Michiko Kakutani (review date 26 March 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "God, You Imperfect, Conflicted Fella, You," in The New York Times, March 26, 1995, p. C20.

[In the following review, Kakutani discusses Miles's purpose in writing God: A Biography and lauds the author's success in reinterpreting the Bible as a work of literature.]

"You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart," reads a passage in the Apocrypha, "nor find out what a man is thinking; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out His mind or comprehend His thoughts?"

This, however, is exactly what the Los Angeles Times book columnist Jack Miles proposes to do in God: A Biography, and this results in a scintillating work of literary scholarship that will forever color, if not downright alter, our conception of the Bible as a work of art.

By treating God as a literary personage and minutely examining narrative evidence of his character in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (which has the same material as the Old Testament but presents it in a slightly different order), Mr. Miles constructs a detailed portrait of the Almighty, who, in his telling, turns out not to be quite as all-powerful or all-knowing as commonly thought. Indeed, Mr. Miles's God emerges as an "imperfectly self-conscious" fellow whose "word is as poorly under His control as rain that has already fallen from the sky" and whose "thoughts must strain to be equal to His experience," a character as conflicted as any young Bildungsroman hero and as magnetically compelling as Satan in Paradise Lost.

God's intentions, Mr. Miles suggests, are constantly being subverted by His experience. "After each of His major actions, He discovers that He has not done quite what He thought He was doing, or has done something He never intended to do," Mr. Miles writes. "He did not realize when He told mankind to 'be fertile and increase' that He was creating an image of Himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when He destroyed His rival that He would regret the destruction of His image."

Part of the problem, it seems, is that God suffers from what might be called a multiple personality disorder. Throughout the Book of Genesis, Mr. Miles argues, He displays two entirely different personas: God who is "lofty, unwavering and sincere in his creative actions" and the Lord God, who is "intimate, volatile and prone to dark regrets and darker equivocations." God creates man "in his own image" (Genesis 1:27) and gives him dominion over the earth (1:28); the Lord God forms man "of the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7) and confines him to a pretty garden (2:8). God gives man and woman an ungrudging and unqualified command to "be fruitful, and multiply" (1:28); the Lord God worries about the prospect of man living forever and reminds him that he will always be dust (3: 19).

As Mr. Miles points out, God's inner conflicts will multiply even further in later books of the Bible, as He vacillates between His roles as liberator and lawgiver, genocidal warrior and tender arbiter, plainspoken friend of the family and distant divinity in the clouds. The main reason for this multiplication of personas, of course, is rooted in monotheism's gradual emergence from polytheism in Israel, and its appropriation of various polytheistic stories (like the destruction of the world by flood) and images (like the depiction of God as a volcanic force of nature).

In fact, Mr. Miles goes so far as to argue that "the most coherent way to imagine the Lord God of...

(This entire section contains 1263 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Israel is as the inclusion of the content of several ancient divine personalities in a single character." Among those divine personalities are the angry chaos monster Tiamat (who can be glimpsed in the destructive God of the Noah story), the warlike Baal (who bears more then a passing resemblance to the thunderous God of "Exodus") and the homely personal god of Mesopotamia (who recalls the down-to-earth divinity Jacob asks for food and clothing).

As the Bible progresses, Mr. Miles suggests, these disparate personalities are gradually absorbed into a more unitary character. In Deuteronomy, Moses brings the character of God and the fate of Israel together in a glorious synthetic vision; in Isaiah, we are finally given the familiar image of a distant and inscrutable God, whose very mysteriousness and omniscience subsume His contradictions.

It is Mr. Miles's contention that God grows and matures in the course of the Bible: "Things happen to God one at a time," he writes, "He acts, then reacts to what He has done, or to what others have done in reaction to Him. He makes plans and adjusts them when they don't quite work out. He repents, starts over, looks ahead, looks back. As a result of all this, He learns."

When the Israelites break their covenant by taking up foreign idols, for instance, God abandons them to their enemies, leading to horrendous slaughter, ignominy and exile. Looking back on these events, Mr. Miles argues, God then tries to make amends: the new covenant He will establish with Israel will be a more emotional one, a more mature one, infused with pity and sorrow. In Mr. Miles's opinion, God's confrontation with Job similarly leads to a jolt of self-knowledge and contrition: in challenging God's willingness to inflict suffering on an innocent man, he argues, Job not only goads God into atonement but also reduces Him to silence.

