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Authors: Bernard Evslin

Signs and Wonders

BOOK: Signs and Wonders
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Signs and Wonders
Tales From The Old Testament
Bernard Evslin

For Galeal, Jarah, Noah, Boaz, Eli, Luke, Nathaniel —

our new sons with the old, old names




The Creation

The Garden of Eden


The Apple

Cain and Abel

Noah’s Ark

The Tower of Babel



The Idol Smasher

Journey to Canaan


The Covenant

Sodom and Gomorrah

Lot’s Daughters

The Birth of Isaac

The Sacrifice


Rebecca at the Well

Jacob and Esau


The Hands of Esau


Jacob’s Ladder

Laban’s Daughters

Jacob’s Sons

Jacob Becomes Israel

Jacob’s Daughter

Rachel’s Death


The Coat of Many Colors

The Slave

Potiphar’s Wife

The Reader of Dreams

The Brothers

Israel in Egypt



The Bulrushes

The Burning Bush

The Plagues

The Red Sea

In the Wilderness

The Commandments




The Coming of Kings


The Shepherd Lad

David and Goliath

The Outlaw

The Witch of Endor

Saul’s Death

David and Bathsheba



The Prophets








The King’s Dream

The Fiery Furnace

King in the Grass

The Writing on the Wall

The Lion’s Den



time ago, the world turned almost good for a day. For the space of twenty-four hours, there were no wars, no private murders, no rapes, no robberies—some small cruelties, but no major crimes.

Satan was displeased. He summoned the most reliable of his demons and said: “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know, my lord.”

“Find out.”

The demon flew up to earth, looked about, and flew back. Demons are quick. “It’s a book,” he said. “People have been reading it.”

“What book?”

“I hesitate to use such a term before your dark majesty.”

“The Bible, eh?”

The demon shuddered.

“The Bible. Very well, we’ll take it away from them.”


“Make it unreadable. That’s your job.”

“I am at your service, my lord, but I do not quite know how to proceed. God’s word is immutable, is it not?”

“God’s word is immutable, but clerks make mistakes. Translators, too, are prone to error. That’s where we come in. Am I not the father of error? Go up there and darken counsel.”

“Can you be more explicit, my master?”

“That collection of books called the Bible is drawn from many different writings: Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on tomb walls, Chaldean cuneiforms on broken stone tablets, fragments of Hebrew script on rotting papyrus and moldering sheepskin scrolls. All this feeds confusion. Even better, ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, ancient Greek without punctuation or division between words. Translators reading Hebrew cannot really tell whether a word is
pet, pot, put,
shut, shot,
Take this sentence: ‘Baalisnowhere.’ Someone translating from the ancient Greek can choose between two opposite meanings: ‘Baal is now here,’ or ‘Baal is nowhere.’ See the possibilities?”

“Where do I start?”

“Start and end with the stories. Don’t bother with the tomes of law; nobody reads them. Excruciating detail of priestly vestment, description of temple architecture, chapters on ritual—forget it. Nobody looks at such texts except priests and scholars and other specialists. I want you to ignore all that material and concentrate on the stories. Stories are dangerous. They call up the reader’s own experience and release energies of mind and soul, directing them in whatever path the author wishes. Stories grapple the imagination, engage the senses. A reader of tales absorbs instruction through his pores. Go up there and make the stories unreadable.”


“Mix up the scroll fragments. Butt them against one another at random so that a story starts and stops and starts again in a different place, and certain phrases repeat themselves endlessly.”

“Yes, sir, I can do that.”

“Find an exciting place in a story and insert a stupefying genealogy, a string of jaw-cracking names joined by
From time to time, rip out whole sections of law or ritual and plant them bodily in the stories. So much for sowing confusion; I also want you to do some editing. Here’s a pencil red as flame. Search among the tales and destroy the sensuous fabric wherein events must dwell if they are to pierce the heart. Strike out physical detail. Get rid of any word that describes how something looks or sounds or tastes or smells. As far as possible, eliminate dialogue. You can’t get it all, but every bit helps. Follow my thinking?”

“I believe so, my lord, and shall punctually perform your will.”

“Make haste, my son. I don’t know if I can bear another day like today.”

The demon, whose name was K’miti, flew to earth and did what he had been told to do. It may be coincidence, but not a day since has troubled the Devil’s mind.

Whatever the merit of this legend, it identifies the major problems of Bible scholarship and is accurate in its critique of those stylistic barriers that keep people from reading these marvelous Old Testament tales. Everyone has heard fragments, snippets, synopses. We know Eve ate an apple, Cain had sibling problems, Noah came in out of the rain, Goliath was big, and Solomon was wise. But how many of us have actually read these tales?

