The Book of All Books: A Provocative Take on Bloody Bible Stories
Many Christians call it “the right book,” but even the most cursory readings of the Bible reveal that it is a collection of ancient writings which by all standards contains their fair share of violence. graphic. Its bloody pages dot intoxicating power, white-hot jealousy, rape, murder, revenge, genocide and blood sacrifice. What makes these elements all the more remarkable is that many of them are attributed to the main protagonist – the God of Israel – and to those who act under his command.
It was such a realization that led Richard Dawkins in his The illusion of god (2006) to embark on a diatribe against the God of Old Testament as “a mean, unfair and ruthless control freak; a vindictive and bloodthirsty ethnic cleaner; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticide, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniac, sadomasochist, capriciously malicious tyrant ”. It was hardly a new prospect. Some early Christian thinkers, like Marcion de Sinope in the second century, had already said this.
Roberto Calasso is not Dawkins; neither is he a modern Marcion. What he has in common with both, however, is that he takes what Old Testament, or the Hebrew bible (the terms are not synonymous), have to say about the God of Israel and his actions, for he wonders aloud why salvation should always be preceded by killing.
Calasso, who died at the age of 80 on July 28, was a highly respected publisher, translator and writer from a family of Florentine intellectuals. Fluently speaking five modern languages, besides ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, he has always had a passion for myths and their meanings, once declaring that “a life in which the gods are not invited is not worth worth living. It will be quieter, but there will be no fuss. Calasso has devoted many years to recounting these myths which, according to one of his editors, “speak of the universality of the anthropology of stories”.
But these are not just stories. Calasso’s work is interwoven with references to a range of thinkers; from Goethe to Freud, and from Kafka to Simone Weil, with some forays into the Jewish midrashim (comments on the Hebrew scriptures).
What is refreshing about Calasso’s work is the opportunity it gives us to read these stories as stories – neither excised nor reconditioned, as they sometimes are in lessons read in church; nor responsible for communicating a moral message.
Not that his stories are totally disinterested; Calasso is intellectually drawn to the darker themes of rape, kidnapping, murder and blood sacrifice, even as he reflects on their prevalence in the creation of myths across cultures and time.
Calasso also reads beautifully (even in translation). Readers will appreciate the way he sketches biblical figures, presenting them to us in a familiarly colorful way. “Whatever you do, you could never get along with Samuel,” he quipped, as he describes the battle of wills between Moses and the Pharaoh “as if two stubborn card players refused to cut their losses. whatever the cost ”. Meanwhile, Joseph (of Technicolor Dreamcoat), “was doubly obnoxious: he was their father’s favorite and his own favorite.”
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Calasso’s flights of thought will often catch the reader off guard; speaking of the future King Saul, he recounts how “Saul hid among the sacks – which Harpo Marx would do – paralyzed by the terror of the elections”.
But there is no escaping the violence. He describes Yahweh as a tactician, teaching David how to defeat the Philistines. The prophet Elijah will lead 450 of the priests of Baal to the dry bed of the Kishon where he slaughtered them, the river encircling the mountain “like a scarf of blood”. And Jehu, king of Israel, would have gathered the 70 heads of the sons of king Ahab in two large baskets to be deposited at the gate of the city of Jezreel, the capital of Ahab. More poignantly, in describing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, he will remember how “the Egyptian firstborn died that night, the night the children of Israel left and died without knowing why” .
With characteristic liveliness, Calasso declares that “Ahab and Jezebel were a sinister couple,” perhaps recalling the student who had not studied well enough for an exam question on King Ahab, and who ultimately wrote ” King Ahab was a very wicked man. The less we talk about it, the better. Jezebel, for her part, would meet an unpleasant end, being thrown from a high window by her three eunuchs onto the sidewalk below, her blood spurting on the stucco walls. Someone, using a short pun, joked that his body “would make good manure for the fields” (zebel meaning “manure” in Aramaic).
Sometimes his ideas jump out. In a particularly provocative passage, he suggests that it was perhaps God himself who was the first to fashion an idol when he said: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.”
“To create something in his own image is the most dangerous thing a god can do,” writes Calasso, “because the living image can always imitate the one who made it … and imitation can eventually result in the substitution”.
In one place, Calasso suggests that “the insurmountable distance between Jerusalem and its many noisy neighbors was reading, the decisive power to read a book.” Anyone wishing to revisit these timeless stories in the company of a fresh and stimulating guide will want to read this book.
Religion: The books of all books by Roberto Calasso
Allen Lane, 464 pages, hardcover, € 34; eBook £ 12.99
Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Pontifical St Patrick’s University, Maynooth