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Is the Bible Blogtastic?

Slate.com editor David Plotz on PETA-friendly sacrifice, why Judaism produces great lawyers, and whether God mellows with age. With audio.

| Sat Apr. 18, 2009 4:13 PM PDT

MJ: He sure does love…they just kill so many people in the Old Testament, I'm kind of surprised there's anyone left. Every other chapter it seems they're killing 10,000 Moabites or…

DP: Someone should add all the numbers up. There are the 185,000 Assyrians who are stricken by plague, or the 24,000 Israelites who die from eating too much quail, and it's amazing. The level of death is…and sometimes the level of death is on a Stalin or Mao scale, so the big numbers don't actually mean that much. It's much more when they do the deaths in close-up. So there's this incredible scene where Joshua has just killed all the Amalekites except their five kings. He's killed tens and tens of thousands of people. But then the five kings, he steps on their throats…

MJ: Jesus.

DP: …and cuts their necks and kills them. And that sticks with you, like 'Ah, God, this is barbaric,' in a way the death of 10,000 doesn't.

MJ: And do you believe that the Bible actually does work as a history, that things depicted in it did actually happen?

DP: There are things depicted in it that did actually happen. They are not the things that people are that interested in. There was a king Hezekiah. The things that did actually happen take place much later in the book. Basically nothing before King David seem to have any foundation at all.

MJ: Some of the stories you'd want to hear about, like the Maccabees and the Hannukah story, they're not in the Bible, right?

DP: Right, that's the most surprising one that's absent, is the Hannukah story is not in there. But there's a lot of stuff that is in there that just doesn't get a lot of emphasis. There are these incredible stories that we don't know very well, which I'm always sad—that's the reason I think why everyone has to read the Bible. There's all this incredible stuff that we just miss because the selections that are popular—Noah, Jacob, Adam and Eve, the Exodus, King David—are just a tiny, tiny little bit of the whole book.

MJ: I found it interesting that people in the Bible are always sacrificing animals to God, and God seems to really like it. Do you think there's a modern version of this? Should we be sacrificing our iPods to win God's favor?

DP: Ooh, that's a really interesting question: What is the modern version of sacrifice?

MJ: The PETA version…

DP: How do you appease God? I guess one of the things, there's this transition even within the Bible. So God, at the beginning of the Bible, very much needs to be appeased. Your general position is that God is angry and you have to assuage him. As the Bible progresses that's less and less true. God becomes less a god of anger and more a god of love or a god of indifference. He doesn't take that kind of active interest in daily life whereby you have to be constantly checking in with him and buy him off with dead cows.

MJ: So you think God's mellowed with age?

DP: God mellows a little bit. Well, he obviously mellows a huge amount by the time you get to the New Testament, but even in the Old Testament he becomes…It's not necessarily that he mellows; he just becomes more distant. He's much less involved. So at the beginning of the Bible he's like a father, so he's in your face all the time. He is the father. There's this moment where Adam and Eve go wandering off and sort of hide in the Garden of Eden because they've done wrong, and God has to walk through the Garden of Eden looking for them, just like he's lost his kids at the mall or something; he's really irritated about that. And later on, he just absents himself for hundreds of years at a time. And he's more like a principal or something. He’s not in your face at every moment the way he was at the beginning of it.

MJ: One thing that I noticed, maybe more early on rather than later, is that there is a lot of idol worshipping and God seems very insecure about it. And I couldn't really tell if God is so opposed to idol worshipping because there are other gods. And I didn't know if the Israelites thought their God was the only God, or if it was just the best god among many. And did you ever come to any conclusion about that?

DP: Yes, that is one of the great questions of the Bible. So Judaism allegedly invented monotheism; that was one of our great inventions to the world. But as you read the Bible you realize that they don't seem to be monotheists. Especially at the beginning. At the beginning it's pretty clear that there are other gods and that God is just the best among them. He's the top god, the top dog. But there's a subtle shift that occurs, and you see it explicitly in Deuteronomy and in Prophets, where it stops being that the Jews are polytheists who believe that Yahweh is the top god, and it becomes instead that they're monotheists who believe that these other gods are fake. So you see this progression.

MJ: I was just wondering if for this Passover, you and your family were going to celebrate any differently than you had before you wrote this book.

DP: No, I don't think we will. My own Judaism has been quite shaken by reading the Bible and so my faith in God and love of God is not what it was a few years ago. But my love of Jewish tradition hasn't changed at all, and I think one of the great powers of Judaism, especially in modern American society, is that it permits a kind of practice that isn't contingent on faith. So the power of a seder for me doesn't have much to do with my faith that God has brought us through it. It has a lot to do with my sense of historical continuity to the suffering of the Jewish people and suffering of people generally. And honestly, more importantly, the fact that I love the idea of these ritualized family gatherings. It's just meaningful to me. But the God part is not the meaningful part anymore; it's the family and historical continuity.

MJ: But you did say that you kind of gained more understanding of where these traditions come from from reading the Bible.

DP: Right. Now I know, for example, that the words we speak, how we're to speak about the Passover events, comes from the book of Deuteronomy, so I'm a more sophisticated consumer of what's happening. But I don't want to have a four-hour seder instead of a one-hour seder. It hasn't made me think, like, I've really been missing out on something. It's just made me a little more sophisticated about what I know.

MJ: Well, David, thanks so much for speaking with us about your book.

DP: It's my pleasure, Jen.

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