Author: Jack Miles
Audiobook or Real Book: Real Book
Why I Read It: As I mentioned in my book notes on American Gods, I read a few chapters of this for a theology course in undergrad. I really enjoyed it and always meant to come back and read the whole thing.
Synopsis: Miles follows the tradition of scholars who approach Judeo-Christian religious texts as literary works, as opposed to religious or historical ones. Specifically, Miles walks readers chronologically through the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible) and uses close readings of the text to do a character analysis on the Tanakh’s protagonist: God.
General Thoughts: I was really excited to read this book. I remembered absolutely adoring it as a freshman in college and had always wished that I would find the motivation to come back to it. I was not disappointed. There is absolutely a part of me that loves this book, not for its academic value, but for religious reasons. The idea of a God that learns, changes, and considers is one that is very appealing to me (even if the God of the Tanakh never becomes a god I am particularly interested in worshiping). And as I hover around a vaguely Christian agnosticism (or that’s how I would describe it anyway), finding an image of God I like is exciting. Beyond that personal indulgence though God: A Biography is also a fascinating work of scholarship.
Of course, I will start with my complaints. Miles invites us to consider the impact of the Tanakh and Christian Bible as literary works in his introduction. He points out that their enduring success, wide readership, and massive literary influence have made them books that have shaped the very foundations of Western thought for the religious and nonreligious alike. He goes on to argue that it follows that the most important character of these two works—God—would then also have a remarkable impact on the self-image and thought process of Western civilization. Especially since God is a character that is allegedly the very being for whom mankind was made as a mirror. I have no problem with Miles premise here. He is undoubtedly right. However, in seeing the idea of the influence of God on Western thought as part of his introduction I did hope to see a bit more clarity on what Miles believes that influence to have been in his postlude. He speaks a bit about the complexity of the character of God being the defining influence on Hamlet and other truly character driven works in Western literature. He also gives a brief nod to ideas of individualism and theodicy, but largely Miles keeps his focus on God. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if I didn’t feel like the introduction had promised me much grander theories on the workings of Western civilization. My other concern is his focus on the Tanakh over the Christian Old Testament. I think it would be hard to argue that, following the translation of the Bible from Latin to common languages, the Tanakh is more widely influential than the Old Testament. In America, at least, the opposite is almost certainly true. When addressing why he chose one over the other—the primary difference between the two is the order of the books—he pays an incredibly small amount of lip service to the idea that the Tanakh is in better chronological order historically (and also confesses that he isn’t super concerned with that anyway). Mostly, he appears to have chosen the Tanakh because he likes the story it tells of God better. He thinks the confrontation between Job and God being the last time God speaks in the Tanakh makes it a crescendo in the life of God. He enjoys the “musical round” nature of the last four books of the Tanakh. He even seems to have a certain fondness for the JPS translation (although he has no trouble calling up other translations to compare points of view or when an alternate translation makes his point better). And again, I have no real problem with him choosing the Tanakh because it makes a more interesting life of God. If he had never mentioned the influence of God’s character on the Western world I probably wouldn’t care—beyond basic curiosity—how a similar reading of the Old Testament would look. But again, Miles’s introduction just oversells his work enough to make his total failure to address how the God of the Old Testament may have influenced the West differently than the God of the Tanakh just disappointing enough to be noteworthy. But for all the words I just spent on these complaints, they are pretty minor in the overall impact of Miles’s work. Especially because the first few books of the Old Testament are exactly the same as in the Tanakh.
