If you're a student of the Old Testament, maybe you've asked yourself the following: Does the Bible command bikini waxing? Was Onan a jerk? Was Joseph a cross-dresser? Were Samson and Delilah into S&M? And was Moses suicidal?
The questions may at first sound preposterous — or worse, sacrilegious — but you're in good company when it comes to questioning the precise meanings behind the stories told in the Good Book. Biblical scholars have posed the questions too. See The Uncensored Bible (HarperOne/HarperCollins) by John Kaltner, Steven McKenzie, and Joel Kilpatrick. And thank God for Ziony Zevit.
Ziony Zevit? He's a respected scholar at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. It was a paper Zevit delivered at a conference of biblical scholars that got Kaltner and McKenzie (of Rhodes College) thinking and got satirist Kilpatrick on board for some extra added humor. If Zevit's paper, dryly titled "Observations on the Hebrew Narrative of Genesis 2:4-4:1," could etymologically question Adam's rib (for "rib," Zevit argued, read, in ancient Hebrew, "penis bone"), what else was there about traditional biblical interpretation that needed further looking into? A lot, the more you look, according to The Uncensored Bible. So Kaltner, McKenzie, and Kilpatrick took a good look, and readers get an entertaining, instructive eye-opener.
But the authors set themselves some limits — four, to be exact — and in their introduction, they list the criteria for what would and wouldn't make it into their "Baedeker to gross, risqué, and deliciously disgusting bible scholarship for the common man and woman":
1) Proposed biblical interpretations must be innovative and "juicy" (translation: the stranger the better); 2) interpretations must be a new take on an old story familiar to most anyone; 3) interpretations must be worth a reader's serious consideration; and 4) interpretations must be authored by researchers trained in bona-fide biblical scholarship.
Unnumbered but just the same, the proposed interpretations should be clever and off-color enough "to make for interesting bar talk" — on the order of, say, the question of bikini waxing. The Bible: pro or con?
The answer to that vexing question: pro, according to scholar Jerome T. Walsh. How does he know? The Pentateuch tells him so: The shaving of a woman's pubes (not the cutting off of her hand, as the Hebrew is usually interpreted) is just punishment if her husband gets into a fight with another man, and the wife grabs the testicles of her husband's assailant.
Hand it too to Kaltner et al. to get a handle on Onan, "the spiller of seed" and inspiration for the name of Dorothy Parker's pet parrot. Call it "coitus onanterruptus." (The authors do.) Onan's sin wasn't self-abuse. It was selfishness.
Joseph of the "technicolor dreamcoat": Color him the Bible's clearest example of transgendering. Theodore W. Jennings Jr., of the Chicago Theological Seminary, does and writes: "Jacob/Israel has produced the queer Joseph, transvested him, and thereby transgendered him as a sign of his own masculine desire. And the progeny of Israel have engaged in the first instance of queer bashing." Huh? "File Jennings' ideas," our co-authors write, "under 'highly unlikely.'" And try as she might, Lori Rowlett, professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, can't make her case for Delilah as a dominatrix and Samson as a (Rowlett's term) "butch bottom."
As for Moses' suicidal tendencies ... I'll leave it to the writers of The Uncensored Bible to describe the scholarship behind the topic of circumcision. File said topic under "The Case of the Bloody Bridegroom and the Freaky Foreskin."
Think of The Uncensored Bible as any number of academic undertakings: etymology, textual analysis, archaeology, history, and sociology. Add in some good common sense. But don't fault the authors for irreverence. Their aim here isn't to debunk the Good Book or to ridicule generations of biblical translators and scholars. It's to help readers appreciate the Bible even more: its richness and earthiness, its beauty and bawdiness.
Would that John Kaltner, Steven McKenzie, and Joel Kilpatrick team up next to tackle the New Testament. Or is the question of God made man a matter not of scholarship but of faith?