Book Review: ‘A Most Peculiar Book’ by Kristin Swenson

I. INTRODUCTION

I love the Bible. Those words may sound odd coming from an atheist, but they are nevertheless true. My connection to the Bible runs deep: I was raised in a Bible-centered Christian environment, one in which we were told we should read at least ten pages daily so we can get through the Bible annually. When the psalmist said, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11, KJV), we took it seriously because we knew the danger of sin. Today, the idea of “sin” is to me an unhelpful one and I have no fear of offending the god of Christianity. But still the Bible clings to me as a relic of my own experience and I have devoted countless hours of my life to it.

The Bible is a difficult book. One of the reasons it is so difficult is well-articulated in a pithy statement by the historian Paula Fredriksen: “The Bible is not a book: it is a library” (emphasis added).[1] And this library was not always available to the biblical writers in full, usually as a function of their historical context. Moreover, these writers were not of one mind on every issue. Sure, worship of Yahweh was a central concern. But how that looked – its socio-religious implications – varied from author to author. Additionally, the authors weren’t writing impassioned pieces to communicate historical reality. In many cases, they were producing propaganda, whether that be of a religious or political nature (or, in many cases, both).

For veterans of biblical studies, unpacking the biblical corpus takes considerable work and knowledge. What hope does a mere novice have? Much if they have at their disposal Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford, 2020). Swenson, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, offers readers a fine introduction to the world of biblical criticism. Coupling a conversational tone to sound scholarship, A Most Peculiar Book (AMPB) would make a great addition to anyone’s library, but especially those who are just starting out in the world of biblical studies.

II. SUMMARY

Following an introduction wherein Swenson declares her love for the Bible and explains why she loves it (pp. xiii-xviii), AMPB is thereafter divided into four sections. The first section, comprised of chs. 1-2, is “A Book Like No Other.” In ch. 1 (pp. 3-26), Swenson discusses the myriad ways the Bible is “problematic.” For example, contrary to the expectations of many Christians, “the Bible” doesn’t offer its readers a singular, coherent narrative that stretches from Genesis to Revelation. “There is no neat progression all the way through, from beginning to end,” writes the author (p. 4). With ch. 2 (pp. 27-36), Swenson lets her readers in on one of the best unkept secrets of biblical scholarship: the origin, transmission, and collection of the biblical corpus was a mess. While some routinely throw out terms like “the original text” or “the original autographs,” she states unequivocally that “[t]here is no authoritative ur-text that we can consult for the final word” (p. 27). Additionally, the Bibles to which we refer, complete with chapter and verse divisions, are relatively late developments, at least relative to the production of the so-called original texts. Consider “the New Testament,” that collection of 27 books that Christians consider canonical. By and large, the entirety of the New Testament was written from the 50s CE (e.g., the undisputed letters of Paul) to the early second century (e.g., the Pastoral Epistles). But the first complete New Testament extant is found in a codex from the fourth century known as Sinaiticus. And it not only includes the standard books of the New Testament but also works like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Part two, “Beings Odd and Otherwise,” takes up three chapters. The first of these chapters, ch. 3 (pp. 39-59), is devoted to God. It almost goes without saying that the god of Israel, Yahweh by name, is the central figure of the entire Hebrew Bible. His importance stretches even into the New Testament as the earliest followers of Jesus were both adherents to and proponents of the worship of Yahweh. But, Swenson observes, the biblical authors are hardly univocal in their portrayal of the deity. To open the chapter, the author writes that with its use of elohim, a plural noun to describe the singular god of Israel, the text of Genesis 1 offers its readers a being that is hardly “a monotone, singular, consistently recognizable (read: predictable) deity” (p. 41). This may be reading too much into the word, but she is certainly correct that the “biblical” God is colorful and complex. In ch. 4 (pp. 60-81) more colorful characters are discussed, including the snake of Genesis 3, the Satan of the book of Job, the talking donkey of Numbers 22, and more. Chapter 5 (pp. 82-102), entitled “Good People Behaving Badly,” looks at characters like Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and others. These somewhat iconic figures exhibit many of the qualities one expects in real people: they can at once act selflessly and selfishly, display profound courage and retreat into fear, declare their firm reliance on God and yet act contrary to his will. And it is not just human characters who can seem flawed in various ways. Swenson notes that even “God does some really questionable stuff in the Bible” (p. 100).

