Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible
By Jerome M. Segal
Riverhead Books, 308 pages, $24.95.
‘Let us make mankind in our image”: God’s pluralis majestatis declaration at the beginning of Genesis surely stands as one of the great historical inversions of human literature. Since the dawn of time, human beings have fashioned divinities in their own images, from the sensual and wrathful pantheon of Greece to the fantastic bodhisattvas of China and Tibet. Yet, just as men had the audacity to say that women came out of them (when every man who has walked the earth actually came out of a woman), so, too, did the biblical writers, whoever they were, say that God came first, and humankind second.
Of course, for a traditionalist there was but one biblical Writer, and He did indeed come before His children — but even that hasn’t stopped the kids from Oedipally reinventing their deity in every generation. For activists, God demands justice; for fundamentalists, purity. For philosophers, God is the One; for mystics, God is the Beloved. All of us invent our theologies, and, especially in our day of blogs and insta-pundits, we don’t wait for degrees in divinity to do so.
Enter Jerome Segal, a philosopher by training and political activist by avocation, who, rather than fashion a divinity in his own image, breaks a sacred idol of Jewish faith and argues that, far from being perfect, the God of the Torah is a nasty, sometimes infantile being whom Israel resents, educates, cajoles and, eventually, provisionally learns to live with. For Segal, the Torah is not God’s book, but Israel’s, and it is the record of a highly ambivalent, sometimes dysfunctional relationship with a powerful deity who, in Segal’s depiction of Him, could use a few hours on the couch.
Its blasphemy notwithstanding, however, Segal’s project isn’t really so different from the generations of religious thinkers who re-imagined God to suit their times. Segal is interested in negotiation — Israel-Palestinian negotiation specifically — and, as he reads the Torah (actually the “Hexateuch,” for Segal insists on including the book of Joshua in the narrative he describes), religious life is all about, you guessed it, negotiation.
God’s “interests,” to use standard negotiating language, are to be worshipped exclusively by Israel, but his tactics are blunt, brutish and mean. He’s jealous, intolerant of error and ready to destroy civilizations, cities and tribes but for the interlocution of more ethically attentive Jewish heroes (Noah, Abraham and Moses, respectively; Noah being regarded by Segal and most rabbinic sages as a failure in this regard). This God is unforgiving, stern and rigid. That “gracious and compassionate” stuff that we repeat on Yom Kippur was only Moses trying to kiss up. Israel’s interests are embodied by the figure of Joseph, who, in contrast to the wrathful and unforgiving YHVH, shows forgiveness toward his brothers and represents all that is loving and moral in the world. Observing that the Israelites eventually carry both the Ark of the Covenant and Joseph’s coffin throughout the wilderness — and noting that both are referred to by the same Hebrew word, aron — Segal posits these two symbols as diametrically opposed to each other: jealous and unforgiving YHVH on one side, generous and forgiving Joseph on the other. Joseph’s bones, Segal writes, “represent the longing of the Israelites for a god who exercises power with love and forgiveness.”
Of course, that’s a tall order, and Segal offers a number of close readings of biblical text to show how the protracted negotiation between God and Israel eventually arrives at a workable compromise — a kind of religious two-state solution, if you will. By the end of the Hexateuch, the Israelites agree to “police their own people” in the observance of God’s commandments, and God becomes, in Segal’s words “a deity with greater self-control,” lashing out with progressively less and less fury. Notably, Segal says that “we do not see evidence that the people [Israel] have come to love God; rather they are changed in that they now pursue an enlightened self-interest.”
Sound familiar? This is Negotiation 101: You don’t have to love your adversary; you just have to find a way to get along. Fair enough — but, even if we set aside the heretical notion of a God in need of moral education, does Segal’s reading hold water?
