Wrestling with the Other

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 harmonize potentially conflicting worldviews, key Jewish and Christian thinkers forced the God of the Bible through the holes of a Greek philosophical sieve.

In Joseph’s Bones, Jerome M. Segal argues that the God of Israel—dynamic and imperfect—can be found anew, if the foundational biblical narrative is read with fresh eyes. A scholar with degrees in philosophy and public policy, and a lay teacher of Torah, Segal is well equipped for his task of rereading. Contrary to those who merge the God of the Bible with the God of the philosophers, he argues that the “notion of God as perfect is not found in the biblical narrative. Not only does the text never say anything of the sort, it is an essential part of the story that this is not the case.” Whereas many modern readers challenge the inerrancy of Scripture, Segal challenges something prior: the inerrancy of God.

When God is freed from the burden of moral perfection, the early narratives of the Bible open to new interpretations. God is seen as capable of moral growth, of learning new ways of speaking and acting. The Bible “depicts a constant struggle between God and humanity,” but “its sympathies lie with mankind,” which becomes God’s moral tutor. This upended worldview leads to surprising conclusions: a just world is not achieved by human beings conforming to the will of God, but rather “a world of justice” is “achieved by transforming God.”

The book’s point of departure is the story of “Joseph’s bones”—that is, the remains of the patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob, who dies in Egypt (at the end of Genesis). His remains are carried faithfully by the Israelites until they enter the Promised Land (at the end of Joshua). Segal contrasts the “ark” of Joseph’s bones with the “ark” of the covenant, imagining these two parcels as constant symbols of Israelite existence throughout the narrative. The ark of the covenant symbolizes God’s commands and the system of reward-for-obedience; the ark of Joseph’s bones symbolizes the trust of the human family, independent of God’s commands or rewards. Joseph’s character is thus an interpretive key for Segal: his story “opens the way to a new understanding of the biblical core.” If Joseph possessed a “natural moral sense,” proved himself to be more “slow to anger” than God, and remained “morally grounded” in resisting temptation, even without any hope of reward, then perhaps it is Joseph and not God whose behavior should be imitated.

Segal weaves an imaginative retelling of the story from Eden to the Promised Land (the six books of the “Hexateuch”) by tracing the characterization of some major figures (Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, et al.) and especially their dialogues with God. His unorthodox drama is “the story of an insecure deity of limitless power but perhaps of limited insight,” and so it is not “God’s Word” but rather “the story of the human condition, of mankind’s encounter with a God with deep shortcomings.” Segal encourages us to consider a moral order transcendent of God and modeled by human beings. It is Abraham who teaches justice, Moses who teaches love, and Joseph who teaches forgiveness as the “alternative model for dealing with human transgression.”

Segal’s book is not written in an academic style, and it does not include many footnotes or citations. It does not incorporate historical research (save a brief appendix), nor does it cite literary theorists to bolster its analysis of plot and characterization. As an academic reader, I found the book uneven in pace and persuasiveness, but it occasionally surprised me with insights into Abraham, Moses, and Joseph. Still, it often bored me with long summaries of biblical stories, only sparsely supplemented by the author’s analysis. Since it does not engage the robust history of biblical scholarship—except Jack Miles’s God: A Biography, to which the book is obviously indebted—Segal’s argument skips lightly over major scholarly debates and belabors points treated succinctly by other scholars.

Segal does, however, draw from existentialist philosophy: God needs humanity to be “the morally conscious Other” who must come freely to know God in order to make God real. More frequently, Segal employs the language of psychoanalysis: God is “depressed,” “hyperemotional,” filled with “anxiety” and “existential insecurity,” and in need of “bonding” experiences (especially those achieved through war). Concerned with his own anger-management issues, God commands rituals in Leviticus as “a sincere effort at self-control.” By the end of the Hexateuch, God has learned to achieve “greater self-control,” is “more patient,” and is a “more successful instructor.”

Though occupied with the charting of God’s moral development, Segal seems strangely unconcerned with the ethical ramifications for his readers. I was glad to have read the book for its original insights, but I was left with too many questions about its consequences for Jews and Christians. Much of Western ethics, for better or worse, has relied on God’s commands in the Bible. So what is left when God is dethroned as moral exemplar?

Segal responds that we should learn from the biblical patriarchs. But where would we learn the moral order—transcendent of God, according to Segal—by which to judge the ethical decision-making of the patriarchs? Segal’s answer seems to be Western philosophy or natural law, but these are undeveloped suggestions the reader must draw from scant references to Epictetus or Aquinas. Segal would attract more readers to his worldview if he mapped a way through this topsy-turvy ethical terrain.

The most gripping and novel part of the book is Segal’s audacious rereading of the akedah. This clever interpretation could only be imagined by someone with Segal’s commitment to the idea of God’s moral imperfection. About as far from a pious Christian reading as one can get, his interpretation finds God—not Abraham—being tested on the mountain. Would God’s desire for human obedience be trumped by an overarching principle of justice? Through this and other experiences with the Israelites, God learns how to be God. But just to be safe, Segal would rather have us model our behavior on the human characters, especially Joseph.

Published in the 2008-11-07 issue: 
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Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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