Saturday, August 19, 2006

Books on the Bible

Robert Alter, who has written a number of important books on the subject, recommended five top books on the Bible for Opinion Journal.

Mimesis is the only one with which I am familiar. Or, I should say, some years ago it was a book that that I loved to dip into, struggle with and be fascinated by, and then set down not sure that really understood what I had read. Alter's take:
Mimesis by Erich Auerbach (Princeton, 1953)

The formidable challenge that Erich Auerbach set himself with Mimesis is made clear by its subtitle: "The Representation of Reality in Western Literature." But the German scholar succeeded brilliantly, producing a masterwork of 20th-century criticism that also happens to have pioneered a modern literary understanding of the Bible. Though only the first chapter is strictly focused on the Bible--a comparison of a passage from The Odyssey with one from Genesis--a biblical grounding is essential to Auerbach's discussions of Dante and other important writers of the medieval and early modern periods. His enduring contribution: making us see that the Bible is not somehow apart from literature, sequestered in a special preserve of theology and spirituality, but is rather a manifestation of a high literary art.

Mary Douglas's is another book from Alter's list that looks interesting. I'm tempted to skim it to see what she says about eating crustaceans.

Leviticus as Literature by Mary Douglas (Oxford, 2000)

British anthropologist Mary Douglas takes us on an intellectual adventure with Leviticus as Literature. No small feat, given that Leviticus is notoriously the driest of biblical books--it consists mainly of elaborate instructions for the sacrificial cult. But Douglas proposes that these cultic procedures reflect a sophisticated system of thought: In describing the ritual preparation of the sacrificial animal and the sanctuary's spatial divisions, the Leviticus writers may have also been explaining the structure of the cosmos as they understood it, a place where the vertical division of Mount Sinai (God and Moses at the top, the elders of Israel halfway up, the Israelites below) is mirrored horizontally in the sanctuary (the Holy of Holies within, the inner court for the Levites, the outer court for the Israelites). Douglas makes a persuasive case that more is going on in this book of the Bible than is generally supposed--and she shows that modern condescension toward biblical writing is misguided--but I am still tempted to say that Douglas is more interesting to read than Leviticus.

Click here to read about Alter's other recommendations.

Robert Alter's most recent books are The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary and Imagined Cities.

--Marshal Zeringue