As impressive is the publishing success of J. K. Rowlings whose Harry Potter books have sold five hundred million copies, Mao Tzedung, the erstwhile chairman of the Chinese Communist Party put 820 million copies of his little red book in the hands of his followers. But even that cannot measure up to the Bible that remains the world’s most popular book with 3.9 billion copies published and distributed in almost all the world’s languages. To be sure, a good part of the Bible’s popularity lies in its veneration as a religious text by Jews and Christians alike. Yet many people who lack faith still appreciate the Bible as great literature.
A passage in the book of Numbers supports the contention that the Bible is indeed a literary masterpiece. Datan and Aviram were among the rebels who joined in Korah’s mutiny. They are compelled by Moses to come forward. In the presence of the entire people Moses announces that their imminent death shall stand as a lesson to any others who might challenge God or God’s appointed representatives. Their fate was to be swallowed up alive by a great chasm that opens in the earth. But when readers look beyond the facts of the narrative and pay attention to the words, a whole new vista opens.
As Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom notes, because Datan and Aviram persistently refused to “go up” (Numbers 16:12, 14), that is, report to Moses, they are condemned to “go down” (Numbers 16:30, 33) into the gaping abyss. For complaining that God had “brought us up” (v. 12) from Egypt “to have us die in the wilderness” (v.12), Datan and Aviram will not “die as all men do” (v. 29) but will “go down” (v. 30, 33) to the netherworld. Likewise, Datan and Aviram mouthed off against Moses and Aaron so it is appropriate that the earth shall open its “mouth” (v. 30, 32) and “swallowed” them and “ate” (v. 35) their co-conspirators. Ingeniously, the Torah describes the punishment as fit for the crime by invoking complementary wording.
To be sure, the message that rebels and self-aggrandizing demagogues will ineluctably meet their sad fate comes across even without a close reading of the text. But a close reading of the text and parsing of the word choices enhances the reader’s admiration for the sophisticated and impressive literary style of the Bible.