Truths Against Truths: A Note on How to Read

October 19, 2010

Read Adam Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Kohelet).  That they serve as a kind of counterpoint to the world’s narrative as established elsewhere in the Bible is not a new observation, but one that Kirsch does well to point out — he points it out in the context of language — that of Alter’s translation and that of the literary merit of the texts themselves.  In terms of surface value, a line-by-line basic reading, they perhaps are contradictory.  They are even so in their broader sense — yet they are (and, more importantly, were, millenia ago) accepted as revelatory, just as were (say) the Psalms or the Torah itself.

All of these are, of course, different kinds of revelation: Torah as, in a strict sense, a legal-historical revelation; Psalms as a personal-poetic; then the wisdom books, discussing something more akin to man-in-general, but still a sort of personal-poetic revelation.  The question, however, still remains: can you have revelation that contradicts itself?  Does this revelation, as it may initially appear, contradict itself?  And then what — especially for one who, like me, is inclined to believe that truth is inherent and inhering in these books?

The seeming contradiction and its acceptance by the earlier (now ancient?) generations and its leaders points toward how we can and should (and must, at times?) read the Bible: not as a singular unswerving narrative, but as a mixture of voices, all trying to understand man and God from their position; all of which, the tradition holds, experienced revelation of some kind.  The literary truth of Job or Kohelet may seem to contradict the narrative truth of the Creation, as Kirsch notes of Alter’s translations: but this does not mean that neither is true, or that we must choose one or none.

Biblical truth is closely related to the truth we find in art and literature.  It is various and multiform but exists nevertheless.  What strengthens this truth to something beyond that which is found in art or literature is the idea of revealed truth, if one accepts it.  But the composition of the Bible — that it seems to contradict itself; that it leaves gaps and jagged edges; that the truths of the various books shout, at times, against each other and then with their opponent of a moment ago — is a kind of instruction from those who lived before us — from, in essence, the founders of the religion as a religion of a book — as to how we, millenia later, should read it.  Let the gaps and rough edges stand and try to understand them, and the whole, as they are, rather than try to sand them over into some immaculate unified whole that in the end becomes wholly uninteresting.

After all — even though Kohelet’s men and beasts are equals, unlike the man who is given dominion over beasts in Genesis, the “mere breath” that is all is merely the air which the same earlier book claims God breathed into Adam’s nostrils.  In the end, perhaps, the more interesting truths are those found in the gaps.

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One Response to “Truths Against Truths: A Note on How to Read”

  1. BlaiseP Says:

    I wonder why we call it “The Bible” and not “The Books of the Bible”? It really deserves the plural.

    The Bible, like Walt Whitman’s observation on self-contradiction, contains multitudes. If it didn’t contradict itself along the way, compiled over many centuries, you’d sense the ham-handed continuity editor’s rewrite. The resurrection of Jesus is different in three of the Gospels, different numbers of angels and women. The original Gospel of Mark ended with the disciples fleeing in blank terror: the last six verses were tacked on later.

    The worst witness, as any lawyer will tell you, is an eyewitness. The greatness of the Bible is encapsulated in its unvarnished heroes: nobody comes off looking particularly heroic. There’s some fine poetry in there, too, in some of the oddest places. My favorite bits are in the Book of Job, well worth looking at in the original


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