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A God’s Life

God: A Biography

by Jack Miles
Knopf, 446 pp., $27.50

It is usually assumed that the God of whom the Bible speaks is unchanging; indeed, the Bible itself says so. “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6). The idea that God has a biography, and that this biography can be extracted from the Bible, is therefore paradoxical. But Jack Miles demonstrates in his new book that the paradox is only an apparent contradiction, that the picture of God in the Hebrew Bible changes and develops, and that it is the dogma of divine immutability that must go once we start to read the Bible with close attention.

Scholars have argued for a long time that the idea of God changed over the course of time in ancient Israel. In the view commonly held by biblical scholars, a god who was one tribal deity among others became, successively, the sole object of worship for the Jews, and then the only God there was. This view may or may not be correct; it ignores, for example, differences within Israelite society (where some people may have had more “advanced” ideas than others) and the prevalence of virtual monotheism in many Middle Eastern cultures in ancient times.

It is important to see that Miles’s concern is not with a historical development of theological beliefs in this sense. He is, indeed, exceptionally well informed about ancient Semitic religion—he is a Harvard Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages, as well as a former Jesuit. But the development he is interested in is the development of the character of God in the text. He draws an analogy with Hamlet, in which we are presented, in a text that exists, like all texts, outside historical time, with a character who changes between the beginning and the end of the play. The Hamlet of Act I is different from the Hamlet of Act V, and we misunderstand Act I if we insist on reading insights from Act V into it.

Just so with the Bible: though there is a general picture of God which will give us a rough idea of the Bible’s overall “message” (it is found in the book of Deuteronomy), a closer analysis shows that “God,” the literary character, changes radically between Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and 2 Chronicles, its last. Miles knows that writing character studies of people in novels and plays is out of fashion in the literary world, though he thinks even there it has its place. But where the Bible is concerned he points out not that such an approach has been tried and then has failed, but that it has never been tried. God: A Biography is a provocative and triumphant vindication of this essentially simple yet fresh idea.

Central to Miles’s project is a reading of the Hebrew Bible, as opposed to the Christian Old Testament. The Protestant Old Testament contains the same books as the Hebrew Bible, but in a different order—the Catholic one has other books in addition to these. The Old Testament, as it appears in our printed Bibles, begins like the Hebrew Bible with the Pentateuch or books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and the Histories (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), but then their orders diverge.

The Christian Old Testament adds other historical books (e.g., Chronicles), and then collects together the “Poetic” books, as they are sometimes called (such as Psalms and Proverbs), before ending with the Prophets, Major and Minor. Thus prophecy prepares the way from the Old Testament to the New. Jewish scripture, which has no such function of preparing for a supposedly greater revelation, has its own logic. It places the Prophets after the historical books, which, after all, provide a context for understanding them, and then turns to the poetic books along with other works that do not belong in the previous sections, collecting them together in a miscellaneous and unplanned way. Hebrew scripture is conventionally divided into three sections, Torah (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Writings, and the initial letters of their Hebrew names (Torah, Nvi’im, Ktuvim) make the acronym TaNaKh, which is nowadays favored by many Jews as the name for their Bible (though it has no ancient pedigree).

So Miles works his way through each of the books of the Tanakh in turn, describing God as he is encountered there. The entire work begins with God talking to himself, as he plans the world (Genesis 1:3); it ends with his silence, for it is a remarkable fact that after his response to Job (Job 41) God does not speak again in the remaining nine books. It is true that God speaks far less in the Bible anyway than people imagine. We tend to assume that all the books contain an overt or implied “Thus says the Lord,” but it is only in the Prophets and in some divine speeches in the historical books that this phrase actually occurs. Genesis does not begin “Thus says the Lord, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but simply “In the beginning….” Most of the Bible is about God, but very little of it is said, within the text, to be by God. Nevertheless, there are few books where God is wholly silent, and Miles’s observation that they are all collected together at the end of the biblical canon is a brilliant one. It captures the sense Jewish writers on the Bible often convey, that the time of God’s free communication with humanity lies in the past, so that as we reach the end of the canon he falls increasingly into silence and absence.

