Arguing with God


Jesus and Yahweh adds one more to the long list of books in which Harold Bloom demonstrates that a formidable degree of learning can coexist with exceptional boldness of imagination. His prose style is by now familiar to a largely admiring readership: it could be described as at once dogmatic and discursive, serious though on occasion whimsical, engaging but exasperating, generous but verging on the narcissistic. He means to give you the world according to Bloom, and that world is one in which Bloom cannot help being a celebrity, A scholar of extraordinary range and productivity, he speaks with confident authority, indifferent to dissent, yet usually seeming aware that even the impressive weight of his learning cannot entirely control his addiction to the fantastic and the astonishing.

Some years ago he was deeply interested in those parts of the Hebrew Bible (parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers) attributed by scholars to an author known as J, the Jahvist or Yahvist—so called because, unlike the authors who, over several centuries, provided the rest of the Five Books of Moses, he referred to God by the name Yahweh. J’s language and style, much admired by Bloom, has long been distinguished from that of those other authors, and his is much the oldest strand of the text, probably written about the time of the reign of Solomon, around 1000 BCE.

Bloom was attracted by the idea that J was likely to have been “not a professional scribe but rather an immensely sophisticated member of the Solomonic elite, enlightened and ironic”—a civilized courtier who could perfectly well have been a woman. His next step was to treat this as not just a guess or a fancy but a fact: J was indeed a woman. Reasons for embracing this notion are concisely set out in his introduction to The Book of J (1990). Bloom’s thought is progressive; he stands by the principles summarized in that introduction, and he moves forward to apply those principles, braving all pettifogging objections. When another historian of Yahweh, Jack Miles, playfully suggested that the female author could perfectly well have been Bathsheba, certainly a powerful figure in Solomon’s court, Bloom was happy to adopt the suggestion. He expected, he wrote, that the Bathsheba idea would be condemned as an improbable fiction, but that was no deterrent. In his new book he had no real need to raise the matter, but again takes pleasure in doing so. It is impossible to decide whether he’s joking or wholly serious; he would probably regard the issue as irrelevant.

Every biblical scholar, he argues, has a myth, and that J was a woman is part of his. “All our accounts of the Bible,” he remarked in The Book of J, “are scholarly fictions or religious fantasies,” a view which does much to explain his general attitude toward texts regarded as sacred—to the way they are read and misread, and to their relationship with such works as The Divine Comedy and King Lear, which…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.