To start with, this is the best-selling book of all time. It is also a very weird book, and that’s before you even look at the content. There are multiple versions published by different companies. Not like a first and second edition or anything like that, but completely different versions that are all the correct and current version.
It’s written more as an anthology than a standalone narrative, though there is a common thread mostly running throughout. Like Lord of the Rings, it’s a book made of books (though where that had three, this has sixty-six). The individual stories within are connected and serve to move the overarching plot forward most of the time, but sometimes they are just a vaguely different retelling of the same story that we’ve just read. Then, to make matters more confusing, some versions have different amounts of these stories inside of them too—it varies between about sixty and eighty of the stories.
This is also a big book. Way bigger than any fantasy novel I’ve read. Probably bigger than all of Game of Thrones. Every version I looked at, before buying a copy, is written in columns in really tiny print on really thin paper. I can only imagine that it’s to condense space, as this is a blooming long book—somewhere in the region of 800,000 words—so they fiddled with the formatting of it to make it cheaper to print and not weigh a couple of tons. On the other hand, the copy I bought is bound in leather and has gold edging on the pages. Little details like that make it feel luxurious, which I like.
Did I mention that this is the best-selling book of all time? All time. For quite some time it was even put into hotel rooms. A copy was just put into the vast majority of hotel rooms for people to read.
Surely a book that’s sold somewhere in the region of 6,000,000,000 copies and has been in circulation for literally centuries must be astounding, right?
We open this mammoth journey of reading with Genesis (not the band). We start off with our protagonist, God, creating the world, universe and everything in it. As God is also the writer of this book, I can’t help but feel that this is a bit of showboating on his part. In a way, it presents the story as something of a memoir, at least in the beginning. After God makes everything in a week—with time for a rest—we come across our first side characters: Adam and Eve.
I say characters, but there’s not really much to them. Their story begins in the Garden of Eden, which is described as a paradise, and where Adam and Eve are told to not eat the forbidden fruit from the forbidden tree. This is the first semblance of a plot, really, but feels very much like a Young Adult concept that is not fully developed. At least it’s something—everything else up to this point has basically been a prologue.
Eve eats the fruit straight away after being moderately talked around by the Serpent. She then gives some to Adam. God comes looking for them, and they hide, but God finds them because, as the parent in this situation, he’s naturally better at hide and seek. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the Serpent, God kicks them both out like a rogue landlord.
All of that happens in a single chapter. There’s no meat to the bones. There’s no tension or character development. It’s just person one did something, person two did something else. Chapter four starts with Adam and Eve having a couple of kids and one of them kills the other. The chapter begins with that.
In short, this book is a long read.
Then there’s just a chapter listing people who had babies and what they’re all called. I’m really struggling to care at this point. I had been spoiled with some of the major plot points before reading this, so knowing what’s coming next really didn’t help with the list of people.
God kills everyone. He randomly decides that humans are evil so sends a flood to kill everyone except for Noah and his family. So, everyone’s dead. Noah, other than getting drunk, seems fine with the pressure of being one of the only humans alive. God says that he’ll never do it again even though humans are born evil, which is a major plot-hole as he created humans, so must have made them evil. Also, that hasn’t been mentioned up until this point—the lack of foreshadowing makes it feel something like an add-on instead of a key character moment.
Next we move onto Exodus. Basically, the Pharaoh of Egypt is horrible and oppressive towards the Hebrew slaves. So, Moses—with God giving him magic powers—wants to free them. He unleashes plagues on Egypt until his people are released: locusts, flies, boils, hail, darkness, and the slaughter of every firstborn boy in town.
There’s not even really a progression to this or any kind of moral dilemma in the build-up. This is the systematic murder of thousands of innocent people in the name of righteousness and Moses is cool with it. The whole thing was kick-started by Moses killing a guard for whipping a slave, so we already know he’ll kill for the greater good (as he sees it). It’s not even as if it’s just the Pharaoh who gets struck down or the people who are allied with him. Everyone who isn’t one of Moses’s people gets hit. It’s almost like he’s looking for an excuse to become a mass murderer.