With regards to the real purpose of God: A Biography, Miles’s interpretation of the God of the Tanakh is absolutely fascinating. (I’ll admit here that I’m struggling to figure out how to do nonfiction book notes. I think what this next paragraph or so will be is me rehashing the bits of the book I found most interesting and that will be that.) Miles does his best work in the opening chapters of the book as he examines God’s relationships with humans from Adam through Moses. In these chapters, he leans heavily on the historical reality of polytheism in the region where the ancient Israelites lived. He points out the places where God, as an individual, acts in ways that in a polytheistic religion would be the actions of many gods (even explaining which historic polytheistic gods likely influenced the foundation of the Judeo-Christian God) and explores how those conflicting behaviors can be reconciled into one being. He drives the points of these early chapters about a polytheistic pantheon in his postlude, when he reinterprets the entire Bible as a brief polytheistic story, driving home the point that the plot of the Tanakh is completely driven by the intricacies and contradictions of God’s character. Miles’s other strongest chapter is his discussion of Job. The idea that Job judged God’s morality and found it lacking is a powerful one. The idea that this could possibly have shaken God’s faith in himself is pretty stunning. Additionally, some of the most individually compelling moments are when Miles talks about God discover that he dislikes humans committing murder and when he claims that God hardens the pharaoh’s heart against the release of the Israelites as a way of exploring his identity as a warrior God.
I want to say one final thing. If you have somehow read this reflection and also not read the book I strongly recommend it. Regardless of how you feel about religion, come to it with an open mind and you will find it a fascinating read. Miles can even be rather funny on occasion.
Quotes: (fair warning I have a lot of them)
“But whether the ancient writers of the Bible created God or merely wrote down God’s revelation of himself, their work has been, in literary terms, a staggering success. It has been read aloud every week for two thousand years to audiences who have received it with utmost seriousness and consciously sought to maximize its influence upon themselves.” (5)
“Within the book of Job itself, God’s climactic and overwhelming reply seems to silence Job. But reading from the end of the Book of Job onward, we see it is Job who has somehow silenced God. God never speaks again, and he is decreasingly spoken of. In the Book of Esther—a book in which, as in the Book of Exodus, his chosen people face a genocidal enemy—he is never so much as mentioned. In effect, the Jews surmount the threat without his help.” (11)
“And yet, contradictory as this must seem, he also enters time and is changed by experience. Were it not so, he could not be surprised; and he is endlessly and often most unpleasantly surprised. God is constant; he is not immutable.” (12)
“Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it all?” (36)
“After the murder, when he says to Cain, ‘Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!’ it is as if he has at that moment discovered that murder merits condemnation.” (41)
“Just as the one command the Lord gave after God had created the world was a restriction on human procreative power, so the one command given after the Lord/God destroys the world is God’s restriction on human destructive power. Destruction is forbidden because God is a destroyer as well as a creator. Reverence aside, a human being engaging in either destruction or creating becomes his rival.” (45)
“None of the divine action reported in the Bible is unlinked to human beings; none of it is, in that sense, purely divine. God takes no action that does not have man as its object. There are no ‘adventures of God’”. (86)
“If we were forced to say in one word who God is and in another what the Bible is about, the answer would have to be God is a warrior, and the Bible is about victory. The meaning of victory will change, yet no substitute will ever be found for the language of victory” (106)
“The difference in mood between this Psalm and ‘a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rock!’ is breathtaking; and in the long run any discussion of the Lord God must admit that both moods are native to him. Neither Psalmist is mistaken about him. And it should be noted that even Psalm 23, so often printed in illustrated versions for children, includes the prayer that the Lord will make it possible to flaunt his good fortune before his enemies” (282)
“When God himself turns out to be a gambler, all human bets are off.” (310)
“Job does divorce the Lord: Forced to choose between justice and God, he chooses justice, a choice the Lord eventually concedes was the correct one.” (337)
Here I quote Miles quoting Edwin M. Good “’I will grant this to those who think that Job repents of some sin. If willfully misconstruing the world is a sin, Job repents of it. If thinking that the issue of sin is important in construing the world is a sin, Job repents of it. If the essence of religion is that it solves the problem of sin, Job repents of religion’ (In Terms of Tempest, p. 378)” (427)
Further Questions: I know Miles has written something of a sequel called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God and I definitely hope to check that out someday.
This book also helped rekindle my interest in the history of literary criticism and the different active schools of that criticism.
Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here. The idea that anyone would read 1000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant. But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it. Just comment. Hopefully if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that