Tag Archives: Jack Miles

Jack Miles’s biography of God

I recently read Jack Miles’s God: A Biography, which, by a strange twist of serendipity, I found on sale for a dollar at a restaurant in Taiwan. The premise of the book is that the Old Testament — or, rather, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which consists of the same books in a different order — can be read as a single literary work with a single protagonist (God), and that we can trace his development as a character by reading through the books of the Bible in order (the Jewish order) from Genesis to Chronicles.

While Miles’s book is definitely worth reading for its astute commentary on many of the individual books of the Bible, this underlying idea of reading the Tanakh as if it were a single book rather than an anthology is a dubious one, somewhat like basing an interpretation of Shakespeare on the order in which his writings appear in a particular edition (and not necessarily the most popular one) of his collected works. Mine has all the comedies first, followed by the histories, the tragedies, and the poems, but to analyze this “Book of Shakespeare” as a whole — noting how it opens on an optimistic note with “Heigh, my hearts; cheerly cheerly, my hearts” and then grows progressively darker and darker, culminating in the murder of Desdemona, after which a poetic dénouement leads the reader gently but inexorably to the somber closing line, “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” — would be an exercise in pointlessness. Shakespeare didn’t write his works to be read that way, most people don’t read them that way, and the bare fact that they can be read that way, resulting in a particular aesthetic effect, is irrelevant to Shakespeare criticism.

The books of the Tanakh, much like the plays of Shakespeare, are divided into three groups which are defined thematically rather than chronologically: the Torah first, then the Prophets, and finally miscellaneous Writings. Since what distinguishes a prophet from a mere writer is the direct nature of the former’s interaction with the Lord God, it is hardly surprising that when the Tanakh is read in order, God seems to become progressively less and less involved in human affairs. This gradual disappearance of God, which Miles makes so much of, is not unlike the gradual darkening of mood in the Book of Shakespeare; it may be something more than an artifact of a thematically organized anthology, but Miles offers no evidence that it is.

Glancing over the Dating the Bible article on Wikipedia, you can see that, yes, most of the Writings are judged to have been composed later than most of the Prophets (though much of the Torah is quite late), so going through the books of the Tanakh in order might be broadly defensible if Miles were writing a history of Jewish religion or of the idea of God — but he’s not. He’s writing the life story of God the literary character as told in the Bible, and for that purpose what matters is not when the books were written or in what order they appear in the anthology, but when each event occurs in the story. In the life story of the Shakespeare character Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the events of 2 Henry IV and Henry V come before those of the Henry VI plays, even though the latter plays were written earlier. A biography of Ulysses would have to treat his encounter with the Cyclops in Book IX of the Odyssey as coming before his departure from Ogygia in Book V. In the same way, Ecclesiastes may come near the end of the Tanakh, and it may have been written later than the prophetic books, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the story it is supposed to be the words of King Solomon. The Book of Job may have been written as late as the 5th century BC, but there is every indication that the story of Job is set in the time of the pre-Mosaic patriarchs. With perhaps one exception, Miles completely ignores this internal chronology and assumes that later on the page means later in the story.

That one exception is made in order to save Miles’s interpretation of the Book of Job and the pivotal role he sees it as playing in the Tanakh.

A view common to nearly all commentators on the Book of Job is that, one way or another, the Lord has reduced Job to virtual silence. Unnoticed is the fact that from the end of the Book of Job to the end of the Tanakh, God never speaks again. His speech from the whirlwind is, in effect, his last will and testament. Job has reduced the Lord to silence. The books of Chronicles will repeat speeches the Lord made earlier . . . But he will never speak again. (p.329)

It’s hard to see this as anything other than special pleading. The Lord does speak in the book of Chronicles (which is one book in the Tanakh, not two as in the LXX and Old Testament), and Chronicles is later than Job in every sense: it comes after it in the Tanakh, it was written later, and the events it narrates come later in the story. The fact that Chronicles is primarily a rehash of material from the books of Samuel and Kings doesn’t really change any of that. One might with as much justice say that Jesus never speaks in the Gospel of Luke, since that gospel mostly just repeats what he said “earlier” in Matthew and Mark.


