GOD: A Biography By Jack Miles 446 pages. Alfred A. Knopf: 1995.
Jack Miles has set himself the somewhat controversial task of charting the ‘development’ of God in the Hebrew Bible, capturing His life in it from beginning to end. Laying no claim to any theological or historical truth, and interested only how it works as a piece of writing the ‘Biography of God’ will leave mesmerised all those who read it.
Miles is a former Jesuit, a previous L.A. Times critic, with a Harvard doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and proves himself to be a well informed guide. If you’ve been looking for an introduction to the ‘fundamental document’ of Western Civilisation then the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Biography of God’ book captures some of the scriptural tradition, history and wonder that enshrouds the Bible.
Approaching the disparate collection of books that was later collected and known as the Tanakh to Jews and the Old Testament to Christians, traditional scholarship aims to illuminate the world of its various authors. They aim to inform the reader why the said verse is so inscribed, and as far as possible, guess the writer’s intentions. By contrast, Miles wishes to analyse God as a character in a play; not bound by the Biblical texts but ‘living’ beyond them. In effect he is treating a collection of novels by differing authors as one coherent literary unit, and picking out one name, say Edward, and treating all the Edwards as one unified person and writing a biography on him.
And who is God? Many things, as Miles points out. Amongst other roles, He is a personal deity to Abraham, a friend of the family to Joseph, a warrior and law-giver to Moses. Within traditional Jewish and Christian scholarship these apparent differences are accounted as aspects of God’s inspiration in relation to its human authors. The different roles are part of the unfolding narrative of God’s intervention and interaction with the Israelites and human race in general.
Miles reads it differently. He locates these somewhat contradictory personalities within the psyche of God, as a deity growing in self-knowledge. Using historical scholarship, Miles teases out God’s differing roles as the fusion of selected traits gathered by Jewish tribes roaming the ancient Middle East. It never becomes clear to the reader whether Miles believes God is becoming more self-aware, or whether the Israelites are indulging in DIY religion. One suspects postmodern Miles is neither troubled by ambiguity or precepts of logic.
As Miles informs us, Jews and Christians have different orders for the biblical texts. For Jews, Tanakh is an acronym of Torah, ‘Teachings’, Nebi’im, ‘Prophets’, and Ketubim, ‘Books’. The Old Testament on the other hand places the ‘books’ before the ‘prophets’. Miles speculates, this order was preferred because it better reflected Christian beliefs that Christ was the fulfilment of the prophecies in the ‘Nebi’im’. Miles prefers the Tanakh, and his thesis is that God begins the ‘Teachings’ in activity and speech, yielding to speech in the ‘Prophets’, and finally in the ‘Books’, God withdraws ending in silence. With regards to the ending, of course, the Muslim tradition would beg to differ.
The reader may find themselves constantly absorbing, rejecting and reinterpreting with Miles’ reading, according to their specific ‘end’ in mind. As Robert Alter has suggested, the Tanakh bristles with ‘forces that can neither be grasped nor controlled by humankind’. Yet Miles psychologising language renders God as limited in power, knowledge and benevolence. One wonders whether the Israeli tribes would consider Miles’ God worthy of worship. In the 19th century, Ludwig Feuerbach argued that God is a projection of man’s fancies, and He ends up here as Miles’ fancies projected on the text with a very modern sense of the ‘sacred’.
Guaranteed to leave you with goosebumps and shaking your head, both upset you and filled with awe; the Biography of God is a perfect demonstration of the power, scope, and deficiencies of literary analysis let loose on religious texts. Full of idiosyncratic digressions, it works perhaps better as an introduction to the biblical tradition than the bible itself. In the end, though it can’t be promised you’ll agree with much of what is in it, if anything at all, with the exuberant Miles giving you a personal tour of the Biblical scriptural tradition, it succeeds in rendering the mysterious familiar and much of what is familiar estranged.
Some Book Reviews:
Pulitzer Prize Winner 1996 Biography/Autobiography – Jury, ‘A Flawed Character’ – Phyllis Trible, ‘God, You Imperfect, Conflicted Fella, You’ – Michiko Kautani – all from NY Times, ‘God’s Boswell : A man writes a biography of God. God responds’ – Paul Wilkes, LA Times.
Some other writings: