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Books Offer Fresh Looks At Scripture

“The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible” By Jonathan Kirsch (Ballentine, $27, available in May)

“The stories you are about to read are some of the most violent and sexually explicit in all of Western literature.

They are tales of human passion in all of its infinite variety: adultery, seduction, incest, rape, mutilation, assassination, torture, sacrifice and murder.”

How can you go wrong with an introduction like that? And Kirsch doesn’t disappoint.

He proceeds with masterful retellings of biblical stories deliberately obscured by translators or glossed over or ignored by clergy and Sunday school teachers.

Included are such stories as the man in the Book of Judges who threw his concubine to a crowd of marauding men to prevent them from raping him, and the Genesis story of Tamar, who dressed as a harlot to seduce her father-in-law, Judah, to beget a child that Judah’s three sons - then dead - had failed to give her.

It’s time to bring such stories to light, Kirsch says, to realize the full moral impact of Scripture.

But like life itself, the Bible forces one to make moral decisions.

It doesn’t spell them out as clearly as some people would have you believe.

Concise explanations of ancient social codes and how the Bible evolved round out Kirsch’s presentation.

“The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism” By Regina M. Schwartz (Chicago, $22.95)

Schwartz, director of the Chicago Institute of Religion, Ethics and Violence, blames Scripture for much of the violence around the world.

As presented in the Hebrew Bible and continued by New Testament followers, the belief in one God and one “people of God” has created an us-vs.-them mentality that leads to overzealous nationalism and territorialism - in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, in the United States.

The message began not with original sin in the Garden of Eden but with original violence - Cain’s killing of Abel because God preferred Abel’s gift of a fatted calf over Cain’s fruit.

“Unveiled Hope: Eternal Encouragement from the Book of Revelation” By Scotty Smith and Michael Card (Nelson, $16.99)

If “The Curse of Cain” suggests the Bible is a blueprint for violence, “Unveiled Hope” argues for a calm reading of the book that describes the world’s final violent event, the Apocalypse.

Smith, pastor and founder of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn., and Card, an award-winning singer known for his lyrical reflections on biblical texts, argue that Revelation is a book of worship written for early Christians and that it’s not an enigmatic puzzle foretelling the date of Jesus’ return.

The focus should be on living wisely in the here and now, says Card, who wrote songs for an accompanying album of the same title.

The book and the music are meant to inspire joy, not fear, and emphasize images of angels and paradise rather than of dragons, fire and destruction, the authors maintain.

“Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians” By Eugene H. Peterson (Harper San Francisco, $18)

This retelling and reflection on the life of David, the most completely portrayed character in the Bible, continues the spirit of the books on Genesis that dominated last fall’s religion market: Depict an epic figure with the foibles of modern men and women, then discuss what can be learned from that character’s encounters with God.

David wasn’t perfect, and that’s the point. His was a “rough-edged actuality.”

This Everyman analysis brings new life to the stories of David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba, David and Absalom, and David and the Temple.