58 The Book of God, Walter Wangerin, Jr.

The Bible is one of the most influential and quoted documents in the world, yet it is also one of the least read. This is due in part to the size of the book itself, but the strongest reason for avoidance is the density of its prose. For most people, the text of the Bible is that of its most common translation, that done during the time of King James, and they are surprised to learn that it was originally written in Hebrew (like Dave Barry, I’m not making this up). The King James prose to the modern audience is like Shakespeare’s poetry–it achieves part of its sacramental effect by its very language. The unfortunate side-effect is that the language remains a barrier to its reception. Scholars have for years tried to break the Bible free from King James, to make the story of the Bible more readable. Translations like the New American Standard and Good News for Modern Man were written in today’s vernacular, but still tied to the original scrolls. While these translations are useful in understanding individual verses and chapters, they remain awkward to today’s readers conditioned to dramatic tension and narrative flair. Attempting to bridge this gap, Zondervan has published Walter Wangerin’s version of “The Book of God” (a literal translation of the Hebrew word “bible”).

Wangerin’s name should be familiar as the author of the award-winning novel, The Book of the Dun Cow. He is also the author of nine other books. His experience in constructing a modern novel was tested in the transition of the Bible to a novel, given the multiple nature of its books (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all cover the life of Jesus) and the multitude of narrative threads and types (including the mixture of poetry in prose, genealogy, and prophecy). Wangerin’s solution to the density of the Bible was to be wisely selective–yes, I mean he had to cut material–and rearrange the text so that it flowed with the narrative force of an epic novel.

Let’s pause here and look at how I perceive Wangerin from this work, all pure conjecture on my part. Number one, he is a Christian. This seems patently obvious to me, but I suppose I should underline this as not Jewish or Muslim. I say this because some of the books of the Christian bible are also held with great reverence by these other religions. Wangerin, though, has portrayed Christ as the Messiah and Savior according to Christian theology. Number two, Wangerin is not a fundamentalist. That is, if one believes that the Bible is the directly inspired word of God (i.e., God dictating to a human recorder), which most fundamentalists do, the liberties that Wangerin has taken with the text would be considered untheological, if not possibly heretical or blasphemy. If you believe that the inspiration of the Bible’s original authors was God in collaboration with human, than his rewrite is not as troubling. (As a lay person, I believe you can view it outside of both these traditions as well, and see this as a “remake” of the original just as John Gardner rewrote the story of Beowulf in Grendel.)

From my perception of Wangerin, I see that he took the various story elements of the Bible and laid them out before him. Selecting the main point of the work–that of Christ’s resurrection–he then constructed the novel backwards to show that everything in the Bible truly leads to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He selected, and by his selection, emphasized, the parts of the Bible that have to do with Jesus’ lineage and the prophecy of a messiah (literally, “anointed one”) for the nation of Israel. Thus, instead of beginning at the beginning (and this literally would have been “In the beginning…”), he opens The Book of God with the story of Abraham, almost 70 and still childless, yet trusting the Lord to keep his covenant to make a nation of his children. From Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to Joseph, Wangerin traces Jesus’ “family tree” and the covenant of God with the nation that would be called Israel.

An epic story it is indeed, separated into sections named for the highlights of that period. From the humble beginnings of a poor wandering desert shepherd and his offspring (“The Ancestors”), the establishment of the law (“The Covenant”), the battle for the land of Canaan (“The Wars of the Lord”), the glory days of the Jewish nation (“Kings”), the breakup of the Israel nation (“Prophets”), the captivity in Babylon (“Letters from Exile”), the foretelling of one to come (“The Yearning”), to, finally, the arrival of the savior (“The Messiah”). Although most everyone knows the individual parts of this story, either through church or other literature, what Wangerin most achieves in his narrative is a cohesiveness that is missing from Sunday school lessons. After reading this, I am now better able to place Elijah in the story (he warns the Israelites of the upcoming captivity after the death of Solomon), I understand the makeup of the different tribes of Israel and their relations to their neighbors (i.e., descended from Esau or Lot, making them distant cousins, but outside the Israeli covenant with the Lord), and the workings of the Roman government at the time of Christ (why Herod was a King, while Pilate was only a governor).

Wangerin did not “tone down” the story, nor did he prettify it. The Bible is full of bloodshed, adultery, rape, hatred, and bigotry, and Wangerin does not hide from any of it. Because most of my exposure to the Bible was in my childhood, some of these episodes surprised me. There is, of course, the famous Sodom and Gomorrah tale (where Lot offers his virgin daughters to the townsfolk who want to rape his visitors, two “men of the Lord”, i.e. angels), but it is the unexpected tale of David’s sons (one rapes his half-sister, then is killed by his half-brother, her full-brother) or the bigotry of the disciples (who are reluctantly convinced that Jesus’ message is available to Gentiles as well as the “chosen people”, i.e. Israelites) that have such impact.

Another Wangerin touch is his literal translation of some of the words that had been left untranslated in the King James version. This includes “Beth-el” which means the mountain of the Lord, and the earlier mentioned “bible”, but the one that I found the most interesting was “manna”. Manna, as you may recall, was the food that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness after worshipping false Gods while Moses was receiving the law from the Lord. “Manna,” according to Wangerin, means “what is it?” which is what the Israelites were saying to themselves the first time that God sent the food to them.

The Bible is part of our cultural heritage, no matter what belief you might have. It permeates English literature and language to such an extent that Ed Hirsch, Jr., co-author of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, says that to it is necessary to have an understanding of it to understand ourselves. Walter Wangerin’s The Book of God is the perfect quick study course that is both intellectually engaging and entertainingly written.

[Finished 28 June 1996]

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