Book Review

‘Unscrolled’ takes fresh look at first five books

by W. Winston Skinner

Email messages from pharoah, a play on the plagues set in New York, a comic strip featuring Zipporah, basketball jerseys for the Israelites who reconnoitered the Promised Land.

“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah” (Reboot, paper, 376 pages, $18) contains all of these — and more. The book takes a multi-faceted approach to the first five books of the Bible — the Torah to Jews, the Pentateuch to Christians. Genesis and Exodus tell the story of God’s chosen people from creation to the establishment of the Tabernacle. Leviticus and Numbers largely focus on laws and a repeated counting of the Jews in the wilderness.

In “Unscrolled,” Shoshana Berger writes, “As Old Testament books go, Numbers is considered the flyover part.” Referring to that book’s mingling of different types of narrative, Eddy Portnoy describes Numbers as “the biblical equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome.”

Deuteronomy then takes the story — with a slightly different viewpoint from what precedes it — to the death of Moses as the Israelites prepare to take their promised new life and land.

“Unscrolled” features contributions by some heavyweights — “Lost” writer and producer Damon Lindelof, Pulitzer-winning playwright David Auburn and New York Times best-selling authors Sloane Crosley and Joshua Foyer. The pieces are as varied as the authors and as the rich texts they interpret.

For Jews and Christians, faith begins in those first five books. The devout Orthodox, the secular Jew and Christians from Catholics to Pentecostals to the multi-hued strands of Protestantism — we all find ourselves looking back at Noah’s Ark, the wandering in the wilderness, lamb’s blood smeared on the doorposts, Cain killing Abel.

There is often an edginess to the entries in “Unscrolled,” though that does not necessarily indicate a lack of reverence. As I often find in reading Jewish sources, “Unscrolled” features an earthiness and practical approach to those early Bible stories that sometimes get filtered through a little too much stained glass in Christian reflections on the same passages.

“Unscrolled” offers insights into some of the most familiar Bible passages — and also shines light into some of those “flyover” passages that perhaps deserve a second, more intense, examination.



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