In his review of Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books: the radical impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011, Philip Hensher writes:-
Considered as a book, the Bible is far too long. Its characterisation is not all it should be: its hero, God, seems totally inconsistent, varying from a prankster with a bizarre sense of humour (Job) to a sensible dispenser of advice. You can’t help feeling that it is really rather patchy in quality: some of it is wonderfully entertaining, such as the Acts of the Apostles and the two Books of Kings, but some of it doesn’t seem to be interested in entertaining the reader one bit. (Look at the difference between the stonking first line of Kings and the droning way Chronicles kicks off.)
Sometimes, the author seems to forget the details of his own story rather quickly — God creates man twice within about 200 words in Genesis. The poetry can be very good; Ecclesiastes takes the palm (‘And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low’). Sometimes it’s frankly a bit vulgar, with a sort of anti-talent for metaphor, as in the Song of Solomon: ‘Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing.’ The dialogue can be sharp and snappy — ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’— or the very opposite, as in Satan’s camp response when God asks him, in Job, what he’s been up to: ‘Going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it’ (my absolute favourite line in the entire Bible).
Of course, the the key phrase here is the first one: ‘Considered as a book‘. Henshaw seems to think that it is only recently that people have begun to consider the Bible in this light – as a book. That’s not so: in the middle years of the last century, for example, Ernest Sutherland Bates published his The Bible designed to be read as Literature. But the fact that so many copies of that book now languish on the shelves of second-hand bookshops, unbought and unread, suggests that the project had a basic flaw.
And so it did. Everybody knows that the Bible is not a book, but sixty-six books. And it should be clear, too, that none of its authors wrote with the primary intention of writing a literary masterpiece (although many of them succeeded in doing so), still less of ‘entertaining’ the reader (although there are some gloriously entertaining bits), but in conveying a religious message. And they did so in extraordinarily diverse ways: through historical and biographical accounts, through proverb and poetry, through letters and apocalypses, and so on. The cavils mentioned by Hensher are singularly inept: For example: is it credible that the author of Genesis didn’t realise that he had given two creation stories on adjacent pages? Is it not more credible to assume that the author(s) very consciously included two complementary accounts of the creation of human beings? And should we not judge the poetry of the Song of Solomon by the canons and standards of its own time, when such metaphors would have been regarded as beautifully appropriate.
There is something outrageous about reading the Bible just as ‘a book’. It not only demonstrates insensitivity to the diversity of its literary genres, but it also sets us up as judges over a religious message that is, in fact, intended to judge us. We say to the Bible, ‘Entertain me’; when we should be hearing God, through the Bible, say to us, ‘Believe me.’