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 …