind of irreverence and lightness and fun that will make people enjoy the book and hopefully enjoy the Bible itself.
MJ: I found it interesting that, as you know, there's this kind of similar book by A.J. Jacobs called The Year of Living Biblically. And I found it interesting that both you and he identify as Jewish, but you're not Orthodox, and both these books came out not too far apart from one another. Do you have any theories as to why you two, with somewhat similar backgrounds, wrote these books around the same time?
DP: It's funny because I was blogging as A.J. was getting his book ready, so we ended, learning about each other's projects, we ended up becoming friendly. His is a really great book, which I hope people buy after they buy my book. I think there's something in Judaism which invites this kind of irreverence. We're at a time when people are very conscious about faith. You have a lot of religion talk in the world, and you have lots of people like me who are culturally quite Jewish but not educated in a way, and don't have the time or energy or will to throw ourselves into serious religious study. I don't want to become a really Orthodox, kosher Jew; that has no great appeal to me.
But there is this tradition in Judaism, and you see it actually running through the Bible, of just irreverent doubt. And the great examples of it, some serious, some less serious, but at the most serious level, Abraham, when God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tells God why he shouldn't do it and makes God promise not to destroy it if there are any just people who are living there. And you have Moses, who's always arguing with God, or you have Job who litigates against God, and there is this very strong Jewish tradition of getting into a fight about God, and about scripture…
MJ: Well, and with God, they're actually fighting…
DP: Right, and one reason I think Jews are the way we are, why Judaism produces so many great lawyers and maybe even writers and arguers, is that the Bible itself and Judaism itself, it's founded on…God is always talking about how merciful and compassionate he is, but actually the God of the Hebrew Bible is unmerciful and uncompassionate and a very difficult God to love or even like. And the book does not have any kind of clear moral lesson or any moral to it. So what do you have to do when faced with this? You argue with it, and that's what the years of Talmudic commentary are and that's what the religion is founded on, this notion that scripture is confusing and difficult so let's argue our way out of it. And so I realized as I went along with this that I was part of this very strong Jewish tradition, a kind of fundamental tradition. I think it's much less strong in Christianity, because the New Testament is a loving and redemptive book in a way the Old Testament isn't.
MJ: Right, and I found it interesting that in the Old Testament, God seems to favor these prophets who bicker and bargain with him, and he really values intelligence and not so much devotion. In fact, I think in a couple places he actually kills his faithful. Is that right?
DP: Yeah. There's the famous example of Jephtha's daughter. Jephtha's a great warrior; he's actually a mobster who turns into a warrior who leads the Israelites to victory. And to honor God he vows to kill the first thing at his door when he gets home. I don't know why he makes this vow. So he gets home and his daughter, his only child, is waiting for him. So he kills her. And she's this complete innocent, she's faithful, and she willingly submits to it. And it's utterly baffling that God doesn't step in to intervene or doesn't seem to care. The faithful are not…God is much less interested in faith than he is interested in…he talks about how he's interested in obedience, but he's really not that interested in obedience. He's interested in a good tussle. He loves to tussle.