In his 1966 book The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel relates the Hasidic tale of the long line of rabbis who performed a miraculous ritual, averting catastrophe for their communities in times of crisis. They would go into the forest to meditate, light a fire, and recite a special prayer. They did so in imitation of the eighteenth-century master of all Hasidim, Israel ben Eliezer, usually known by the honorific title “the Baal Shem Tov,” the master of the Holy Name. The generations of rabbis who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov, Wiesel recounts, gradually forgot parts of the ritual. The fourth in that forgetful lineage, Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, spoke plaintively to God of his predicament: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And indeed, telling the story was sufficient to avert the catastrophe. Why? The Hasidic tale ends with a great tribute both to God and to humankind: “God made man because he loves stories.”
God made Jack Miles because God also loves someone who loves stories. In his 1996 Pulitzer-prizewinning God: A Biography, Miles approached the Hebrew Bible as one might approach a body of literary work produced by Yahweh-Elohim, the Lord God; in a follow-up 2001 book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, he undertook the same task with the New Testament, focusing in particular on the four Gospels. Holder of a Harvard doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Miles left the Society of Jesus before undertaking formal theological studies; yet his Jesuit education, tracing back to his days in a Jesuit high school in Chicago, equipped him to comprehend multiple languages and their literatures: English, Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, and Spanish; but also Hebrew, Aramaic and, last but not least, Ethiopic (Ge’ez), the ancient Semitic language of the Horn of Africa. He has enjoyed a long career as a Distinguished Professor of both English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Miles admits that he does not know Arabic very well, but his background in other Semitic languages and his careful comparative study of various English and other renderings of the Qur’an allows him to read it with notable sensitivity. Most of the stories told at some length in the Qur’an that have biblical resonances find their parallels in the Torah, especially Genesis and Exodus. Thus do Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, the family of Abraham, the patriarch Joseph, and Moses appear on stage again to play their parts in the Qur’an.