Why I love the Old Testament

These generalizations about the Tanakh – its proper name – don’t quite hold for the latest books, Ezekiel and especially Daniel, which betray a great deal of Iranian influence and thus should really be classed more with the intertestamental apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. NOTE: This is a draft post, subject to further refinement. These reasons are basically all right off the top of my head – the kind of things I would tell you if we were sitting down to coffee, and you happened to ask me how the heck a professed anarchist like me can love the Bible.

1. It does not depict a creation ex nihilo, but opens (pace the usual translations), “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” God creates as a sculpter does, day by day uncovering an emergent order from the primordial wilderness (see 15, below).

2. It contains no theology (aside from God’s teasing statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, the sense of which is “I will be whoever the hell I want!”).

3. It is not entirely monotheistic, alluding in a few places to other gods (e.g. Psalm 82); depicting Yahweh as having divine offspring and/or representatives (“angels”); and suggesting a multiple nature for divinity itself with Yahweh’s frequent alternate name Elohim, which is a plural form. (Adonai is also a plural form, but this “is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural,” whereas “it is argued that the word elohim had an origin in a plural grammatical form.” See the Wikipedia article Names of God in Judaism for further discussion of the way different names reflect different aspects or personalities of divinity.)

4. Its Yahweh is not incorporeal, all-good, or all-wise, and in some stories resembles an amoral trickster deity similar to the Norse Loki, the Yoruba Eshu or the Maidu Coyote. Yahweh kicks ass.

5. It is free of the poisonous influence of radical dualism (good and evil – or matter and spirit – as wholly separate, mutually exclusive categories). The problem of evil is raised but not “solved.”

6. The destiny of the individual soul after death is alluded to, but nowhere treated as a matter of consequence.

7. The language is direct, rhythmic and repetitious in the manner of the best oral epic. The graceful language and vivid imagery recall poetry more than prose.

8. It is full of analogic thinking and creative leaps, such as “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” or “As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”

9. So-called “Biblical parallelism” extends from the level of the verse to the overall organization (alternate tellings of the same story, even alternate histories – e.g. Judges-Kings vs. Chronicles), teaching a tolerance for alternative interpretations.

10. For every passage that seems hateful and exclusive, there’s a passage that’s accepting and inclusive.

11. Hints of an earlier matriarchal order abound, and despite the overwhelming patriarchal emphasis, there are more strong female characters than in any comparable work from antiquity. In Proverbs, Wisdom is allegorized as a woman. By way of comparison, Zhuangzi, my other favorite anthology of sacred literature, contains virtually no references to women.

12. The Saul-David cycle has a depth of psychological realism worthy of the greatest novels. In general, Biblical characters are three-dimensional, flawed beings.

13. No one has ever written a book on The Plants of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

14. Human beings are consistently depicted as a very small and weak part of an overwhelmingly large universe, and become guilty of the worst kind of impiety if they start to believe otherwise.

15. Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

16. Even as captured and subverted by end-time and Messianic theologies (including Christianity), its literary richness and depth of ambiguity has provided a much-needed moderating influence on radical movements, from the hey-day of gnosticism, through the Scholastics and Kabbalists, down to the Inquisition (which is, in one form or another, on-going).

17. It spawned two translations (the King James Version and, I gather, Martin Luther’s) which rank among the most beloved and influential works of literature in their respective languages – mainly by virtue of cleaving as much as possible to the literal meaning, even at the price of excessive strangeness.

18. The opening chapter of Genesis justifiably served as Exhibit A for the pagan author Longinus’ work On the Sublime. In the Bible, things don’t have to be ideal or perfect in a Platonic sense to inspire awe or reverence.

19. The Bible’s emphasis on mitzvot (“commandments,” duties) basically reinvented religion in the West, turning it away from a primary emphasis on the worship of power and toward an emphasis on the cultivation of individual morality and social justice.

20. The Bible makes room for scathing critiques of kingship and priesthood, and its nebiim (“prophets”) constitute one of the earliest and most important literary and historical models for conscientious objection to institutional power in the West.

21. Because awe is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible repeatedly suggests, and because spirit and breath are intimately connected, as the Hebrew word ruah (and possibly the very name Yahweh) implies.

© 2006 Dave Bonta. Used by permission.

Haibun

[At my request, Dave Bonta drafted this explanation of haibun, the literary form of his composition “Therapy.”]

I have gotten in the habit of using the term “haibun” loosely to refer to a composition that includes both prose and poetry as more-or-less equal partners. Haibun – prose interspersed with the beginning (hokku) verses for potential haikai linked verse sequences – was a descendent of the Japanese poetic diary or nikki, a major literary form since the ninth century. These earlier, often somewhat fictionalized, literary diaries were interspersed with 27-syllable tanka poems – indeed, in the case of the diary of Izumi Shikibu, the prose part consists largely of descriptions of the occasions for the poems – typically courtship. This tradition was built on the much older Chinese culture of poetry, where poems were frequently accompanied by lengthy notes on how, when, where and for whom they came to be written, rather than by Western-style titles (a fact often obscured by translators into Western languages), and they were sometimes also published as part of a diary or travelogue. And this precedent in turn might serve to remind us of the fact that passages of elevated discourse – poems or songs – are encountered by audiences in a huge variety of settings in oral and literate societies all around the world. Poems may appear as part of plays, sacred texts or epic recitations, might be embedded in political oratory or in liturgical celebrations. It is only really in the societies of the modern, industrialized West that poetry is seen as inhabiting some ideal realm all its own. As any reader of the Bible will recognize, there’s often something quite exhilarating about a sudden switch from a more everyday to a more elevated level of discourse. Would the Song of Deborah or the “Magnificat” be so compelling apart from their narrative matrices? Could the Torah ever have achieved the power to unite a scattered people without its beautiful, stirring summary in the last chapters of Deuteronomy?

