Monday, December 20, 2010

Biblical studies


Just before I left my nook in the college library stacks, I picked up off the new book shelf my colleague Michael Coogan's revised text The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2011). Michael is one of the world's foremost experts on the Bible, and it shows in the text, which is rich in history, archeology, and literary allusion. I spent most of the day with the book, remembering what a really interesting document the Old Testament is.

Since I was raised a Roman Catholic, the Bible did not play a very big role in my early education, especially the Old Testament. It was mostly a source of stories -- Adam and Eve, Noah'sArk, David and Goliath, Solomon and the baby claimed by two women, etc. -- bedtime stories, really, that had little to do with religion. All we were meant to know about the Old Testament was that it was full of prophets who anticipated Jesus.

And then there were the movies.

We got our real introduction to the Old Testament sitting in the dark gazing at the silver screen.

Who could forget Samson and Delilah, from Cecil B. DeMille in 1949, with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, maybe the two hokiest actors in the business. Samson: "Your arms were quicksand. Your kiss was death. The name Delilah will be an everlasting curse on the lips of man." Not so far from the good book itself: "The lips of a foreign woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword." (Proverbs 5:3-4) Delilah: "No man leaves Delilah." Hot stuff for a 13 year-old boy.

Or how about David and Bathsheba, 1951, with a young, devilishly handsome Gregory Peck and moony-eyed Susan Hayward. David sees Bathsheba bathing from his palace roof and is smitten. (Did we get the briefest distant glimpse of Hayward's nude backside? How did that get past the censors?) Mostly what David sees is a bit of bare shoulders over a strategically placed screen; hardly realistic if Bathsheba is playing the temptress (the Bible is coy on this point). Ah, as the Bible tells us, "It was springtime, the time when kings go forth to war." (2 Samuel 11:1) We know where Gregory should have been instead of playing the rooftop Peeping-Tom. Bathsheba: (as David tries to kiss her in an open field) "No, David! The boy! He'll see us!" David: "No matter. Shepherd boys learn early about life."

Such were my biblical studies. Our fates were in the hands of Hollywood's Hays Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency. The former determined what we saw; the latter determined how many days in purgatory we'd get for that glimpse of Susan Hayward's bottom.