“Tis high time we should have a bible that should be no provincial record, but should open the history of the planet, and bind all tendencies and dwarf all the Epics & philosophies we have,” writes Emerson in his journal. It seems as if every other writer in antebellum America sought to follow Emerson’s call and reinvent the Bible. But no one was as earnest as Melville to redefine biblical exegesis while doing so. In Moby-Dick he not only ventured to fashion a grand new inverted Bible, in which biblical rebels and outcasts assume central stage, but also aspired, at the same time, to comment on every imaginable mode of biblical interpretation, calling for a radical reconsideration of the politics of biblical reception. I would go so far as to suggest that if Moby-Dick has acquired the status of a gigantic Bible of sorts in American culture and beyond, it is precisely because Melville opens up the question of what counts as Bible and what counts as interpretation with unparalleled verve.

Melville’s biblical exegesis neither begins in Moby-Dick nor ends there. It is an ongoing preoccupation that may be traced throughout his entire career. In Typee he renders an earthly Eden; in Omoo he follows the circulation of missionary Bibles in Tahiti; in White-Jacket he offers an often-quoted definition of America’s sense of biblical destiny (“And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world”); Bartleby is a Wall Street Job; The Confidence-Man, offers its own extravagant experiments with typology; Clarel is a momentous pilgrimage poem that depicts every step in the Holy Land as a step into numerous biblical texts; and Billy Budd retells the story of the fall and the crucifixion as it redefines “the mystery of iniquity.” I focus on Moby-Dick because it is undoubtedly the climactic moment of this project. It is the one book within Melville’s oeuvre that aspired to be a grand Bible and has become one in many ways.

The invitation to plunge into a world of exegetical contemplation is put forth from the very outset of Moby-Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, whose voice often merges with that of Melville, defines himself, in the opening “Extracts,” as the commentator on different commentaries on whales provided by the “sub-sub librarian”—from biblical verses on whales in Genesis, Job, Jonah, Psalms, and Isaiah to “whale statements” of great writers and thinkers such as Montaigne, Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Hobbes, to encyclopedic considerations of the topic, newspaper accounts, and an anonymous whale song. The list is a mock list of extracts that calls into question our capacity to cover any hermeneutic problem whatsoever—be it a theological problem or one that pertains to “gospel cetology.” It is, however, at the same time, a preliminary expression of Melville’s strikingly broad conception of exegesis and insatiable passion to fathom the stubborn vitality of interpretive endeavors.

The same kind of virtuosity and openness characterizes Melville’s perception of biblical exegesis. For Melville, the Bible is a cultural text the interpretation of which is carried out in highly diverse realms. He engages in a dialogue with an impressive array of interpretive discourses—from literary renditions of biblical texts to traditional commentaries (among them, Calvin’s commentaries and rabbinic lore), gnostic mythos, popular sermons, political speeches, comparative accounts of religions/mythologies, and biblical encyclopedias. Melville does not limit himself to normative mappings of interpretive boundaries. Much like Ishmael, he is willing to consider any “book whatsoever, sacred or profane,” any biblical interpretation whatsoever—high or low, ancient or contemporary, of any religious bent or scholarly tradition. He never ceases to be intrigued by the interpretive strategies of every commentary he touches on, always attentive to the ways in which his own exegetical obsessions may intersect with those of other commentators.

Melville’s critique of the politics of exegetical mappings is bound up with his challenge to the all-too-common tendency to mitigate the radicality of the biblical text. He foregrounds the anomalies and oddities of the Hebrew canon, countertraditions such as Job, Jonah, and Ecclesiastes, which challenge predominant presuppositions of biblical belief. Even when Melville selects stories that are set within major biblical texts (e.g., Genesis or Kings), he reads them against the grain, highlighting the fragility of concepts such as “chosenness” and “promise.” His Bible is not meant for those who would “[dodge] hospitals and jails, and [walk] fast crossing grave-yards, and would rather talk of operas than hell” (Melville, 2001, p. 424). It strives to lure readers who would be willing to sit down on “tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon,” readers who would not hesitate to probe the bleak, unsettling truths of texts such as Ecclesiastes, “the fine hammered steel of woe” (p. 424).

Melville and the Bible in Antebellum America.

To understand Melville’s commentary means to explore his reflections on the role of the Bible in American culture and in antebellum America in particular. In his extensive readings of Ahab, Ishmael, Jonah, Job, and Rachel in Moby-Dick, Melville responds to a whole array of nineteenth-century exegetical writings: political sermons, Holy Land travel narratives, biblical scholarship, literary scriptures, and women’s Bibles.

