Holy Scriptures Batman! Bible as Comedy

By Benjamin Pollak

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!
By Jonathan Goldstein
Riverhead Books, 256 pages, $15.00.

We all know the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and his ark, but not quite the way Jonathan Goldstein tells them in “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!” In his latest book, a collection of stories, Goldstein revisits seminal episodes from the Tanach, rewriting its heroes as a vaudevillian caste of schlemiels and ruffians selected, in God’s inscrutable wisdom, for greatness.

Thank You!: You’ve been a wonderful audience.
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Thank You!: You’ve been a wonderful audience.

The stories in this collection, several of which were featured on the popular radio program “This American Life,” are premised on the kinds of questions a precocious child might ask: If no one gave birth to Adam, did he have a bellybutton? Or, why did Jacob keep picking on his brother? In answering these questions, Goldstein brings the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs to life as fallible mortals who fulfill their obligations to God with a Woody Allen-like mixture of uncertainty and humor.

In Goldstein’s retelling, Adam becomes an endearing lummox who gets on the nerves of his overly cerebral helpmate; David, though more famous as a poet, turns out to be an aspiring comedian who takes on Goliath as much for the sake of a good laugh as for the safety of his embattled co-religionists, and Noah, a curmudgeonly drunk, hears the Lord’s voice as a high-pitched “whistling in his nose hairs.” In the collection’s only New Testament rewrite, “My Troubles (A Work in Progress, by Joseph of N–),” Jesus’ stepfather struggles to overcome his resentment at being cuckolded by an angel. “In the early days,” he confesses, “I was all about the little details. What was he wearing? What did he say to you? Was he a handsome angel?” In Goldstein’s hands, Joseph becomes that most familiar of Jewish stereotypes, the lovable schlimazel racked with self-doubt and expert in the art of worrying. “Who was I to be raising an angel baby?” he frets. “What could I teach a baby of any kind? How to hyperventilate when you’re outbid for a carpentry job?”

The secret behind much of the stories’ humor is the contrast between a deadpan acceptance of biblical logic and a post-Freudian awareness of the fragility of human emotions. In telling the story of Cain and Abel, for instance, Goldstein writes:

Back in those days, things changed very quickly. A new person being born meant there was a giant spike in the population. For Cain, it made the planet feel lopsided. He watched Eve bounce the newborn in her lap and as she cooed at it, he felt the Earth’s gravity tilt in their direction. It pulled at the insides of his stomach and made him seasick.

Goldstein is at his best when giving voice to his characters’ frequently conflicted emotions. His descriptions of action and intrigue — Jacob’s struggles in Haran or Absalom’s failed uprising — are less successful, often falling back on shallow slapstick and bare plot summary. Other stories, like Goldstein’s interpretation of the golden calf episode as a failed marketing campaign, are a little too self-consciously clever and anachronistic to be funny.

Caricature and gimmick are inevitable risks for this kind of book, but they are ones that Goldstein succeeds, for the most part, in avoiding. The biblical stories he takes on may lose some of their poetry and resonance in the retelling, but they are still more than shallow spoofs. In recasting the biblical heroes as dysfunctional moderns, Goldstein reminds us of the black comedy at the heart of our culture’s foundational stories: a fratricide in the world’s first family, a flood in which everything is lost except a wooden boat and its inhabitants, and a man swallowed whole by a whale for trying to shirk his responsibilities. In stripping the biblical heroes of their grandeur and mystery, Goldstein grants them something infinitely funnier: their humanity.

Benjamin Pollak is a doctoral student in the English department of the University of Michigan.

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