Not your typical Bible stories: just in time for the holidays

bible-imageThis time of the year makes me feel curious — biblically curious. Is that true for you?

I find myself thinking about wise men from the East, a blazing bright star, and all those other props and costumes in the stories of Jesus’ birth. How much of it was real? How much of it was invented by evangelists vividly alive to the power of myth?

I don’t even have to ask the questions myself if I don’t want to: There’s ABC News correspondent Christiane Amanpour on the tube, posing these and other questions about Bible stories in a prime-time special called “Back to the Beginning.”

And I also have a fascinating book on the table in front of me: “From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends” by Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch (University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society).

My first reaction?

Somebody at University of Nebraska Press has a pretty subversive sense of timing — why else do you publish a book like this in the same month when major Christian and Jewish holidays are observed?

My second reaction?

What an amazing book. An amazing, fascinating book.

The authors, both professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explore the reality — and deeper mythic dimensions — of questions that Ms. Amanpour, unfortunately, doesn’t cover in her fancy two-part primetime special.

“Israel’s break with its pagan past was hardly instantaneous and certainly not painless,” the authors write. In fact, the books of the Old Testament (which this book focuses on) preserve that battle with the pagan past. You find bits of strange myth and odd questions strewn throughout — like fragments from an explosion that have been scattered across a field.

“Though the writers of the Bible may have lived hundreds of years apart,” Shinan and Zakovitch add, “they spoke with one another through their writings…. the Bible is not merely a collection of books but a network of connections in which stories talk to poems and laws to prophecies…”

Part of that conversation involves interesting questions, including:

— What is the manna that fell from Heaven and fed the Israelites?

— If it wasn’t David, then who really killed the Philistine warrior Goliath?

— Did the serpent in Eden have legs and arms long before Adam and Eve arrived?

— Samson/Heracles/Jesus … did you know there are connections among them?

— Did you know that the Psalms contain echoes of earlier stories about God the Creator’s primordial wars against dragons and the ocean?

This hardly scratches the surface of a provocative, engaging book that is clearly the distillation of a lifetime’s worth of study.

In the questions above in boldface, as with much else in Holy Scripture,  the authors locate forgotten, older traditions and pagan observances.

They remind any reader — one who is willing to relax his or her literalist death-grip on the Bible — that enduring stories, much like a mighty river, are fed by countless, sometimes unexpected sources.

“The two-way journey from the Hebrew Bible to the writings that were earlier, later, and contemporary to it and then back to the pages of the Bible convinces us,” the authors emphasize, “that, while it is good to study one body of literature in depth, that study cannot be in isolation: the many cultures and literatures that influenced it must also be taken into consideration…. Only by examining the entire mosaic, including each stone and its color, shade, and hue, will we be able to fully understand this extraordinary work….”

Such a lesson leads to greater understanding and, hopefully, to more tolerance among cultures.

At any time of year, that message would be welcome. At this time of year, that message is also something else.

It’s a gift.

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