In between God’s initial speech and his final silence there is much to be learned about him, and his character changes and develops to a bewildering extent. One of the attractive features of Miles’s book is that because he is not trying to present a consistent theology for any religious belief today, he is free to point out (maybe sometimes also to exaggerate) the variety of the characters attributed to God and the anthropomorphism with which his character is portrayed. Sometimes this can be carried to excess—in Genesis 1–11, for example, he takes the divine names “God” (Hebrew: elohim) and “the LORD” (yhwh, the holy name which Orthodox Jews did not, and do not, pronounce), and tries to show that God manifests a different character according to which of the two he is called by. The result is that God in these chapters emerges as having a dual personality, sometimes aggressively demanding and jealous and sometimes more withdrawn and benign. (Traditional biblical scholarship sees the two names as belonging to two underlying sources imperfectly combined together—which does not mean that the present form of the text cannot also be interpreted as significant.) But often the result is a quirky interpretation which, on reflection, adds considerably to grasping the way the Bible portrays God; it is certainly not the way a modern theologian would portray him, or a medieval one, for that matter. God, in Miles’s account, for example, has to discover that he needs reverence from mortals:

Why does bloodshed matter so much to God? The full sentence [Genesis 9:6] seems to contain an explanation: “Shed man’s blood, by man be your blood shed, for God made man in his own image.”…Do we infer that human beings must revere one another as they revere God, since to profane God’s image is to profane God? This is the explanation that comes most readily to mind, but it is anachronistic: At this point in the Bible, God has not yet asked for reverence, much less for worship, from his human creatures…. He seems to expect no reverence at all. But if we take this point with full seriousness, we must ask whether he yet knows that he deserves reverence.

The huge range of character traits attributed to God by the biblical writers is conveyed in Miles’s chapter headings, one or more for each book of the Bible, which try to sum up the dominant trait in that part of the text—sometimes more successfully than others, but always stretching the reader’s mind. The traits include: Creator, Destroyer, Friend of the Family, Liberator, Executioner, Fiend, Bystander, Father, Puzzle, and Wife (even though Miles shows clearly that the dominant images for God are male).

Starting with Isaiah, God begins to speak of himself fairly freely as both a mother and a father, but rather than see the return of the feminie at this point, we should recall that this freedom of expression comes amid a veritable explosion of metaphorical language in which he speaks of himself as husband, lover, shepherd, redeemer (metaphorically, a ransomer from slavery), and much else. The thrust is undeniably toward tenderness and gentleness; but particularly since Near Eastern goddesses are so often utterly ferocious, that thrust does not in and of itself bespeak feminization.

In Miles’s work we find an interesting confluence between the “historical” style of biblical criticism, which Miles respects but which is not his present concern, and a literary reading of the Bible in its canonical order as a single “work.” The development of monotheism in ancient Israel, Miles points out, either caused or was caused by the assimilation into Yahweh, the God of Israel, of all the characteristics of the gods he displaced. If Baal could bring rain and cause fertility, so could Yahweh; if Marduk created the world, so did Yahweh; if Anat could bring drought and disaster, how much more could Yahweh.

The result, Miles plausibly argues, is a god who, Shiva-like, combines in himself creativity and destructiveness, dominance and liberation, male and female. If any trait is divine, then it must be a trait belonging to Yahweh, since there are no other gods for it to belong to. The sole God of Israel is thus left with an array of characteristics which, paradoxically, actually make him more anthropomorphic than the two-dimensional gods he replaced; for each of the characteristics is, as it were, the personification on a divine scale of a single human attribute.

But what happened in historical reality to Israel’s ideas of the divine can also be seen as happening in the world of the text, as we read the Hebrew Bible in its canonical order. More and more attributes are attached to “God.” Similarly, the monotheistic system which exists in the text and which existed in Israel has in both cases the effect of presenting us with a God who has no partners in his life except human beings, since the divine world has been emptied of the multifarious gods who people it in most religious cultures: “Not only does he lack any social life among other gods,” Miles writes, “but he also lacks what we might call a private life. His only way of pursuing an interest in himself is through mankind.”