Though I can’t agree with Miles on the role of Book of Job within the Bible, I found his analysis of the book itself to be very enlightening. He makes a compelling case that most translations, by getting just a few verses wrong, distort the whole meaning of the book.

Some of this I already knew about. The famous KJV line, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15), for example, is more accurately translated as “He will slay me? For that I hope” (Walter Kaufmann trans.) or “Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope” (RSV) — a pretty important difference!

Miles mentions 13:15 in passing but focuses most of his analysis on chapter 42, in which (as the book is usually interpreted) Job recants and repents. His reading of 42:3, where Job quotes and reacts to the Lord’s first words from the whirlwind (from 38:2), is interesting. The KJV reads, “Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not,” but Miles offers the following interpretation:

“Do you say, ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge’? Well, then, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.” Job may be saying that, having now heard the Lord’s overpowering speech, he knows that he was mistaken in his own speeches. He may also be saying that, having now heard the Lord’s bombastic speech, he concludes that he spoke a truth beyond what he could have guessed at the time. (pp. 320-21)

In other words, the Lord’s speech from the whirlwind may have been a failure, may not have impressed Job at all.

A few verses later, the KJV has Job saying, “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6), but Miles suggests the alternative translation, “I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.” The argument here is that the words “myself” and “in” do not occur in the original Hebrew; a literal reading would be “I abhor and repent dust and ashes” — or, better, since the verb translated “repent” can mean either to regret an action or to feel sorry for a person, “I feel loathing and sorrow for dust and ashes.” The phrase “dust and ashes” could be a metonym for repentance, giving the meaning, “I repent of having repented,” or, in the reading Miles prefers, Job could be using “dust and ashes” in the same sense that Abraham uses it in Genesis 18:27 (“I have taken upon me to speak to the Lord, who am but dust and ashes”), to mean mere mortals. In that case, Job would be saying that he feels sorry for mankind now that he has seen the Lord in his true character. In neither reading is Job recanting or repenting; quite the opposite.


Equally intriguing is Miles’s take on Jacob’s wrestling with the angel — or whoever it was he wrestled with. The narrative refers to the wrestler only as “a man,” but after the encounter Jacob says that he has seen God face to face. It would be absurd to think that Jacob had beat the Lord God himself in a wrestling match, which I suppose is why tradition has identified the “man” as a mere angel instead — not that a mortal besting an angel at wrestling makes all that much more sense. And why would God or an angel come attack Jacob in the night in the first place? Miles’s proposed solution to this mystery had never crossed my mind before and left me thinking (to quote Huxley’s reaction to Darwin’s theory) “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”

Esau is attempting to decline Jacob’s aggressively munificent gifts. Jacob insists: “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.” Speaking of the “man” with whom he wrestled all night, Jacob equates his face with God’s face, saying, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (32:31). But speaking here, he equates Esau’s face with God’s face. Was Jacob’s nocturnal visitor Esau himself, come to kill his brother as, years earlier, he had vowed to do (27:41)? Jacob, having fought his attacker to a draw, unexpectedly demanded of him his blessing. And from whom, more appropriately than from Esau, does Jacob have reason to wrestle for a blessing? In seeking Esau’s blessing, Jacob would be seeking his long-estranged brother’s acquiescence in the earlier loss of their father’s blessing. Finally, is Jacob, as he greets Esau on the morrow, making a daring allusion to their night of struggle, one that Esau may hear and silently recognize? (p. 74)


Finally, I’m sorry to say I have to add Miles to the list of people who come frustratingly close to noticing, but do not notice, the firmament thing. Commenting on Genesis 1, Miles writes:

And God does not say of [man] directly, as he says directly of all his other creations [sic!], “And God saw that they were good.” The final judgment . . . is rendered only on creation as a whole: “God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” “Very,” for the first and only time here, but only after a faintly troubling elision where mankind is concerned. (p. 29)

Man is not the only creation which God does not directly say is good. The other — as I seem to be saying rather often these days — is the firmament. And the firmament is the more significant elision, since it is created on the second day but not pronounced good even by inclusion until the sixth. Man, on the other hand, is God’s last creation, and immediately after creating them he sees that the whole creation is good. Man, unlike the firmament, doesn’t have to wait several days to become good. What is it that keeps even the most meticulous readers of Genesis 1 from noticing this?


Filed under Old Testament