Reading the Bible as Literature
Posted by midiguru on April 11, 2014
I just don’t seem to be able to let sleeping dogs lie. Having aroused some contention over the question of whether the Bible qualifies as literature, I bethought myself to examine one of its better known fables in that light. Let’s not dwell on the barbaric laws or the preposterous historical chronicle — let’s look at a story.
How about the story of Adam and Eve? For those who are following along at home, this would be Genesis chapters 2 and 3. The story is too well known to be worth reiterating here, so let’s jump straight into the literary analysis.
The first moral we might draw from the story is this: Disobeying orders is a really bad idea. But in fact this is a corollary of an underlying, implicit idea, which is that you have a superior, a personage who is completely in charge of your life. This personage will give you orders, and the orders must be obeyed.
A second corollary is that your superior may be malicious or simply incompetent, and may in consequence set you up to fail. For no apparent reason, he may put a major stumbling block in your path. No point in complaining about it, though: He’s your superior.
A third corollary is that, as far as you need be concerned, your superior is Never Wrong. The possibility that Adam might have confronted God about the nasty trap that God set, might have asked for an explanation or a second chance — the story doesn’t go there.
The story’s second moral is that the knowledge of good and evil is a Bad Thing. You’re better off by far not knowing the difference between good and evil. The knowledge will cause no end of trouble. As a corollary, even seeking knowledge is portrayed as a mistake. Your superior wants you to remain ignorant. Given that so much of the rest of the Bible sets out detailed rules whose sole purpose is to explain what’s good and what’s evil, this is an odd place to start the book. But that’s what we’ve got.
The third important concept in the story — it doesn’t quite qualify as a moral — is touched on more briefly. It’s this: Women are to be subservient to men. What the husband says, goes. There’s a hierarchy of power here: God is in charge of everything, but in an analogous way, Adam is in charge of Eve. Eve gets to step on snakes, but other than that, she’s at the bottom of the totem pole.
Certain other ideas, such as the notion that the sins of Adam are inherited by his descendants, who have committed no transgressions of their own and would otherwise be blameless, are not to be found in Genesis 2/3, so we’ll leave them aside.
Here’s my question: If we were studying this story as literature, how would we evaluate it? Would we find it inspiring? Would we say that it embodies some deep truth about the human condition? Would we wish to read more of the author’s work? Or, on the contrary, would we shudder and put the book aside?
If you feel the Bible qualifies as literature, you need to answer this question for yourself honestly, without any special pleading based on the historical or cultural importance of the text.