Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain

A Review, Sort Of: Chapter 1, The Human Faces of God

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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. 🙂

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10 thoughts on “A Review, Sort Of: Chapter 1, The Human Faces of God

  1. I haven't read the book, but you've got me interested.I find Stark's argument, as you've presented here, quite refreshing. He's pointing out some of the concepts which jumped out out during my reading of the OT. Ecclesiastes and Job have been my favorite books of the Bible because they do seem to tell the truth; Job, if there is a God who interfaces/interferes with the lives of men, and Ecclesiastes, if God is more like the Deist concept (except for the obviously added text at the end).You are asking the same questions I would ask. It seems like Stark is going to make a long argument for what the truth of God is and how man-made scripture has bastardized it. Of course, Stark has got to define a pretty good basis for believing that there is a foundation of truth somewhere in there in order to be credible. I'm looking forward to your insights. 🙂

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  2. I can easily see Job as a long parable. It is thought to perhaps be the oldest text in the bible, and the earlier texts definitely lend themselves more to mythology. It reads like a well-constructed "story."I'm having a harder time seeing Jonah like that. It seems more "historical" to me, but I'm not sure why! (I just read the whole book. Very short!) The main theme seems to be that Yahweh is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity." Yeah, there was the thing about Jonah's initial unwillingness to go, but that doesn't seem to be the point of the book. So, it could have been trying to make a point about what Yahweh is like.I agree with the wise fool… Job and Ecclesiastes seem to "tell it like it really is!" God is completely sovereign and life is not fair.

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  3. @TWF,Stark's perspective is very refreshing. As I said, I've been too busy with the contortionism it takes to harmonize all these texts that the obvious never slapped me in the face. It's much easier, actually, to read all these texts independently and let them stand on their own. Instead of trying to make this one work together with that one, just let them say what they say. One other thing of note: I was not aware, nor do I think the average Christian is aware of all of these emendations. The Bible is presented in fundamentalist Christian circles as the Word of God, with most unsuspecting any of these interpolations. ———————————————–@EI,I'm pretty sure after having read this material that both Job and Jonah are parables. I was trying not to be too long-winded, but Stark points out that Jonah's unwillingness to go to Nineveh really was part of the main point. Reading it as a parable Jonah represents the nationalistic point of view – wanting to keep all of Yahweh's blessings and favor for themselves. Irony occurs when, in his attempt to flee, gentiles aboard the ship actually begin to worship Yahweh because of the display of his power in causing and calming the storm.

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  4. Pretty much do get the sense that the story of Jonah, and Job are meant to be understood as parables that convey truth.But, speaking of book reviews, anyone read anything by the Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, the bishop of Durham? He has some good stuff out there.Becky.

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  5. D'ma,I like Starks work in general, and I think his approach has a lot of merit. For me, reading scripture this way actually opens up theology. It allows us to continue the long history of theology being a process of argument and discovery, referring to "scripture" and "doctrine" but being prepared to reformulate it.

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  6. Sure, phil. I've only read the first chapter, obviously. And even though I am a bit confused by this because of my background I'm definitely interested in where he's going with this. On to chapter two….

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  7. DMA, I remember when I first learned that the Bible had competing ideas on very large concepts, like salvation, the afterlife, God, suffering. As a Christian, I knew there were "apparant" contradictions, but the whole idea of contradictory *books* was very disturbing. Now, several years later, I have read so much on the subject, that I take this idea for granted. The books of the Bible were not meant to be read together, and we can't assume that the guy who wrote Job would have agreed with the guy who wrote, for instance, the Gospel of John regarding the afterlife. In fact there is no reason to think that they did.DMA says:"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."Yeah, I think it is Job chapter 4 or 5 where there is a long description of the afterlife. Funny how Christian sermons about heaven and hell never cite those portions of Job. I remember a few years ago when i told an old Church pal that the OT had no conception of the Christian Heaven and Hell, and when she told me I was wrong I challenged her to show me where it could be found. The only thing she could come up with was that God promised to bless Abraham and his descendents, then accused me of not being open minded enough to see that this meant he was talking about salvation and eternal life. WOW, she has really swallowed the Kool-Aid.I don't usually buy new books anymore – they are budget busters. I try to stay satisfied with what I can find in the used book store, and there are a million open-source books online for a lifetime of reading. But this book by Thom Stark looks like a good one. He has recently put out a book-length article that is a rejoinder to apologist Paul Copan's recent book that tries to white-wash God's sometimes, er…. questionable morality. I just finished reading it yesterday, and it makes Copan look very foolish. It was a very good read. I don't have a link ready, but do a Google search if you are interested.

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  8. HIS,After drinking the Kool-Aid for years this is a refreshing new drink. It's taken some time for me to wrap my head around it, but when I really stop and think about it reading these texts as stand-alone writings makes so much more sense than trying to smash them together. I don't really like Kool-Aid anyway.I'll have to check out that article when I'm done with this book. Chris over at Cognitive Discopants recently did a post about it. I'm assuming it's the same one. Books are budget busters but my local library doesn't have much recent material in their religion section, it's mostly ancient stuff(not that that's bad). I've considered asking if anyone would like to do a book swap on here. A lot of us are reading the same type material and some have read this book or that which they might be done with and we could just swap around for the price of postage. Just an idea. Some folks might not want to part with their books because they want to keep them for reference material.

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  9. Just found this, D'Ma. Thanks for this review. I look forward to future installments!

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  10. Thanks for stopping by, Thom! I'm plugging through chapter two now.

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