Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The life inside the pages

Wherein we take a glimpse at the silence of god

A short excerpt from God: A Biography by Jack Miles:
The beginning and the end of the Hebrew Bible are not linked by a single, continuous narrative. Well short of the halfway point in the text, the narrative breaks off. What then follow are first, speeches spoken by God; second, speeches spoken either to or, in some degree, about God; third, a protracted silence; and, last, a brief resumption of the narrative before a closing coda. The narrative suspense that lasts from the Book of Genesis through II Kings is succeeded, past that point, by another kind of suspense, one more like the kind jurors experience in a courtroom as different witnesses take the stand to talk about the same person. A sequence of testimonies--each in its own distinctive voice, with its own beginning and end--can be as effective as narrative in suggesting that the person about whom the words are spoken does not stop where the words stop. This is the biographical effect in another form. And even in this form, it is an effect that can include a sense of forward movement, of "What next?"

After action yields to speech in the Hebrew Bible, however, speech yields in its turn to silence. God's last words are those he speaks to Job, the human being who dares to challenge not his physical power but his moral authority. Within the Book of Job itself, God's climactic and overwhelming reply seems to silence Job. But reading from the end of the Book of Job onward, we see that it is Job who has somehow silenced God. God never speaks again, and he is decreasingly spoken of. In the Book of Esther--a book in which, as in the Book of Exodus, his chosen people faces a genocidal enemy--he is never so much as mentioned. In effect, the Jews surmount the threat without his help.

What is the meaning of he long twilight of the Hebrew Bible, its ten closing books of silence? The twilight is not followed by darkness: God does not die. But he never again intervenes in human affairs, and by accumulating implication, no further intervention is expected of him. His chosen people, returned from exile, cherishes him more than ever as his life ends--more, certainly, than when he vanquished pharaoh "with mighty hand and outstretched arm" and led them through the desert to the promised land. Back then, they were recalcitrant, and he called, bitterly, "stiff-necked." Now they are devout, but he has nothing further to say to them or about them--or to or about anybody or anything else. God and his people are beautifully, movingly reconciled as the Hebrew Bible ends, but it scarcely seems blasphemy to say that his own life is over.


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