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On Sale: March 30, 2011
Pages: 464 | ISBN: 978-0-307-78913-6
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What sort of "person" is God? Is it possible to approach him not as an object of religious reverence, but as the protagonist of the world's greatest book--as a character who possesses all the depths, contradictions, and abiguities of a Hamlet? In this "brilliant, audacious book" (Chicago Tribune), a former Jesuit marshalls a vast array of learning and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible to illuminate God--and man--with a sense of discovery and wonder.




Can God's Life Be Written?

Can a literary character be said to live a life from birth to death or otherwise to undergo a development from beginning to end? Or is a literary character-fixed on the pages of a book, trapped forever in the same few words and actions-the very opposite of a living, developing human being?

Contention on this point has shaped a century of Hamlet criticism, according to a recent survey by William Kerrigan, who calls the two contending groups the critics and the scholars. The critics, he says, dominant at the start of the century, believed in character. They believed that to talk about Hamlet the play, you had to talk about Hamlet the man: what he said, what he did, and how he changed during the time between his first and his last words onstage. The scholars, dominant in the middle of the century, took as their motto Hamlet's own line "The play's the thing." They believed that, empirically speaking, there was no Hamlet, only Shakespeare's words on the page, and that therefore one could legitimately talk only about them. If one went beyond them, it could not be into the imagined rest of Hamlet, for the rest was silence, to borrow another line from the play. One could go only into the rest of Elizabethan drama and Elizabethan society, seeking other plays that Shakespeare might have known, deepening one's knowledge of the language he spoke, and so forth.

The dean of the critics was A. C. Bradley, whose still influential Shakespearean Tragedy was published in 1904. The turning point from criticism to scholarship and from character to dramaturgy as a focus may be dated to 1933, when L. C. Knights wrote a famous essay, "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" mocking Bradley's assumption-naive in Knights's view-that literary character could ever be talked about in its own right. Knights believed that Bradley's approach was perhaps appropriate for biography but certainly inappropriate for literary criticism.

For decades, Kerrigan shows, the triumph of scholarship over criticism seemed complete. Most of those now teaching and writing about Shakespeare were trained by scholars. Yet criticism never quite folded its tent, and in the last years of the century an interesting bifurcation has occurred.

On the one hand, the kind of historicism whose rise may be dated to Knights's essay has been succeeded by a "New Historicism" with intellectual debts to French thought. Broadly, where the Old Historicism sought to understand the history that was embedded in the text of the play, the New Historicism seeks to understand the play as itself embedded in history. Thus, Kerrigan writes:

Stephen Greenblatt [the best-known of the New Historicists] famously concludes his Renaissance Self-fashioning with the declaration that he had started to write a book on Renaissance individuals but discovered in the end that there are no individuals. One is somewhat amazed to learn at the beginning of his Shakespearean Negotiations that he started this book, too, in a quest for the writer's unique intensity but discovered in the end that there are no writers: "This book argues that works of art, however intensely marked by the creative intelligence and private obsession of individuals, are the products of collective negotiation and exchange.";

The reign of scholarship continues, therefore; yet, on the other hand, at least a few erstwhile scholars are surreptitiously defecting to criticism, among them Kerrigan himself. "I was trained by scholars," he writes, "and speaking of 'character development' in Hamlet makes me uneasy. But I do not know how else to describe the shift from the self-loathing Hamlet of the final two soliloquies to the beautifully calm Hamlet of Act 5." Philosophically, Bradley was a Hegelian, and the struggle between him and Knights was a literary version of the long-running contest between German (or Continental) idealism and British empiricism. But both traditions trace, ultimately, to classical antiquity, and Kerrigan ends his survey with Aristotle:

So we need to understand Hamlet's beginning and his end, and need to put them together. Modern Aristotles puzzling out the mysterious tragedy of character, we must connect beginning, middle, and end.

That's the way it's done.


