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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

The Bible Stories Mom Never Read You : THE HARLOT BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch; Ballantine; $27, 378 pages

June 09, 1997|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Nothing is more alluring than the hint of forbidden sex. Add censorship to the mix and the subject can become irresistible. So Jonathan Kirsch's new book is guaranteed to turn the heads of bookstore browsers from coast to coast.

In a time when so many decry biblical illiteracy, "The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible" is a welcome addition to the growing genre of Bible scholarship that has slowly been moving from the rarefied confines of universities and cloistered seminaries into the hands of everyday believers and skeptics alike.

Kirsch is but the latest author to popularize [in this case in the best sense of the word] what academics and biblical exegetes have known all along. Others include Raymond E. Brown, John Dominic Crossan, Peter Gomes, A. N. Wilson and John Shelby Spong.

Some are more orthodox than others. But all are in a figurative sense storming the gates of heaven to open the Bible's so-called hidden secrets to the masses.

Of course, the first rule of any popular writer is to hook the reader. The second is to deliver on the promise. Here, one will find unpurged stories of illicit sex, betrayal and incestuous family secrets.

Indeed, Kirsch no doubt takes a certain delight in the shock value of biblical tales that seem to justify daughters who seduce their father, or a father who takes his only daughter's young life to fulfill a promise to God but waits two months so that she can, as the Bible says, "bewail [her] virginity." What does that mean?

Believers are unlikely to hear answers from the lips of their rabbis, priests and ministers. This is, of course, Kirsch's point. Such stories have either been glossed over and sanitized long ago by commentators, translators and redactors, or ignored completely in a kind of literary sin of omission. It is too bad, really, because if the Bible is to be relevant it must speak to the real issues that confront women and men every day.

To be sure, there must be exemplars of courage, faith and righteousness. There must be the possibility of transcendent meaning. But how can anyone aspire to transcendence knowing that they have failings unknown to Bible heroes?

The value of Kirsch's book is its nuance and illuminating speculations. There is much that is unsaid in the Bible. Kirsch draws on his own sometimes vivid imagination to fill the gaps. But Kirsch is careful to identify his speculation as such.

Take the story of Tamar and Judah found in Genesis 38. Tamar was a Canaanite woman who married the first son of Judah, an Israelite. One day his son, called Er, left home and never came back. Without children, Tamar had no inheritance, no one to care for her in her old age. To solve the problem, the Israelite custom called on Er's brother to impregnate her. Though they would not be married, the baby would be considered a true son of her dead husband, Er. The problem was that Er's brother withdrew before climaxing.

The brother knew what he was doing, Kirsch says. If he fathered a son, it would restore Tamar's standing within the community. But he would also do himself out of inheriting the family fortunes. Then the brother died. Judah promised to send his youngest son to Tamar as soon as he was of age.

The problem was she was growing older.

So, to make a long story short, she disguised herself as a whore waiting at a fork in a road she knew Judah would take and seduced her father-in-law to provide for her future standing. In recounting this story, Kirsch speculates that perhaps Judah actually recognized Tamar behind her veil but had sex nonetheless because he had longed for her even when she was wed to his son.

But Kirsch is not simply dusting off ancient stories about whores and adulterers, fornicators and judgment.

Each narrative is followed by an expository chapter rich with scholarly insight into the cultural and sociological context in which the story unfolds. It is here that Kirsch's speculations and the seeming moral failings are made understandable. It is here that moral ambiguity is made clear.

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