When folks talk about the Bible as literature, they often have in mind the importance of biblical literacy for understanding fiction and poetry: the Bible as background. Who is the Absalom of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom? What biblical currents run throughout Yeats’ “The Magi” and “The Second Coming”? Was Toni Morrison the first person to name a book Song of Solomon?
Recognizing biblical allusions is important for reading fiction and poetry, as well as for fully appreciating art, U2 lyrics, and South Park episodes. But reading the Bible and reading novels together can work in another way. Sometimes reading a novel can alter your understanding of a biblical text.
That’s what happened for me earlier this year after reading Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s an incredible book. I’ve never read anything quite like it in terms of style. Untranslated Spanish, street talk, gamers’ speech, and footnotes about the politics of the Dominican Republic all tumble together on the page. The prose is both dizzying and exhilarating.
The book’s theme grabbed me, too—the way in which one man’s refusal to surrender his daughter to a lascivious dictator becomes the family’s curse, sucking generation after generation into a common pattern of tragedy. Díaz calls the curse fukú. I’m not sure how he intends it to be pronounced, but I have a pretty good idea. In my session on Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon in Reading the Bible as an Adult, I explain the novel’s plot more fully.
As you might infer from the way I’ve organized that session, Oscar Wao affected the way I read the story of King David’s later years, the story often called the Succession Narrative and which runs from 2 Samuel 11 into the early chapters of 1 Kings. This is the part of the Bible that talks about David sleeping with Bathsheba, Amnon raping Tamar, Absalom’s revenge on Amnon, Absalom’s rebellion against his father, the rise of Solomon to the throne, and Solomon’s downfall.
After reading the novel, I noticed more than before that every story after David’s taking of Bathsheba follows a similar theme: a man acts out of inappropriate desire and everyone gets screwed. According to the biblical narrator (who is much less concerned about consent than I am), David errs in taking the wife of another man and, in turn, the child conceived in the encounter dies. But the repercussions don’t stop there. His children just keep doing the same thing. Amnon takes his (off-limits) half-sister, which leads to Tamar’s seclusion, Amnon’s own death, and Absalom’s estrangement from his father. Absalom seizes the concubines that “belong” to his father as part of his rebellion. At first, Solomon seems to have escaped the family curse; wise and pious, he makes good judgments and builds the Temple. But he, too, succumbs to inappropriate desire: according to 1 Kings, Solomon allows foreign women to lead his heart astray, and the kingdom of his father David is splintered forever. In these narratives, the David family curse just keeps on going.
This theme of determinism, perhaps fatalism, leads to reflect on a lot of things. First, on my own life. As much as I want to be different from my parents and grandparents, how much am I really? What decisions did they make that continue to shape my life? What decisions have I made that will doom my daughter?
The musings also take pedagogical and political turns. How much does family history determine people’s abilities to change their fortunes? How helpful is the American mantra of “you can be anyone/anything you want to be?” What social policies recognize cross-generational dynamics?
Or is belief that we are free to change, to determine our destinies, a necessary illusion? Something that we have to believe in order to make it through the day, that a president needs to say to children to give them hope?
I realize that the themes of this post have turned out to be very similar to my musings on Jacob’ lack of change. Why am I being drawn to stories about inevitability, continuity, sameness?