It got me to thinking about scriptural tedium, about how there’s exciting bits and dull bits in the Bible, & that got me thinking (as is my wont) about taxonomies. It seems to me the dull bits of the Bible fall into a limited number of categories. First, there are things that are dull in and of themselves:
•Genealogies, those endless lists of ancestors most of whose names sound alien & indistinguishable to the English-speaking reader – I mean, this could be Commander Whorf reciting his Klingon ancestry, for all I know
•Construction blueprints: it’s bad enough when Ruskin goes off on the proper angles at which the roof is to meet the wall, but at least he has the decency to include illustrations; I have no idea what the Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple actually looked like, & even if I’ve got a fancy Bible with speculative illustrations, I don’t really need the do-it-yourself instructions, thank you very much
•Specifications for ritual observances: see above on the non-applicability of these instructions (tho it’s nice to know that the priests wore knickers so that they wouldn’t expose themselves as they ascended into the Holy Presence)
Then there are things which are inherently rather interesting, often quite fascinating – but only in moderation; in quantity they become a blur of repetition:
•Psalms – yes, I know, great poetry much of the time, but let’s face it – when you’re spinning 150 of these things out of maybe a half-dozen repeated themes, & recycling the same imagery over and over, it all gets a bit redundantSomewhere in the morass of my office, I have a copy of the Bible which not merely included a lot of snazzy line drawings and helpful maps, but went to the trouble of printing the really dull stuff – the genealogies, the ritual directions, the construction manuals – in a smaller typeface. Now if we can only get New Directions to do that with The Cantos.
•Prophecy – ditto; great poetry, grandly delivered, much of the time: but the message is pretty much the same over and over (with different names slotted into the important slots, I grant): “Come back to Me, O Israel, or have your butt kicked in various ways…”
•Wisdom: proverbs are good in moderate doses (fascinating article on Blake’s proverbs this week in of all places PMLA), but heaven knows they start to blur together when you get an entire book of them; and while Job is one of the basic great reads of Western Lit, as Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “no-one ever wished it longer.”
•Theological disputation, such as you get in the bulk of the New Testament: now there are those who’ll insist that knowing the details of this stuff is crucial to your eternal salvation etc. – & I’m convinced that one is at a real disadvantage in dealing with most English literature from say 1600 – 1900 without a working acquaintance with at least Romans & Hebrews – but if you don’t have a vested interest in the stuff being argued about, much of it is precisely as fascinating as hearing a poetics argument between Robert Lowell and WD Snodgrass.