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THE HARLOT BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD by Jonathan Kirsch

THE HARLOT BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD

Forbidden Tales of the Bible

By Jonathan Kirsch

Pub Date: May 12th, 1997
ISBN: 0-345-40749-0
Publisher: Ballantine

 An amateur Bible student's attempt to deal with the complexities of biblical sexuality. The oxymoronic subtitle says it all. Biblical episodes used for millennia for moral instruction are far from forbidden. And yet, in the unmistakable cadence of the tabloid TV narrator, L.A. Times book critic, novelist, and lawyer Kirsch guides us with wide eyes toward several biblical episodes containing incest or rape: ``You mean that's in the Bible? Yes, dear reader, that's in the Bible. But wait--it gets worse.'' And so does Kirsch's retelling of these stories. Whether the typically sparse, clinical Hebrew Bible text is about Lot and his daughters, the rape of Dinah, or Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (the harlot of the title), Kirsch's novelistic retellings have all the subtlety of a tabloid tale. In treating the title episode from Genesis 38, for example, in which the childless and widowed Tamar poses as a harlot to trick her father-in-law into impregnating her, the author calls it ``an erotic fairy tale,'' even though all the details of Tamar's swaying breasts and ``strange hunger'' are his own invention. Kirsch pens in a description of Tamar's veil falling off, then speculates about how Judah's fervor might have been affected by the discovery that the harlot by the side of the road was his neglected daughter-in-law. While such fictionalizations surely eroticize the original texts, they purposefully cleanse them of any supernatural qualities. Lot's angels with blinding light become mere hunks with house lanterns. While Kirsch displays some familiarity with classical Bible critics, he appears perplexed by the concept that the Hebrew Bible's theology isn't Canaanite: ``Another curious feature of the Hebrew Bible is the absence of a female counterpart to God.'' A retelling for those so unfamiliar with the sex and violence in the Bible that they think it merits a PG rating. (Author tour)