One of the advantages of being retired is that I can spend a whole day chasing rabbits — intellectual rabbits, that is; I never leave my chair — if it pleases me. Yesterday a Facebook friend who is an ardent Christian posted a message that said, “The Bible isn’t a book about how to get into Heaven, it’s a library of poems and letters and stories about bringing Heaven to Earth now, about this world becoming more and more the place it should be. There is very, very little in the Bible about what happens when you die. That’s not what the writers were focused on. Their interest, again and again, is on how this world is arranged. Does everyone have enough? Are the power structures tilted in favor of the vulnerable? Has violence been renounced, or is it being kept in circulation?” This is apparently a quote from someone named Rob Bell. (He’s not my FB friend.)
In response, I suggested that when Jehovah commanded the Israelites to massacre a whole town and take the women and children into slavery, that was maybe not a great example of bringing Heaven to Earth.
My friend was deeply upset by my comment. “There are a number of things about the Bible and about Christianity,” he said, “that would surprise you. Your knowledge of these topics is rather shallow.” He recommended that I read a book called God: A Biography “to gain some understanding of images of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The matter is far more complex than your rehash of tired, superficial atheist critiques indicates.”
I’m not sure that’s a legitimate defense. Surely the massacre of a whole town is not something that can be nuanced, much less excused, by a deeper dive into scholarship. But what the heck. The book is only fifteen bucks for Kindle, so I bought it and read the first couple of chapters. The author, Jack Miles, is described as a former Jesuit. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for biography, which is flatly ridiculous. You can’t write a biography of someone who never existed. The title of the book is merely a rhetorical flourish. One wouldn’t have expected the Pulitzer committee to be taken in by a rhetorical flourish, but that’s what happened.
Setting that detail aside, I find that it’s a stunningly disingenuous, deceitful book. Miles sets out, he tells us, to approach the Hebrew Bible (the same books as the Christian Old Testament, but in a different order) not from a theological or historical standpoint, but as literature. That is, he proposes to analyze Jehovah as the main character in a book. (Could a book about Hamlet qualify as a biography? Never mind.)
In fact, he does nothing of the sort. Again and again, he projects his own theological understandings onto the text of Genesis. Again and again he makes statements not about the Jehovah character in the Bible but about “God,” a fictional entity whom he, Jack Miles, clearly can’t stop seeing as real.
The book is, in a nutshell, a work of Christian apologetics. Miles’s goal is evidently to help people feel more comfortable believing in the “God” of the Old Testament. He does this by acknowledging the complexities and contradictions with which this fictional character is presented, but without for a moment acknowledging either that the Bible is a dismal failure as literature or that Jehovah is a vicious psychopath whom nobody in their right mind could ever worship.
To give just one example, Miles repeatedly asserts that in the early part of Genesis Jehovah feels “regret.” This idea is not supported by anything in the text. At no point does Jehovah say, or even think, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
In an echo of the traditional Christian view of the Trinity, Miles tries to maintain that “God” and “the Lord God” are two distinct persons, and yet they’re the same person. Consider this passage: “God and the Lord God differ strikingly in their attitude toward mankind as created in the divine image or otherwise akin to the deity.” And yet, in an earlier passage, “The Lord God is God. There are not two protagonists in this text, only one. But this one protagonist has two strikingly distinct personalities.” [Italics in original.]
What are we to make of this? Does anything in the text of the Bible support the notion that it’s a book about a deity who is suffering from multiple personality disorder? I doubt it.
“Though the deity thus seems different when he is the Lord and when he is God,” Miles tells us, “it remains true that whatever is predicated of him under either name is predicated of him under both names. He is one character with, at this point in his life, two … personalities. Just this ambiguity raises the level of emotional tension in the story of Cain and Abel.” I’m sure it’s true that authors sometimes create ambiguities in their characters in order to ramp up the emotional tension. That’s not at issue. However, the book of Genesis has no author! That is, there’s not a single author; it’s a compendium of stuff that may have been written decades or centuries apart by different people. Really, that’s why the descriptions of Jehovah don’t fit together. It’s specious to suggest that there’s some sort of literary point in having a single character who is sometimes good and sometimes a sadistic monster, sometimes a liar and sometimes a gift-giver. This is after-the-fact pleading. It’s as if an actor playing Hamlet were suddenly to burst into a Gershwin medley, after which a critic claimed that Shakespeare did it on purpose to increase our perplexity at Hamlet’s mental state.
I could say much more about this awful book. I’ve taken a lot of notes, and I’m only a tenth of the way through it. But let’s not get into tl;dr territory. I’ll conclude with my own literary analysis of the opening chapters of Genesis. And bear in mind, I’m a writer. I’m not a newcomer when it comes to literary analysis.
In Genesis we have a character (Jehovah) who is revealed in chapter 1 as extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily competent. But in chapters 2 and 3 we find that he’s a liar and a con man: He deliberately puts a tree in the Garden of Eden that he didn’t have to put there, strictly in order to tempt Adam and Eve, and he tells them if they eat the fruit of it they’ll immediately die, which is not true at all.
He then punishes them in a vindictive way for giving in to a quite natural impulse. He’s frightened that if they eat from the other tree, they’ll become gods like him, and he wants to be the big cheese!
He denies Eve her equal rights as a human being. He slights Cain for no reason that Cain could have anticipated and then kicks him out. He massacres billions of living creatures in a flood not because they have done anything to offend him but because he’s so inept he can’t manage to just deal with the evil humans and leave nature alone. He worries that he may do it again, so he puts up a rainbow to remind himself not to. He’s childishly flattered by Noah’s burnt offering.
What sort of person are we looking at here? Basically, we’re looking at a Bronze Age paterfamilias. He’s cruel, he’s arbitrary, he’s forgetful, he’s clumsy, but he responds well to gifts. The business in chapter 1, where he allegedly creates the entire universe, can easily be put down as a bit of boasting. Probably he didn’t create the universe at all, he’s just saying, “If it wasn’t for me, you’d be nothing! You’d be nobody!”
I’m entirely baffled by why people take this whiffy pile of twaddle seriously.