"Unnoticed is the fact that from the end of the Book of Job to the end of the Tanakh, God never speaks again," Mr. Miles writes. "His speech from the whirlwind is, in effect, his last will and testament." Although God's earlier speeches will be repeated, although miraculous feats will still be attributed to Him, although He will be glimpsed (for the last time), seated on a throne and referred to as the "Ancient of Days," He will gradually recede from view, abandoning the stage to the human partners of his covenant.

"As the Tanakh ends," Mr. Miles writes, "the mind of God has been objectified in law, the action of God incarnated in leadership, and now, finally, the voice of God transferred to prayer."

It's possible, certainly, to quarrel with some of Mr. Miles's conclusions and to question aspects of his methodology. His decision to base his analysis on the Tanakh (which shifts the books of the prophets from the end to the middle of the sequence) rather than on the more familiar Old Testament, after all, affects the narrative shape of his material and hence his overall assessment: if he'd chosen to focus on the Old Testament instead, he would not have been able to conclude so easily that God's story ends in silence. Mr. Miles's interpretation of the Book of Job is also highly subjective, as is his reading of Moses' relationship with God. More important, he soft-pedals the role that various writers who contributed to the Bible played in shaping history and myth, and editing the character of God.

Mr. Miles, however, freely acknowledges these difficulties; he does not present his book as a definitive rereading of the Bible, but as one interpretation of a work of art. Nor does it really matter in the end whether the reader finds all his arguments persuasive. Mr. Miles—a former Jesuit with a doctorate in Near Eastern languages—writes with such ardor for his subject, such erudition and intuitive sympathy, that he immediately engages the reader in a passionate reconsideration of the infinite subtleties of the Bible and its prodigious and most uncommon hero.

God: A Biography is a dazzling piece of work.

Paul Wilkes (review date 9 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "God's Boswell: A man writes a biography of God. God responds," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 4

[In the following humorous review, Wilkes presents a "letter" from God addressed to Jack Miles in which God praises Miles's knowledge of scripture, languages, history, and culture. God points out a few problems with Miles's "biography," but lauds his ability to engage and captivate readers with a lively and entertaining story.]

Dear Jack,

The galley proofs of your new book about me arrived a while back, and I've finally finished it. What with all the requests, complaints and reports I have to sort through, it's hard to get any sustained, serious reading done. Know the problem? And yours is a Book of the Month Club selection, no less. Nice going. Still some interest in me down there, obviously. But I noted it was only an "alternate selection"—does that mean they're interested, but only alternately?

Nonetheless, Jack, I was impressed with the awesome knowledge you possess about Scripture, languages, culture, history. Jesuitic erudition, to be sure. They trained you well. Sorry you've since left the order, but those kinds of things happen these days. No hard feelings.

What I liked best was that you stayed the course, Jack. You took the Tanach—the Hebrew Bible—and even when the material wasn't so exciting, when I wasn't creating a firmament or parting seas or meting out plagues, when I might have seemed to have exited stage left, you kept going. Haggai, Lamentations, Ezra: all of it. I hope it gets other people reading the Book through, rather than picking and choosing what suits their fancy. I hear there's even a Bible with all the positive material highlighted in red and the rest left for dross (one of your West Coast fellows at work, espousing "possibility thinking," Oh, me!). That number was never sent to me for review, be sure of that.

You see, there's so much misunderstanding getting around about me. If one were a person, it could be quite depressing. Killing bodies in my name, what with jihad, fatwa and various other stripes of religious cleansing. And, just as bad, clouding minds and souls to sell a book or two—books about alleged prophecies, spiritual laws of success and caring for my best work, the immortal soul, with my name hardly mentioned. That's what seems to make the bestseller lists. Honestly, what passes for religious belief these days. Jack, how can they misunderstand so badly what I was all about?

And now to your assessment. Let's see: You attempt a "reintegration of the mythic, fictional and historical elements in the bible so as to allow the character of God to stand forth more clearly from the work of which he is the protagonist." Fair enough. But, Jack, about the disclaimer that this book "neither precludes nor requires belief in God." Seems as though you're backing off a bit here. Let's go on, but beware the siren calls of that "wider audience" promised by your solicitous editor.

You quite often paint me as quite a dyspeptic, crotchety, asexual, contradictory, vengeful fellow. Let me say what a refreshing change that is from the usual hagiography, which I find a bit cloying. But Jack, really—psychological growth? Character development? Plot line? Never thought this New Biography business would reach, well, this far.

