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 possess “literary sublimity” but happen not to have the sanction of a major religion, Jewish, Islamic, or Christian.
The point is important, for his new book regularly speaks of great works that are not so sanctioned as if they had similar claims, while assuming that religious texts, with valid institutional guarantees of authority, can nevertheless be treated in the manner appropriate to Dante, Shakespeare, or Blake. Many of Bloom’s readers will agree that it is fair enough to submit the religious works to the same literary-critical scrutiny as the others, but some will undoubtedly find the notion disagreeable; and it is a point to be borne in mind by all readers of a book about Yahweh and Jesus in which Shakespeare and his characters, especially Hamlet, make surprisingly numerous appearances. But the fact is that Bloom the biblical scholar and Bloom the Shakespearian and Bloom the Romantic critic really are creatures of one substance.
The ground plan of Jesus and Yahweh, as distinct from its elaborate development, is fairly simple. It deals with not two but three persons, all, in their different ways, more or less fictive. They are Yahweh; Yeshua (“Jesus” in Greek), a Galilean visionary of the Second Temple period, a vaguely historical figure commemorated in the Gospels; and a Jesus who is an entirely theological construct, wholly alienated from his Jewish original by the industry of generations of gentile scholars. These three persons have nothing in common, though Yeshua calls Yahweh his father, and the Christian creeds claim that Jesus Christ is of the same (or similar) substance with the Father. The Yahweh of J has no superstructure of theology. He is ironic, mischievous, uncanny, best thought of as “a stern imp” alternating between “mischief and moral terror,” “all-too-human.” Add that he is inquisitive, jealous, turbulent, and “fully as personal as a god can be.” Nor can he be thought trustworthy in his dealings, being inclined to break covenants. He could hardly be less like the Father of the Christian Bible.
Yahweh, for Bloom, has nothing whatever to do with the complexities of Christian doctrine, whether concerning Incarnation and Resurrection, or the mysteries of the Trinity (of which Yahweh is supposed to be part). Bloom admires intellectual complexity, but he seems to have trouble believing that all this theology has much to do with anything, certainly not with Yahweh and not even with the quasi-historical Yeshua, or with his most influential exponents, Saint John and Saint Paul. Moreover, the Trinity can be suspected of signaling a reversion to polytheism, a point made by Muslims; and it is in any case an unstable concept, too recherché for ordinary use. Popular American religion has simplified all this theology by abandoning Yahweh and concerning itself either with Jesus alone or with the Pentecostal spirit, in either case, Bloom writes, encouraging enthusiasm, that menace to civilized religion.
So the main point, as expressed in the early pages of the book, is that “Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Yahweh are three totally incompatible personages.” Of the first we know nothing reliable, the second is “smothered beneath the superstructure of historical theology,” and the third is difficult, erratic, and untrustworthy. Bloom grapples with him but cannot forget his power (the gift, after all, of J) and finds him so troublesome that he “essentially usurps this book.”
So far all is reasonably straightforward. So, too, is Bloom’s view of the relation between the Hebrew and the Christian Bible. “At seventy-four,” he writes, “I continue my own quest to resolve some of the enigmas of the influence process”—a quest he began over thirty years ago in The Anxiety of Influence. The relationship between the two Bibles offers a fine example of some aspects of that influence. The Christian Bible is “belated,” i.e., it suffers from comparison with the Hebrew texts that went before it, and this produces both an “anxiety of influence” on the part of the authors and, possibly, “a strong misreading.”
Sometimes the misreading of a belated text can be so strong that it prevails over its precursor. When the Hebrew Bible becomes the Old Testament, a book of which the significance ultimately depends on the New Testament, the Old Testament can be said to have made the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible its slave or prisoner—“a captive work dragged along in triumph by Christianity’s Greek New Testament.” The Christian version imposes alien meanings on the older text, kidnaps its whole significance, and even rearranges the Hebrew order of the books to make it comply with the assumption that the importance of the “Old” Testament lies entirely in its prefiguration of the “New.” But if the New Testament (and the Koran) “have pragmatically eclipsed the Hebrew Bible…these successes are neither aesthetic nor necessarily spiritual, and Yahweh may not yet have spoken his final word upon this matter.”
