Halfway through the first book of the Old Testament, on the verge of the Jacob vs. Esau intrigue in which the right man, or so we're told, prevails for the wrong reasons (can anyone explain to me how impersonating one's older brother by wearing a deceptive sleeve of hair in order to steal his blessing from a blind father who has to grope people to know who they are is an exemplary act of any kind?), it's time to lean back, lift my eyes from the minutiae, and consider the nature and scope of what I've read. The Bible is a big story made up of little ones, many with no useful message for humanity other than Be Very, Very Afraid and Don't Forget to Bring a Gift, but a big story about what, exactly? Goodness? You attended too much Sunday School. The emergence of ethical consciousness? See Jacob. The origins, destiny, and character of the early Jewish people? Sort of. Even closer to the mark, though, would be to characterize the saga as a fat Mafia novel about loyalty, terrible luck, the pursuit of wealth and influence, marriage, internecine rivalry, and ritual bowing before a somber Don.
But it's more than a teeming desert noir, this book. That's just too cute, even for me. There is genuine grandeur and mystery contained here, an impression of mad, pre-rational majesty. Since God banged the gong of Creation in the first verse, a vast wave of energy has been pushing forward, tossing around men and objects as it moves and seeking out reliable human vessels -- sturdy conduits of blood and seed -- through which to pump its proud and punishing will. The process doesn't run smoothly. It's ferocious, proceeding bestially, surprisingly, with wicked ironies and contradictions that those who neatly allegorize the story, viewing it as a veiled prophecy of Christ, fail to honestly account for. Nor does it behave like a conventional myth the way that, say, the Star Wars movies do, with their symmetrically pitted heroes and villains and series of laddered trials and temptations. No, the Bible is nothing if not realistic, mixing the arbitrary with the pre-destined and telegraphing little of what's next to readers who don't already know what's coming. There's a sense of the Logos concentrated and weaponized, firing its beam at edifices, cities, and men on the ground who scramble to evade it. And somewhere, away from this land of herds and flocks, of exquisitely formalized social codes and customs, there is an ocean, a rolling bath of darkness into which every lifetime, every drama, perfectly and totally dissolves.
The Bible feels scary, a cautionary bedtime tale starring the greatest ghost in western literature, who created the world with a wave of His white hand but had to learn by doing how to run the place, and particularly who to confide in and deputize. Ultimately, He places more faith in Abraham than Abraham does in Him. Despite God's large promises to his semen bearers and the compliant wombs attached to them, the patriarch and his sons have worries, concerns, especially about their women, from whom they keep trying to the deflect the evil eye whenever they camp in or pass through a new kingdom. Also, there's always something burning somewhere, something that was just recently alive, sometimes in close-up on a rustic altar, sometimes way out there on the red horizon.
It can't be read quickly, that seems to be the main thing.
And once it unfolds some, it starts reading you.