The Life and Times of...uh...God

Author Jack Miles' Pulitzer Prize winning biography is just divine.

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Reprinted from COMMENTARY 100:1, July 1995.

No summary of mine can do justice to the richness of God: A Biography. Jack Miles, a journalist and former Jesuit who holds a doctor­ate in Near Eastern languages from Harvard, has conceived the idea—which may not be entirely new but has never before been pursued with such thoroughness—of treat­ing the God of the Bible as a liter­ary character. In his pages, God emerges as a complex and ever­ changing personality, the hero of the greatest work of literature in mankind's history, created over hundreds of years by different art­ists of varying skills.

god quizIt is Miles' argument that God changes profoundly in the course of the Bible. The interest of his work—rather, one of its many interests—lies in his exploration of how and why. In a sense, he writes, God ages, like the earth He creates and the human race He designs to possess it.

We see Him first as an immensely energetic being, "as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured." This is, as it were, a young, adventurous, innovative, and highly imaginative God, hopeful and dynamic, relishing His power to create and design, a muscular God—muscular in mind as well as body—fit for a pictorial epic by Michelangelo. But if that is the God of the beginning, by the end of the Bible we see God as the "ancient of days," white-haired and silent, "looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne"—a William Blake sort of God.

In tracing the ages of God, Miles notes carefully the patterns of His speech. At the very beginning of Genesis, God is so talkative He talks to Himself, for there is no other living thing to hear Him. At other times in the early sections of the Bible, He says a great deal both to Himself and to men. Then comes a gradual decline into silence, a growing taciturnity of which the Book of Job is an important landmark; thereafter, God's speeches are merely recapitulated.

god a biographyOne of the reasons for this growing silence, Miles thinks, is a desire on God's part to become more mysterious. The early, loquacious God is at some pains to reveal Himself. He creates man in His own image precisely so that man may know and understand what monotheism is all about. It is as though God were anxious to talk man through the divine plan, instructing him on how to give satisfaction to his Maker. This early God, remarks Miles, "rarely says of Himself that He is mysterious and more than once implies the opposite." In Deuteronomy, for example, He insists with some asperity that what He tells His people to do is perfectly plain:

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Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is the author of A History of Christianity, A History of the Jews, and Modern Times, among many other books.