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The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible Paperback – March 3, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Kirsch, an attorney and book critic, retells some of the juicier stories of the Bible in contemporary language. He expands upon the original biblical text to make the stories highly readable and includes with each the original text in modern translation and a brief sketch of the scholarly research and the speculation surrounding it. For those to whom Bible stories suggest "Disneyesque animals and simple uplifting moral lessons," this book may be a bit of a shock. Kirsch shows that the Bible is not a children's book. Then, as now, rape, incest, prostitution, murder, and strange religious cults were a part of life. As Kirsch says, "The Bible is a map of the human heart, and no secret chamber or hidden passage is left out." Kirsch contends that returning to the Bible can offer insight into modern issues. Mostly, however, he offers an irresistible popularization of some unfamiliar stories. Some readers will enjoy it; others will be highly offended. Recommended for public libraries.?C. Robert Nixon, MLS, Lafayette, Ind.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Although some of these biblical tales are not as "forbidden" as Kirsch makes out--both David's and Lot's stories have been on TV's Mysteries of the Biblethey do contain far more sex and violence than most readers would expect to find in a holy book. Demonstrating meticulous research and an enticing style, Kirsch recounts the rape of Dinah, in which the seducer of Jacob's daughter, along with 300 of his men, are circumcised and then murdered when they are too weak from their surgery to run; the seduction of Judah by his daughter-in-law Tamar; and the murder of Uriah by David, in order that David may have Uriah's wife, Bathsheba. Along the way, Kirsch comments perceptively on the implications of numerous instances of what he calls the "gyno-sadism" of the Bible--women being raped, gang-raped, and murdered. Along with excerpts from the Holy Scriptures according to Maoretic Text, Kirsch retells the stories, places them in the context of the time, and thoroughly addresses levels of meaning for both the ancient and modern readers. Fascinating reading. Ilene Cooper --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Forbidden Tales of the Bible
  • Paperback: 378 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (March 3, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345418824
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345418821
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #207,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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81 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 16, 1998
Format: Hardcover
In a society obsessed with religion, it is hard to imagine that, for most people, the Bible is virtually an unknown book. True, many American households have one gathering dust on the bookshelf, yet if the spine is cracked at all, it's generally for the purpose of finding out great-grandma's maiden name. The fact that the Bible is seldom read in its entirety in our day makes Jonathan Kirsch's new book, THE HARLOT BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD (Ballantine Books, 1997; 378 pages), that much more of value, for in pointing out some of its "forbidden tales," the author might just send his reader back to the source.
In HARLOT, Kirsch has picked out seven tales from the Hebrew Scriptures which set center-stage humankind in all its sinful glory. The accounts include rape, murder, genocide, and wholesale slaughter, all drawn from Holy Writ, and include such famous names as Lot, Moses, and even King David. Readers used to getting their Bible stories from Sunday services or Grolier adaptations will no doubt be shocked by what the Word of God includes.
Yet Kirsch is not writing with the now popular Bible-bashing attitude of, say, a Lloyd Graham (DECEPTIONS AND MYTHS OF THE BIBLE). While he does accept modern-day theories as to the authorship of the biblical canon, his purpose is not to poke fun; rather, he extracts from each of the tales he recounts something of value, whether it be historical or practical. This makes the book good reading for both believers and unbelievers seeking to get a handle on some of the cultural mysteries of biblical times.
Kirsch's format is instrumental in doing this. For each of the seven tales, he recounts the narrative in novelistic style, and provides detailed examinations of the various factors involved.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Chris Luallen on August 23, 2005
Format: Paperback
I'm an atheist who also happens to have a strong interest in religious history and theology. I find the Old Testament captivating because both God and humanity are depicted with a variety of traits, both positive and negative. The complexity of its characters makes for stories far richer and true to life than a simple morality play.

With "The Harlot By The Side Of The Road" Kirsch has plucked some of the most provocative biblical tales to demonstrate this point.I was already familiar with the seduction of Lot by his daughters. But other Bible stories, such as that of Tamar and Judah, were new and interesting to me. Thus I found Kirsch's book to be a very useful guide to discovering these hidden scriptures.

I must admit, however, that I usually preferred the succinct text of the Bible to Kirsch's imagination fuelled re-tellings. I highly recommend that readers carefully read the scripture itself before jumping into Kirsch's version. For example, Kirsch often attributes thoughts and feelings to the characters not clearly indicated by the biblical text. This is perhaps Kirsch's attempt at the Jewish tradition of Midrashic writing. But certain readers may end up being confused about what the Bible actually says.

Another significant portion of the book includes examination and interpretation of the stories presented. Kirsch presents his own point of view while also discussing the research of other religious scholars. This section of the book is interesting enough. But actually my favorite parts were towards the end. The final chapter - "God's Novel Has Suspense" - is where Kirsch espouses his ideas about why the Old Testament still holds purpose and power for us today.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Jean E. Pouliot on August 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Lot's daughters drug and rape their own father. Jacob's sons sacrilegiously slaughter Hamor's recently-circumcised clan. YHWH's night attack on Moses is thwarted by a perplexing smearing of blood. A Levite abandons his concubine to gang rape and uses her death to foment genocide. All of these tales are in the Bible. Yet their content is peculiar, distasteful and difficult to reconcile with modern preferences for a God who is undemanding and unthreatening.

"The Harlot by the Side of the Road" is no mere unmasking of the sensational parts of the bible. Author Jonathan Kirsch retells each tale in a modern novelistic style, interspersed with the biblical accounts themselves, allowing us to read the original and its retelling side by side. Kirsch then uses these tales as springboards to explore ancient social mores as well as the development of the Bible itself. Kirsch helps the reader to recognize and set aside the strong moral and xenophobic tone of post-Exilic editors, allowing a peek into the looser social practices that held sway prior to Israel's return from captivity.

The book's subtitle, "Forbidden Tales of the Bible" is a bit of an overstatement. While it's hard to find a home for these tales in a typical liturgical setting, the tales are hardly forbidden. What ought to be forbidden (at least taken with a grain of salt) are the head-spinning interpretations of some serious biblical scholars. Kirsch skims the conclusions of a number of scholarly schools--including Freudian, rabbinical, radical feminist and traditional--before finally settling on something more reasonable. Tamar's seduction of father-in-law (and patriarch) Judah, for instance, is difficult only if you insist that biblical morality never changed.
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