Book Review: The Harlot by the Side of the Road (Forbidden Tales of the Bible) by Jonathan Kirsch

This book was not what I expected–it was 100 times more insightful and complex than I expected.

4.5/5 stars

Genre: nonfiction, biblical analysis

cover the harlot by the side of the road

 Sex. Violence. Scandal. These are words we rarely associate with the sacred text of the Bible. Yet in this brilliant book, Jonathan Kirsch recounts shocking tales that have been suppressed by religious authorities throughout history. Kirsch places each story within the political and social context of its time, delves into the latest biblical scholarship to explain why each one was originally censored, and shows how these ancient narratives hold valuable lessons for all of us.

Obviously, this is not the type of book I usually read. A nonfiction analysis of the bible’s darkest corners is not in my usual YA vein. My grandfather recommended the book to me, and though I didn’t really know what I was getting into–I am so glad that I read this book.

I’m an atheist, so I came into this book with certain preconceptions. A few years ago, I spent a lot of time on Reddit’s r/atheism page, and I expected this book to have the same superior, mocking quality (though with more footnotes).

This book was refreshingly un-obnoxious. The author is a religious man who found himself unsure of how to read the darker side of biblical stories to his young son. The book explores seven biblical stories. First, Kirsch retells each story with the flair of a modern author (direct quotes from the bible are included throughout each story). Then, Kirsch dedicates a chapter to exploring the historical connotations of the story, the secret meanings that scholars have read into the story, and other parts of the bible that tie in to provide further understanding. The analysis is frank and complex. It does not seek to apologize for or explain away the brutality of the stories, nor does it condemn the bible or the people who follow it for containing such stories.

This book fascinated me. I know the rough outlines of the bible, but this book opened up entire new worlds of understanding. The historical context Kirsch offers about the biblical authors and the way the stories have been dealt with by scholars throughout the centuries was amazing. The writing during the story chapters is gorgeous. The writing during the analytically chapters is clean, scholarly, but not without personality. It was fun to read without being rude to believers or insensitive to the horrors of the stories.

But it was the last chapter that made this book for me. Up until the last chapter, “God’s Novel Has Suspense,” Kirsch had not offered a theme, a message. He had calmly reported the horrific stories, analyzed them and the way they have been dealt with throughout history, and left it at that. No judgement, which was refreshing (AKA not obnoxiously atheistic or preachy), but I needed Kirsch to tell me how he could write this book and still be religious.

The last chapter did this. I don’t want to spoil the message, but it was powerful. It impressed me with its humanity and its applicability. It basically did the impossible for me: explained how you can read, understand, and study these select moments in the bible and come out of it with a positive spin on religion.

I was impressed, to say the least.

I would put a trigger alert out there for rape, mass murder, mob violence…

Beyond that, I would recommend this book to…everyone. If you are religious, this book will explore your faith and teach you things you never knew about your holy book, without mocking you for believing it. It will challenge your faith, of course, but it will also help you return to it when it is over. If you are atheistic or not Judaio-Christian-Islamic, this book will give you insight into the bible that you would probably never get anywhere else. Historically, it is an incredible commentary on censorship throughout the ages.

This book was well done. I don’t know what else to say. It really needs to be read, because the message of tolerance and understanding that runs through it would definitely make the world a safer place if more people knew it.