So there I am in Genesis and Exodus, living out my "childhood," creating you folks and then wondering if I've made a huge mistake. Then, I have to be "seduced out of a recurrence of his rage by the scent of Noah's offering." Soon, I become "dangerously unpredictable" and evolve into "a man [a man!] of unreflective self-confidence, intrusive-to-aggressive habits, and unpredictable eloquence … who discloses nothing about his past and next to nothing about his needs or desires."

Jack, I'm wondering who you were writing about! Is that the way I come across? My message?

Only later on, apparently, do I discover that there are the poor, and something should be done for them, that I'm a Father as well as a King, that I need an emotional life and that I am "aware of my literal uniqueness and extraordinary power." What ever happened to the "I Am Who I Am" school of thought?

You say the only way I have of knowing myself is through mankind. And then you go on to criticize me for being tough and then tender, for what you perceive as my life of "action, speech, silence." Can't you just think of me as a teacher tapping the blackboard, explaining what the lesson was and then waiting for the students to figure out what I said? (Yes, I know, Bible stories go on a bit, but we're talking 4,000-plus years, filled with many writers, rewriters and those pagans, Huns and assorted barbarians who didn't help by destroying the goods—the other side's been busy, you know.) I'm still waiting. But there's time. Eternity, really.

What would you have had of me? Some God who speaks in gender-neutral, inclusive, guilt-acknowledging full paragraphs? It didn't make sense. Mysteriously allegorical, that's more my way. What better way to bring the soul to faith? I didn't go through all this to end up with a paint-by-numbers human race.

You said it well, early on: What I brought was ethical monotheism, where "moral value shall have been placed above the other values that human beings properly recognize: power, wealth, pleasure, beauty, knowledge … the list is long." And that's a messy business, trying to convince people that they shouldn't pursue those baubles and fleeting glories. Look, from golden calves to the Internet, folks have been seeking cheap grace for a long time. Forever, it seems.

I think there's a tendency in your day to try to redraw me (and My Boy, too—can't tell you how many books we get on Him) so people can quantify and be more comfortable with the concept of the divine. It seems they want to build a display case, with good lighting and temperature control so folks can press their noses up to the glass, peer in and say, "I saw God!"

Is it me you people seek to understand? Or what you want to make of me, to suit your own needs today? In your time, at your convenience? Should I really be cast as a warrior whose greatest battle is with himself? Or one who created man as a reflection, eventually to cast him as a rival?

Really, I'm not all that complicated. If you are made in my image, then you know what it's like to struggle, to make firm decisions and then to find yourself having to go back on them—out of simple love. Do you think it's different for me? Of course it was a terrific gamble with creation—but otherwise I would have been a cosmic puppeteer, with you folks on strings at my fingertips. Talk about a boring eternity. I still believe in you—but you've got to come my way, too.

I know I haven't made it easy and that the way is often hard to see. Two hundred years of historical Biblical research have clarified and clouded, and you, Jack, boldly walked where others feared to tread, assaying not human reaction, but divine plan. Some say after Job I subsided. You saw me as incorporated into the Jewish nation, no longer needed as a physical presence. Touché, Jack.

This was a monumental book to write. I'm sure it just about did you in at times. But, at the end, there you were, all the fancy writing and turns of phrase aside: "God is the divided original of which we are the divided image. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep."

I like that, Jack. I like it a lot.

Best wishes until we meet; we'll talk it all over and I'll give you the whole story then. As they say, face to face. No hurry Jack; have a good time. I'll be here.

Until then, sweet dreams,


Marina Warner (review date 30 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Divine Protagonist," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXV, No. 18, April 30, 1995, p. 2.

[In the following review, Warner praises Miles's attempt to look at the Bible in a new way. Saying "the book belongs in a fresh tradition of biblical scholarship," Warner nevertheless faults Miles's interpretation, calling the Bible an "epic without a hero."]

Reversing the usual angle of view, a character in one of Jose Saramago's novels overhears Christ on the cross asking humankind to forgive God: "Forgive Him for He knows not what He has done." In this audacious new study, [God: A Biography,] Jack Miles also tackles the character of God on startlingly equal terms from a skeptical viewpoint. He doesn't mete out blame or praise but approaches God as "a complex character" out of a book, with a personality that reverberates far and wide, farther and wider than his nearest rivals as household names—a Hamlet or a Heathcliff. Though, like them, God lives a life inside a world of words, nobody has ever analyzed him, as if he were above such scrutiny.

