Joseph’s Bones.

Over the weekend, I read Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, by Jerome M. Segal.

I downloaded it because I recently started reading the Bible. I’m agnostic, but I grew up going to church and attending Sunday school every week. With that plus a lot of art history under my belt, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Bible. But I’ve been struck by the sheer strangeness of the Old Testament so far.

Here’s just one example, coming from a story with which most people are probably familiar. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and instructs him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses demurs at first, citing his lack of eloquence, until God gets a little peeved and says, basically, “Fine. Isn’t your brother Aaron a good speaker? He can be your spokesman. Now, get going.” So Moses heads off to Egypt with his wife and kids.

But then, in a bizarre turn of events, God tries to kill him on the way. “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.” The whole episode is just three verses long and no explanation is given. God lets Moses go because Moses’ wife, Zipporah, cuts off her son’s foreskin and touches Moses with it.

Then, there’s not one, but three stories in which one of the patriarchs (first Abraham and then Isaac) visits a strange land and pretends his wife is his sister so that the ruler of the land won’t kill him in order to marry the wife. In all three stories, the ruler takes the wife as his own and then gets in trouble with God, which doesn’t seem entirely fair.

In another detail that I once took for granted but now seems remarkable, when the Israelites are wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, God travels with them in the form of a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke during the day.

It’s not just the strangeness—there are many things that just seem wrong or unfair. God is so angry and impulsive. Lot demonstrates that he is the only good man in Sodom by offering his virgin daughters to be raped by a crowd in place of his angel-visitors. Jacob comes off as a real jerk, tricking poor Esau out of his birthright for a pot of soup and then wearing a disguise to trick his elderly blind father, Isaac, into blessing him instead of Esau. I often find myself reading open-mouthed in surprise.

Somehow I took all these things in stride when I was young. Perhaps when you’re a kid, more of the world is strange and new and you’re more accepting, less discerning. Or maybe it’s just that the deck is stacked so strongly in favor of the Bible. It has a lot of authority around it suggesting that it makes sense.

Now, the Old Testament strikes me as nothing so much as the collected folk tales and mythologies of a people who are truly foreign, so distant from me in time and space and understanding that much of it is just plain inscrutable.

Reading it is not that different from listening to our tour guide on our recent trip to Bhutan. We visited temples while our guide told us one tale after the other about Bhutanese Buddhist beliefs and about the lives of the religious figures depicted in the temples. We learned that Guru Rinpoche’s wife turned into a tigress and carried him to the site of the Tiger’s Nest monastery, and that Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman, subdued demons with his phallus. We became familiar with the cast of characters and events, but we were always a little perplexed about what was history and what was pure mythology, and about what, if anything, the stories were supposed to mean. At the end of the day we’d get on our phones and search the internet for more information, trying to make sense of what we’d been told. I’m similarly curious about what I’ve read in the Bible so far. I want to know why—I want context, history, explanations.

That’s not exactly what Joseph’s Bones provides, but it was still pretty satisfying. In it, Segal undertakes a purely textual interpretation of the first six books of the Bible, the Hexateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua), positing that those books can be understood as telling a story quite different from how they are usually understood.

In that story, God is immature, rash, and emotional. He’s omnipotent but not omniscient, and not always in control of his emotions. He’s a god trying to find himself, and his self-representations don’t always match his actions. The Israelites seek forgiveness, compassion, and justice from God, and try to teach him to be bound by morality. The Hexateuch is not the word of God, but a story of the struggle and relationship between man and God.

It’s a wholly plausible and well-argued interpretation. Interestingly, it lends coherence to some of the most perplexing bits of the Old Testament I’ve come across so far. For instance, in the episode described above in which God tries to kills Moses, Segal suggests that God knows Moses will become like a god to the Israelites and is momentarily unable to contain his jealousy.

Plus, I just like it. It’s a story that’s rich and endearing and human. Isn’t the story of a forbearing people and an imperfect God who is capable of learning, who makes mistakes and has regrets, more appealing than the story of a perfect God raining vengeance on a sinful people?


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