The Bible as literature

The Bible; that's the Book. The Book


The Book of Books;

On which one looks,

As he should do aright, shall never


Wish for a better light

To guide him in the night....

God's cabinet of reveal'd counsel


Where weal and woe

Are ordered so....

It is the Book of God. What if I


Say, god of books?

Christopher Harvey, First

published 1640

THE Bible is the book. That, of course, is what "Bible" literally means. But "Book of Books", almost cliched now, is an ambiguous phrase. It implies that it was a collection of works, somehow contributing to a mysterious unity, greater than the sum of its parts, and at the same time a superlative book - a class definer, in a sense, the book by which all other books were to be judged. All other books, however different in matter or method, relate, may be indirectly, to this book of books. No other book is quite like it; all other books, whether histories, narratives real or imaginary, poems, dramas, philosophical meditations and so on can be traced to that distant source, "the background noise of creation."

What makes The Bible a landmark in world literature is not merely the fact that the Old and New Testaments have, either entirely, or in substantial selections, been translated in 2010 languages in more than two millennia; or the fact that it is the source of quotation cliches - we are unconsciously using its lines all the time. More importantly, it was the first book that provided the notion of unity and diversity in a book: that there are main plots and sub-plots, stories within stories, parallel, complementary, even contradictory, that may connect thematically rather than by direct interaction. The Bible then is a large book with a learned argument at practically every point along the way.

Besides, the text is a palimpsest, it is over-written and re- written several times so that it could mean different things to different people in different circumstances. It is like a huge pool from which anything could be drawn. There are few ideas in whose support a Biblical text cannot be found. Much can also be read into and between the lines ("Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? There is more hope of a fool than of him"/ "But the dove found no rest for the sole of her feet"/ "Behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns"/ "His hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him"/ "He made him a coat of many colours"/) so that there can be no one interpretation of the Scriptures. It follows then that no text can have a fixed meaning intended by the author(s); all texts (as all human utterances) have a fluid existence which can be apprehended somewhat differently each time they are read or heard by a particular individual.

This makes the subject, if taken along with some Biblical commentaries, dauntingly large. So this piece focuses on a few areas in which The Bible was directly influential in matters other than - in the modern sense - the strictly religious. The object is to see The Bible's unforeseen effects on literature in the broadest sense that includes political theory, social relations, agriculture, colonisation and much else besides.

One way to enter The Bible's world of thought is to highlight the ten biblical themes or clusters of thought that dominate the Book. Given the uncertainties about when and how The Bible came to be written, and given its complex internal cross references and allusions, any such summary is somewhat arbitrary and disputable at many points. Be that as it may, the leading themes in both the Old Testament (OT) or the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (NT) are somewhat as follows.

1. God is the leading character of The Bible, and it presents human history as being under his ultimate control. Most Jews or Christians have felt no need to question the existence or nature of this character but with modern critical study of the Bible and modern insights on how religions are born, such questions naturally occur. The Bible itself claims that God revealed himself progressively to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the prophets and so on; and the New Testament claims that he finally revealed himself in Jesus as the Messiah.

2. The Bible contains two explicit accounts of God's creation of the other partial accounts and allusions as well. Christians identified God with Wisdom, God's agent of creation. "Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things were created. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made which was made...".

3. The biblical notion of Covenant, a solemn agreement between two or more people or groups, is closely associated with the theme of a progressive revelation of God; God isshown making covenants with Noah, with David and so on.

4. A great many texts of The Bible deal with promises, threats and ful filment, that is, they point forward from the occasion when they were supposed to have been spoken or written to some future fulfilment. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul... He was now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh."

5-9: Law and Righteousness, Sacri fice and Expiation, Purity and Holiness (and their opposites, Impurity and Profanity), The Kingdom of God and the Messiah, and Suffering, Exile and Restoration are perhaps the central themes of The Bible. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." Jesus seems to imply that the law had been understood in a somewhat lax manner that he wishes to correct. But purity of spirit, suffering and even exile, were necessary preconditions without which there could be no kingdom of God on earth.

10. It is the wisdom tradition of The Bible as seen in the Proverbs, the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes, the Psalms and elsewhere that has attracted the common lay reader to the Book. This tradition is not much concerned with God's promises to Israel, or with details of religious practice, or with questions of social justice. It just passes on timeless lessons of experience, so that readers can succeed in life or at least cope with "life's fitful fevers". They may seem complacement, but can produce Job's deeply unsettling questions of God's justice, and Ecclesiastes' almost equally disturbing expressions of boredom with life. Finally, it speculates about God's somewhat enigmatic presence in the beauty and order of the natural world as in the Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and much else: Her ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

The rich man's wealth is his strong city; the destruction of the poor is their poverty.


He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more.

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?


In much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

A living dog is better than a dead lion.


I am clean forgotten, as a dead man out of mind.

Man did eat angels' food.


There is much, much more in the Book that you need to look up for yourself - again and again.

The Holy Bible: King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Distributed by the Bible Society, Rs. 25.


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