But God isn't inscrutable or even mysterious, Miles argues; he's an eminently approachable protagonist, who changes and develops as the narrative proceeds, moving through the roles of creator, avenger, personal friend (Exodus), warrior, conqueror, lawgiver, father (2 Samuel) and the errant wife of the thundering prophets. He has distinctive traits: At the very start he wants to make copies of himself; he's a being torn and divided internally, capable of deception, double-dealing and broken promises but who also knows remorse. He can be tender; even he comes to value women's practical survival skills (Ruth). And, at the end of his life in the Hebrew Bible, he falls silent and withdraws after he has tormented Job, as if he has finally acknowledged defeat at the hands of this single just believer.

The idea of theobiography at all requires some cheek: Even for agnostics, God isn't identical to a made-up hero, and the Bible is still one of the chief sources of human knowledge about the divine nature. For ordinary readers of the Bible, too, this approach evinces a certain gleeful irreverence, which Jack Miles—perhaps his Jesuit past shows here—clearly enjoys. After suggesting that God is envious of human sexual independence, Miles asks, "Does God realize this about himself?", and he draws a nearly Yiddish comic picture of God and Israel squabbling and griping at each other before he concludes, perceptively, that this biblical culture of complaint leads to "moral reform as a perennial possibility in Western social history."

For Miles is in intellectual earnest, and his book belongs in a fresh tradition of biblical scholarship, which treats scripture as a work of literature whose quality and interest do not lie in its truthfulness to history or its divine revelations but in its internal conflicts, insights, riches. But in this respect, God is a thin character. Here is a narrative hero who has no past, no family, no love life: "a parentless, childless being, a cosmic orphan …" Monotheism condemns its deity to eternal solitude, with no other gods to fight or supersede or marry, unlike the Olympians. In his solipsistic isolation, he doesn't console himself with self-examination or reflection; the soliloquy isn't his chosen means of expression but rather the ukase, the curse, the trumpet blast: "A blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!"

That the God of battles, the Lord God of hosts, could be a bully, everyone has always known. But a hollow man? A bore?

The author has created some of his own problems. For in order to arrive at his picture of God's character-development from speech to action to the silence after Job, he has followed the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible (an acronym from Torah; Nebim, the Prophets; and Ketubim, the Writings), in which the Psalms and Proverbs come in the middle, before Ruth, for example, and more significantly, before Job. Few Christian readers know this sequence, and so few will recognize the divinity falling silent after Job trounces his idea of human potential, since in all other Bibles he then positively begins to gush and flow through the psalmist's praises.

Furthermore, the Bible is an odd case, the author rightly points out: a classic in translation. But it isn't a classic in any or all translations, and the question of language doesn't give him enough pause. Literary criticism of a character in a text needs to respond to the linguistic cadences, echoes, rhythms in which he is represented. The Hebrew Bible and its god are hardly known in the English of the 1985 Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh. The hold that the King James version has on the globe—the majority of Bible translations are based on the Revised Standard Version in English—means that God's personality has been mediated across cultures in 17th-century English; hence the constant "smiting of foes," the "Lo's" and "Woes unto them!"

But even within the textual boundaries of the Jewish tradition, the author has chosen to limit his focus in the oddest ways. The erotic lyrics of The Song of Songs nearly didn't make it into the canon, but did so in the 1st century when the Jewish scholar Aquiba argued that the love songs were a religious allegory. This ingenious reading has served everyone well—and Miles could have profited, too. He could have relented towards his chosen subject and allowed God his moment as an irresistible lover—"my soul melteth, while my beloved spake"—in that headiest and most voluptuously beautiful of all the books of the Bible.

It's also peculiar, to this reader, to tell God's life and leave out the New Testament; there, at least, he belongs in a kind of dysfunctional family, an absent father who loves his only son and doesn't know how to express it. God: A Biography is a bright, shiny new idea; it makes rich connections and many witty, astringent comments; and it really catches fire during a close reading of the Book of Job. But it is hampered throughout by the imaginative penury of God's personal circumstances. As Jack Miles admits, "A protagonist without a past yields a narrative without a memory." The Bible, it turns out, can't be read as if it were a 19th-century Bildungsroman; it is much more realistically existential than that—it's an epic without a hero.

Phyllis Trible (review date 14 May 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Flawed Character," in The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1995, p. 10.

[In the following review, Trible acknowledges Miles's scholarly achievements but faults his omission of the prophetic literature in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea. The critic also pans the diversionary focus on other characters such as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and Pharaoh.]

