I love Bible stories. I have a vague memory of our family doctor's office, and how I would enjoy going there because there was a Children's Bible—or it might have just been the Old Testament—and I loved reading the story of Genesis from it. Of course, I was a child back then, and as my religious tendencies have gone from agnostic to atheistic, one might expect my enthusiasm for the Bible to dim. Quite the contrary, in fact. Regardless of one's religion, the Bible is one of the most important works in Western literature. Allusions to it permeate our high and pop culture; even my name, "Benjamin," is Biblical.
It is the privilege of any great book to be parodied. Such parodies are essential, because they help ensure we take the source material seriously but not too seriously. Whether you are intimately familiar with the details of these stories or you find the Bible boring, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! is a retelling both humourous and faithful to the source material.
The best stories in this book are "Adam and Eve", "Cain and Abel", "Jacob and Esau", and "Jonah and the Fish". Some of the other stories, such as "The Golden Calf" do not measure up in terms of humour or quality; others, like "King David", drag on longer than need be. I was surprised by the inconsistency in quality among these stories, because the first two are so good. That might be my childhood bias returning, however: I have a penchant for Genesis and retellings of the explusion from Eden. It is an iconic story, and there are just so many ways to re-interpret the Garden of Eden, the snake, Adam and Eve's relationship, and the Tree of Knowledge. In Goldstein's version, I love the dynamic between Eve and the snake, as well as his explanation of Adam and Eve's relationship:
Since the Garden of Eden was the very first village, and since every village needs a mayor as well as a village idiot, it broke down in this way: Eve: mayor; Adam: village idiot. Sometimes, when Adam would start to speak, Eve would get all hopeful that he was about to impart something important and smart, but he would only say stuff like: "Little things are really great because you can put them in your hand as well as in our mouth."
Goldstein somehow injects contemporary sterotypes into ancient stories and make it all seem timeless. He goes the usual route of Biblical parodies, mocking the wrathfulness of the Old Testament God. In addition to that, however, his stories contain perspectives necessarily absent from the source material yet nonetheless relevant to the topic. For example, the ending to "Adam and Eve" is poignant and thoughtful:
The children would swarm into the house like a carpet of ants. The youngest ones would head straight for Adam, lifting his shirt to examine his belly for the umpteenth time. They smoothed their hands across his flesh and marveled. "Where's Grandpa's belly button?" they all asked. He stared at the children—they were all his children—and as they slid their little hands across his blank stomach, he wondered what it was like to be a kid.
On a dramatic level, the expulsion from Eden is tragic, but Goldstein reminds us that there is a personal tragedy too. The Bible does not mention that Adam lacks a belly button (and God, being omnipotent, very well could have given Adam one, had He chosen). Maybe Adam did not have a belly button, since he was never in utero; and certainly he never had a childhood. Of all the differences accorded him in being the first human being, this is probably the saddest.
Similarly, the ending to "Cain and Abel" is one of the darkest parts of the entire collection. Cain has murdered his brother Abel, sure that God would intervene at the last moment. As punishment, he wanders the Earth, and we get a glimpse at how extreme longevity can be as much curse as blessing:
He began to doubt everything. He even began to wonder whether he had ever actually heard God's voice, whether the mark on his forehead was the mark of God and not just another liver spot. Was this a part of his punishment, he wondered, to be left so uncertain of whether God really was, or whether God was only something inside his own head?
Far from being humorous, much of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! is serious and even dark. Bible stories prove to be a perfect subject for showcasing Goldstein's ability to fuse levity and tragedy, black comedy that is not so much macabre as it is tragic. From the Bible, Goldstein appropriates names and events and turns them into real characters and stories. For the most part, he does it well. For every few moments of poetic triumph, unfortunately, there is also a moment of low comedy. (I had never before heard the phrase "psychosomatic anal welts" and never want to hear it again.) Several of the stories in this book have been broadcast, sometimes abridged, on Goldstein's CBC radio show, WireTap. You can hear the episodes for free from the website, and I urge you to give them a try. Not only is WireTap a great show, but there's something about Goldstein's voice that makes the stories even better than they are on paper.