The fact is that they are often disappointing to read. The Devil did his work well. This book is an attempt to restore these stories to what they were before Satan stuck his pencil in.

What liberties have been taken? This is tricky ground. There are many who think it sacrilege to change a word of Bible text. They do not realize how that text has been mutilated through the ages. Mutilated not only in the ways already described but by a kind of popular insistence on certain detail. The apple Eve ate, for example, is never mentioned in Genesis. The word is fruit. It might have been a fig or an orange. In that climate it would more than likely have been an orange or a date or a fig or a pomegranate. But everyone knows it was an apple. Something demands an apple.

Elijah, starving in the desert, was fed by ravens. But in ancient Hebrew, written without vowels, the words for raven and Arab were identical:
Was the old prophet fed by birds or nomads? For story purposes, birds beat Arabs. Ravens they remain. Drama dares where scholarship falters.

What liberties have been taken? There has been an attempt to restore what Beelzebub had deleted: dialogue, description, sights, sounds, smells. Phrases meaningless to a contemporary reader have been rephrased. When Jezebel “tired her head,” it does not mean that she wearied herself thinking but that she
her head, put jewels in her hair. Sometimes it was necessary to change a phrase to restore its meaning.

About language: The Authorized King James Version is one of the glories of English literature. James convened his council of English poets and prose stylists in 1611, five years before Shakespeare’s death. At least two of the phrases in the Bible are duplicated word for word in Shakespeare’s plays: “A generation of vipers” and “Grave, where is thy victory, death, where is thy sting?” So it can be assumed that the Bard sat on this council and helped translate into immortal English older English texts, which had been translated from ancient Greek—which had been translated from much older Hebrew texts. In retelling these tales, I have attempted to preserve the deep organ notes of the King James Version, changing it to clarify what is unclear or to restore the original meaning to words that now mean something else.

My greatest regret is having eliminated
In growing away from these intimate forms, our language has lost nuance. Nevertheless, they are fossil forms and make one more hurdle for the reader, so they have been tenderly laid to rest.

All the tales here retold are taken from the Old Testament, except for Judith and some legends of Abraham. The Judith story is apocryphal. What does that mean? The word means “obscure,” “of uncertain origin.” But in Bible terms it means more. The priests and pundits who decided what went into the Old Testament arbitrarily closed the books about 500
Anything told thereafter, no matter how inspired, how beautiful, how exalted, was denied a place in holy writ. Thus, some of the best tales, some of those that have become the tissue of tradition, are apocryphal: Susan and the Elders; the Maccabees; Judith. Where would ecumenism be without Chanukah to be coupled broad-mindedly with Christmas? Where would Chanukah be without the apocryphal Maccabees?

Of the tales out of Apocrypha, Judith is perhaps the best. She is one of the all-time heroines and has inspired poets galore. Painters, too. Holofernes’ gore reddens many a wall.

I have also gone beyond the Old Testament in some of the stories of Abraham—specifically, in the tales of his birth and his idol smashing. Here I have gone to those writings known as pseudopigrapha (“false writings”), which are folktales and legends about biblical figures. There is simply more to be said about Father Abraham than the Bible offers.

Keeping more or less to narrative event, I have tried to flesh out the giant bones. The intention was to undo some of K’miti’s fiendish work and to make these indispensable stories more accessible.


was only God who had always been. The rest was emptiness and darkness. Then God hung the sun in the sky, and said: “Let there be light!” The sun gave light; that light was Day. And God called up the darkness again to be Night. So ended the first day.

There was no earth yet, and no stars, only the great light of the sun shining on an endless waste of waters. Then God made the waters sink out of the sky, which He called Heaven, and prepared a place for the stars. He called back the darkness; that was the end of the second day.

On the morning of the third day He gathered the waters under Heaven in one place. Where the waters shrank away from His hand, dry land appeared. He called that dry land Earth; the place of waters He called Sea. Then He planted grass on the earth. He planted bushes and trees that bore vegetables and fruit of all kinds. God said: “These are living things, these flowers and trees that I have planted upon the earth. And I put upon them a special sign of my favor. From now on they will be able to make their own kind out of their own seed. So these living things that I have planted will live upon the earth until the end of time.”

On the fourth night God punched holes in the sky to let the light shine through, and said: “These small lights shall be called Stars; they shall give a little light to the earth even at night.” Then He hung the moon in the night sky between earth and stars. So ended the fourth day.

BOOK: Signs and Wonders
3.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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