In recent years literary studies of the Bible have explored all kinds of topics—save God, the chief protagonist of the narrative. That not insignificant subject has now received its due, a tour de force called God: A Biography, by Jack Miles.

If some people may find a biography of God an irreverent enterprise, Mr. Miles is not one of them. He says that over centuries the Bible has been the fundamental document for both Jews and Christians. Its stories and characters have permeated the whole of Western culture. To track, then, the stories to their central character is in no way disrespectful. But Mr. Miles does engage in occasional provocation. At the outset he remarks that "God is no saint, strange to say." As the reader will find out, that is true enough, and the fact is not so strange.

Mr. Miles treats the Bible as a literary work. To produce a biography of a literary character is a complicated undertaking, and so in a sometimes amusing introductory chapter he guides the reader through the contrast in approaches taken by scholars and critics. With a light touch he describes his own approach as naive, seeing God as a real person, much the way a theatergoer thinks of Hamlet or a reader perceives Don Quixote. But he also knows there is a difference. "No character … on stage, page or screen," he says, "has ever had the reception that God has had."

Mr. Miles is an appropriate biographer. He is now a book columnist for The Los Angeles Times, but was once a member of the Jesuit order and studied at both the Gregorian College in Rome and Hebrew University in Jerusalem before he took his doctoral degree at Harvard University in ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures. His naiveté is well-in-formed.

He wants to get to know God the way people get to know one another, bit by bit, over time. So he chooses to read the Hebrew Bible from the beginning right through. The chief difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament is the ordering of the books, and the ordering affects the way in which God's character develops. Whereas in the Old Testament the prophetic books appear at the end of the sequence, in the Hebrew Bible they appear in the middle. The Hebrew Bible is known by a Hebrew acronym pronounced Tanakh, for the letters "t," "n" and "k," which signify its three major parts: Torah (teaching), Nebi'im (prophets) and Ketubim (writings). Mr. Miles reads the Tanakh as a coherent and integral work, without trying to identify what in it is myth, what is legend and what is history, the way most literary scholars do. He allows himself, however, some forays into historical and theological issues.

Who is the literary character called God? Simply put, a male with multiple personalities, which emerge gradually. At the beginning God creates the world in order to make a self-image, an indication that He does not fully understand who He is but discovers Himself through interaction with humanity. Immediately the focus narrows to the man and the woman in the garden. When they disobey their creator, He responds vindictively and so reveals His own inner conflict. Called God in Genesis 1, he is lofty, powerful and bountiful; called Lord God in Genesis 2 and 3, he is intimate and volatile. Ambivalent about His image, the creator becomes the destroyer: the flood descends. A radical fault runs through the character of God.

Still other personalities surface as the cosmic God becomes the personal deity of Abraham and the friend of the family for Jacob and Joseph. In the Exodus story he shows himself to be a warrior and soon thereafter a lawgiver and liege. This mixture of identities represents a fusion of selected traits gathered from other deities in the ancient world (and teased out of the biblical texts by a generation of historical scholars)? A grand speech by Moses in Deuteronomy synthesizes these conflicting personalities to produce a relatively stable identity for God by the conclusion of the Torah.

Within this identity elements of divine self-discovery continue to develop. The first section of the Nebi'im, from Joshua, through Kings, turns the liberator of Exodus into the conqueror of Canaan, the friend of the family into the "father" of Solomon, and the lawgiver of Israel into the arbiter of international relations.

But the ending of Kings threatens to terminate God's life. It reports the destruction of the people with whom He has been working out the divine image. If His biography is to continue beyond their demise, God must change, and the prophetic books following Kings record the transformation. In them the conflicted character God carries on a life-or-death struggle to reassemble the unstable elements of His personality. In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah He tries the role of executioner, but He also holds up a vision of a peaceable kingdom. Then, in the next 27 chapters of Isaiah, He forgoes destruction and insists that mystery, not power, is the source of his holiness.

Regrettably, Mr. Miles skips over the bulk of the prophetic literature. By excluding Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, for example, he misses out on important texts for discerning God's developing personality. One consequence of these omissions is a less than satisfying discussion of female language and imagery for God. To be sure, Mr. Miles does explore the question of whether a goddess resides within Israel's God. But he hangs his discussion on Malachi (the last of the prophetic books), in which, so he claims, God refers to Himself as the wife of Israel. The matter of the female in God is far from settled.