That depends on how it is read. As midrash, sure; though they are selective, Segal’s readings of biblical text are no more stretched than that of the talmudic rabbis, and the overall arc of his story is intriguing. Yet Segal wants more than that. There is a tendency in these nonbiblical scholars who write books about the Bible to act as though they are saying something about what the Bible actually says, as if all that mucking about with archaeology, philology and comparative religion that actual biblical scholars do is rather beside the point (think of Douglas Rushkoff’s “Nothing Sacred,” or Bruce Feiler’s “Abraham”). This is a nice Protestant idea, but not a very scholarly one.
Segal even goes so far as to state that his method involves “delaying reading what others have to say on a topic until I have worked out my ideas in detail.” This is rather odd for an academic, as it leads necessarily to errors that could have easily been avoided, and to a reinvention of the wheel. For example, Segal’s YHVH looks a lot like that of Harold Bloom (whose influence Segal acknowledges), and it would have been nice to see Segal engage with and build upon Bloom’s work rather than merely subsume into his own.
Careful readers will by now have noticed that Segal’s reading of the Bible also resembles that of another Jewish thinker: Jesus of Nazareth. In the afterword to “Joseph’s Bones,” Segal acknowledges the similarities, and also notes the common reading of the Joseph story by Christian theologians as prefiguring the Christ narrative. After all, both are “suffering saviors,” both emphasize forgiveness over judgment and both encounter the pharaohs/Pilates of their day. But Segal gives little space to the notion that people might actually prefer a moral guide who is stern and unforgiving to one who suffers and forgives — that is, that some people might think YHVH is right and Jesus is not.
This, in fact, is a recurring theme in “Joseph’s Bones.” Like many liberal thinkers, Segal gives “the people” credit they may not actually deserve. For example, he waves away the midrashic reading that Moses retrieved Joseph’s bones, as commanded by God, while the rest of the Israelites plundered the Egyptians — a reading based on the Torah’s specific statement that “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.” Segal is also sometimes a little rough on poor YHVH; he criticizes as arbitrary God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice, again ignoring the textual fillip that Abel offered “the choicest of his firstlings,” while Cain merely gave “from the fruit of the soil,” and dismissing the rabbinic interpretations based upon it. And if the book of Joshua — rightly dubbed the “book of Genocide” by some contemporary readers, for its endless litany of massacres and annihilations of whole peoples — is a moral compromise, I’d hate to see what fundamentalism is.
Finally, one questions why the redactor, or writers, or Divine inspirers of the Hexateuch would invent such a nasty God, only to have to find a way to live with him. Segal’s answer is that “somewhere in the matrix of authorship and creation there was a literary genius with a religious sensibility quite different from what we have generally supposed.” That genius, Segal says, believed that there is indeed a jealous and unforgiving God out there, and thus he wrote a text that is “always cautious, always delicate, always aware of the danger that God might understand this protest if it is told too directly.”
In other words, the Torah is a book that God doesn’t want you to read. At least not too closely. Surely this idea is far-fetched. Why did this “literary genius” believe there was a vengeful God in the first place? What about the many texts in which God is concerned not with the monotheism of the first five commandments but with the ethics of the second? And is the golden calf really such a small slip-up on the part of the Israelites that God should be faulted for getting upset?
I love the excitement in Segal’s writing; it reminded me at times of those unrecoverable moments in yeshiva when I suddenly saw something “running like a vein through the text,” in Segal’s words, seemingly for the first time. Like those moments of discovery, “Joseph’s Bones” is creative, enthusiastic and guilelessly iconoclastic. But, also like those moments, it has a tendency to get carried away by its theory of everything — a modern method that cannot capture the complexity and multi-vocality of biblical text. Those who shake their fists at today’s theocrats and know-nothings will love “Joseph’s Bones,” which features a subversive Israel and a Bush-like God. Power to the people, indeed. For everyone else, read “Joseph’s Bones” as midrash, a play on Biblical text, a thoughtful re-imagining of a half-invented world.
Jay Michaelson is the author of “God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice” (Jewish Lights Publishing).
This story "The People’s Bible" was written by Jay Michaelson.