I’ve never done a book review before. And I’ve only read the first chapter of Thom Stark’s book, The Human Faces of God. I debated whether to write a review after having read the entire book or chapter by chapter. After realizing that the material is such a foreign concept to my pea brain and reading the first chapter no less than three times I decided on chapter by chapter.
Chapter One: The Argument
Thom Stark has challenged my thinking in numerous ways – just in the first chapter of this book. I’ve been so busy doing the mental gymnastics it takes to harmonize all of the texts of the Bible that it never occurred to me that they aren’t meant to harmonize. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that all of these books weren’t a canon at some point. They were originally a collection of writings. What I didn’t realize was that these writings were, as Stark puts it, an argument with itself.
Stark highlights what he calls Biblical bickering between the texts of prophets such as Ezra and those like Amos or the author of the book of Jonah. Ezra being a nationalist and Amos being more inclusivist. I’d been so busy swallowing the “whale of a tale” that was Jonah and the big fish when all the while it was a big fish tale. Satire. Not without poignancy. It’s a parable intended to expose the narrow-mindedness of the nationalists – to point out that anybody, Jew or Gentile, could worship Yahweh.
In this chapter Stark points out the narrow-mindedness of Ezra calling on the Israelites to divorce their foreign wives and send their children away. I’d always thought it was because these women led the Israelite men astray – into worshiping other gods. But there’s no mention of that in the text as the reason. Only that they aren’t pure bred Israeli women. Besides that interfaith marriage hadn’t been outlawed. Furthermore, something that had never jumped out at me, when the inhabitants of the land of Israel in the northern kingdom (Samaria) offered help to the Judeans who had returned from exile to build the temple to Yahweh, Joshua and Zerubabbel refused their aid. Why? Because they weren’t pure bred Israelis, not because they didn’t worship Yahweh.
Then there’s the argument about suffering. Stark posits that the Traditional Hebrew wisdom on the subject attributed suffering to sin and prosperity to righteousness, an idea that’s still popular today. The bad things that happen to people are because of sin and good things that happen are because of obedience and “being in the will of God”. But the books of Job and Ecclesiastes challenge that assumption. The author of Ecclesiastes concluded that this life is vanity because the same things befall people good and bad and that this life is all there is. There’s no afterlife to look forward to being rewarded for good deeds and no justice to be meeted out to the wicked. And the author of the book of Job concluding that God actually does do things to us just because he can, but there’s no use arguing with him because God will do what God will do. Job levels accusations at God that there’s no reason for the suffering he’s going through and that basically God is toying with his life just because he can. Stark writes:
“Ultimately, the book of Job never acquits Yahweh of the charges brought against him by Job. In fact, the narrative does not shrink back from impugning Yahweh, vindicating Job’s accusations that Yahweh does what he will simply because he can. Yahweh’s only response to Job is to remind him how thoroughly Job’s significance pales in comparison to Yahweh’s. Job is never told why he had to suffer, and today’s pious readers tend to see an air of mystery and profundity in that fact. But they miss what would have been obvious to the ancient audience. Although Job does not know why he suffers, the audience is privy. Job is suffering because the gods in the heavens had made a wager.”
I wasn’t sure in the end whether Stark felt Job to be a real person or if this was another parable. He does call it satire, so maybe that lends to the idea that this was a parable. Either way Job nor the Teacher of Ecclesiastes believes there will be any reckoning. They spend vast amounts of time speaking of the grave as a place of no return and, at least for Job, a place of sweet release from Yahweh’s torment. Enter the voice of the martyrs who took Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones literally. They agreed that justice was not to be found in this life, but believed that there would be recompense in the life to come. Instead of Yahweh as the tormentor, they viewed themselves as being tormented precisely because the followed Yahweh – by the enemy(ies) of Yahweh. Eventually this voice won out over the others.
All of this brings us to how these books came to be “harmonized”. Stark concludes that the elites brought the whole collection of Jewish writings that were important to Yahwists together under their authority for political control. Because of widespread illiteracy the texts could be harmonized with a bit of “tweaking” and no one would know any differently. According to Stark, canonization is the problem with errancy and harmonization because these texts were meant to be read independently, not as a singular “Word of God”. In conclusion Stark writes:
“The roots of the doctrine of inerrancy can thus be found in rabbinic interpretation, which became an exercise in manufacturing conformity-the conformity of one biblical voice to another, and the conformity of Yahweh’s people to the dictates of Yahweh’s Persian-appointed and self-appointed representatives.* The manufactured Word had eclipsed its ancestor, the Argument.”
In closing I’m not saying that I think Stark is wrong. He’s absolutely right. These texts weren’t meant to be bound together and read as a singular “Word of God”. Having said that I’m not sure how much these books actually do or can reveal the character of any god/God. If they are so contradictory, so argumentative within themselves, how does anyone know what the right view of any of this is? Maybe Job and the Teacher had it right. Maybe the martyrs are the holders of truth. Or maybe there isn’t any truth to be found in these texts.** Has anyone else read this book? I’d be interested in another perspective.
* For a concise and very accessible introduction to this whole process, see Coote and Coote, Power, Politics, and the Making of the Bible. For a comprehensive yet still very user-friendly treatment, see Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.(Footnotes from The Human Faces of God)
**When I say maybe there isn’t any truth to be found in these texts I mean as the truth relates to the character of God. These texts hold quite a bit of truth about the nature of man – some of it not so pretty. 🙂