Over the last few years I’ve taught a handful of Old Testament survey courses for college sophomores. It’s always challenging to draw students into the world (or worlds) of the Old Testament, particularly its earliest chapters. You can point to archaeological studies and concurrent ancient literature; you can introduce basic Hebrew grammar and semantic ranges; you can discuss theories of authorship and sources. But it’s harder to explain (or even for me to internalize) why a certain reference in Ruth is funny or how it might have felt to read a creation account like Genesis 2 thousands of years before Galileo or Darwin walked the earth.
So I’m slowly assembling a collection of art and literature that helps capture something of the familiar otherworldliness of books like Genesis, where we find humans behaving in entirely predictable ways–but on a landscape that feels entirely alien. Darren Aronofsky’s flawed Noah, with its haunting, bleak landscapes and fantastical Nephilim rock-beasts, draws me there. Robert Alter’s playful translation of the Pentateuch in The Five Books of Moses, with elegant phrasings like “the earth then was welter and waste” in Genesis 1:2, draws me there.
Add to my canon, then, Harrison Lemke’s 2016 album Fertile Crescent Blues. Lemke, a singer-songwriter recording from my home state of Texas, makes folksy music that often-but-not-always interacts directly with God and the Bible. (He’s also great at Twitter.) His melodies are intricate, often with sparse-but-just-right instrumentation. And though his voice occasionally has an edge to it, it never, ever lacks sincerity, especially since Lemke favors a raw-sounding production quality that feels as intimate as a house show, or as a mixtape on cassette. Lemke recently released an EP of six psalms (called, appropriately enough, “Six Psalms”), but Blues, self-described as “9 Bible Stories,” has been on my mind since I heard it earlier this year.
Fertile Crescent Blues welcomes us into the kind of world described in Genesis 3, a world full of broken relationships with God, with other people, and with creation. The narrators of Fertile Crescent Blues, each a character from Genesis, lament that havoc: They’re in conflict with the earth (“The earth is hard and taciturn and endlessly refuses us”) and with each other (“Will you forgive me for the things I said?”). As for God—well, things with God are complicated, to say the least (“I’ll raise you a pillar, I’ll build you a shrine if you just show up on time.”). There are moments of beauty and relief, but this is a blues album, after all, and though the tone is not quite despairing, it tends toward bitter or disappointed.
Thinking about our relationship with God through the lens of the blues can open our eyes to the biblical story in a new way. Imagine, perhaps, a devoted couple in an argument—the anger and grief are real, but there’s a subtle understanding they’re stuck with each other, and part of the reason the narrators have to express this stuff is that leaving isn’t an option. Keep in mind as you listen that the stories in Genesis come before the Exodus, before the Law, before the prophets or Jesus or any of the New Testament, or any of the other ways humans and God learned how to live together. There’s a sort of elemental, no-holds-barred austerity to their laments, lacking all that biblical history and baggage.
For these matriarchs and patriarchs, life is a series of paradoxes. They’re ambitious but self-sabotaging; they’re too honest with themselves to be self-righteous but not honest enough to live righteously; they can remember just enough of their former glory to make their present suffer all the more. “There is warmth in the fire but not enough to keep us warm,” one song remarks. Another: “The grave only looms bigger now for all we’ve done.”
Conflict with the earth and other people and God, life as a series of paradoxes: Does any of this sound familiar to your experience? Lemke has a wonderful way of telling these stories in language that sounds familiar but never hokey. After the trauma of the destruction of Sodom, one of the survivors stands “shivering, whispering about how you wished you brought a coat or something,” much like any of us has probably found ourselves complaining about something small in the face of a tragedy too enormous to comprehend.
These are some of the ways the album brings the Old Testament to life for me. I may never completely understand the social and emotional dynamics of a birthright and how Jacob wound up with Esau’s; but I do understand, more than I want to admit, Jacob’s prayer in “Yisra’el”: “I confess, I confess: I have mainly done whatever thing pleased me the best.”
You might be aware of the way Genesis is structured around the repeated phrase, “These are the generations of…”; see 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, etc. etc. etc. The refrain provides chronology and context for the long narrative. But by the fourth or fifth time you read it, it also starts to sound a bit like, “And then it happened again.” And then it happened again: Brother betrayed brother. And then it happened again: The chosen person failed to trust God.
One of the neat tricks Lemke pulls off is writing his characters almost as archetypes, hiding identifying context either in the track titles or in allusions that usually come late in each track, so you might not always immediately know who’s speaking. It helps that he seems to prefer pronouns to names. “You only come to me in darkness; I wish I knew how not to notice,” says the narrator of the seventh track. Is it Leah, or is it maybe Hagar, or could it even be an allegory for Jacob? (The track’s title, “Sister Song,” provides a clue.) And then it happened again: The rejected woman bore the man a son.
Eve Tushnet recommends Fertile Crescent Blues to anyone who “needs a smoke break from the endless Christian pep rally, a lay-me-down instead of yet another pick-me-up.” This is truly a blues album for believers, including the would-be kind: those who are ambitious but self-sabotaging, those who have just enough imagination or memory for the way things ought to be to feel the ache of the way things are.
Fertile Crescent Blues, along with Lemke’s other music, is streaming at www.harrisonlemke.com.