Sometimes remote, uninterested, Bloom’s Yahweh can nevertheless still be thought capable of decisive interventions in history. Though he had long “exiled himself” he still saw fit, Bloom believes, to return to Israel in 1948, and he may well do so again. If he is partly fictive he can still be awesome. To Bloom there is actually no need to decide whether Yahweh is fact or fiction. Either way he’s real and alarming, and Bloom just hopes he will not demand his Temple again, for the al-Aqsa mosque stands on its site. And there are fanatics, adds our author, who are already breeding pure red heifers as potential sacrifices when he decides to resume residence.
Bloom’s own political comments, sometimes couched in this way as comments on the behavior of Yahweh, are generally related to religious differences which he seems to think beyond reconciliation. He foresees an apocalyptic conflict with Islam. The Iraq invasion is “a parody of the Crusades.” Road maps to peace, like covenants, are untrustworthy. Jews, now an extremely small part of the world’s population, are likely to suffer once more.
That he thinks rather ill of the “belated” New (Christian) Covenant does not give him sufficient reason to trust the old one, for Bloom finds Yahweh troublingly ambiguous. He says he is personally not “a normative Jew, being Gnostic in my deepest self” and therefore also liable to be as ambiguous as Yahweh. About his dislike of Christianity and its incompatibility with Judaism there is no room for doubt. “Judeo-Christian” is an expression he condemns; it is a way of talking about European history that pretends to be just and fair, but in fact there is nothing in common between the faiths and their histories. Judaism is not the parent of Christianity, and the religions are irreconcilable. And if one compares their foundation documents it is reasonable to claim aesthetic superiority for the Hebrew Bible over the New Testament. This is a perfectly plausible claim but it adds to the difficulties of Bloom’s task when he feels obliged to give some respectful attention to an allegedly inferior work for much of which he feels some contempt.
He confesses, not unexpectedly, to a great dislike for John and Paul, and argues that by far the most remarkable of the gospels is Mark’s, matched in quality only by the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic document dug up in Upper Egypt in 1945 and 1946. Its original Greek form is thought to belong to about 140 CE. Unlike the canonical gospels, it contains no narrative, being a collection of teachings and parables and cryptic sayings attributed to Jesus, some having no parallels in the canonical gospels and some so obscure that Elaine Pagels compares them to Zen koans.
This is a gospel that begins by declaring itself to be secret, whereas the canonical gospels are essentially proclamations. Since it is a prime text of early Christian Gnosticism, suggesting a very different version of Jesus, Bloom’s admiration for the Gospel of Thomas is entirely understandable. Christian scholars, whom he loves to challenge, may be less willing to applaud his choice of Mark as the greatest of the canonical four.
It is now generally accepted that Mark’s was the first of the four canonical gospels, that Matthew and Luke made use of it, and that John is later and largely independent of the others. John gives a different version of the life and teaching of Jesus, the version that has probably had most influence in the history of the Church. But Mark pleases Bloom by its dark tonality, its ironic, oracular, baffling Jesus, and its abnormally abrupt, enigmatic ending. Mark’s Jesus is the only one with any resemblance to Yahweh (notably, perhaps, his power to astonish) and his mood swings are like Hamlet’s.
Bloom admires the parables and sayings of the Marcan Jesus and commends the imaginative achievement of this New Testament book, as he does of no other. But he will not suppress his dislike for the entire canonical New Testament, with its “misinformed hatred of the Jews” and its incredible miracles. As a good Gnostic he prefers to think that Jesus escaped execution and eventually made his way to North India. (Bloom, who entertains that conjecture as fact, dismisses Judas Iscariot as fiction. I think this is right, but in view of Bloom’s capricious attitude toward fiction and fact it makes little difference which he was; Bloom can believe what suits him.)
John is condemned for the hostile attitude of his Jesus toward Moses (“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven…. I am the living bread…if any one eats of this bread he will live for ever”) and toward Abraham (“Before Abraham was, I am”) and it is John’s combative anti-Semitism (“plain nastiness”) that explains and justifies Bloom’s distaste. Paul (“an obsessed crank”) is, if anything, even less agreeable; he falsifies the Torah, lies, and says very little of interest. Possibly a little might here be said in Paul’s favor. Bloom asks what Yahweh means by “love,” concluding that the word refers to just dealing, as set forth in Leviticus 19:9–17. But Paul’s response to the same question is in 1 Corinthians 13:1–13, where the Greek word agape, rendered as “charity” in the King James version, was originally translated by William Tyndale, one of Bloom’s author heroes, as “love.” And Paul does seem to have more in mind than the just dealing of Leviticus. One would like to overhear Bloom’s meditation on these words.
