2017-07-12
Yahweh was and is the uncanniest personification of God ever ventured by humankind, and yet early in his career he began as the warrior monarch of the people we call Israel. Whether we encounter Yahweh early or late, we confront an exuberant personality and a character so complex that unraveling it is impossible. I speak only of the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible, and not of the God of that totally revised work, the Christian Bible, with its Old Testament and fulfilling New Testament. Historicism, be it older or newer, seems incapable of confronting the total incompatibility of Yahweh and Jesus Christ.

Jack Miles, Yahweh's Boswell, in his "God: A Biography," depicts a Yahweh who begins in a kind of self-ignorance fused with total power and a high degree of narcissism. After various divine debacles, Miles decides, Yahweh loses interest, even in himself. Miles rightly reminds us that Yahweh, in II Samuel, promises David that Solomon will find a second father in the Lord, an adoption that sets the pattern for Jesus' asserting his sonship to God. The historical Jesus evidently insisted both upon his own authority to speak for Yahweh, and upon his own intimate relationship with his abba (father), and I see little difference there from some of his precursors among the charismatic prophets of Israel.

The authentic difference came about with the development of the theological God, Jesus Christ, where the chain of tradition indeed is broken. Yahweh, aside from all questions of power, diverges from the gods of Canaan primarily by transcending both sexuality and death. More bluntly, Yahweh cannot be regarded as dying. Kabbalah has a vision of the erotic life of God but severely enforces the normative tradition of divine immortality. I find nothing in theological Christianity to be more difficult for me to apprehend than the conception of Jesus Christ as a dying and reviving God. The Incarnation-Atonement-Resurrection complex shatters both the Tanakh--an acronym for the three parts that make up the Hebrew Bible: the Torah (Five Books of Moses), Prophets, and Writings--and the Jewish oral tradition. I can understand Yahweh as being in eclipse, desertion, self-exile, but Yahweh's suicide is indeed beyond Hebraism.

I can object to myself that the frequently outrageous Yahweh also baffles my understanding, and that Jesus Christ is nearly as much an imaginative triumph as Yahweh is, though in a very different mode. I alternate endlessly between agnosticism and a mystical gnosis, but my Orthodox Judaic childhood lingers in me as an awe of Yahweh.

No other representation of God that I have read approaches the paradoxical Yahweh of the J Writer. Perhaps I should omit "of God" from that sentence, since even Shakespeare did not invent a character whose personality is so rich in contraries. Mark's Jesus, Hamlet, and Don Quixote are among the principal competitors, and so is the Homeric Odysseus transmuted into the Ulysses whose story of quest and drowning reduces Dante the Pilgrim to silence. Dennis R. MacDonald, in his "The Homeric Epics and the Gospel if Mark" (2000), argues that Mark's literary culture was more Greek than Jewish, which I find persuasive in so far as the earliest Gospel's eclecticism is thus emphasized, but a touch dubious, since Mark's God remains Yahweh. Matthew is rightly known as "the Jewish Gospel"; the Gospel of Mark is something else, though it may well have been composed just after the Temple was destroyed, and in the midst of the Roman slaughter of the Jews. Hamlet has something of the bewildering mood swings of Mark's Jesus, and of Yahweh. If Don Quixote can be regarded as the protagonist of the Spanish scripture, then his enigmas also can compete with those of the Marcan Jesus and of Hamlet.

Yahweh is a "stern imp," Jesus Christ is a "theological labyrinth"
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  • We cannot know how much of Yahweh's character and personality was invented by the J Writer [the name given to one of the biblical authors by proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis], just as Mark's Jesus to some degree seems to be an original, though doubtless informed by oral tradition just as J's Yahweh was. I wonder if the author of Mark is not responsible for giving us a Jesus addicted to dark sayings. In a "cannot know" context, where what we regard as Pauline faith replaces knowledge, Mark's brilliance exploits our limits of understanding. His Jesus asserts authority, which sometimes masks wistfulness in regard to the will of Yahweh, the loving but inscrutable abba. Only Mark's Jesus goes through an all-night agony because his death is near. Whether, as MacDonald thinks, the suffering of Jesus emulates that of Hector at the end of the "Iliad" cannot be resolved. Jesus dies after uttering an Aramaic paraphrase of Psalm 22, an outcry of his ancestor David, a pathos distant from the Homeric variety.

    Doubtless the real Jesus existed, but he never will be found, nor need he be. My sole purpose is to suggest that the historical Jesus, the theological Jesus Christ, and Yahweh are three totally incompatible personages, and to explain just how and why this is so. Of the three beings (to call them that), Yahweh troubles me the most. His misrepresentations are endless, including by much of rabbinical tradition, and by suppressed scholarship--Christian, Judaic, and secular. He remains the West's major literary, spiritual, and ideological character, whether he is called by names as various as Kabbalah's Ein-Sof ("without end") or the Qur'an's Allah. A capricious God, this stern imp, he reminds me of an aphorism of the dark Heraclitus: "Time is a child playing draughts. The lordship is the child."

    Where shall we find the meaning of Yahweh, or of Jesus Christ, or of Yeshua of Nazareth? We cannot and will not find it, and "meaning" possibly is the wrong category to seek. Yahweh declares his unknowability, Jesus Christ is totally smothered beneath the massive superstructure of historical theology, and of Yeshua all we rightly can say is that he is a concave mirror, where what we see is all the distortions each of us has become. The Hebrew God, like Plato's, is a mad moralist, while Jesus Christ is a theological labyrinth, and Yeshua seems as forlorn and solitary as anyone we may know. Like Walt Whitman at the close of "Song of Myself," Yeshua stops somewhere waiting for us.

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