God begins to withdraw in the last division of the Tanakh, Mr. Miles says. For the most part, testimony about Him replaces speech by Him. Psalms perceives Him primarily as counselor. Proverbs treats Him like a picture frame. He is marginal to the content of the book. But in Job His destructive impulse comes fully into consciousness. The climax happens through the man Job, who, as the perfect image of the Creator, exposes the conflicted character of God. The outcome brings about repentance—not of Job, for he has done no wrong, but of God, who restores good fortune to Job.

After the Book of Job, God never speaks again, though others repeat His speeches and report His miraculous deeds. Two sets of four books each shape these parts of the biography. In the Song of Solomon, God does not appear in the garden of Love. Ruth treats Him as a bystander who does not interact with the human characters. Lamentations waits sadly for this recluse who never comes. And Ecclesiastes declares Him a puzzle of no compelling importance. In literary terms Mr. Miles sees these books, taken together, as a denouement: they let time pass.

Following the pause, God's life moves to an elusive culmination, the last four books—endings—matching the four beginnings (creation, flood, Abraham, Moses). In Esther God is totally absent. Daniel emphatically brings Him back, but as "the Ancient of Days," an aging deity who in retirement has become passive and silent. Ezra and Nehemiah allot God an honored place, though they treat Him "like their enfeebled but cherished ward," in Mr. Miles's words. The close of Chronicles, especially the line "let him go up," repeats the opening words of Ezra to set up a literary round that in principle keeps the story of God going forever. But for Mr. Miles the moment of beauty and tenderness comes many chapters earlier: a prayer of David ascribes to God all things, most specifically greatness, power, glory, victory and majesty.

This is God's biography but many other characters appear in it, and the author is not above diverting the reader with idiosyncratic digressions. He proposes, for instance, that Abraham is not a model of faithfulness but of defiance; that Jacob at the Jabbok wrestles not with God but with Esau; that the Israelites in Egypt are not an oppressed minority seeking liberation but a majority of the population whom Pharaoh tries to dominate; that God engaged in a long struggle with humanity over the control of human fertility and that the Exodus is not a victory for justice but for fertility; that the first recorded move away from the tyranny of fertility comes in the first book of Samuel, in the gracious words of Elkanah to his barren wife Hannah; that the conflicted personalities of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel correspond to the manic, the depressive and the psychotic types in modern psychology; and that Satan in Job and Wisdom in Proverbs are mirror images, he taking on the malevolent aspect of God and she the beneficent.

At the end, Mr. Miles ponders why the life of the Lord God begins in activity and speech only to close in passivity and silence. Does God's desire for self-knowledge, shown in the creation of humanity in his image, carry the potential for tragedy? Surely the confrontation staged in Job brings God near that reality. But God is rescued. The Song of Solomon changes the subject, thereby sparing the life of God, and subsequent books give Him a different life. Though His contradictory character keeps Him trapped within Himself, it can be "trumped … by some comedic intrusion."

The twists and turns of this formidable reading offer more than enough to stir up people who are at ease in Zion, and those who are not. All who believe that God, or the devil, is in the details will have trouble. At places the argument is strained and prone to hyperbole. Nonetheless, with artistic sensitivity Mr. Miles has accomplished what others failed to try. He has made a certain literary sense of the character God in the totality of the Tanakh.

Luke Timothy Johnson (review date 19 May 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "What a Character!," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII, No. 10, May 19, 1995, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review, Johnson praises portions of God: A Biography for "stunning prose" and inventiveness but contends the book is also deeply flawed in its reliance on the order of books in the Tanakh and in its focus on God's emotions.]

Should we think of the Bible as a kind of novel, with God as the story's protagonist? And if we read the Bible in this way, will it deepen our understanding of God or of ourselves, or of the "book" we regard as sacred Scripture? Jack Miles attempts such a character study of the "Lord God" as that figure is developed within the Hebrew Bible. (An excerpt from God: A Biography was featured in Commonweal's March 10 issue.)

Borrowing the distinction made by William Kerrigan about readers of Shakespeare, Miles associates himself with those "critics" who think about the character of Hamlet, rather than with those "scholars" who are concerned only about the play Hamlet. Although the features of the character can be derived only from the text, it is only when we can imagine that character as "real" and "alive" outside the text that the character becomes compelling and places demands on our imagination. Miles moves from the hints provided by the biblical text concerning what "Lord God" thought, spoke, and did, to reflections on who this character might be.

