God

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2188

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...

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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:

I have heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes.

Miles reminds readers that the Revised Standard Version reads the same verses as follows:

I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees thee;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.

Miles, however, confronts the ambiguity of the phrasing in Hebrew and the decisions made by other translators, offering instead the following:

Word of you had reached my ears,
but now that my eyes have seen you,
I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.

The shift is striking, with Job essentially chastising God, and God’s moral flaw, instead of chastising himself, as traditional interpretations have suggested. Miles’s overall treatment of Job is more conceptually detailed than can be summarized here, but in the following passage he develops his thesis that God’s self-understanding develops through relationship with humanity: “In agreeing to a savagely cruel wager with the devil [the Adversary with whom God wagers over Job’s righteousness], the Lord has characterized himself by his own action.” Expecting Job to respond to each episode of affliction with a deferential prayer or blessing, God is startled by Job’s reaction:

[Job] harangues God, countercharacterizing him relentlessly as not the kind of God who would do what we the readers know he has just done. Without realizing that he does so, Job changes the subject, making God’s righteousness rather than his own the question on the reader’s mind. And ultimately on God’s own mind as well, for in the end, Job wins: The Lord bows, in a way, to Job’s characterization of God, abandons his wager with the devil, and after a vain attempt to shout Job down, atones for his wrongdoing by doubling Job’s initial fortune.

Job may, therefore, have saved the Lord from himself, yet God can never seem to Job after this episode quite what he seemed before it. More to the point, the Lord can never seem quite the same to himself.

Readers who take issue with Miles’s translation here (and elsewhere) or who balk at his speculative leaps will still find an engaging challenge in grappling with his analysis; to do so requires close attention to textual detail and the subtle possibilities of meaning within biblical narrative.

As is the case with any innovative approach, the method and some of the underlying presumptions of the book will raise questions and challenges from some readers. For example, Miles’s opening claim that “many in the West no longer believe in God” and his later remark that the present-day context for evaluating ethical monotheism is that of an “age of unbelief” vastly oversimplify the admittedly profound changes in modern and postmodern Western religious perception. Oversimplification is a risk inherent in what is otherwise one of the book’s key strengths, and that is Miles’s effort to tackle the complexity of biblical literary criticism in language and method accessible to a relatively wide audience. The result is a book that is theoretically sophisticated but not overly cluttered with specialized language.

Unfortunately, by avoiding extensive methodological or theoretical detail, Miles also resorts at times to conceptual oversimplification that causes its own set of problems. For example, his methodological argument for a strictly sequential reading of the Tanakh will seem underdeveloped to readers familiar with the literary possibilities of a synchronistic or “simultaneously present” approach to the work as a whole and God’s character in particular. The sequential approach is, as Miles shows quite well, productive and compelling in its own terms; however, his arguments for choosing the method are too quickly made, and he underattends to the textual and critical problems raised by a sequential reading. Similarly, his tangential forays into textual, historical, or theological issues related to biblical literary criticism are always instructive, yet they occur only occasionally and are puzzlingly absent at times when they seem most relevant to Miles’s critique. Why, for example, is there no mention of “source criticism” when Miles reads the two creation stories of Genesis as suggestive of possible tension among internal characteristics of God’s personality? Admittedly, his focus here is a “strictly sequential” reading of the text as it stands, but his interpretation of the sequence strains as a result of not at least acknowledging the now relatively well-known thesis that a later editor may have sought a deliberate contradictory fusion when weaving together the “J” and “E” sources.

Miles is bold and unapologetic in making some highly speculative interpretive leaps, which will no doubt inspire many readers and provoke others to ponder critical tensions inherent in his method. In one illustrative example, he engages the perplexing question of the meaning in Hebrew of God’s self-revelatory claim to Moses in Exodus 3:14, transliterated as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” by the Jewish Publication Society translators of the Tanakh, who also offer the following possible meanings: “I Am That I Am,” “I Am Who I Am,” and “I Will Be What I Will Be.” Miles, who has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages, takes the step of speculatively changing one letter (in Hebrew) of the phrasing to produce “I Am What I Will Do.” Although the interpretation he builds from this important shift in existential focus is intriguing, it is also a bit troubling in a study otherwise committed to a “strictly sequential” reading of the text. What does it mean, then, to change the conceptual sequence?

Related to this is the issue of Miles’s dominating early focus on fertility as the key thematic concern in the books of Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). His work here is compelling in terms of possible psychosexual content and implications regarding God’s character, but such an overriding initial interpretive focus leads Miles to neglect other possibilities for meaning in specific stories. This becomes problematic because he then makes quite definitive or prescriptive interpretive claims that appear to disallow other thematic possibilities. Along similar lines, Miles’s handling of gender as an interpretive issue is awkward and often reductive, especially in his chapter on Proverbs and in his treatment of the possible “femaleness” of or in God (an issue oddly confused when he asks “whether among the personalities that fuse in the character of God we must recognize a goddess”).

One final question is raised by the book, and raised in compelling terms: How much of any literary biography reflects the subjective worldview of the biographer, as opposed to the “actual life” of the character? In this case, Miles’s reading of the God of the Tanakh is framed through a sequence (Action to Speech to Silence) that emphasizes the relational nature of God’s self-discovery yet moves, finally, toward a theme of “Silence as Incorporation.” Although Miles suggests that “incorporation” lacks the Christian “theological freight” of the term “incarnation,” his analysis never- theless reveals a subtly typological Christian undercurrent in his reading of Hebrew literature. A Jewish reader, influenced, for example, by the existential theology of Martin Buber, might trace the personality of a God who remains fully and always dialogically “I-Thou” rather than the “I-Moving-Toward-Silence/Incorporation” who emerges in Miles’s exploration. Yet this possible variation in the reading, and creation, of God’s biography signals not a problem with Miles’s book but instead its value and importance. His reading is, overall, so deeply engaged and, despite his own disclaimers, so infused with philosophical and apparent theological investment that it invites readers of all perspectives into their own dialogue with his interpretation, toward their own literary and philosophical assessment of the characters they see in the Tanakh, and into dialogue over the differing, sometimes contradictory portraits of God that emerge.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXIII, July 1, 1995, p. 24.

Commentary. July, 1995, p. 55.

Commonweal. CXXII, May 19, 1995, p. 32.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 9, 1995, p. 4.

The National Catholic Reporter. XXXI, May 26, 1995, p. 30.

National Review. XLVII, August 14, 1995, p. 47.

The New Republic. CCXII, June 26, 1995, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 14, 1995, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 6, 1995, p. 68.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, April 30, 1995, p. 2.

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