World of Our Father

by Frank Kermode | June 26, 1995

God: A Biography

By Jack Miles

(Knopf, 446 pp., $27.50)

The Postmodern Bible

By The Bible and Culture Collective

(Yale University Press, 416 pp., $35)

Jack Miles is a learned and original critic. In an age in which such belletristic skills are commonly regarded as irrelevant or even harmful to the true business of criticism, he knows what it is to be a writer. Unusually gifted critics will sometimes choose to write peculiar books, and this is what Miles has done. A reviewer can hardly help being preoccupied with its oddity, but before yielding to that temptation he ought to say that God: A Biography is an admirable and absorbing achievement.Cultivated people may assume that at this date the last repetitive or disappointing word has been said on Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, the Lord God or simply God, as he or they (but not she) figured in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. They should form a large part of the audience for this book.

Miles, if one can say so without the least intention to sound disparaging, is engaged in a game, the rules of which he states very clearly. He is writing the life of God "as—and only as—the protagonist of a classic of world literature, namely the Hebrew Bible." The assumption is that the character of God can be discussed in much the way we talk about the character of Macbeth or Hamlet, by building up a fuller portrait from the suggestions in the text. Miles cites the Shakespearian critic A.C. Bradley as his authority for this procedure, not caring that Bradley's book is now almost a century old or that it has often been condemned for diverting attention from text to "character." It remains influential because its basic procedures seem close to what we all do from day to day: we form estimates of the characters of people from incomplete data. So it seems sensible enough to guess from the text of the play what sort of a person Macbeth "really" was: superstitious, uxorious, brave, cruel and so forth.It might even seem relevant to inquire, from the unclear evidence in the text, whether he and his wife had any children. And this is roughly the way Miles considers God.

There are problems. God is not a human being, though at the outset of the story he wants human beings, and lots of them, to be his mirror images. At some points he seems to behave like them, as if he were angry, jealous and so on. This anthropomorphism was a problem for older commentators.They got over it by saying that the divinely inspired text had been accommodated to the limitations of human understanding, so that when God stretched forth his arm, or repented or cursed, one wasn't to think of him as active or impassioned in the manner of a human being; such expressions were the inevitable consequence of the need to talk about him in human terms. But Miles has no use for such excuses. He takes God as he occurs in the text. If it says that God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, historians and theologians may demur or allegorize or explain away or accommodate, but according to the rules of Miles's game God did exactly that. If it states that God tells lies, has evil impulses, condones and commits reprehensible trickeries and serial genocides, and occasionally feels remorse, then it was so. And if the text neglects to record that he is married, he isn't.

The fact that the text contains differing and not always compatible accounts of God, and calls him by different names, only adds to the fun. Where historical scholarship detects variant versions, Miles perceives "divine ambivalence." The story of Adam and Eve is given in two different versions, the second of which, with its trivial prohibition and ferocious punishment, shows us that God "has two strikingly distinct personalities" and that he is the site of a terrible struggle between good and evil impulses. Miles will have nothing to do with allegory. The idea that the story of the prohibition, the discovery of nakedness and the expulsion from Eden, is a myth that explains fallen sexuality and death (which seemed obvious to Milton) is not canvased here. Milton was clearly appalled by the sentence of death on Adam and Eve, for we, and the creation generally, were naturally immortal, so the judgment that made us and all created things "unimmortal" struck him as very bitter. Not so Miles. He sticks to the text.

Israel may be called God's wife in one place and God's husband in another, but Miles declines to regard these as metaphors. One way or another, his God is "obsessed with reproduction"—hence circumcision, by which he takes possession of Abraham's penis—and with "the physical manifestations of reproductive fertility: nocturnal emission, menstruation, and the variety of permitted and forbidden sexual couplings" that occupy so much space in Leviticus. But unlike Baal, his rival, the Lord God doesn't go in for coupling himself, which may explain why the Baal cult was a "perennial temptation" to the Israelites.

The order of the books in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is not the same as that in the Christian Old Testament, and Miles sticks to the former. It offers a more or less continuous narrative from Genesis to 2 Kings ("the Deuteronomistic history," it is called, which reminds one that Miles does have recourse to historical scholarship, and also to linguistic scholarship, when he feels like it). In this narrative, the character of God can be seen to pass through several phases. He begins to recognize himself as a warrior, a lawgiver, a partner in covenants. Covenants may be, and are, broken; but he cannot simply take the obvious next step and sever his relationship with his people, because in doing so he would abolish himself.

