The Image of the Image of the Image . . . .

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where most of the members identified as Humanists, atheists or agnostics, I heard many arguments against belief in God. One of those arguments outlined the many divine inconsistencies in the Bible. God creates the world, saying it is good, then destroys it. God is the personal God of Abraham, and also God of all nations. God is a warrior who leads Israel to victory; but God also fights and kills the Israelites in retaliation for their transgressions. God is the lawgiver who punishes some but not others. God is just and terrible, loving and cruel, male and female, knowable and mysterious, present and absent. How can we believe in a God who varies so widely across so many pages of scripture?

There are many answers to such questions. We might hear that human beings cannot comprehend the vastness of God, and thus we only ever encounter one divine facet at a time. We might hear that God’s mystery requires us to believe despite the inconsistencies. My Humanist UU elders found such answers unconvincing.

Of course, we were not the first people to notice the inconsistencies. As long as the biblical books have existed there have been scholars, theologians, temple officials, priests, rabbis, ministers and imams who’ve attempted to explain the inconsistencies so that ordinary readers can fathom such a wide-ranging divine personality. Those attempts will continue as long as the God of Abraham remains God in the western religious mind.

I recently read Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[1] Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[2] I read his book because Fred Sawyer suggested it after he and Phil purchased a sermon at our 2017 Goods and Services Auction. I’m glad I read it. Miles presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship, but as a literary character—the protagonist in one of civilization’s most enduring stories. In doing so he offers insights into the spiritual conflicts residing at the heart of the human condition and explains an enduring human restlessness.  

God: A Biography tells the story of God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which is distinct from the Christian Old Testament.[3] They contain the same books, but they order the books differently, which means as literature they tell God’s story differently. The plot unfolds differently. The character of God develops differently.

I also want you to know the difference between historical criticism and literary criticism of the Bible. Historical criticism studies who wrote a particular biblical book—where, when and why they wrote; who their audience was. The historical critic teases out the cultural and religious influences in the writer’s life—their sources.

For example, the very beginning of Genesis describes the creative acts of elohim, translated as God. Elohim creates and blesses and pronounces everything as good. He creates men and women in his image and generously gives them the entire world: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Then, a few verses later, an entirely different creation story begins, describing the acts of yahweh, translated as the Lord God. He doesn’t give the whole world to Adam and Eve, he gives them a garden. And when they disobey him, he flies into a passionate rage, punishing them harshly. “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; / in pain you shall bring forth children….’ / And to the man he said…. / ‘cursed is the ground because of you; / in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; / thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you ….  / until you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; you are dust, / and to dust you shall return.”[4] The historical critic reveals these are actually two different traditions with two different Gods that have been edited—fused—into one.

The Bible is filled with such fusions. It’s not just elohim and yahweh. In Genesis 6—the story of Noah’s ark—God takes on the traits of the watery Babylonian chaos monster, Tiamat, becoming not only the creator of the world, but also its destroyer. Eventually the Canaanite sky God, el, is woven into God’s personality. El is also the common Ancient Near Eastern word for any god; it appears in the Bible in terms like el shaddai, Almighty God, whom Abraham invokes for ritual circumcision; and el olam, Everlasting God, whom Abraham invokes before the binding of Isaac. In God we find traits of the Mesopotamian personal god. He absorbs the Canaanite war God, Baal. He becomes the Lord of Hosts, the liberator, the lawgiver, the conquerer, the father god to Kings David and Solomon, the arbiter, the executioner, the protector of the poor and oppressed, the Lord of all the nations. For the prophet Isaiah he is the Holy One of Israel, unknowable, mysterious. For Daniel he is the “Ancient of Days.” Despite a concerted effort to remove all evidence of the divine feminine, traces of the Canaanite goddess Asherah persist in God. 

This fusion happened because Israel, throughout its ancient history, was becoming monotheistic. The writer known as the Deuteronomist edited the earliest books of the Bible into a monotheistic story. As Miles puts it, the Deuteronomist’s gift was to make all these distinct materials seem in combination, down to the phrase, ‘the Lord our God,’ not just plausible but inevitable.[5] The historical critic pulls it all apart, reveals the editor at work, tells the story behind the story.

Miles isn’t doing historical criticism. He’s doing a species of literary criticism that picks up all these disparate gods the historical critic has exposed, and reads them back into the character of God as the Bible’s main protagonist. Imagining God as a character, we can understand the inconsistencies not as vestiges of earlier deities, but as God’s experience of inner conflict.[6] For example, God is generous and creative. God is strict and destructive. We might not believe in such a God, but we can ask, ‘what is it like to contend with such competing impulses? And do these impulses not also reside in the human heart? As God the character experiences inner turmoil, he affirms our very human wrestling with our own conflicting impulses.

Contemplate this question: Why did God create? I typically say the biblical creation story is a metaphor for the creative impulse at the heart of all existence. God creates because reality is inherently creative. But that’s not the answer the character God gives. Miles says, “God makes a world because he wants mankind, and he wants mankind because he wants an image.”[7] He doesn’t want a servant, a friend, a spouse; he wants an image of himself.  Why he wants this is not entirely clear. We know nothing about God before creation. We might wonder, ‘is God lonely?’ If so, wouldn’t he create a spouse or friends? That’s not what he does. He creates an image of himself, which suggests that he wants to know himself more fully by observing his image. More than companionship, God longs for self-knowledge.