That is the way it will be done in this book. I have begun this foreword with a discussion of Hamlet because I want to situate my subject in literature. I write here about the life of the Lord God as-and only as-the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an extraliterary reality. I do not write as a historian and therefore do not focus, as historians do, on the successive Israelite and Jewish communities that believed in God. My interest goes not to those believing communities but, after the fashion of A. C. Bradley, to the God they believed in. And I believe with Bradley, and against Knights, that the biographical effect-the artistic suggestion of a life-is inseparable from the dramatic or literary effect itself. Unless the viewer of Hamlet can believe that Hamlet was born and will die, unless the viewer's imagination is carried offstage into the life for which there is no direct evidence onstage, the play dies with its protagonist. A character understood to have no life offstage can have no life onstage. And so it is also with God as the protagonist of the Bible.

If biography is seen narrowly as a branch of history, then there can be no biography of a nonhistorical character. But God does have a first and a last appearance in the Hebrew Bible. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured, We see him last as the "Ancient of Days," white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne. This book becomes a biography of a special sort by dint of its determination to describe the middle that lies between so vigorous a beginning and so quiescent an end.

The beginning and the end of the Hebrew Bible are not linked by a single, continuous narrative. Well short of the halfway point in the text, the narrative breaks off. What then follow are, first, speeches spoken by God; second, speeches spoken either to or, in some degree, about God; third, a protracted silence; and, last, a brief resumption of the narrative before a closing coda. The narrative suspense that lasts from the Book of Genesis through II Kings is succeeded, past that point, by another kind of suspense, one more like the kind jurors experience in a courtroom as different witnesses take the stand to talk about the same person. A sequence of testimonies-each in its own distinctive voice, with its own beginning and end-can be as effective as narrative in suggesting that the person about whom the words are spoken does not stop where the words stop. This is the biographical effect in another form. And even in this form, it is an effect that can include a sense of forward movement, of "What next?"

After action yields to speech in the Hebrew Bible, however, speech yields in its turn to silence. God's last words are those he speaks to Job, the human being who dares to challenge not his physical power but his moral authority. 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 that 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 faces a genocidal enemy-he is never so much as mentioned. In effect, the Jews surmount the threat without his help.

What is the meaning of the long twilight of the Hebrew Bible, its ten closing books of silence? The twilight is not followed by darkness: God does not die. But he never again intervenes in human affairs, and by accumulating implication, no further intervention is expected of him. His chosen people, returned from exile, cherishes him more than ever as his life ends-more, certainly, than when he vanquished Pharaoh "with mighty hand and outstretched arm" and led them through the desert to the promised land. Back then, they were recalcitrant, and he called them, bitterly, "stiff-necked." Now they are devout, but he has nothing further to say to them or about them-or to or about anybody or anything else. God and his people are beautifully, movingly reconciled as the Hebrew Bible ends, but it scarcely seems blasphemy to say that his own life is over.

This broad movement from action to speech to silence yields an account that might be called theography, as distinct from either theology or biography. A medieval mystic once wrote, "God cancels the successiveness of men," meaning that while human beings experience their lives one day at a time, God sees their lives' time as a portrait on a wall, every moment visible to him at once. But human beings have returned the favor with a vengeance, canceling the successiveness of the protagonist of the Bible by a tradition of Bible reading that regards the entirety of the text as simultaneous to itself, so that any verse may be read as the commentary on any other verse and any statement true of God at one point is taken to be true of God at all points.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever," the New Testament reads at Hebrews 13:8; but that one late and questionable verse aside, there is virtually no warrant in the New Testament for any claim that God is immutable, and there is equally little in the Hebrew Bible. The origin of this view lies presumably in Aristotelian philosophy, with its view of God as the unmoved mover, existing in a single, eternal moment. True, the Lord God of Israel is the creator and ruler of time, and the Psalms delight in repeating that he lives forever. To that extent he is like Aristotle's unmoved mover. 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.