Chapter six (pp. 105-119) opens part three of AMPB and features a discussion on some of the peculiarities of certain texts. For example, Swenson compares the exaggerated lifespans of the antediluvian patriarchs found in Genesis 5 with the exaggerated lifespans of antediluvian monarchs listed in the Sumerian King List. “Coincidence?” she asks. “Few scholars think so” (p. 108). She also dispels the notion that the prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible were “meant to predict the coming of Jesus” (p. 112). Rather, the New Testament writers “reinterpret[ed] received texts in light of new ideas and experiences” (p. 112). In ch. 7 (pp. 120-145), Swenson charges headlong into the debate on things like the historicity of Daniel and its relationship to the faithful. “If your faith is entirely invested in the Bible’s factual accuracy, then you have to resort to some pretty fanciful reasoning to accept Daniel’s assumption that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, when we know for a verifiable, historical fact that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus,” she writes. Later in this chapter, Swenson talks about sex and marriage, noting that the Bible is “a collection of many voices” on the subject and that not extramarital sex “is judged equally by biblical standards” (p. 140). Chapter eight, entitled “And General Befuddlements,” talks about some of the strange episodes that are scattered throughout the biblical corpus. For example, in Exodus 4 there is a brief but bizarre story in which Yahweh attempts to kill Moses while they are spending the night on the way to Egypt. His life is spared thanks to his wife Zipporah who cuts off the foreskin of her son and touches Moses’ “feet” with it (Exodus 4:24-26). This passage has been a thorn in the side of exegetes for a long time and Swenson does her best to explain what exactly is going on in it. For example, perhaps it isn’t that Yahweh tried to kill Moses but rather Moses’ son. “Zipporah does take some pretty dramatic action toward her son,” she says (p. 148). And why Moses’ “feet”? It is possible that the term is a euphemism for Moses’ penis. Needless to say, it is a weird story.

In ch. 9 (pp. 165-185) which begins part four, Swenson talks about the various contradictions – real or perceived – within the biblical corpus. She discusses the Documentary Hypothesis, noting that it in “making sense of one of the most striking strangenesses of the Bible: that even a seemingly single narrative can be the product of many voices” (p. 166). This hypothesis helps to explain why there are two different creation accounts in Genesis, why the story of the Deluge in Genesis 6-9 often seems disjointed, and why some of the so-called Mosaic laws seem incongruent. She also brings up discrepancies within the Gospels, how they “disagree in tone and general concerns” (p. 182). Moving on from contradictions, in ch. 10 (pp. 186-207) Swenson surveys the variety of troubling and morally questionable tales found throughout. For example, the divinely directed genocide of the Canaanites “poses a conundrum that can be addressed by modern people of faith only by understanding and respecting the Bible’s ancient past and history of development, and only by allowing for ways of faithful reading besides the literalistic application of those texts to today” (p. 192). She also brings up the subject of abortion, noting that some of the texts used by the pro-life side of the debate like Jeremiah 1:5 are employed without regard for their literary and historical context. “The Bible is a messy, messy book with all sorts of unsettling and sometimes flatly contradictory information,” she contends. In ch. 11 (pp. 208-217), the author presents her readers with various turns-of-phrase that stem directly from the biblical texts like “forbidden fruit” (pp. 208-209), “how the mighty have fallen” (pp. 211-212), and “the writing’s on the wall” (pp. 213-214). The final chapter, ch. 12 (pp. 218-232), features Swenson’s “Ten Commandments for Reading the Bible.”

III. ANALYSIS

Though far from a technical treatise on the Bible, AMPB does function well as an introduction into the subjects and concerns of biblical criticism. While fundamentalist and evangelical readings of the Bible tend to either skirt around or wave off entirely the anthology’s problem areas, biblical criticism approaches them head on, probing for anything that can reveal their historical import. Biblical scholars, therefore, take seriously Swenson’s observation that “the Bible is a cacophonous gathering of disparate voices” (p. xiv). It isn’t a bug but a feature, the consequence of binding these ancient texts together.

There is no short abundance of examples to illustrate this point. One of the more interesting, albeit less appreciated, examples is the subject of the death of Goliath (pp. 175-177). Most readers, even those who have never cracked open a Bible a day in their lives, know something about the story of David and Goliath. In cultural discourse, “Goliath” often codes for “gigantic” or “enormous,” a reference to an enemy – physical or metaphysical – that is seemingly unstoppable. David, on the other hand, is a stand in for the underdog. The story of David’s triumph over the giant from Gath can be found in 1 Samuel 17 and the death of Goliath via the slingshot of the shepherd David as well as his subsequent decapitation at the hands of his own sword can be found in vv. 49-51.

If I were to ask you, “Who killed Goliath?” you would undoubtedly respond, “David killed Goliath!” And you would have Bible-based reasons for thinking so. But Swenson alerts her readers to another text: “Now have a look at 2 Samuel 21:19,” she instructs us (p. 175). In that passage we read, “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (NRSV). Suddenly, we have a complication. Now, in response to the question “Who killed Goliath?” there is a new answer: Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim killed Goliath. But how could that be right?

