These are Bible stories you’ll rarely hear on Sunday mornings in church — stories of incest, rape, mutilation and seduction.
The Sunday liturgy in Catholic and Lutheran churches I’ve attended abides by a three-year reading cycle that covers most, but not all, of the Bible. A regular church goer will hear some passages in what seems like an over-and-over pattern (Jesus is feeding 5,000 again?), while some sections and books are never read and rarely used as the basis for sermons.
Says Kirsch in his opening: “The stories that are retold here will come as a surprise to many readers precisely because, over the centuries, they have been suppressed by rabbis, priests and ministers uncomfortable with the candor of the biblical storytellers about human conduct, sexual or otherwise.”
If you believe the Bible was written by God’s fingers, you might not appreciate Kirsch’s thoughtful discussions of the origins of the Bible and his occasional treatment of the book as literature rather than the inspired word of God, but I found Kirsch to be respectful even when he was being academic.
Kirsch retells the Bible stories in common English in sort of a “historical fiction” approach alongside an English translation of the Bible, and then he explores possible meanings in historical and contemporary texts. In his analysis are seven stories from the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible:
- The story of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:1-38).
- The rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:1-31).
- Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38:1-26). This is the story on which the title of Kirsch’s book is based.
- Zipporah and Moses (Exodus 4:24-26).
- Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11:1-40).
- The Levite traveler and his concubine (Judges 19:1-28).
- The rape of another woman named Tamar by her brother who was also King David’s son Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1-22).
Did you know Lot (the man whose wife was turned to salt when she turned around the witness the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) had sex with his daughters who bore children by him? Did you know Moses had a wife and son? Have you ever even heard of Jephthah?
After reading Kirsch’s book, I have a new appreciation for all these characters, especially the female ones. If you think the Bible skims over the stories of women, Kirsch’s approach will open your eyes to the possible feminist themes woven throughout the Old Testament.
Don’t miss the appendix in back about “Who Really Wrote the Bible.” It explains a lot about how the Bible came together and some reasons for some of the confusing and sometimes redundant passages.
When I finished “Harlot,” I went back to my bookshelf to find another similar book I found useful in understanding the story of King David, the little shepherd who slayed Goliath, wrote Psalms, committed adultery with Bathsheba and ruled Israel hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Turns out Jonathan Kirsch also wrote “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel,” too.
A quick Google search reveals Kirsch is quite prolific having written books about Moses, Revelations and more. I’ll have to check them out.