Jonathan Kirsch's The Harlot by the Side of the Road: A Critique
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A review of this book from the LA Times describes it as "a welcome addition to the growing genre of Bible scholarship that has slowly been moving from the rarefied confines of universities and seminaries into the hands of everyday believers and skeptics alike." I suppose next the Times will have positive words for a book on heart surgery written by Kirsch (an attorney and a book critic) as "a welcome addition to the growing genre of medical scholarship that has slowly been moving from the rarefied confines of medical schools and hospitals" into the hands of everyday practitioners on the street whose only relevant experience is reading medical textbooks.

Which is to say, that Kirsch is far from competent to collate and use Bible scholarship. He, admittedly, does consult a fairly lengthy number of sources, but the bibliography is filled with revisionist feminist theologians, Freudian psychology, and structuralism, all of which Kirsch accepts uncritically.

The basic theme of this book is "Did you know the Bible has, sex, violence, etc. in it?" - as if this were something new, which it seems it once was to Kirsch, who one suspects wrote this volume because of his own embarrassment at not knowing the contents of the Bible and having his 5 year old son scold him for skipping over things he didn't want to read aloud at bedtime reading sessions.

But those of us who are mature in our faith will realize that Kirsch is reporting nothing new or shocking. We will also recognize his adherence to a sort of conspiracy theory: Everywhere, we are told, priestly revisors and redactors altered the Bible to cover up things; modern scholars are in on the coverup also; just about everything in the Bible is a phallic symbol, just about every body part named is a euphemism for genitalia, and oppressed Bible characters whom we have condemned in the past as wicked or as corrupt are actually new heroes for the age: e.g., Lot's wife looked back not because she was disobedient, but because she was so overwhelmed with love for her daughters who stayed behind that she couldn't resist.

Kirsch rewrites as fiction seven major OT stories -some less controversially than others -and that takes up half the book; for the rest, he depends on some of that revisionist feminist scholarship (the sort of people who think that Beethoven's symphonies are expressions of sexual frustration) to "let the reader see what is actually written" in stories that have been covered up for centuries by the priestly censors with the blue noses. [10] Along the way Kirsch assumes a host of modern values and outlooks upon ancient peoples, though strangely, not always -- he realizes, for example, the necessity of Deut. 22:8-9 in its social context, and even refers to it as something that "can be seen as an entirely positive and even progressive measure". He tells us what he thinks are horror stories but are actually non-essential revelations. For example: Did you know that the Israelites did not always adhere to their own laws?

Most of what Kirsch offers may sound objectionable but is not a big deal in the long run, and may even be agreeable to some readers. Lot is no hero, but a "tragic buffoon." Actually, I agree on that for the most part. Ishmael was not "mocking" Isaac, but molesting him. Possibly - the linguistic data offers possible but not even close to conclusive support, and Kirsch's main argument for this is not the data itself [which he admits does not, according to the best scholarship, favor his position] but that it makes Sarah look more humane and decent for throwing Ishmael and Hagar out of the house.

On the other hand, we have the odd suggestions as well: Shechem and Dinah may have actually been secret lovers, whose ultimate motive was to relax intertribal rivalries. That simply does not cohere well with collectivist social psychology, however, no more so the idea that Israel living with the Canaanites is an example of "a place where men and women of different tribes and different faiths live side by side". None of this sort of thing is supported by responsible, non-revisionist scholarship, which Kirsch sometimes refers to but simply dismisses when it does not suit his purposes of producing the most "high-spirited" and "candid" version of events possible, versions that are his own creation as a whole and make the rather simply-told stories recounted in the Bible sound more like a steamy romance novel.

For example, Kirsch goes into great detail about the sexual liaison between Judah and Tamar -- details which may indeed be in the background of the story as it actually happened, but aren't in the text. More particularly, scholarship on all sides recognizes that the stories of Judah and Tamar on one hand, and Joseph and Potiphar's wife on the other, are purposely juxtaposed to show Joseph as a positive contrast to Judah. Kirsch dismisses this as a "facile explanation" because Joseph leads his people into the place where they will be enslaved and nearly destroyed, whereas Judah will bring forth the "kings of ancient Israel and ultimately the Messiah." What this has to do with the individual, personal acts of Joseph and Judah, I cannot fathom, but I note that I have never heard any Jew curse Joseph for his role in the troubles in Egypt, and the story of Judah merely proves in the Biblical context that God can make lemonade out of our lemons in spite of ourselves.

Most pertinent of all of our samples, however, is this one, and it is typical of the type of poor scholarship Kirsch engages. Citing Exodus 33:18-23, where God tells Moses that he will cover him with His hand as his "glory" (kabod) passes. Kirsch writes that kabod not only means "glory" but also "liver" - and this, he says, is a euphemism for the genitals. Hence, what God was hiding was not his glory, but - well, you get the idea. Such an interpretation of kabod hardly squares with the rest of the passage which refers to God's face as what cannot be seen...unless Kirsch is so inclined as to suggest variable divine anatomy. And what Kirsch then makes of other passages in Exodus that refer to God's kabod, like Exodus 16:7 ("..and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD.") we can only guess. Kirsch also makes some questionable arguments about the story of Jephthah's daughter, which we will include in a essay on that subject.

In closing, we may observe that Kirsch has simply fallen for the misconception that the "Word of God" shouldn't have nasty things in it and ought to make us all feel good about ourselves, as though it were some bottle of miracle tonic we could drink from to make us healthy, wealthy and wise. Personally, I would be more suspicious if everyone in the Bible were portrayed as Prince Charming and Cinderella rather than with the warts of the wicked witch. Any book that did not tell the truth could not be the Word of God at all, and that's the concept that Kirsch and those of like-mind need to comprehend. Kirsch's politically-correct revisionism is no more justified than the alleged "suppression" of the "hot spots" in the Bible he so decries.

-JPH