Reading the Bible “as literature” has become a popular pursuit, and it has attracted interest among theologians, who have traditionally read the Bible in more historical and philological ways, as well as among literary critics in the usual sense. God: A Biography is comparable to Robert Alter’s and Frank Kermode’s A Literary Guide to the Bible in seeking to interpret the “final form” of the text, rather than reconstructing hypothetical earlier forms of it, and to do so with the same interests one would bring to the reading of any other literary work.

Miles goes a step further than Alter and Kermode in his interest in the meaning of the whole biblical canon and in his emphasis on its arrangement, but his work, though original, is not eccentric within the world of biblical studies today. No one consciously intended the canon of the Hebrew Bible to look exactly as it does; its compilation was the result of a mixture of intention and accident. But as soon as one has a literary culture in which authorial intention is dethroned as the arbiter of meaning, there is no problem about interpreting such a work as coherent. We have lived in such a culture for many years now, and it is surprising that, until Miles’s book, no one had attempted to present a holistic reading of the entire Hebrew Bible before. In fact, Miles is the first, and his decision to do so by studying the development of the character of God was a brilliant stroke.

As someone whose instincts lie more with “historical” study of the Bible I am, however, left with some questions. A great deal of Miles’s analysis is made to hang on the exact form and order of the Hebrew Bible as now recognized in Judaism. There can be no objection to this, so long as we are clear just how little intention lies behind it. In ancient times, the biblical books were written on individual scrolls, and the idea of “order” was scarcely present. The use of the codex—a manuscript volume of the entire text—was more characteristic of Christian culture; and the codex form made it possible, from about the second century onward, to produce a Bible divided into three sections, with each section arranged in a particular order.

It would be fair to say that there were several centuries during which the Hebrew Bible consisted more or less of the present books but could not meaningfully be said to have an order at all. The divergent order of the Christian Old Testament is, similarly, a function of book production in early times. Many manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX) place the Prophets last, as Miles says, but in others the order is closer to that of the Hebrew Bible. When the Prophets do come last, they sometimes end with Malachi and sometimes with Isaiah. Even in medieval and modern times there has been no real agreement about the order of the books in either the Hebrew or the Greek Bible.

Miles makes much of the fact that the Hebrew Bible ends with Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. This is odd from a historical point of view, since the narrative thread requires the order Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah. Ezra begins with the very same words with which Chronicles ends.

Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia, The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.

Therefore, if one reads these books in the order of the Hebrew Bible the result is a circular narrative, producing a picture of God as a “Perpetual Round” (see chapter 12).

That those who arranged the canon chose this order rather than the natural, chronological one does indeed suggest that they were more interested in the theological idea of God’s ever-repeated promises to restore Jerusalem than in a mere historical narrative. Nevertheless, it does not seem irrelevant to note that many Hebrew manuscripts arrange the books in the “natural” order that is also followed by the Christian Old Testament. This includes the great Leningrad Codex from the eleventh century, which is the exemplar followed by all modern printed Bibles. In fact, they depart from it only in the order of the last three books, because tradition demands it. Provided one is absolutely strict about not invoking intention, there is no problem in interpreting the text as Miles does; but as soon as the slightest historical concern is allowed, then the untidiness of the historical development of the canon asks to be included in the picture. The question of the intentions of canonizers then arises. Miles himself comments, for example, on the adoption of the codex: “As editors from either group [Jews and Christians] realized that the order of the contents would now be fixed and visible [in a single book], both would naturally have thought in a new way about the potential aesthetic or polemic significance of the order” (my emphasis).