A strictly sequential reading of the Hebrew Bible is a way to recover the successiveness, the character development or theography, that "Aristotelian" exegesis has obscured. Thus, Christians pray "Our Father, who art in heaven . . . " as Christ did, and imagine that the being who says, at Genesis 1:3, "Let there be light" is a father, but God does not refer to himself as a father at that point. Only several hundred pages later, in II Samuel 7, does he do this for the first time. Jews pray "Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe"; and imagine that the God of Genesis is a king, but he does not present himself as a king until even later, at Isaiah 6. "Later" in this context does not mean later in historical time but simply later in the exposition, further along in a start-to-finish reading of the book. Historically speaking, the "time" when God says "Let there be light" lies outside time; but from the point of view of a reader beginning at the beginning of the Book of Genesis and reading straight on from there, we may still speak of "later" and "earlier." In this book, we often shall.

There is no pretending that a diachronic or straight-through reading of the Hebrew Bible is the only possible approach to the character of God as its protagonist. A synchronic reading is also possible. That is, instead of proceeding from beginning to end in quasi-chronological order, a critic may create a set of topical headings and gather under each all the texts that seem to belong there. But a self-consciously naive, start-to-finish approach, besides being more respectful of the integrity of the Bible as a work of literature, has, as we shall see, a surprising drama and pathos about it.

Because this is a literary rather than a historical study, deliberate na?vet? of another sort becomes possible and indeed necessary. Critical historians of any period or subject are at pains to distinguish what really happened from what did not happen. Even when they are quite certain that they are dealing with a literary invention, their concern is not to appreciate the invention in itself as a work of literary art but to recover from it evidence about some real history, if only the intellectual history of its author. Myth, legend, and history mix endlessly in the Bible, and Bible historians are endlessly sorting them out. Literary criticism, however, not only can but must leave them mixed. The Book of Genesis says that God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, an event that obviously has no status as history but one that for the purposes of this work must be counted as a moment in the life of God and as evidence, however minor, about his developing character. We may allow the historians to tell us what really happened. We may allow the theologians to tell us whether the real God would ever do a thing like that. For literary purposes, however, which are the only purposes of this book, the fact that the protagonist of the book does indeed perform this action on its pages is enough to bring it into the reckoning.

Skeptical readers may ask, of course, whether there is not, even in a secular era, something misbegotten about an attempt to understand God in terms so like those we use to understand human beings. Robert Alter writes in this vein:

There is little to be gained, I think, by conceiving of the biblical God, as Harold Bloom does, as a human character-petulant, headstrong, arbitrary, impulsive, or whatever. The repeated point of the biblical writers is that we cannot make sense of God in human terms.

But Alter exaggerates. One of the very earliest statements any biblical writer makes about God is that mankind, male and female, is God's image-an unmistakable invitation to make some sense of God in human terms. God rarely says of himself that he is mysterious and more than once implies the opposite, as when, speaking of whether his words are difficult to understand, he says:

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?" (Deut. 30:11-12)
Jack Miles

About Jack Miles

Jack Miles - God: A Biography
Jack Miles is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, the The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, where he served for ten years as literary editor and as a member of the newspaper’s editorial board. The recipient of a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages from Harvard University and a former Jesuit, he has been a Regents Lecturer at the University of California, director of the Humanities Center at Claremont Graduate University, and visiting professor of humanities at the California Institute of Technology. His first book, God: A Biography, won a Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into fifteen languages. Currently senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, a foundation supporting art and scholarship, Dr. Miles lives with his wife and daughter in Southern California.


WINNER Pulitzer Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The discussion topics and author biography that follow are meant to enhance your
group's reading of Jack Miles's God: A Biography. We hope that they will provide you
with new ways of looking at--and talking about--a work that has been praised for its
audacious and erudite approach to a question that has preoccupied Jews and Christians,
believers and unbelievers, for close to six millennia: Who is God? Or, rather, what sort
of character is God?

