Sarah laughed, in wonder or in scorn,
Then covered up, God gave a nod
and said, ‘Your son will still be born,
for nothing is too hard for God’
THIS is the final verse of a poem about the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah in their old age (Genesis 18.1-15). It is refreshing to read a book on the Bible that is predominantly in verse. Jock Stein has spent his later life writing poetry, and he introduces us here to his poems on the Hexateuch, or first six books of the Bible.
But that is not all: the pages are interspersed by two other genres. One is sections of explanation, elucidating details or drawing modern parallels in philosophy, music, science, art, or film. The other is engaging sections of dialogue with an imaginary retired friend — Jean Sharpin — who knows about poetry but less about the Bible, so that the author needs to provide explanations. This mixture of genres works well and makes the book accessible on a number of levels.
There is considerable variety — some poems reflect solely on a biblical event, or on human nature, but others draw on modern illustrations — especially Scottish ones; for that is the author’s context. In the preface, Stein calls some “teaching poems” and others “exploring poems”, and he speaks about crossing boundaries, notably the one between theology and poetry. He may cause problems for bookshops when they categorise, but I sense, from his personable style, that he enjoys such antics.
His book covers Genesis to Joshua, which contain many of the most significant themes (creation, covenant) and events (Exodus, Conquest) of the Bible and key characters such as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam. Stein’s book brings them all to life. His poems are often very touching, as are also the dialogues between the two friends.
This is an original approach to ancient texts, and, in its appeal to modern concerns, and great world events, as well as to culture and common human experience, it speaks to a wide audience — to those interested in poetry and in theology.
Dr Katharine J. Dell is Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.
From Cosmos to Canaan: The Bible in verse
Sacristy Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9