By all measures, we have a contradiction. But this is strange – why wouldn’t the author of the books of Samuel just smooth it over by claiming Elhanan killed someone else? Swenson provides us with the answer:

It’s all a bit fishy until you remember that the Bible didn’t develop in the manner of modern books, with a single story line controlled by a single author. By all scholarly accounts, we have here a great example of an early story (Elhanan’s killing Goliath as per 2 Samuel) reworked in later years so that the great deed went to the hero of the bigger story, David. (p. 175)

Space does not permit a full discussion of the origins of 1-2 Samuel, but Swenson thinks that the Elhanan version of the death of Goliath is “the historical germ” upon which the David story was based. She is not alone in this assessment. For example, Baruch Halpern in his work David’s Secret Demons contends that “[m]ost likely, storytellers displaced the deed [i.e., the killing of Goliath] from the otherwise obscure Elhanan onto the more famous character David.”[2] Steven McKenzie in his book King David takes a slightly more nuanced approach, asserting that while it was Elhanan and not David that killed Goliath, the story of 1 Samuel 17 was about the killing of a giant Philistine and that the name “Goliath” was imported from 2 Samuel 21.[3] Both Halpern and McKenzie consider the Elhanan version to be the older version of the story. There is debate over how this happened, but some scholars think the books of Samuel were written backwards. For example, in his commentary on 1-2 Samuel A. Graeme Auld suggests that the books of Samuel “were composed from end to beginning.”[4] Consequently, the stories found in 1 Samuel are often based in part on what we find in 2 Samuel. In particular, per Auld, the story of Goliath’s death in 2 Samuel 21 serves as “the kernel of the much more famous story that our author has attributed to David, and set at the very beginning of his career (1 Sam 17).”[5]

Further complicating matters is another text, this one from a work composed during the post-exilic era: Chronicles. In a section that parallels 2 Samuel 21:18-22, the Chronicler writes, “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (1 Chronicles 20:5). Without a doubt, one of the sources that the Chronicler had at his disposal was some version of the Deuteronomic History which would have included the books of Samuel.[6] It would appear that this section from 2 Samuel 21 was available to him, and he decided to significantly alter the text such that Elhanan no longer kills Goliath but Lahmi, the brother of Goliath. The alteration itself is clever. While the Deuteronomic Historian had referred to Elhanan as a Bethlehemite (byt hlḥmy), the Chronicler removes the reference to Elhanan’s hometown and turns lḥmy into the name of Goliath’s brother “Lahmi” (laḥmî).[7] But why take this route?

Swenson provides the answer: the Chronicler’s “primary goal is to lionize David” (p. 175). If you’ve ever read 1 Chronicles, you’ll have noticed that following the lengthy genealogical section (i.e., chs. 1-9), the story picks up with the demise of Saul and the ascent of David to the throne of Israel (chs. 10-11). The rest of the book paints David in a very favorable light, avoiding such topics as his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba as well as the disastrous rebellion by his son Absalom (to name a few). James Kugel observes that the changes the Chronicler made to his source material has been useful such that “modern scholars have been able to find a whole political program hidden in his rewriting,” including a desire for reunification of Judah with its neighbor to the north, the end of Persian dominance, and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy.[8] In other words, the Chronicler was writing propaganda, part of which was to paint David in the most favorable light possible. Thus, while the Chronicler never traces the early days of David’s life as the book of 1 Samuel does, he does manage to rectify a problem that persisted in his source material, namely that Elhanan was given credit for something everyone knew David did.

So, within the corpus of 1-2 Samuel we have a contradiction. Early in the narrative, it is David who kills Goliath. Much later in the narrative, it is Elhanan who kills Goliath. Contradicting that later narrative, the Chronicler asserts that Elhanan killed not Goliath but Lahmi. There are, of course, apologists who have clever ways to resolve the contradiction, but that is a subject for another time. The key take away here is that whatever else we may think about the Bible, it is a most peculiar book for a variety of reasons, including texts like those discussed above. If Swenson and other scholars are right and the Elhanan story is the “germ” from which the Davidic version sprouted, then that gives us some measure of insight into just how important it was to legitimize David’s claim to the throne of Israel and, in later texts like Chronicles, why he is given such moral deference despite his rather sketchy literary history.

IV. CONCLUSION

Seasoned readers of the Bible who have also waded into the waters of biblical scholarship will find little new in Swenson’s book. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining read and one that in many ways offers an emotional rather than purely intellectual connection to the Bible. Having spent the last two decades of my life in reading and studying it, AMPB was a helpful reminder that there is much to love about the Bible – warts and all.

Novices to the world of biblical scholarship will find in AMPB an excellent introduction to the reason the endeavor exists. Whether it’s the authorship of the Gospels, the nature of the sources behind the stories of Genesis 1-2, or even the reception history of particular texts and how they are employed in today’s culture wars, Swenson’s work provides a taste of what the work of a biblical scholar entails. And while there is no bibliography, astute readers can mine the endnotes for the various sources to which Swenson appeals. Since she depends heavily on quality scholarship, building a library off the works she mentions is an exercise in wisdom.

A Most Peculiar Book by Kristin Swenson is one I will gladly recommend.


[1] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 8.

[2] Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 8.

[3] Steven L. McKenzie, King David (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 76.

[4] A. Graeme Auld, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 9.

[5] Auld, I & II Samuel, 13.

[6] On the sources employed by the Chronicler, see Anson F. Rainey, “The Chronicler and His Sources – Historical and Geographical,” in The Chronicler as Historian, edited by M. Patrick Graham, Kenneth G. Hoglund, and Steven L. McKenzie (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 30-72.

[7] Halpern, David’s Secret Demons, 7-8.

[8] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 9-10.

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