I just finished re-reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles. It came out in 1996, and I read and liked it then. I’m surprised I’ve never written about it; I think it’s my favorite book about God.
Illo by Robert Leighton
We often hear about “the Bible as literature”, but we rarely treat it as literature. This is what Miles does; more precisely, he aims to analyze God as a literary character.
This probably wouldn’t work without one further constraint: Miles goes through the Tanakh in order, analyzing what the text says about God without reading ahead, and without reference to later theology, whether Jewish or Christian. That turns the book from a humdrum Bible-reading plan into a series of shocks and surprises.
Now, eventually this process will result in a portrait of the God most people remember. But it takes surprisingly long to add in all the pieces. God, at first, makes few demands on humans. Even when he finds some humans he commits to— Noah, Abram, Joseph— he does not ask for worship or prayer, does not talk about love or law or justice. He has a strange obsession with human fertility. He does not refer to himself as a father till the story of David; does not present himself as a king until we reach the Prophets.
If you’re a believer, the book is likely to be challenging, yet fascinating. Miles doesn’t assume orthodox theology, so he is constantly asking: what do we know about God so far; what does God think he’s doing? God is always supremely confident, but Miles makes a good case from the text that he is constantly improvising, constantly surprised at the things humans do, surprised too at what he himself does in response. From being the creator of mankind he moves to being a fiery destroyer… seems to repent of that, and concentrates on a single human family, becoming its patron… loses track of them, then rediscovers them as a large population oppressed in Egypt… turns himself into a mighty warrior on behalf of his adopted people, yet becomes murderous when they don’t do what he wants, which is often.
Though he doesn’t use later theology to elucidate any of this, he does use historical criticism— showing how strands of God’s character come from different traditions, related to various Semitic gods. Genesis, for instance, has been knit together from two accounts, one of which calls God ʾElohim (‘god’), the other Yahweh. The patron god of Abraham acts much like other friendly family gods; the warrior god of Exodus has much in common with Baʿal. (The goddesses are largely present as an absence: the compilers made sure God was both extremely male, and devoid of sexuality. Yet feminine points of view do appear later in the book.)
This is given as essential background information, but isn’t allowed to undermine the unity of the text. The Tanakh was put together as one text, after all, and we read it, not the original sources or myths. But the seams where it was knit together show, and help explain exactly why God, as a character, is both compelling and unpredictable. He seems conflicted because he was put together out of conflicting elements. We don’t read the text as a story of multiple gods, but of one personality whose conflicts, like ours, are internal.
Miles chooses to read the book in the Jewish order. Tanakh is an abbreviation: Torah + Nebiʾim (Prophets) + Ketubim (writings). You can compare the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic orders here. But in short, the Tanakh follows the Christian order through Kings (with the exception of Ruth). Then it includes all the prophets, major and minor. Then, everything else: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.
The order doesn’t make a difference for the main narrative of the Exodus, the lawgiving, the conquest of Israel, the apogee under Solomon, the centuries of decadence, and the final catastrophe— the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon.
But it does make a huge difference toward the end: in the last of the Writings, God is increasingly eclipsed. His last words are spoken in Job; after that, for nine books, he is silent. He is frequently discussed and invoked and referred to, of course, but he never speaks, much less acts in the world as he did in the first books. He’s barely present in Song of Songs and Esther; and in Ezra and Nehemiah the roles of the Jews and God have almost reversed: where once God acted and the Israelites reacted (or disobeyed), now the Jews act, and God is simply their passive inspiration.
It’s often said that God answered and silenced Job, and Job repented. From the text as written, however, it would be more accurate to say that Job has silenced God. Job is truly a strange book: first, a new character named Satan is introduced; he makes a wager— which God accepts— that Job will renounce God if his worldly goods and his health are removed. Job does not renounce God, but he bitterly complains about his treatment: why should an innocent man be punished? God appears to reprimand him, but tries to change the subject: his entire discourse is an eloquent poem on his own sovereign power. Job concedes, of course, that God is all-powerful. God does not attribute sin to Job, neither does he explain the very ungodly wager he made.
In most translations Job repents, but Miles makes a good case that this is a pious mistranslation. Rather than “I repent in ashes”, Job says “I feel loathing and sorrow for man’s state.”
God never apologizes in words, but occasionally he changes his course of action, and in this case he quickly restores Job’s fortunes. We hear no more of Satan. And perhaps he goes off to think about what sort of being he’s become, because he offers no more prophesy and no more miraculous interventions in history.
And yet it’s not a defeat— more of a retirement in honor. If anything, the Jews do better— taking the Law and their God more seriously than they ever did when he was constantly and directly involved with them.
Miles is by no mean a hostile observer. Sometimes you need to shake things up to make a text come alive. He is always erudite and charming. And if you’re not a believer, there’s no better or safer guide to the Tanakh. He’ll show you what’s there, and introduce you to the striking characters inside it, without prodding you to believe or disbelieve in anything.
In 2002 he came out with a sequel, Christ: a crisis in the life of God. It attempts to apply the same treatment to the New Testament, but I found it far less interesting, because it takes far fewer liberties. It basically goes over the standard idea of the incarnation, but doesn’t bring much that’s new to the story. If you want new ways to think about the NT, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which reconstructs the dizzying array of theological options in the first centuries of Christianity, without assuming the correctness of what became the orthodox faction.