Loose remarks such as this one get Miles tangled in the historical question of the origins of the Jewish and Christian canons, rather than in the aesthetic effect they now convey, and he can reasonably be asked how he knows what the canonizers, whose identity is wholly unknown, would or would not have thought. Such forays into genetic questions are rare, however, and for the most part Miles is content to observe the effects of the way the canon has been ordered, without being drawn into the question of intention. The Bible is more untidy than most theories about the order in which it was written can convincingly deal with. And Miles is happy to observe the untidiness without seeking to explain it.

Indeed, the very untidiness of the Bible is a major theme of Miles’s account. If anything follows for religious faith from this reading—and it need not do so—then it will have to do with the randomness, what Miles calls the “aleatory character,” of the way God is portrayed:

A skeptic might conclude that the collection is so without an ordinary plot or an ordinary protagonist that it is not at all amenable to the ordinary tools of literary appreciation. A close reading of the text, however, suggests that the Tanakh is partially plotted and partially not, while its protagonist is partially a genuine or “drawn” character and partially not. In short, we are faced with a kind of patchwork…. Indeed, a part of the enduring power of the Hebrew Bible arises from its partially aleatory or accidental character. In art, typically, nothing is left to chance. In the real world, chance accounts for a great deal. The air of reality within a work of art is enhanced, therefore, if chance is admitted or even feigned.

Part of the art in the Hebrew Bible is that it not only seems unplanned but actually is unplanned. Another literary student of the Bible, Gabriel Josipovici, makes much the same point by saying that the Bible is not “literature”:

Perhaps, instead of thinking about the Bible as a book to be deciphered, or a story to be told, we should think of it as a person. We do not decipher people, we encounter them. And the closer we are to a person the more certain we will be that we cannot tell his story. Yet we also know that we will never be likely to confuse that person with anyone else, even a close relative.

Or again, commenting on the last verse of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:31), Josipovici writes,

…this last verse is strangely quiet. It strives for nothing. It is certainly not “literature.” But, whatever it is, it is a form of words which, coming where it does, brings us more fully to life.1

The reader of the Bible here confronts a series of Chinese boxes. This unplanned collection contains books that are planned to look unplanned, though sometimes the unplanned appearance shows just how carefully planned they really are. A critic who is not committed to an interest in authorial intention is, fortunately, under no obligation to distinguish planning from chance, except in so far as these are effects the work has on the reader. In his particularly interesting chapter on Job, Miles speaks of the Bible’s “negative capability,” which, like Shakespeare’s, lets the characters in the story “go their several ways,” so that they “take his play with them as they go. [The author] imposes upon it no more coherence than they will allow.” Unlike the God of orthodox theology, whether Jewish or Christian, the God of the Tanakh, as interpreted by Miles, owes his character to the story of which he forms part, and this story is at best only partially the design of a storyteller or storytellers. It is also the result of the chance survival of this or that ancient text, and of the largely accidental arrangement of these texts to create the Bible as we have it.

Professional biblical scholars have much to learn from literary critics with an interest in the Bible. It annoys them, however, when such critics imply that they do not know their own trade, as frequently happens nowadays. Miles definitely does not belong to the company of critics who deride the “biblical criticism” that remains interested in genetic questions; he understands and values it. He cites the critic Michael Payne: “There’s an attitude that runs from Moulton to perhaps Helen Gardner, that if a literary critic has a weekend free, he or she can perhaps straighten out problems in biblical studies that fusty scholars have not been able to work through.”2

That attitude is not to be found in Miles’s book, and it is to be hoped that biblical scholars will return the compliment, and see how much his work has to contribute to their interests. Literary critics and ordinary readers, on the other hand, will find that in God: A Biography the Bible is restored to its place in the literary canon and becomes not only “readable” but an immensely powerful, complex, and ambivalent work of art; it is not used merely as a source-book for quotations and themes as it so often seems to be. I hope Miles will now move on to the New Testament.

  1. 1

    Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 307, 309.

  2. 2

    Cited from Frank Kermode and Michael Payne, Poetry, Narrative, History: The Bucknell Lectures in Literary Theory (London: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 70–71.

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