Monday, August 30, 2010

On Writing: The Bible

One thing that always astonished FLG is how simply the writing in much of the Bible is. Many people, well, at least FLG when he was little, thought the Bible was a lot of poetic explanation of the divine. A sentiment that Rufus seems to echo in a post that inspired me to write this:
We can disagree about its truth content, but the poetry is lucid, lovely and powerful- frequently majestic, and the stories are lively and entertaining

But much of the key stories, especially from the Old Testament, are short and told simply. Indeed, the first sentence of the entire thing is this:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Short, simple, to the point. Within another 31 sentences God creates the universe. It takes 25 more to create Adam and Eve. By the 80th line, Man has fallen. From a mere narrative perspective, this is genius. The primary conflict of the entire work is setup immediately.

The story of Cain and Abel is told in a mere 16 lines. I mean, think about that, Cain and Abel, which is alluded to left and right in the Western Tradition takes up a mere 16 lines:
[1] And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.
[2] And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
[3] And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
[4] And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
[5] But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
[6] And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
[7] If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
[8] And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
[9] And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
[10] And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
[11] And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
[12] When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
[13] And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.
[14] Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.
[15] And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
[16] And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

From FLG's perspective, it's not the poetry, per se, that made the Bible appear inaccessible to Lil' FLG, but the archaic vocabulary. Obviously, other people have come to this conclusion as well and we see other versions with a more modern vocabulary. Nevertheless, the stories are extremely simply told. Extremely simply told, but incredibly rich and profound. I always try to keep in mind that if Cain and Abel can be told in sixteen lines, then what I'm trying to say can probably be whittled down as well.


Withywindle said...

Edmund Wilson, I believe, has an essay on the prose style of the Bible--he swotted up on Hebrew before writing it. As I recollect, you would enjoy it.

Flavia said...

The first chapter of Auerbach's Mimesis is a beautiful meditation on the different narrative styles of Homer and the Hebrew Bible; he's particularly interested in the ways the spareness of the language manages to evoke great psychological depths. Well worth a look.

Robert Alter's "Art of Biblical Narrative" (which I read just this summer) is even better on the subject--and may be the best general-audience book of literary criticism I've ever read.

FLG said...

Thanks Withy and Flavia.

I'll be sure to check these out. The simplicity of the writing really is astonishing.

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