Returning again and again to his meditation on Yahweh, Bloom finds him guilty of abusing the people of Israel (identified as “the suffering servant”); but he cannot get rid of him—he “won’t go away, though I wish he would, since to think of him is to remember my own mortality.” Yet this god who won’t go away is also “the hidden God, hedged about by the Tanakh, the two Talmuds, the Zohar, and the entire Oral Law.” He is also, according to the tradition of Jewish Gnosticism, the God who made the creation possible by withdrawing into himself to leave space for a material world: this concept, known as zimzum, is a theme of enduring concern to Bloom, who thinks that in performing this act of shrinking Yahweh hurt and degraded himself, and for that reason will “be ambivalent toward everything and anyone, his Chosen People in particular.” Yet zimzum is
a glorious metaphor for God’s travail…. Lurianic Kabbalah [where zimzum originated] subtly locates the subversive gnosis that, for some of us, partly illuminates the visible darkness of the Hebrew God.
One may also think of zimzum as “a perpetual process going on in God” as he inhales and exhales. “Try to imagine that every time you hold your breath, and then release it, you create and ruin another world.”
I said at the outset that the ground plan of Bloom’s book was simple enough, but this cannot be said of its superstructure. It is a work of considerable and often repetitive complexity; the great learning of the author is not always applied in an economical way. Sometimes there is evidence of hurry, or carelessness; we are offered two incompatible dates, a generation apart, for the Epistles and the gospels; and although there remains some uncertainty about the dates, these cannot both be right. The insistent introduction of Shakespearian characters into the argument, mentioned earlier, has to be explained by the author’s love of, or obsession with, that writer—admirable in its place but distracting here.
Of course it would be reasonable to argue that a love of Shakespeare has a place beside his admiration for J in the mind of Harold Bloom. The present book can then be called an installment of autobiography, a description that could be supported by the author’s accounts in the book of his conversations with Gershom Scholem or with the learned biblical faculty at Yale, and of his stealing downstairs to his kitchen in the middle of the night, brooding and reading there, and always seeking more knowledge of what he regards as unknowable. His book is the autobiography of a scholar—eccentric certainly, fearfully industrious, and, in the end, sad. Fundamentally it is a complaint on behalf of the entire Jewish people:
The prophetic litany throughout the Tanakh is that the Jewish people have betrayed their Covenant with Yahweh. Not once are we told the other and more awful truth: God’s destruction of his covenanted people.
The last pages of Jesus and Yahweh develop this grim idea. Bloom commends the insights of the Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav into the “tormented psychology of God.” Reading him, says Bloom,
I feel frequently I am inside one of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, say Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. For Nahman also, the quest moves through all things deformed and broken, until unaware you come upon the place. After a lifetime training for the sight, you confront a void, from which the object of your quest has departed.
God has withdrawn—perhaps, as a glum little joke suggests, after one zimzum too many. And now “the old King is in perpetual suspension, deserting his Chosen as the worlds go on ruining.”
These words have real force, and over the years Bloom has earned the right to some prophetic fervor. Now in his mid-seventies, he achieves a prophetic insight he recognizes as tragic. Despite his studies of Christian theology and his daily commerce with Christian scholars, he does not find himself in a position to endorse the notion of Jewish–Christian dialogue. Quoting the biblical scholar Jacob Neusner, he claims that “the two religions represent ‘different people talking about different things to different people.'” The Christian God the Father bears only the slightest resemblance to Yahweh. Different people are talking about different things. The theological Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the God whom Yeshua called his father—as Bloom remarks, they never met. Greek theology and Hebraic experience have nothing in common. Modern American Christianity certainly offers no hope of productive dialogue. In fact it seems that nothing much can be hoped for in the world we now have—“Muslim terror and American and Israeli counterterror, or what could yet be the horror of Hindu-Muslim nuclear exchanges”—except another improbable intervention by Yahweh: “Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?”