One cannot exaggerate the importance of the Bible within the American political tradition. From the very beginning, on board the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop, in his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” designated the new Puritan community as a “city upon a hill,” to be observed and admired by “the eyes of all people.” Each generation, however, sought to reinterpret America’s covenantal mission in light of its own urgent concerns. Whereas for some antebellum politicians the nineteenth-century “city upon a hill” was to expand to the west and to the south as part of America’s Manifest Destiny, for others, expansionism and the Mexican war in particular was a “sin of covetousness” analogous to King Ahab’s usurpation of Naboth’s vineyard.

In rendering Ahab as a key figure in Moby-Dick, Melville joins such exegetical debates. But Moby-Dick is not simply a political allegory. Melville’s fiction has the power to fathom certain features of political dynamics that transcend a given political situation while being deeply embedded in it. Accordingly, his penetrating critique of antebellum America is delivered with the force of an imaginative prophecy that allows for a broader reflection on America’s past and future.

And much as Melville’s use of Ahab entails a response to the political debates in antebellum America, Melville’s Ishmael is a comment on the privileged position of the biblical Ishmael in American Holy Land travel narratives, Melville’s “Jonah Historically Regarded” is a parody of the search for historicity in biblical criticism, Melville’s Job offers a redefinition of normative perceptions of Joban sublimity, and the ship Rachel calls to mind the many evocations of Rachel’s Jeremiah in nineteenth-century women’s Bibles.

Melville’s Religious Background.

Melville’s family was steeped in Calvinist traditions on both sides. His great-great-grandfather was a Congregationalist clergyman in Scotland, and his grandfather, Thomas Melvill (the e was added only in the 1830s), was a divinity student at Princeton. Influenced by the liberal atmosphere of New England, his father, Allan Melvill, eventually became a member of the Unitarian Church, but on marrying Maria Gansevoort he decided to return to the Calvinist arena and joined Maria’s Dutch Reformed Church. It was from his mother, Andrew Delbanco (2005) suggests, “that Herman received the rudiments of a religious education”; it was she who “brought biblical stories, exempla, and precedents into the lives of all her children, and for her second son characters from the Bible always remained as vividly alive as the worthies and villains of his own time” (p. 21). As a child, Herman Melville went to the “God-fearing” school of Albany Academy, where Historia Sacra formed part of the curriculum. Later, on his return from sea, he married Elizabeth Shaw, whose upbringing was Unitarian. He ended up becoming an official member of the All Souls Unitarian Church of New York in 1884. Melville was never much of a churchgoer—neither of the Dutch Reformed Church nor of the Unitarian one—but the great insoluble questions posed by religion never ceased to fire his imagination. Hawthorne’s comment on Melville succinctly capture his paradoxical position as blasphemous believer:

"It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other." (1941, pp. 432–433)

Melville’s Bibles and Use of Biblical Lexicon.

Two of Melville’s Bibles have been preserved: the New Testament and Psalms (American Bible Society) presented to him in 1846 by his Aunt Jean Melville and, most importantly, the Bible he bought in the initial stages of working on Moby-Dick in which he inscribed “March 23rd 1850 New York.” Published by E. H. Butler & Co. (Philadelphia, 1846), it is a large nineteenth-century family Bible, with golden embellishments on its red-brown leather cover and an embossed image of the Tablets on its front. It contains the Old and New Testaments together with Apocrypha and a section of family records, where familial births and deaths were written mostly by Melville himself. One of the intriguing features of this Bible is its erased marginalia. Approximately 43 different passages were erased and at points the margins themselves cut off, presumably because of their questionable theology or impropriety. Scholars differ in their assessment of the likely censors, the general tendency being to regard one of Melville’s family members as responsible for the deed. The bulk of scholarly attention, however, has been devoted to the numerous markings in this Bible. There are a few conspicuous discrepancies. Some of the texts that are central to his work bear no markings while others to which he does not allude at all are profusely marked. But all in all, they bear witness to Melville’s immersion in Bible reading and underscore some of his notable preferences.

Melville’s Bibles, like most of the English Bibles in antebellum America, were editions of the King James Version. His elaborate allusions to the King James Version are accompanied by numerous minute echoes of the particular idioms and textures of this canonical translation: “whoso,” “forasmuch as,” “verily,” “thee,” and “thou” are but a few of his favorite adverbs and pronouns. In a self-reflexive moment, Ishmael describes the Quakers of Nantucket as “naturally imbibing” from childhood “the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom” (Melville, 2001, p. 73). At another revealing point, he quotes Bildad’s words to Queequeg on hiring him—“Son of darkness. … If thou still clingest to thy Pagan ways, which I sadly fear, I beseech thee, remain not for aye a Belial bondsman”—and remarks that the ship owner’s language was “heterogeneously mixed with Scriptural and domestic phrases” (Melville, 2001, p. 89).