As the story goes on, God begins to think of himself as a father to his people, and then as having a duty to be merciful, a protector of the weak. It is important to Miles's game that he represents these changes not as developing human ideas about God, but as developments in God's character. A century ago, or thereabouts, there were philosophers who argued that God must be evolving, just like his creation; the deity shows marked signs of superior adaptation as the Bible progresses, giving up blood sacrifice, and so on. But Miles is saying something different. His God has no being whatever outside the Hebrew Bible, and if he develops, it is only in the sense that Hamlet is said to develop, achieving a sort of resigned calm after much anger.

Miles's God reaches a sort of midlife crisis, and at a point marked by Isaiah 39 he discovers something about love, a subject that he had hitherto shown no interest in at all. Near the mid-point of the book, there occurs this remarkable passage:

Perhaps because God has no life other than the one he lives through mankind ... nearly all his key experiences seem to subvert his intentions. 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. 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 that when he destroyed his rival he would regret the destruction of his image. He did not realize that his covenant with Abraham...would require him ... to go to war with Egypt. He did not realize when he went to war with Egypt that his victory would leave him with an entire people on his hands and would require him to become a lawgiver for them and conquer a land for them to live in. He did not realize when he gave them the law that where there is law there can be transgression.... He did not realize when he began to withdraw from his alliance with Israel, after Israel's first, minor infidelities, that the aftermath would be the rise of a king, David, whose charisma would draw the Lord almost despite himself into a quasi-parental relationship with his semi-abandoned ally. He did not realize when his erstwhile ally deserted him wholesale and he made Assyria and Babylonia the tools of his vengeance that he was creating a new international role for himself. He did not realize that once they had inflicted his punishment for him, his feelings, rather than those of a vindicated suzerain, would be those of a grieving husband for a battered wife. He did not realize as he contemplated her suffering that he would find a meaning in human suffering unlike any he had ever seen before.

With such a record of incomprehension, it can fairly be said of Miles's God that like his creatures "he lives his life one stage at a time" and "is painfully unable to foresee his end in his beginning." Despite evidence of humane improvement, he is profoundly inconsistent, being at once the shepherd of Psalm 23 and the baby-butcher of Psalm 137; and as he grows older he continues to misunderstand situations of his own creation, most notably in his contest with Job. According to Miles, God's "raw power" doesn't prevail; Job wins on points, and God is rather ashamed to discover he is what Job takes him to be. Much chastened by this unexpected reversal, the Lord then loses interest in himself and in the rest of the Tanakh he speaks not another word, though he is saved from extinction by the Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ruth. Treating the Tanakh as he would any other narrative, Miles is not bothered that Ruth foresees the birth of David, who of course comes earlier, or by any similar difficulty. If you read the same material in the order provided by the Christian Bible, you would get a different result; but Miles likes the book exactly as it stands. He is not considering God as God may be considered outside his text.

If the Bible were generically a novel (admittedly a very odd one, but there are lots of odd novels) rather than a sacred text, one might want to say more about Miles's interpretive ingenuity. He is continually surprising us with the sort of move that gets marked "!" in chess reports. He plays the game very well. But I have stressed the ludic quality of his book to the extent that I may have created the impression that it is not serious. It is very serious indeed. To see, from however strange an angle, the whole of a book that we normally view through all sorts of distorting glasses, understand by means of prejudices all the harder to discard because they are usually ingrained from childhood, is a notable imaginative feat. It isn't necessary to accept Miles's account of God's character to be refreshed by his determination to base it on what is there, without recourse to devices intended to make God fit some prior notion of what he should be like. This is a new kind of fundamentalism. In its entirely different way, this book might be as instructive to students of the Bible as Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative proved some twenty years ago.

