MAN OF THE (WHOLE) CLOTH
by Steve Steinbock
Last week, when I was suffering from my case of Blog-Block , I was surprised that of all the topics I listed, the one that drew the most comment was my background in Bible. I get shy talking religion with people. I never know how they’re going to take it. I get all sorts of strange reactions. But at risk of offending, here I go.
Some people get defensive, thinking I’ll try to convert them. Some get a glazed over look in their eyes and just shut down. Others get excited and start bending my ear about their own interest in the location of the original Ark of the Covenant or some wacky theory or conspiracy. A lot of people get guarded and apologetic, like if the accidentally slip and say a dirty word they might offend me. (I don’t offend easily).
Once, about twenty five years ago, I ran into a guy I knew from high school. He asked me what I was doing. When I told him I was studying at a seminary, the air froze for a moment, and then he gave me this patronizing chortle and said, “Religion is fine for some people, but I believe in evolution.”
I thought that was about the dumbest thing anyone ever said to me. Heck, I believe in evolution. It would have been just as moronic had he said, “Hah, you study literature! Well, I believe in arithmetic!” Last I heard the guy was a cook at Denny’s.
A kid, I had a sort of spiritual bent. I enjoyed reading Castaneda and Hesse in junior high. I always liked writing and literature. Somewhere along the line I realized that I could see myself working in the synagogue, or in some academic-religious capacity. Some people might call it a calling. I soon found that the Bible was not only a good source of spiritual wisdom; it was also amazing as a work – or works – of literature.
I got my undergraduate degree in Comparative Religion with a focus on Near Eastern Languages and Literature. Then I spent three years in a master’s program at a Jewish seminary. I ran educational programs for synagogues for about a decade before deciding to leave religion for a life of crime.
Crime fiction, anyway.
But the religious life has a way of dragging a person back. I was asked to write a series of textbooks on the Bible, and I did. Even while trying to focus on crime fiction, I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and consulting in the Jewish community. I’ve taught classes in Biblical Hebrew for more than a decade. Reading the Bible in its original, I find, reveals a depth and an elegance that doesn’t come through in any translation. There is brilliant wordplay throughout the Bible that is impossible to get in the English.
One of the most serendipitous things that ever happened to me was my accidental meeting with Doug Greene almost twenty years ago. I was the education administrator for a big synagogue in Norfolk, Virginia. A graduate student at Old Dominion University asked to interview me about the Kabbalah. He was researching the use of kabbalistic imagery in the work of William Blake. I obliged him, and shared what little I knew, which was apparently more than he could get anywhere else in southern Virginia. A few months later I received a letter asking if I would serve on his M.A. Advisory Committee.
A short time later I found myself at a meeting with said student and committee. We were in the cramped offices of a professor of English history who ran the Department of Humanities. The discussion was on Blake’s poetry and wood-cuts, but my attention was on the bookshelves. There were rows upon rows of detective novels, pulp magazines, and even a shelf of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books. I thought I’d discovered the Garden of Eden.
That history professor was Douglas Greene, who continues to teach, but for the past fifteen years has singlehandedly published ninety-something short story anthologies under the aegis of Crippen & Landru, Publishers. A friendship ensued that continues to this day. It was Doug who first told me about Bouchercon, and who introduced me to mystery fandom. It was through Doug that I befriended Edward D. Hoch.
That’s the long version of the short story of my life in theology and Bible scholarship.
Now, to the shortest story in the Bible. . .
An Epic in Nine Lines
I’m bound to incur some debate, but I maintain that the “Tower of Babel” tale, with its grand scale, its global setting, and its message of human hubris, is a complete epic told in just over one hundred words (either 104 or 121 in the Hebrew, depending on how you count them).
Here’s the whole story:
1. Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
2. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3. They said to each other, Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly. They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.
5. But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.
6. The LORD said, If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
7. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
8. So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
9. That is why it was called Babel— because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
I want to point out a clever aspect of the story. Often a situation, phrase, or image at the beginning of a story or a novel will be echoed by a parallel situation, phrase, or image at the end. Notice how in the Babel story, the first and last verses, with their opposing statements about language, mirror each other. But the pattern goes on. Notice how, like a palindrome, the second and eighth verses, the third and seventh verses, and the fourth and sixth verses all parallel pairs, often using the same phrasing (this is much more obvious in the Hebrew) as well as the same themes and actions. The fifth verse, the exact middle of the story, is like the summit of an ancient ziggurat (see picture).
How many stories can do that?
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. See you in a week with something completely different.