This is leads us nicely into my second main point of contention with this book: God’s power level. He can create matter out of nothing. He is all knowing. He can do anything and he chooses to intervene in some of the most convoluted ways possible. If he can control matter, he can surely control humans—humans are matter after all—so he could have made the Pharaoh free Moses’ people without murdering everyone. However, if he wanted the Pharaoh to realise his wrongs and to grow as a person and enact change, then that’s a great reason not to forcibly intervene with the mind control. But then he forced the Pharaoh’s hand by doing his interventions, so why not spare the lives of the innocents? Also, if he wanted the Pharaoh to realise that persecution based on religion, race, or heritage was morally wrong, why torture and kill based on religion, race, and heritage, which is what God did?
I’m not a fan of God as a character. I don’t know if God—the writer—was going for this effect, or if instead he wanted us to empathise with the God character, but it’s really hard to feel anything but contempt for this guy. Especially as he’s always demanding that people love and worship him. This comes back to my first criticism—because there’s such a lack of substance or character development, we haven’t had the chance to form a connection with God yet. He just pops in every now and again, makes everything better in usually violent and/or horrific ways and then pops back out again for a bit. That makes it really hard for us to connect with any of the other characters as well. Any hardship or opportunity for them to grow as people is scuppered by God intervening. Part of what makes a narrative interesting and engaging is having the characters struggle and overcome obstacles. Think about your favourite book, how terrible would it be if there was a random character who came in every chapter, clicked their fingers and gave the protagonist everything they needed to progress. It’d ruin it. For a memoir, too, you have to wonder what God is doing the rest of the time. Is he just watching? Is God a voyeur, obsessively documenting the minutiae of his creations? That would be a much more coherent focus for the book.
I’m struggling to see why this is the best-selling book of all time. There must be something else to it, or I’m missing something.
There are some really cool book titles in this. ‘Judges’ and ‘Corinthians’ sound epic, and some are even split into two parts like the last Avengers films, like ‘1 Chronicles’ and ‘2 Chronicles.’ The problem is the content. These stories are wildly digressing.
For example, the book of Job is about a guy called Job, though it starts with the Devil asking God for permission to kill his family and give him disease. God, like a sadist, agrees, and lets the Devil do his thing. Later on in the Bible, the Devil turns out to be the main antagonist, and it’s even insinuated that he was the Serpent from the beginning. If God had been paying attention he could’ve stopped him right there, but instead he endorses his behaviour.
That is followed by a book of poetry. There’s even some sexy stuff in there. Then some inspirational quotes, another story, and then more poetry with even more sexy bits. It all feels very straight male-focused in terms of audience, too. The kinky stuff is about a woman, and she’s described often like an object. It turns out that the writer, King Solomon, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (basically wives without rights). It’s a bit over-the-top, and also a bit rapey.
Speaking of rape, there’s a lot of that in this book. And incest. And weird lists of laws about how men shouldn’t have sex with other men or their aunt, or how if a woman is menstruating she should leave the town and kill two pigeons, and how you shouldn’t wear two different fabrics at the same time or you’re cursed. And there’s a lot more murdering.
This is really not an LGBTQA+ friendly book. Women get a pretty raw deal too. Basically, this really could’ve done with a few sensitivity readers.
Structurally, the Bible is split into sixty-six books, each of which has many chapters. As a whole, it’s divided into two halves: the Old Testament, and the New Testament. The Old Testament is pretty much just God meddling, causing chaos, and it ends with him being annoyed with people who are fed up with worshipping him. What did he expect? To give people the choice whether worship or not, but then get moody when they don’t pick the answer he wants, comes across as petulant.
I’m going to stop there before I go into a massive rant about how whiney and insecure God is. Instead, I’ll point out that there are a few good stories in the Old Testament. There are some hero versus villain tales, love stories, people overcoming adversity. If you took out all the deus ex machina there would be some real narrative clout to these things, but this is God’s book of himself so naturally he has to crash in and save the day.
There doesn’t seem to be a central narrative running through the book, other than God being perceived as the ultimate hero through rhetoric. And that’s why I’ve been so disappointed with that so far. There is no character arc for God.
