So, yeah, the Bible. Heard of it? Number-one bestseller (even bigger than The Da Vinci Code). The Good Book. No wonder The Poisonwood Bible makes so much use of it—and quite appropriate use, too, if you ask us.
Let's look at the epigraphs one by one:
Book One: Genesis
And God said unto them, / Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, / and subdue it: and have dominion / over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, / and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. —Genesis 1:28
Got it? Genesis 1:28 is all about dominion. And Nathan Price loves having dominion over, well, everything. His interpretation of this verse leads the Price family into trouble, since he takes dominion to mean unyielding control and thinks that he should rule over the people and plant life of Kilanga.
We learn pretty quickly in Book 1 that it's not quite going to work out that way.
Book Two: The Revelation
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, / and saw a beast rise up... / If any man have an ear, let him hear. —Revelation 13:1, 9
Hm. A beast… in the jungle. Sounds about right. But this beast is figurative, as well, and it could be just about anyone or anything. It could be Nathan Price, or the powers battling for control over the Congo.
Whatever it is, the Price girls undergo their own revelation in this section. They're starting to realize that they're in over their heads and will need to do something to get out.
Book Three: The Judges
And ye shall make no league with the / inhabitants of this land; / ye shall throw down their altars... / They shall be as thorns in your sides, / and the gods shall be a snare unto you. —Judges 2:2-3
Pretty straightforward. With the Judges, the Price girls start making their own judgment calls—about their father, their mother, the Congo, and themselves. The conclusions they come to in this section will affect the rest of their lives.
Book Four: Bel and the Serpent
Do you not think that Bel is a living God? / Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day? —Bel and the Serpent, 1:6 The Apocrypha
Okay, we got this one, too: a quote from Bel and the Serpent heads up the book in which Ruth May… is killed by a serpent.
Clear enough, but what about Bel, the living god? Bel could be Congo, which is often described as a living, devouring organism. Or maybe Bel is Nathan himself—after all, Nathan Price does swear by the controversial Apocrypha. (The Apocrypha are a collection of books that not all Christians and Jews accept as belonging in the Bible.) And that makes us ask: how would The Poisonwood Bible be different if this section, named after an apocryphal book, was taken out of the novel?
Book Five: Exodus
... And ye shall carry up my bones / away hence with you / and they took their journey... and encamped... / in the edge of the wilderness... / He took not away the pillar of cloud by day, / nor the pillar of fire by night. —Exodus 13:19-22
Talk about self-explanatory. In this section, the Price family (sans Nathan) gets the heck out of Dodge-slash-the-Congo—but they don't carry Ruth May's bones with them.
Book Six: Song of the Children
All that you have brought upon us / and all that you have done to us, / You have done in justice... / Deliver us in your wonderful way. —Song of the Three Children, 7-19 The Apocrypha
The Song of the Children is taken from another apocryphal book, but it's a crucial epilogue to The Poisonwood Bible. The girls are dealing with all that has been brought about them—and by their mother, their father, and by history. When we read that what they've done has been done "in justice," we can gather that they all seem to have come to terms, in different ways, with what happened to them as young girls. And their three voices make up the rich song that concludes The Poisonwood Bible.