I didn’t go into Jack Miles’ 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, God: A Biography, expecting to walk away — to be fair, when I grabbed it on my bookshelf, I walked into it expecting a different book, literally; maybe I’ll read that one next — feeling sorry for God, but I did. The literary God, at least, because Miles’ focus and analysis is literacy criticism. He is not concerned with God through the the lens of historic or religious scholarship.
As a literary figure, God simply wants to understand himself because unlike Greek mythology or polytheist religions, God has no comparable friends or lovers or anything of the like, so he creates humans in his image to understand himself, and everything he does, is, and thinks, is through this reflective image. He doesn’t even have his own “heavenly abode” that is free from his entanglement with humans. Over the course of the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh, God is learning what it means to be “godlike,” and he stumbles, creating his creation with no restrictions but to “be fertile and increase,” and then he restricts them, prohibits them, casts them out, and eventually, sends a flood to destroy most of his creation. He likes the people of Israel, then he punishes them, saves them, goes silent on them, etc.
Miles explained what happened in such a fascinating way: God created humans with the edict, if you will, to “be fertile and increase.” In this way, Adam and Eve, and their descendants, manifest a struggle between humans and God over God’s power that he didn’t realize he had until the moment it was taken away from him, like Cain murdering Abel. It wasn’t as if God created life with the prohibition against murder at the start.
Unlike man, God has no past and no desires other than to make man in his own self-image, Miles said. Since God does not, he relies on man even for the working out of his own intentions, and “is, to this extent, almost parasitic on human desire.”
“If man wanted nothing, it is difficult to imagine how God would discover what God wanted.” That’s a line I highlighted from the book (metaphorically, as I would never highlight in a book) because of how potent it is, albeit rather unfair. After all, humans wouldn’t be humans if they didn’t have desires, but the point is to elucidate God’s deficit and on that level, it works.
Interestingly, if God is understanding himself through humans, and he made humans in his own self-image, then is God also female? Surely, because he didn’t just create a male, he created a female (Eve). The following sentence uses Miles’ emphasis:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
That’s compelling! As Miles called it, from the standpoint of literary criticism, this is an “inexpungable characterological fact, that the human male alone is not the image of God, only the male and the female together.”
And of course, there is Job. Job, who it could be argued, as I think Miles did convincingly, “bests” God, as far as that goes, by sending God into silence, for all intents and purpose. Perhaps not a deafening silence, but a silence, nonetheless — a silence which speaks to the tragedy of God: He is trapped within his contradictions. The contradiction of being God the creator and God the destroyer; God the redeemer and God the punisher; God of the cosmos and “God of” in his personal dealings with Abraham and others; and God with something approaching a human conception of love and God approaching something approaching a human conception of jealousy. But in so coming aware of that through the ordeal with Job (and indeed, an ordeal, because God almost seems “on the brink” of a death of a kind), God’s “growth” is done in a sense. He is no longer stumbling around at least. He is aware of his power and importantly, knowledge of that power.
In this way, with God as a tragic, trapped figure, I felt bad for God! He almost seems lonely in his machinations and relationship to humans. But there is something beautiful, if comedic (Miles thinks of the Tanakh as a divine comedy because of how the books after God’s silence bring levity to the proceedings after the weightiness of Job), about how humans step up after God steps back. God, as protagonist and the one propelling the action forward, as it were, in the Tanakh, is still “present” (uh, omnipresent?) in these latter books, but in a sort of peripheral way, and the Jews are moving on in their way. God is no longer the necessary arbiter, even when the Jews are trifled upon.
This issue with God’s silence is a revelation to me, I should note. I always, apparently erringly, thought, as many who try to pushback against the Bible think, “Why doesn’t God speak to humans anymore? He was so active back then.” And as Miles pointed out, God was active back then, because he was still figuring it out, but unbeknownst to my Biblical illiteracy, God does go silent through much of the latter half of the Tanakh. Also erringly, this part of the Bible is certainly replete with the “fire and brimstone” God I expected and have thought of, but that isn’t the whole story, either. And that is the story Miles is telling here. God is complex, contradictory, and even contrite (to Job, even if not admitted directly).
Admittedly, some of the book with Miles’ analysis, some of which used analogies from other literary works, went over my head, as someone not steeped in this world, as it were, but I enjoyed it. I always enjoy thinking about God, and it was interesting to think about God in this specific literary way. I look forward to reading Miles’ other two books in this “trilogy” of sorts about God, because I’m quite curious about God once Jesus comes on the scene.