But Melville is not only interested in the resonant language of the King James Version. He is as attuned to the unlexicalized biblical expressions invented in the course of everyday life on whalers. “Bible leaves! Bible leaves!” as Melville explains in “The Cassock,” “is the invariable cry from the mates to the mincer. It enjoins him to be careful, and cut his work into as thin slices as possible, inasmuch as by so doing the business of boiling out the oil is much accelerated, and its quantity considerably increased, besides perhaps improving its quality” (Melville, 2001, p. 420). Melville’s evocation of such whaler lingo offers a mock imitation of the solemn use of biblical terms and leaves within the realm of institutional religion. Here the expression “Bible leaves” depicts the fine ritualistic cutting of blubber by a mincer (Ishmael’s “candidate for an archbishoprick”) whose cassock is made out of the foreskin of a whale.

Moby-Dick as Bible.

“When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I’ll believe them”—claimed Michael Drosnin, the author of the controversial The Bible Code, in a Newsweek interview in June 1997. His critics soon picked up the gauntlet and did indeed find the same kind of encrypted codes Drosnin discovered in the Bible between the lines of Moby-Dick. Let me suggest that Drosnin’s choice of Moby-Dick as a potential test case is not without significance. It is the one book in American culture that has acquired the status of a Bible of sorts and could be offered as a counterpart.

Interestingly enough, Moby-Dick has its own history of readers who have searched for encrypted prophetic codes in it. This practice became prominent in the frequent evocations of Moby-Dick in response to the events of 11 September 2001. One such case is the Internet discussion group alt.paranormal. The exchanges within this group in October 2001 regarding the hidden codes of Moby-Dick revolved around three lines in the first chapter, “Loomings,” where Ishmael, just before he embarks on his voyage, envisions the following sensational poster:

"Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States."

WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.

BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN [sic].

(Melville, 2001, p. 7)

What intrigued them was Ishmael’s imagining of the “grand program of Providence” that would announce his decision to go to sea, and they were preoccupied, of course, by what they saw as an astounding synchronicity with the events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath.

These quests for prophetic codes and insights in Moby-Dick are but one incident in which the reception of Melville’s work resembles that of the Bible. My larger claim is that the vast circulation of Moby-Dick in diverse cultural realms repeats the dynamics of biblical reception. Moby-Dick, like the Bible, is a cultural text whose traces may be found in a whole array of modes and forms—from children’s adaptations, to musical interpretations (Laurie Anderson is but one prominent example), literary modes of homage (by writers as different as D. H. Lawrence, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, and Sena Jeter Naslund), artworks (Jackson Pollock, Mark Milloff, Clifford Ross, and Guy Ben-Ner, among others), Hollywood films (most notably John Huston’s 1956 film with Gregory Peck and Orson Welles), television productions, political discourse, academic research, Starbucks cafes all over the world, and the numerous boats and seafood restaurants called “Moby Dick.”

Both the Bible and Moby-Dick have acquired pivotal cultural positions even though few of their readers have read them from cover to cover. How many readers have endured the long detailed depictions of the tabernacle in Exodus or the long lists of laws in Leviticus? How many readers have endured the detailed anatomical representations of whales or the elaborate accounts of the different ship parts in Moby-Dick? But the grand impact of these two books does not depend on such thorough readings: it seems to lie in their astounding power to ignite the imagination, to generate new interpretations and new adaptations in every possible realm in each and every generation. They are the kind of big cultural narratives one knows and responds to even without having read them.

[See also FICTION, BIBLICAL; MODERN LITERATURE; and ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
  • Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf, 2005.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. English Notebooks by Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Russell and Russell, 1941.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. In The Writings of Herman Melville, Vol 6., edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston: Northwestern University Press; Chicago: Newberry Library, 2001. Originally published in 1851.
  • New, Elisa. “Bible Leaves! Bible Leaves! Hellenism and Hebraism in Melville’s Moby-Dick.” Poetics Today 19, no. 2 (1998): 281–303.
  • Obenzinger, Hilton. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and Holy Land Mania. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Pardes, Ilana. Melville’s Bibles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
  • Thompson, Lawrence. Melville’s Quarrel with God. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952.
  • Wright, Nathalia. Melville’s Use of the Bible. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1949.

Ilana Pardes