In the New Testament we’re introduced to another main character: Jesus Christ. He’s not in it much, but his story is told four times by four different men, and then everything that happens afterwards is because of him. This changes the feel of the book, and takes it further from the initial memoir vibe.
God—meddling—magically gets some man’s wife pregnant. The man, Joseph, has a dream where God tells him that he shouldn’t divorce Mary, his wife, for she really is pregnant with the son of God, she definitely didn’t cheat on him at all. So they’re happy now and they give birth to their definitely-not-illegitimate child—Joseph dreamed that it was all above board, remember—and everything’s great.
There does seem to be a significant shift in the storytelling at this point, though. It’s still told in the same bare bones kind of way where stuff is happening, but there is a distinct lack of the whiney love me or die God from the last section. Which is nice.
It’s also a problem. There’s a massive focus shift from God to Jesus Christ and it’s not explored. God went from slaughtering a bunch of people, flooding the world, and curing folk, to not doing much at all. Jesus takes centre stage and goes around being nice without any form of development. It’s like God—the writer, not the character—had a break between the Old and New Testaments and realised that he was creating an incredibly unlikeable character whose only problem was that people didn’t love him enough and he made humans wrong with his infinite power, so did something different and threw in a new protagonist for us to follow.
Jesus follows a fairly standard ‘Chosen One’ arc—think Neo from The Matrix without being able to fly—and (Spoiler alert!) dies to save the world. But, like any superhero, he’s not really gone, and he comes back.
Then, for no apparent reason, the book turns into an epistolary novel. The rest is a collection of letters that follow a vague theme of Jesus was good, until the last book which is where it goes full-on fantasy and finally starts getting good, but it’s too little too late.
This is the part—if you’re still here—where you tell me: It was written at a different time. This is a collection of books put together. To that, I say that I know. But that’s not a valid excuse. This is being presented as a complete book. There is a jarringly massive character shift for God from vengeful monster to caring father in the middle with zero justification or exploration.
This leads me to my final point of criticism for this book. The missed potential. Most of these books could be full-length standalone novels quite comfortably. We could have such a rich and engaging story about God’s character, realising that the very thing he created was flawed—evil even—and it was a mistake to make them—he says this at one point—through to realising that, while flawed, his creation has redeeming qualities and should be nurtured. Or maybe we could have explored God’s realisation that forcing people to love you is a really bad way to make people love you, and his emotional journey from that early wrath-filled version to someone who cares for his creation because he likes them, not because he needs their love. There are some really interesting basic ideas in here that, if explored and developed, could be really cool. But, as harsh as this sounds, it reads like a first draft. God—the writer—just dumped every story and idea he could think of into the book and nobody stopped him and told him to trim some of the fat and work on the parts of the story that are important. The Bible is almost a million words but no real substance. Which is a shame.
Anyway, Jesus grows up and goes around spreading love like a 1960s cult leader. He is certainly a more human protagonist than God, but it’s a little too late for me, I’m afraid. It’s a nice change but Jesus isn’t without his flaws too. He can’t just click his fingers and make everything different, but what little character is developed is hardly empathetic. Personally, I found him a bit too pious and perfect for my taste. What makes a great character is the relatable flaws. The only moment I related to Jesus was when he smashed a bunch of market stalls in a temple. Not because I’ve ever done that or have wanted to, but because it made him human. He lost his temper and I can relate to that. But then he just goes back to being the pious perfection of Jesus Christ.
I’m not going to spoil the ending of the book for you, other than to say that it gets weird—there are lambs, seals, and a dragon, and some horsemen, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself. A lot of it felt cliché, although I know this is where that all came from in the first place.
Overall, I didn’t really see any redeeming features in the book. Maybe I’m missing something but I wouldn’t read anything else by God—the writer, not the character—and I can’t recommend that you try this, either. Overlooking the bigoted statements, preachy writing, and holier-than-thou perspective, it’s just too long. It’s not worth the time. How this came to be the best-selling book of all time is beyond me.
© 2019 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.