Wrestling with the Other
Understanding the Struggle between God and Mankind in the Bible
Jerome M. Segal
Riverhead, $15, 320 pp.
Jews and Christians read the Bible differently. Though we study the same stories, we bring to them different histories. Do we also bring divergent ideas of God?
When I attend interreligious Bible studies, what always startles me is how comfortable many Jews are with questioning, challenging, even impugning God’s moral character. Consider the climactic account of Abraham and Isaac. Jews call it the akedah or “binding” of Isaac; Christians usually call it the “sacrifice” of Isaac. Christians tend to emphasize the faith of Abraham or the self-sacrificial demeanor of Isaac (he’s so “Christlike”). Jews often put God in the dock: How could God allow the killing of a beloved son? (Christians collectively gulp.)
But I must confess that I feel jealous of the Jewish response to the story—what if God were not morally perfect? What if, in the struggle of wills between God and humanity, we had something to teach God about morality? What if God needed people to help God be God?
Christians, on the whole, have been less prone to ask these questions owing to their theological history. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Christian conception of God became intertwined with a Platonic philosophical conception of the Good. The Good God was beyond reproach and existed immutably in the realm of pure being, transcending this imperfect realm of becoming. In order to...