About the Guide

Although Miles is a former Jesuit and has a formidable background in philosophy, archaeology, and Near Eastern languages, the purpose of his inquiry is not theological but literary. Using the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, as his text, Miles sets out to portray the unimaginably powerful and disturbingly contradictory
figure who is its protagonist. And what emerges is a character who possesses all the depths and ambiguities of Shakespeare's Hamlet. To the devout, God is immutable, changeless throughout eternity. But a sequential reading of the Tanakh reveals a God who changes from book to book--and sometimes within the same book. In Genesis alone, he is by turns a creator and a destroyer; magnanimous and vengeful; a detached being who stands outside of history and a divine matchmaker who helps find a suitable bride for Isaac. In his analysis of subsequent books, Miles depicts God's transformation from the liberator of Exodus to the demanding liege of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; from the conqueror of Joshua to the diplomat of Kings; from the father of Samuel to the reproachful wife of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi; from the implacable executioner of Isaiah to the consoling counselor of Psalms.

In most literature, characters are revealed through their interactions with other characters. So, too, God's character unfolds through his relationships with human beings, the only creation he has made in
his own image. In the beginning, he seems to expect nothing from these images. Yet Adam's disobedience moves him to fury, and the apostasy of the wandering Israelites drives him to slaughter thousands. He is all-powerful, yet he submits to the covenants he makes with his chosen people. He permits the blameless Job to be stripped of all he has and rebukes him when he cries out for an explanation. Yet these words are the last God utters in the Tanakh, and Miles interprets his subsequent silence as evidence that he can be shamed.

God: A Biography may be read as literary criticism of the highest order, a work that explicates the central character of the central text of the Western canon. Yet this fascinating, stylishly written book also holds up a mirror to us, and to our abiding notions of character. "We are all, in a way, immigrants from the past," Miles observes. "And just as an immigrant returning after many years to the land of his
birth may see his own face in the faces of strangers, so the modern, Western, secular reader may feel a tremor of self-recognition in the presence of the ancient protagonist of the Bible." [p. 4]

About the Author

Jack Miles was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1942. Raised a Roman Catholic, he entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) after high school and, as a Jesuit in training, spent two years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome studying philosophy and another year studying Hebrew and archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1967, just after the Six Days War, he left Israel and went to Harvard University, where in 1971 he was awarded a doctorate in Near Eastern languages, specializing in Hebrew and in the Bible.

Miles was impatient with the heavily historical way the Bible was studied at Harvard (and at virtually all American universities). After only four years of full-time teaching, he gave up on academic life. For ten years, he worked in book publishing, first as an editor at Doubleday in New York and then as executive editor of the University of California Press. While living in Los Angeles, he began writing for the Los Angeles Times, where in 1985 he became literary editor and in 1991 was appointed to the newspaper's prestigious editorial board.

Having left the Jesuits in 1970 and become an Episcopalian in 1980, Miles found to his surprise that questions he thought he had left behind, questions about the Bible and about the difficult character of God,
were crowding in on the political issues that it was his professional responsibility to address as a member of the Times editorial board.

In 1990, unable to keep these questions at bay any longer, he went on leave from the newspaper and began the book that in 1995 was published as GOD: A Biography. Shortly after the publication of this book, he left the Times to take the position he now holds as director of the Humanities Center
at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California, a small town about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles.

Miles remains active as a journalist. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and his work appears frequently in both scholarly and popular publications, including The New York Times.

Discussion Guides

1. NOTE: Though God: A Biography quotes virtually all the biblical verses it comments on, a reading of it will be greatly enhanced if the reader can have a copy of the Bible at hand. The text from which Miles quotes is The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH, but any complete (that is, uncondensed) translation in which the verses follow the traditional numbering may be used.

KEYNOTE. Why might someone who does not believe in God nonetheless want to know something about God?

PRELUDE. Does God's life have a beginning and an end in the Bible? Does the Bible tell us that God cannot change and does not grow, or is this an idea we have from elsewhere? Does the Bible tell us we cannot understand God? How is the order of God's life different in the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh? How does the way that historians confront conflict in God's character differ from the way that literary critics confront it? [The discussion in this chapter is rather theoretical, and some groups may find the reading more enjoyable if they jump ahead to Chapter 3 and only refer back to Chapter 2 as objections arise that may be answered there.]