© 2005 Dave Bonta. Used by permission.

Therapy

Suddenly, it’s January – a couple of inches of dry, drifting snow when I get up at 5:00 a.m., 10 degrees with a brisk wind. I have to take off my glasses to pull on the handmade neckwarmer I got for Christmas. It’s a snug fit, and as I pull it slowly over my face, I think of the amusing spectacle this must present. I recall the title of a science fiction story I read once: “I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream.” Then it’s time to pull on boots, bundle into a heavy coat, grab gloves and knit cap – all so I can sit out on the dark porch for ten minutes and drink my coffee. Maybe I need therapy, I think. But then it occurs to me: maybe this is the therapy I need? If life were therapy, and therapy were life, why then…

I have no mouth but
I must scream,
says the wind.

My tongue knows its
own taste: the half-
frozen stream.

You draw me & I’ll
draw you, I tell
my childhood self.

We lean like ladders
against the clouds.
With one listening foot I feel
for the next rung down.

 

[Click here for Dave’s explanation of haibun, the literary form of this composition.]

© 2005 Dave Bonta. Used by permission.

The art of reading

Reading something for the second time is so much more satisfying than that first read-through. So many books withhold their full treasures from the first-time reader. Not that the first time can’t be special too, of course: surfaces are beautiful, and not to be taken lightly. During that first, heady encounter with a text, it is not merely the words that entrance us. The typefont, the design, the texture of the paper, the look and feel of covers and slipcovers, even the smell of the bindings – if new – or the patina that comes with good use: these too are manifest occasions for pleasure and surprise.

But few of us possess the skill as readers to avoid succumbing to that first-time excitement and finishing the book too soon. And to lay it aside at that point, never to return, would constitute not simply callousness but profound disrespect. Unless the book at hand be some cheap, manupulative thing, in which case even a single reading amounts to little more than “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” as Shakespeare once said about something else entirely.

As a reader, I must always aspire to do better next time and never become satisfied with my current techniques. If I know that my first time through a book tends to be a bit on the shallow side, I may change strategies and begin by lightly skimming through what look like the best spots, or re-visiting it at unexpected times and places, dipping into it just enough to whet my appetite for the first, prolonged session. But by then the first reading is really the second, or the third – it doesn’t matter. I’m no longer keeping score.

The kinds of books I enjoy most don’t necessarily need to be sampled in a set order, and sometimes I like to start with the last poem or chapter and work my way slowly toward the front. Or sometimes it’s fun to start in the middle and work toward both ends, alternating between the front half and the back. Hence, I suppose, my disdain for tightly plotted novels that insist on rigid conformity with standard procedure. Plus, given my addictive personality, I hate to get sucked into a book like that because I know I won’t be able to sleep, eat or do much of anything else until it’s done. Ten or twenty hours later I’ll emerge from the novel as if from a parallel universe, shaking with adrenaline and ready to drop from exhaustion at the same time. After an experience like that, it will take me several days to undo the spell and fully return to my own, familiar weltanschauung.

There was a time in my youth when I thought that kind of full-throttle excitement was indispensable to the enjoyment of a book. But as I near the threshold of maturity I find myself craving a calmer and – I would argue – deeper form of immersion. This doesn’t rule out novels altogether, but it does definitely favor the second reading over the too-hasty first one. The plot once exposed for the artful contrivance that it is, one is free to take one’s time and relish the writing for its own sake. All goals have been abandoned aside from the most general: to advance in pleasure through insight – or is it vice versa? Unless one has some ghoulish analytic project to complete, some heartless application of the whips and restraints of academic theory, one can dwell within the garden of the text almost indefinitely for the colors and the scent alone. The mind explores gently and almost by instinct now, enfolded in a matrix where word, image and meaning are coterminous and virtually indistinguishable. The senses return to an almost Edenic innocence. Freed of judgements and distances, the patient reader at last attains a kind of high plateau, every pore fully open and flooded with the clearest, coolest light.

*

What the writer finally wants to save,
laboring into the white afternoon
at her kitchen table,
adrift in drafts,
ringed in scraps for
the compost, is just this savoring
of time’s luxuriant spread.

.
© 2005 Dave Bonta. Used by permission. Dave Bonta is a poet, editor, and web publisher from the eastern edge of western Pennsylvania. He’s the managing editor of qarrtsiluni and the author of Odes to Tools. He blogs at Via Negativa.