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Unexpected and Compelling Biblical Retellings

Jaime Herndon

Contributor

Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

Growing up going to a religious day school, by the time school let out, the last thing I wanted to do was anything religious. This included reading anything religious. Even as an adult, I wouldn’t exactly pick up the Bible for fun reading. And for those who do, more power to you, it just isn’t my thing, but I know many people find solace in it, as well as friendship and community in Bible groups.

Alice Hoffman’s Bible-adjacent (for lack of a better word, since the story of Masada isn’t in the Bible) The Dovekeepers sparked my interest in Biblical retellings and spin-offs, which I find much more compelling. Whose voices don’t we get in the original text that we might get in a retelling? What insights and stories can someone add to the traditional stories?

When I was making this list, I did notice that a lot of retellings out there leaned on the religious/inspirational side, rather than the general fiction side, although I’ve tried to keep most of the books on the general fiction end — as in, no proselytizing or overly religious text — with more focus on the storytelling aspect. The field of Bible retellings is also very white, and very Christian. I would love to see more retellings of these stories that are a lot more inclusive and really diving in there and presenting it in a new way.

Here are some to start you off!

cover of Naamah

Naamah: A Novel by Sarah Blake

Most of us are familiar with the story of Noah and the flood, but you’ve never read it like this! In this retelling, Blake focuses on Noah’s wife, Naamah, who kept everyone alive. In this fabulism feminist tale, Naamah meets an angel under the waters as she questions her life, her circumstances, and desires that catch her by surprise. It’s a lush, lyrical book that dares to imagine Naamah and this story in a new way.

The Book of Longings cover

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

Not a retelling per se, but inspired by Biblical stories, this is a tale about Ana, the wife of Jesus. Growing up in a rich family with political ties, she’s fiercely independent, secretly learning and writing. She’s expected to marry an older man, but then she meets Jesus and everything changes. She makes a home with him, but her rebellious spirit never fully goes away. When she does something that puts her at risk, she goes to Alexandria, where she makes a life she never expected.

cover of Maybe It Happened This Way

Maybe It Happened This Way: Bible Stories Reimagined by Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz, Erica Wovsaniker, and Katherine Messenger

This book is appropriate for kids, but it’s also something that adults will enjoy. The stories aren’t transgressive, but the characters aren’t docile or exactly like they were in the Bible, either. These stories are retold using the concept of midrash. This is the Jewish concept of commentary on the Bible, by exploring the meaning of the words of the story. It can explore questions within the text, make connections between things, or respond to the text itself. Berkowitz and Wovsaniker bring up the idea that maybe the Bible isn’t the entire story — maybe there was more, we just don’t know it.

cover of moses man of the mountain

Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston

I never knew Hurston wrote this until I saw it in my ZNH boxed set I got last year. I read this one slowly, to really appreciate the craft of it. It’s based on the Exodus story but Hurston blends Old Testament Moses with Black folklore Moses, and the result is amazing. This is more of a retelling with social commentary on modern day life (it was written in 1939) and Black history, with liberties taken with aspects of the actual story.

cover of The Book of V

The Book of V.: A Novel by Anna Solomon

A reimagining of sorts of Vashti’s story, this book follows three women in various time periods, while also weaving the stories of Esther and Vashti through the novel. Esther is in ancient Persia, Vivian lives in Watergate-era D.C., and Lily is in 2016 Brooklyn. All three women are faced with questions of sexual desire, gender expectations, and struggles against societal constraints. It’s a nuanced, layered look at women’s lives and relationships.

cover of Many Angels

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

This is the fourth book in the Wrinkle quintet (yes! There are five, if you didn’t know, and they are all fabulous). As a kid, I never realized the undertones of Christianity in L’Engle’s books. When I finally reread Wrinkle and then read the rest of them, I was like oh, okay there it is. This book is perhaps the most obvious one: it’s a retelling of Noah and the flood from the point of view of Meg Murry’s brothers Sandy and Dennys. It definitely has a different tone than the rest of the series, in my opinion. And the sexual references might not be for everyone, especially younger readers (there’s the word “slut” and a description of someone as “an easy lay”), so your mileage may vary with this one. Is it worth the read because it’s L’Engle? I think so.

cover of Cain by Saramago

Cain: A Novel by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

This is quite the retelling of Old Testament stories, with Cain as the protagonist. After killing his brother Abel, he’s condemned to wander forever and he pairs up with a donkey to make his way. He becomes part of various Biblical stories and has encounters with different Biblical characters, while also battling with a G-d who is portrayed as cruel and unfair. Irreverent, humorous, and thought-provoking, this is definitely not the Bible story you grew up with — but it’s great that it exists now.

the cover of Forging a Nightmare by Patricia A. Jackson

Forging a Nightmare by Patricia A. Jackson

This isn’t necessarily a Biblical retelling, but it is based on the book of Revelations. When a set of murders in NYC takes place, the only commonality is that the victims all had 12 fingers and 12 toes — signs of them being descendants of Nephilim, or fallen angels. Michael Childs is an FBI agent tasked with the case, but when he finds out he himself is a Nephilim and may be in danger, everything changes.

cover of How the Light Gets In by Jolina Petersheim

How the Light Gets In by Jolina Petersheim

If you’re looking for an interesting retelling of the Book of Ruth, this story set in a Mennonite community has you covered. After Ruth’s husband is killed while overseas working for a relief organization, she goes to Wisconsin with her kids and mother-in-law to bury him. She’s trying to figure out what to do next, and maybe the Mennonite community will be a peaceful place to do that. They’re welcomed by Elam, her husband’s cousin, and she soon finds respite in the life she starts to build there — and maybe even new love.

cover of Bread of Angels

Bread of Angels by Tessa Afshar

This is a retelling of the story of Lydia, from the New Testament, who sold purple dye. After a betrayal, she goes to Philippi with only her father’s secret formulas for dyes, and eventually becomes a successful merchant. When she meets Paul the apostle, she becomes a convert, but when her past catches up with her, her faith may not be enough. Afshar has a reputation for being a writer who breathes new life into Biblical stories, so if you’re especially interested in New Testament retellings, definitely check this one out.

If you’re interested in more books about religion and retellings, check out this 100 must-read list of women and religion, and this post on inspirational romance.