2. GENERATION. Creator: In the two tellings of creation, how does the character called "God" differ from the character called "the Lord"? Destroyer: God destroys the world before giving mankind any commandment to keep. The great flood cannot then be a punishment for disobedience. How else might it be explained? Creator/Destroyer: How is God's covenant with Abraham a compromise within himself? How does the delayed birth and near-slaughter of Isaac betray God's own mixed feelings?
Friend of the Family: How does God's limited role in Genesis 2550 differ from his role
in Genesis 125?

3. INTERLUDE. What makes God Godlike? What are the consequences for God of having no past and of being the only one of his kind?

4. EXHILARATION. Liberator: Has God always been warlike? If not, why does he become warlike in Egypt? Lawgiver: Has God always been concerned with ethics, law, and worship? Why does he become concerned with such matters at Sinai? How do the lawgiver and the warrior in him relate? Liege: Compare and contrast the different emphases in the portrayals of God found in Leviticus, in Numbers, and in Deuteronomy.

5. TRIBULATION. Conqueror: What treatment does God instruct Joshua to mete out to the natives of Canaan? What does this tell us about God? Father: Has God been mankind's father from the start of his story? If not, what is there about David that brings forth paternal feelings in God? How is the Absalom story a comment on the meaning of divine fatherhood? Arbiter: Has God been concerned to determine the fate of whole nations before sending Assyria and Babylon against his chosen people? What is it that first leads him to assume this role and this power?

6. INTERLUDE. Does God fail? When the covenant between God and Israel breaks down, there are obviously horrendous consequences for Israel. What are the consequences for God?

7. TRANSFORMATION. Executioner: How are the oracles of the prophet Isaiah like the
letters of a great general published after a war? Judging from these "letters," what two attitudes conflict in God's mind? Holy One: In the latter chapters of Isaiah, God speaks of himself as mysterious for the first time. Why only now? What is about himself that awes him?

8. INTERLUDE. Does God love? What evidence is there in the text that love was God's motive for any of his actions before the post-exilic restoration of Israel to the promised land? If love is a discovery for God, how has he made the discovery?

9. RESTORATION. Wife: When God brings Israel back from exile, does he keep the promises he made through Isaiah? Counselor: The Psalms praise God for many reasons, but one of them stands out as both new and supremely important. What is that one? Guarantor: If the amalgam of divine personalities in God's character includes a goddess as well as several gods, what is the goddess like? Where does she stand in the range of possible feminine personalities?

10. CONFRONTATION. Fiend: Was God within his rights to punish Job for no reason? At the end of their long struggle, does Job yield to God, or does God yield to Job? What is the meaning of God's last words?

11. OCCULTATION. Sleeper: What effect does the Song of Songs produce coming mmediately after the Book of Job? Bystander: Naomi, a Jew, tells her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth to worship a false god. Are we surprised? Recluse: As we read the passionate pleas of the Book of Lamentations, do we expect God to respond? What effect does the contrast between the expectations of he speaker and our own expectations produce? Puzzle: How anxious about God's commands and God's plans is the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes?

12. INCORPORATION. Absence: In the Book of Esther, when the Israelites face a genocidal
threat like the one they faced earlier in Pharaoh's Egypt, how do they respond? Ancient of Days: On his last appearance in the Bible, how does God look? Scroll: Does God bring his people out of captivity and back to Zion, or is it vice versa: Do God's people bring God out of captivity and back to Zion? Perpetual Round: Why does the Tanakh end as it does? Is its ending happy?

13. POSTLUDE: Does God lose interest? What did God want when he created mankind as his
image? As we have seen his life go by, which of his images was his most perfect image? At the end of his life, has God achieved his creative purpose? Has he got what he was after?

  • God: A Biography by Jack Miles
  • March 19, 1996
  • Religion
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9780679743682

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