The question of the relation between history and fiction arises not only in relation to Yahweh and Yeshua but to much of the Hebrew Bible, not least the story of David, which runs, rich and many-stranded, from 1 Samuel to 1 Kings. With its beautiful and sensual hero, its ruthless Machiavellian politics and vividly rendered characters, it must be the greatest quasi-historical narrative that has survived from the ancient world. It is, astonishingly, three thousand years old. From the literary point of view it might have been an even greater achievement had it not (like the Genesis of J) been revised by writers more conventionally pious than the original author. Robert Alter, in the introduction to his translation of 1999, offers as a telling example the deathbed speech of David to Solomon, where the intrusive pieties of the reviser take up half the space and are clearly a threat to the quality of the original. But neither these intrusions nor the sometimes dubious state of the text can damage the narrative power of this amalgam of folk tale and dynastic history, or disguise the sharpness of the characterization. The story of David from beautiful and gifted youth to ruthless maturity and cold old age has survived all other interference as it survives the translators.
Robert Pinsky’s book is a poet’s tribute to that story. It looks at all the striking characters with whom David is associated: Goliath, Saul, Jonathan, Absalom, Abner, Abigail, Abishag, Bathsheba, Michal, Solomon, and the rest. In these and other dealings David may strike us as resembling a Renaissance prince, or Alcibiades, or Robin Hood. Saul’s demand that David bring him a hundred Philistine foreskins as bride-price for his eldest daughter conceals his hope that David should be killed in the process of obtaining them; but he is outwitted by the brave and crafty young man, who brings him two hundred. That is folk tale.
So, in its structure, is the death of Uriah. Having impregnated Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, David first tries to get husband and wife into bed to cover up his paternity, and when that fails—because Uriah is a soldier on duty and bound by an oath of chastity—he resorts to murder, placing Uriah “in the forefront of the hottest battle…that he may be smitten, and die.” This trick succeeds, but it earns him the reproaches of the prophet Nathan, with his parable of the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb. “As the Lord lives,” says David, “the man who has done this deserves to die.” “Thou art the man,” says Nathan. It is a finely written passage, an epiphany of conscience.
Other great moments are outside the range of folk tale. When his child by Bathsheba is sick, David prays and fasts and sleeps in the dirt for seven days. The child dies, and David’s servants are afraid to tell him. But when he gets to know of the death, David gets up and washes and anoints himself and changes his apparel and worships the Lord. Then he goes to his own house and calls for food. His servants ask why he fasted and wept when the child was alive, yet rose and took food now that the child is dead. He replies: “While the child was still alive I fasted and wept, for I thought, who knows, the Lord may favor me and the child will live. And now that he is dead, why should I fast?”
David is simply unforgettable in moments like this. If they occurred in a novel we should admire its depth and its surprise. There is a comparable moment in The Brothers Karamazov when Mitya, accused of murder, falls asleep and dreams of a devastated village and a hungry baby crying. He wakes up among his accusers and finds that somebody has placed a pillow under his head. Ecstatic with gratitude, he says, “in a strange voice, and with a new light, as of joy, in his face, I’ve had a good dream, gentlemen.” E.M. Forster struggled to explain why this moment was of a kind that eludes the grasp of ordinarily good, or even great, novelists, but having recognized its quality he failed to find a way to describe it. He probably felt sure that perceptive readers would recognize it without critical prompting. So it is with this story of David after the death of the child, or with David mourning his son Absalom.
Robert Pinsky is a distinguished poet, skilled at such recognitions. He has probably felt the influence of David, the elegist, the psalmist, almost throughout his life. Though extremely well informed, he is not writing a commentary—for that one can depend on Robert Alter—but he is revolving in his mind the diverse elements of the David story and always saying something interesting about it. Much of the tale is strange and surprising—for example it is strange that Michal should have turned against David because of his naked religious dance; strange that some sages tried to excuse his affair with Bathsheba by arguing that she was technically a divorcée—for soldiers divorced their wives before battle, lest they should be among the missing—or by inventing the story that Uriah had in the first place acted dishonorably to win Bathsheba as his wife.
Here and elsewhere Pinsky is elegantly informative. He discusses Goliath and his armor, his degree of kinship with David, the efficiency of David’s sling as a weapon. He rejoices in the beauty of the young David and laments his impotent old age. The rape of Tamar is discussed with skill, and so is the role of Abishag, the beautiful girl who took care of David but had no sex with him in those sad last days when David the womanizer, now old, was perhaps paying some of the price demanded by Nathan, the curse on his house.
Pinsky is careful to seek in the story what might be called its secular sense, quietly disagreeing with Talmudic excesses and the allegorical flourishes of the Cabbala. He brings to the story a modern intelligence, a modern interest, as well as much apposite historical information. And the result is a refreshing, civilized book, a notable homage to its great original.
December 1, 2005