Since Miles traces the development of God's character through the sequence of biblical books, the ordering of the texts is obviously important. Should God's character be drawn from the sequence of the Christian Old Testament (based on the Septuagint), which follows the narrative accounts with wisdom writings and concludes with the prophets? Or should it be constructed from the order of the Hebrew canon (the Tanakh), in which God first acts, then speaks, but then falls silent? Miles chooses to follow the Tanakh.

He seeks to identify the character traits of God in this sequence of texts, considering God in turn as creator, destroyer, friend of the family, liberator, lawgiver, liege, conqueror, father, arbiter, executioner, holy one, wife, counselor, guarantor, fiend, sleeper, bystander, recluse, puzzle, absence, ancient of days, scroll. He pauses frequently for excursi that pose such reflective questions as "Does God Love?" or "Does God Fail?" or (perhaps most provocatively), "Does God Lose Interest?"

Here's the story of "Lord God" in brief: God is a being without any history but with a pronounced case of multiple personality disorder. He wants a history, so invents humans "in his image." God can't decide what exactly to do with these beings, but gives them the power to reproduce, then tries to find himself in their story, changing as they change, gathering new character traits through their experience. First he fights them jealously for the power over life, then becomes a warrior who develops a taste for blood, and finally, after showing his power once too often to the canny and adamant Job, falls silent, allowing himself to be utterly incorporated into the life of the people, and ultimately, in their book about him. In short, God both finds and loses himself in his human creature. Miles concludes by suggesting that the reason why humans in the "Western Tradition" have such a complex sense of self is that they learned it from the odd combination of unity and multiplicity in their biblical God.

Although the book adopts a deliberate sort of naiveté in its tracing of God's character (taking only what the text will give, being surprised even when the text is not), it is not in the least unlearned. The author's credentials as a student of the biblical world in its Near Eastern environment are abundantly displayed, and his choice of contemporary conversation partners matches in sophistication his often stunning prose. There is much that is inventive here, much that is deeply interesting.

For all that, the book is, in my judgment, also deeply flawed. The project is obviously limited by its self-restriction to the order of books in the Tanakh. Neither for Judaism nor Christianity has the character of God been derived solely from those writings. By failing to trace the character of God as it is developed in the Christian writings of the New Testament, or continues to function as a character in Jewish intertestamental, rabbinic, and mystical literature, Miles ends up dealing with a literary abstraction.

The character of God, I would argue, has probably never been constructed from the kind of sequential reading of the canonical books here undertaken by Miles. It has been constructed in much more complex fashion in a free-ranging conversation with these texts and many others in the life and prayer and study of these rich and living religious traditions. For that reason, Miles's choice to consider the psalms (to take one example) only in one place in the sequence betrays their very essence as prayer, which resists such linear ideas of development. The psalms are not a moment in the development of a character but contain within themselves all the moments of past (and, for Christians) future developments of God's character. Miles's profile is there fore interesting but not compelling, for it is, in a very real sense, beside the point for most readers of these texts or worshipers of this God.

There are other problems in execution, even when the value of Miles's project is accepted. It seems to me to be a lapse in method to invoke, as he does, extrabiblical mythology and lore from the Ancient Near East, and use it in constructing God's character. If we want to work just with what the Bible gives us, then we should stick to that. If Miles wants to work in some cultural intertextuality, then he should give up the "construction of character from the unfolding of narrative" naiveté. But the artificiality of this pose is also shown by Miles's insistence on arguing repeatedly from silence: "if the Bible has not yet told us this or that about God, then God must not yet have been this or that." I'm not quite sure what to call this fallacy, but I am fairly sure that it is not even good literary criticism to suppose that characters acquire traits only as the text announces them.

Finally, Miles's own preoccupations are perhaps read into the text more than he realizes. I was struck by how much attention was paid to what might be called the emotive side of God's character, and how little to his mental side. The most obvious example is the portrayal of God as Lawgiver. Miles acknowledges the transtemporal greatness of the Ten Commandments. But he barely pauses over the specifically characterological implications of the heart of Torah. He rushes on to the bloodthirstiness of God, shown in the various punishments to be administered. He does not celebrate—as the entire rabbinic tradition has celebrated—what the very concept of covenant and law says about the character of God. I can only conclude that Miles considers that the confused passions of persons are more constitutive of their character than the products of their minds. Which makes me not look forward to any book he might write on the Trinity.

T. Howland Sanks (review date 1 July 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of God: A Biography, in America, Vol. 173, No. 1, July 1, 1995, pp. 24, 26.