The committee that produced The Postmodern Bible had intentions more explicitly revolutionary. No individual claims responsibility for any of the chapters, so the badly written, chest-thumping introduction of the book must be ascribed to a corporate vainglory. The authors claim to challenge the epistemology and the disciplinary practices "that privilege the autonomous self, an ideology that values private ownership," though they were, they admit, a little sorry to lose individual nuance and subtlety in the process, and they rather touchingly thank their copy editor for achieving what might seem an impossible synthesis by "enabling us to retain ... our different voices and at the same time to speak collectively as one."

They are triumphantly sure that the age of historical criticism is all but over. An evil practice, it "brackets out the contemporary milieu" and "excludes any examination of the ongoing formative effects of the Bible." It has "implicitly veiled the historical character of biblical scholarship's entanglements with modernity and has therefore left unexamined its own critical and theoretical assumptions as well as the cultural conditions that produced, sustained, and validated them."

The Bible and Culture Collective, a group of mostly youthful scholars from various theological colleges, certainly does not mean to fall into these bad ways. The remedy at hand is postmodernism, obscurely but impressively defined as "modernity coming to terms with its own impossibility." All you have to do is sweep away secure notions of meaning. This is done "by radically calling into question the apparently stable foundations of meaning on which traditional interpretation is situated." These treacherous foundations support "systems of power ... that authorise or block what can be said or written about the Bible." To be rid of them will require drastic changes in institutional structures, a notion that presumably embraces the entire educational system and perhaps the political system as well. That achieved, we can hope to be "emancipated from false consciousness." Meanwhile what can truly be said about the Bible must be discovered by the application of Theory, here divided up into reader-response criticism, structuralist and narratological criticism, poststructuralist criticism, rhetorical criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, feminist and womanist criticism and ideological criticism. Demonstrations are promised in the sequel.

Since the introduction is a manifesto, some posturing can be excused. Thereafter each chapter gives a detailed account of the approach to be employed, and it is fair to say that these expositions are very well done. If you are interested in the internecine relations of reader-response critics or the conflicting varieties of poststructuralism, this is a good place to study them. Whether the accompanying passages intended to demonstrate application of postmodernist methods to the actual texts of the Bible proves them to be useful and emancipatory is quite another matter.

There has always been controversy, for example, about the occurrence in Mark's gospel of two "feeding stories": 5,000 people are fed on loaves and fishes in Chapter 6 and 4,000 people are fed in Chapter 8. It is understandable that the disciples thought this impossible in the first instance, but it is harder to explain why they experience the same mystification the second time around. Traditional critics (who are bound to be wrong) say soberly that these are two variants of one story, and make certain suggestions as to how the repetition came about. Mark is noted for his redundancies and repetitions, linguistic as well as narrative, and they can be thought a part of his style. So the response of the historical critics is illegitimate: they aren't reading the text, they are reading something that lies concealed, they think, behind it. Yet the new version of these postmodernists, purged of institutional power and political conditioning, seems inept and even silly. The repetition is, boringly as well as improbably, described as an instance of "dramatic irony," since we know better than the disciples; and you must be "blinded by your prejudice" to accept the more plausible explanation of this obvious anomaly.

This is feeble, and it will not persuade many readers that a "shift in consciousness" has introduced a new age of self-critical clarity, much less that it is the prelude to an understanding of the connection between "hermeneutical relations" and "political power." As one reads on through these excited but accurate restatements of Theory, the impression grows that the team is far more interested in Theory than in the Bible. This is understandable, since they evidently believe there is no salvation outside the poststructuralist church.

There are moments, it is true, when the contributors affect to have their doubts. "Does poststructuralism simply drain away certainty and understanding, leaving us in the peculiar position of affirming only the negative?" they wonder. Perhaps, they rather surprisingly admit, "traditional historical criticism may yet be salvageable." And a postscript worries that this book is itself an "ideological gesture" (as, of course, it is). Such moments of doubt and humility are transient, but at least the tone of the postscript is refreshingly different from that of the introduction. It was one thing to condemn the great tradition of biblical criticism as dishonest and politically incorrect, and quite another to make its postmodernist replacement look as pure and purgative, intellectually and politically, as the postmodern manifesto proclaims it to be. Curiously enough, for all its trumpeting about novelty, consciousness-shifting and so forth, The Postmodern Bible is a far less original work than Jack Miles's biography of God. 

Frank Kermode is the author or editor of more than 60 books. His most recent work is Concerning E.M. Forster.

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