Beliefwatch: How Do You Read the Bible?

Is there a right way to read the Bible? This question came to me as I was reading "The Good Book," by David Plotz. The author, who is the editor of Slate, was thumbing through the Hebrew Bible at his niece's bat mitzvah in 2006 when he came across the gruesome story of Dinah (in which a young woman is raped, betrothed to the rapist and then widowed thanks to her brothers'

murderous rage). Plotz, a mostly unobservant Jew, was aghast—both at the bloody, morally ambiguous plotline and at his own ignorance of its existence. He realized that his biblical education had been woefully insufficient. "Needless to say," he writes, "this isn't a story they taught me at Temple Sinai's Hebrew school in 1980." So he challenged himself to sit down and read the Hebrew Bible from beginning (Genesis) to end (Chronicles). He read a verse or two a day and blogged about it. "The Good Book," out next week, collects those entries in a single volume.

Amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, "The Good Book" succeeds because its tone straddles the line between irreverent and awestruck. Plotz is a naif wandering in a strange land full of eccentric people and incomprehensible rules. From Samson and Delilah, he takes away these lessons: "1. Women are deceptive and heartless." And "2. Men are too stupid and sex-crazed to realize this." The story of Abraham and Isaac brings him—as it does everybody with a beating heart—to his knees: "As a father, I find this nearly impossible to read. Abraham does not try to distance himself from Isaac, to separate himself from the child he must kill. Isaac remains 'my son,' 'my son'."

Questions of authority will inevitably come up, especially among Jewish and Christian conservatives. Who is this Plotz?, readers may wonder. What right has he to interpret the Bible for the rest of us? Plotz, to his credit, does not claim any credentials; he flat-out confesses his ignorance. Still, old-school interpreters (who have not read the book) caution against Plotz's offhand approach: a young man, a computer, a Bible and a big cup of coffee do not theological seriousness make. "You should be aware of what the tradition is," says Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. "You shouldn't just pick up the book and say 'I've got it!' You need help."

Tradition matters, of course. But I am reminded here of the Protestant Reformation, which took "right" interpretations out of the hands of church authorities and gave the Bible to the people—in the languages they spoke at home. It was a revolution.

The Bible has of late been so mired in conversations about who's got it right and who's got it wrong that regular people who don't have a stake in the culture wars may have forgotten what a revelation it is to read. It's fun. It's inexplicable. It's dramatic. It's bloody and violent. Here Eisen concurs.

"There's humor in the Bible. It's part of life. That's why there's sex in the Bible. There wouldn't be life without it. There's bad parenting and dirty politics—and faith." The worst thing to do with a Bible, he says, is to leave it on the shelf, thinking that someone else may have a better or smarter idea about it. The best thing? Read it. After reading, ask questions, argue and talk. Note to Plotz: I can't get over the story of Dinah, either. The haunting part for me, though, is not the bloodshed but her silence. Dinah is the story's central character. She is raped. Then she's given away in marriage. Then her brothers commit murder to protect her honor. Then her father rebukes the brothers for ruining his reputation. And through it all, the poor girl never says a single word.