[In the following review, Sanks notes that God: A Biography is reliant on the reader accepting a variation in the order in which the books of the Bible appear. Despite this, he calls the book "fascinating" and praises Miles's ability to stimulate readers to imagine God in new ways.]

The title [of God: A Biography], though arresting, may sound impudent or presumptuous. It is neither. It is a literary study of the Lord God, protagonist of one of the great classics of world literature. By a strictly sequential reading of the Hebrew Bible, Miles imaginatively reconstructs a life of God that has "a surprising drama and pathos about it." Adopting a stance of "deliberate naïveté," he prescinds for the most part from strictly historical and theological considerations and treats the Bible as a work of literature. The result is a tour de force.

The naïveté has to be a deliberate posture, for Jack Miles is anything but naïve. A former Jesuit, Miles has a doctorate in Near Eastern languages from Harvard, was literary editor of The Los Angeles Times, where he is currently a columnist and member of the editorial board, and a 1990 Guggenheim Fellow.

Two premises underlie this ambitious undertaking: 1) that "neither the work (the Bible) nor the character is so inhuman that interpersonal appraisal is out of the question," and 2) that "the order in which the books of the Bible appear … is a crucial artistic consideration." The second is particularly important because Miles follows the sequence of books in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, as opposed to the Christian Old Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophetic books appear in between the Torah and the Writings, whereas they are last in the Old Testament. The sequence affects how the character of the Lord God develops.

From this literary perspective, the character of God not only develops, it is also a character of multiple personalities, an amalgam, perhaps, of several ancient Near Eastern deities. From the opening of Genesis, God is a conflictive personality. In the first account of creation he is called God, elohim and creates man because he wants an image. He is sovereign power. His only command is to "Be fertile and increase" and nothing is forbidden; there is no story of human transgression. In the second account, he is called the Lord God, yahweh elohim, and seemingly creates man because he wants company rather than an image. Now there is a prohibition—not to eat of the forbidden fruit—and a transgression. Now the Lord God, regretting what he has done, explodes in fury and punishes vindictively. And then, in a tender parental gesture, covers his humiliated creatures with garments he himself puts on them. What kind of a Lord God is this?

The ambivalent relationship between the Lord God and humans continues as he shows himself to be a destroyer in the story of the Flood, of which he repents, and promises Noah never to do again. With Abraham he becomes not only creator-destroyer, but also a more personal God and, in the stories of Jacob and Joseph, a "friend of the family." In Exodus, the Lord God becomes a warrior deity, much like the Canaanite god, Baal, then Liberator and Lawgiver.

For the literary biographer, the beginning is crucial. Miles compares Genesis and Exodus to "God's childhood" when his basic identity is formed. He changes less in the following books—where he is found as Liege Lord in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, as Conqueror in Joshua and Judges, as Father in I and II Samuel and as Arbiter in I and II Kings.

There are equally mixed messages about the Lord God to be found in the prophetic literature, which Miles considers "the self-characterization of God in non-narrative form." But all these contradictory messages are presumed to be from the same divine source. The Lord God presents himself "like a lover, a husband, a mother, a shepherd, a gardener, a king and … a redeemer and 'the Holy One of Israel.'" In addition, in the Book of Isaiah, he is inherently unknowable. Yet this incomprehensibility is combined with divine access to the human heart and forms "the defining incongruity at the core of the word "God" as it is understood in the West.

For Miles, the climax of the Lord God's relationship to his creatures and of his own self-understanding is found in the Book of Job. In the speeches of the Voice from the Whirlwind, the Lord God is the ultimate synthesis of all that is terrifying in human existence—"evil and good must be found simultaneously and personally in him if they are found anywhere." God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. These speeches from the Whirlwind are God's last will and testament; from the end of the Book of Job to the end of the Tanakh, God never speaks again.

In the rest of the books, God is seen as "sleeper," "bystander" or "recluse." The story line has gone from action (creator, liberator, warrior), to speech (messages from God in the prophets), to silence (the Ancient of Days in Daniel), seemingly retired from the scene. So much so, that in a Postlude, Miles asks "Does God Lose Interest?"

This is a fascinating book. Miles's intellectually imaginative construction of a life of God stimulates even the most familiar reader to imagine God in new ways. And yet it is not mere fantasy. Miles's biography of God is solidly based in historical and literary scholarship. The God of the Bible is more complex, terrifying, unpredictable and mysterious than we can possibly imagine. Truly, the Holy is mysterium tremendum et fascinans!


Principal Works


Further Reading