But he doesn’t always like his image. Adam and Eve disobey. He becomes angry, terrifying. He curses. Apparently, he can’t handle the knowledge that this disobedience lives in him. After releasing his anger, he feels regret, remorse. He wants somehow to make it up to them. The text says “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”[8] Miles asks, “Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it?”[9] Miles identifies this moment as God’s first inner conflict, and suggests it is the beginning of western humanity’s interior life as well.[10]

As the Bible progresses, another important dynamic emerges. God wields immense power, but rarely foresees the results of his use of power. Miles calls him ignorant at times. It makes sense. Because he has no history, he has nothing for comparison. He is learning as he goes. Whenever something unexpected happens that he doesn’t like, he tries to fix it, often in a fit of rage. Afterwards he feels regret, tries to atone, restates his promises more generously than before. Then something else unexpected happens. Miles says, “his key experiences … subvert his intentions…. He did not realize when he told mankind to ‘be fertile and increase’ that he was creating an image of himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when he destroyed his rival that he would regret the destruction of his image. He did not realize that his covenant with Abraham … would require him … to go to war with Egypt…. He did not realize when he gave [the Israelites] the law that where there is law, there can be transgression, and that, therefore, he himself had turned an implicitly unbreakable covenant into an explicitly breakable one…. The inference one might make looking at the entire course of his history … is that God is only very imperfectly self-conscious and very slightly in control of the consequences of his words and actions.”[11] We may not believe in such a god, but certainly his imperfect self-consciousness and his minimal control of events makes him a compelling literary character and a wonderful mirror for our own internal struggles and limits.

The book of Job provides the story’s literary climax. True to form, God enters into something that doesn’t go how he expects. Job is righteous, steadfastly loyal to God. The satan, translated as the adversary, suggests Job is righteous only because it brings him wealth. Take away his wealth? He will curse God. God says ‘go ahead, impoverish him, torture him. He’ll stay righteous.’ The wager is on. The adversary tortures Job mercilessly. Job maintains his righteousness believing God will vindicate him. But then he does the unexpected. He demands God explain why he must suffer so greatly. He demands an explanation of God’s justice, because his suffering is pointless. God seems to not recognize that’s he’s won. Job has not cursed him. But God is infuriated that Job has questioned him. God speaks from the whirlwind—an ode not to justice but to raw, unfettered power. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[12] “Will you even put me in the / wrong? / Will you condemn me that you / may be justified? / Have you an arm like God, / and can you thunder with a / voice like his?”[13]

Job responds calmly. The common interpretation is that Job hears God and repents. In the typical English translation Job says “I had heard of you by the hearing / of the ear, / but now my eye sees you; / therefore I despise myself, / and repent in dust and ashes.”[14] Miles says this is incorrect. A careful reading of the ancient Hebrew calls for a different interpretation. Job does not repent. A more authentic translation of Job’s words is, “Now that I’ve seen you / I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay,”[15] meaning divine justice is not a given for anyone; meaning God is as likely to be evil and cruel as he is to be kind and just. God didn’t expect this lesson, this wisdom. Once again he plunges into profound inner turmoil. “After Job,” writes Miles, “God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, though he is not [a] fiend, he has a fiend[ish] side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his.”[16] He finds solace in the knowledge that Job is his image. He restores Job’s life and doubles his wealth. Indeed, it is not Job who repents, but God.

From here to the end of the Tanakh God is silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse, a puzzle. What are we to make of this silence? Miles wonders: “Once you have seen yourself in your image, will you want to keep looking?” “Will you lose interest in yourself … once the image has served its purpose and you know who you are?”[17]

Maybe. Maybe God lost interest. Whether he did or not, this story of  a God who could never quite choose one deep impulse over another, has shaped western moral consciousness as much as any other force. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”[18]

May we never lose interest—not in the things we hold sacred, not in ourselves. May we continue to encounter that restless breathing. May continue to struggle with our own inner conflicts trusting we will grow wise in time. May we continue in self-discovery, even when that discovery is unanticipated, difficult, painful. May we each have a Job in our lives who confronts us with the truth and calls us to our best and highest selves.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[2] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/. For information on his forthcoming book, God in the Quir’an, visit: http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/god-in-the-qur-an.

[3] In 2002 Miles published a follow-up book on God in the Christian Scriptures called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

[4] Selections from Genesis 3: 14-19. (NRSV)

[5] Miles, God, p. 141.

[6] Miles, God, p. 21.

[7] Miles, God, p. 28.

[8] Genesis 3: 20-b. (NRSV)

[9] Miles, God, p. 36.

[10] Miles, God, p. 33.

[11] Miles, God, pp. 250-251.

[12] Job 38: 4a. (NRSV)

[13] Job 40: 8-9. (NRSV)

[14] Job 42: 5-6. (NRSV)

[15] Miles, God, p. 325.

[16] Miles, God, p. 328.

[17] Miles, God, p. 404.

[18] Miles, God, p. 408.