Commentary Magazine


God: A Biography, by Jack Miles

Reading the Mystery

God: A Biography.
by Jack Miles.
Knopf. 446 pp. $27.50.

No summary of mine can do justice to the richness of this book. Jack Miles, a journalist and former Jesuit who holds a doctorate in Near Eastern languages from Harvard, has conceived the idea, which may not be entirely new but has never before been pursued with such thoroughness, of treating the God of the Bible as a literary character. In his pages, God emerges as a complex and ever-changing personality, the hero of the greatest work of literature in mankind’s history, created over hundreds of years by different artists of varying skills.

It is Miles’s argument that God changes profoundly in the course of the Bible. The interest of his work—rather, one of its many interests—lies in his exploration of how and why. In a sense, he writes, God ages, like the earth He creates and the human race He designs to possess it.

We see Him first as an immensely energetic being, “as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured.” This is, as it were, a young, adventurous, innovative, and highly imaginative God, hopeful and dynamic, relishing His power to create and design, a muscular God—muscular in mind as well as body—fit for a pictorial epic by Michelangelo. But if that is the God of the beginning, by the end of the Bible we see God as the “ancient of days,” white-haired and silent, “looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne”—a William Blake sort of God.

In tracing the ages of God, Miles notes carefully the patterns of His speech. At the very beginning of Genesis, God is so talkative He talks to Himself, for there is no other living thing to hear Him. At other times in the early sections of the Bible, He says a great deal both to Himself and to men. Then comes a gradual decline into silence, a growing taciturnity of which the Book of Job is an important landmark: thereafter, God’s speeches are merely recapitulated.

One of the reasons for this growing silence, Miles thinks, is a desire on God’s part to become more mysterious. The early, loquacious God is at some pains to reveal Himself. He creates man in His own image precisely so that man may know and understand what monotheism is all about. It is as though God were anxious to talk man through the divine plan, instructing him on how to give satisfaction to his Maker. This early God, remarks Miles, “rarely says of Himself that He is mysterious and more than once implies the opposite.” In Deuteronomy, for example, He insists with some asperity that what He tells His people to do is perfectly plain:

Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” [Deuteronomy 30:11-12]

Later, however, an increasingly silent God deliberately surrounds Himself in mystery. Indeed, the emergence of the God who is part mystery carries beyond the end of the Hebrew Bible and is a critical aspect of early Christianity. Paul, for example, insists that “now we see Him through a glass, darkly” and that only in the next world will we “see Him face to face.” The notion that “the ways of God are mysterious” is a very important axiom of Christianity to this day, part comfort, part irritation—and part theological escapism, too. It helps to explain the emergence of a centralized structure in Christianity, with a powerful hierarchy acting as a mediator and explainer between God and man.

Since the mystery element is much more important in Christian than in Jewish theology, it is ironic, Miles observes, that we see the growth of taciturnity and mystery in God more clearly in the traditional Jewish ordering of the books of the Bible than in the Christian. And this is a good place to note one of the major strengths of God: A Biography—namely, Miles’s care throughout in distinguishing between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, two different arrangements of the same books which themselves reflect the collective personalities of the world’s two highest religions.

The Christian Old Testament shifts the great prophetic collections—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets—to the end, leaving in the middle what Miles calls “the books of silence”: Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Behind this altered arrangement lies, perhaps, the desire on the part of Christian redactors to create a greater sense of continuity between the Old Testament and the New, which is itself a book of speech, if only by Jesus.

_____________

 

The bulk of God: A Biography is devoted to delineating the variety of roles in which the Bible presents God: creator, destroyer, creator-destroyer, friend of the family, liberator, lawgiver, father, conqueror, executioner, arbiter, restorer, counselor, Holy One, sleeper, recluse, and finally old man, wearied by time. And God is also shown by Miles in His various moods: exhilarated and troubled, puzzled and puzzling, a mere bystander, even altogether absent. Throughout, Miles examines the questions that are raised by the texts: What is it like to be God? Does God fail? Can and does God love? Then, in a final chapter entitled “Does God Lose Interest?,” he offers some general reflections.

In essence, Miles sees the biblical God as a divided being, a case of schizophrenia. In polytheistic religions, the various aspects of divinity are often played by different gods, each of whom embodies a single salient characteristic. In monotheism, by contrast, God has to play all the parts. So He is, or appears to be, a mass of opposites—tender and ruthless, the all-powerful Lord of heaven but also the sorrowing friend of the poor, and so on.

Miles views the Bible as a tragedy—rather like Hamlet, the play which inspired him to write this book. Hamlet is trapped within himself. He tries to be at once a ruthless avenger and a scrupulous moralist who argues through all his actions before performing them; in the end, however, he does nothing, and falls victim himself. So it is with the Bible: God’s character, being all-inclusive of divinity, is a contradictory one, and He Himself ends by being trapped within its contradictions.

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I have said that Miles’s book is exceptionally rich and rewarding, and so it is. But it is also an exercise in literary criticism—a reading—and thus has little or nothing to do with theology. One possible reading of the Bible—Miles’s reading—makes God a divided character. But is He so in reality?

Whether or not one believes the Bible is divinely inspired, in part or in whole, it is clearly and without doubt a gigantic intellectual effort—a superhuman effort, one might say—by passionate believers to describe in words a Being Who is nevertheless, by His nature, for the most part unknowable and unfathomable, and therefore ultimately indescribable. The myriad aspects of God discussed by Miles—the aging process, the contradictions—merely reflect the human limitations of the men, and possibly the women, who set down the Scriptures. God Himself, however, is not a character in a work of literature, still less a collection of characters warring among themselves: for believers He is a living being, existing in the real world He has created, and united in His perfections.

Miles’s book, therefore, leaves me with two abiding thoughts: admiration for the courage of those who wrote the Bible, a task which by its nature was beyond the power of man alone; and renewed curiosity about the real Being behind the flickering, confusing, often mystifying man-made images of the biblical text.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.




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