Who is God? This has been no trifling question for millions of people over centuries of history, with lives at stake, literally, over varied answers. In diverse Jewish and Christian cultures, the arenas of deepest encounter with issues related to God’s identity have traditionally been in the daily lives of the questioning faithful and in the fields of theology, philosophy, and historical-critical textual criticism. Add to this also the important arena of biblical literary criticism, which shares conceptual territory with theology and history but also engages biblical literature as a story-world in which questions of religious or historical “truth” may be put aside, and biblical characters (such as God, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Job), images, themes, and narrative events are interpreted using the same techniques of literary analysis that are applied to other complex works of world literature.
In fact, author Jack Miles invokes William Shakespeare’s character Hamlet at the outset of his long and intricate study of God as the central character of the Hebrew Bible (“Tanakh” in Jewish tradition; “Old Testament” to Christian readers). Like Hamlet, God in this provocative “biography” comes to know God’s own “Self” only through a dramatic sequence of sometimes agonizing, always complicated interactions with human beings. In a sense, Miles has written a literary psychobiography, a portrait of the inner life of God as played out in relationship with humans, complete with the biographer’s psychoanalytic speculation; as a result, the “relational” portrait here includes an ethical and moral frame for the exploration of God’s character. Despite Miles’s early disclaimer that he writes about God “as—and only as—the protagonist of a classic of world literature,” many readers will be struck by and engaged by his return to a moral (philosophical, and for some, religious) focus at the conclusion of the book. Such overlap of the literary and the philosophical/theological is one of the welcome challenges of biblical literary criticism in general; this overlap is especially productive and creatively problematic when critiquing literature that remains, for many, “sacred text” about sacred reality, even granted the enormous range in contemporary answers (religious and otherwise) to the question “Who is God?”
Beginning with God’s first appearance in the Genesis stories of creation and continuing, book by book, through a highly detailed sequential reading of the Tanakh, Miles builds his thesis that God’s interior character is a fusion of often contradictory impulses and personality traits. He traces God’s personality development through a broader thematic sequence, showing how God moves from Action to Speech to Silence. This progression, Miles argues, evolves gradually, in fits and starts, as the narrative progresses from Genesis to 2 Kings, next unfolding as God’s nature is revealed in the multiple “voice” of the Prophets, and continuing through the “interrupting” contradictions of the Writings. For Miles, the Tanakh ends with the apparent yet paradoxical silencing of God’s own voice. The method here is one of careful elucidation of each of God’s character traits through detailed and creative literary interpretation of both specific biblical episodes and broader themes. Offered as provocative interludes along the way are sections that pose important questions about this God whose character is unfolding into increasing complexity: “What Makes God Godlike?” “Does God Fail?” “Does God Love?” “Does God Lose Interest?”
These last two questions, especially, require an “object,” and central to the book are the human characters with whom God interacts and with whom God, through those interactions, creates God’s Self. The God who Creates in the opening cosmic moments of Genesis is also the God who Destroys through flood and slaughter the very people created in God’s own image, and thus is also, according to Miles, the God who Discovers this dual internal impulse toward creation and destruction. This God also discovers a potential, then real, deep familial bond with humanity while simultaneously expressing profound ambivalence about human fertility. These self-discoveries come only within the dynamics of relationship with humanity. In other words, although the focus of this biography (or “theography,” as Miles calls it) is God, close literary analysis reveals a personality whose identity and self-understanding develop through the course of a literary “lifetime” of relationship with others, a lifetime characterized by bold initiative, by mistakes, corrections, new missteps, and finally by profound moments of self-reflective insight.
The chapter on Job, for example, is especially creative in suggesting the existential role of humanity in God’s discovery and formation of “Self.” Readers familiar with the wide range of literary interpretations of Job will be intrigued by Miles’s thesis here: Job’s ironic challenge to God’s moral culpability allows God (not Job) the opportunity for repentance and reconciliation to God’s own “better self.” Miles is innovative in translation work, particularly when deciphering Job’s final answer to God in Job 42:5-6. The Jewish Publication Society translation of the passage reads Job as saying:...
(The entire section is 2188 words.)