The Book of J by Harold Bloom

In this book, the great literary critic Harold Bloom attempts to tackle the J writer as an ancient poet. In some ways it is refreshing to read a literary critic who is not a professional theologian, religious philosopher, or even a trained secular scholar of Biblical studies. Bloom’s fame perhaps rests in his ability to continually extend himself beyond his original area of specialty, the English Romantic poets, and read and write about all areas of literature. To his credit, and out of necessity, he does quote some other biblical scholars, both theological and secular, to support his points and readings. Indeed, his entire reading requires him to accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to comment on the great “epic” writer who makes up the core of the Bible: the J writer.

The weakest part of the book is when Bloom attempts to imagine the life of J.  He surmises that J is a woman of the royal line, descended from David and Solomon, who is now living under the ineffectual king Rehoboam after the United Monarchy splits into two separate kingdoms. He also imagines her to be in literary competition and have a healthy rivalry with the Court Historian who wrote 2 Samuel who might also her husband. All of this seems to be a figment of Bloom’s imagination, which he readily admits, but comes off as bad literary criticism and history. Since many scholars consider the J source to be the oldest of the four writers, Bloom argues that J’s work is the true core of the Bible in which every other writer extends, challenges, or tries to edit.

Bloom is at his strongest in the book when he deals with J as writer and not when he tries to historicize his or her identity or surmise a make-believe background for the possible author. For him, J is a dramatic ironist rather than a theologian or historian. She isn’t interested in developing a cohesive or correct theology, nor does she want to portray history as it actually occurred. In fact, the way she portrays God in her portions of the Torah is rather irreverent. Her Yahweh is neither good or bad. He is more like a living force, with a personality that both destroys and creates.

“For J . . . Yahweh is not to be conceived as holiness or righteousness but as vitality. If God’s leading attribute is vitality, then his creature the human is most godlike when most vital. A monistic vitalism that refuses to distinguish between flesh and spirit is at the center of J’s vision, which is thus at the opposite extreme from either the Gnostic or the Pauline Christian dualism (277).”

He is a Being that unleashes potential, while preventing illegitimate expressions of potential. In sense, this is how you can read Yahweh and his relationship with humans and patriarchs throughout the portions ascribed to J. Yahweh is constantly molding humans beyond the initial Creation story, teaching them how to exist properly in the world, showing them His vision and expecting them to obey, and then sometimes reacting ferociously when they don’t.

“[His] leading quality is . . . The sheer energy and force of becoming, of breaking into fresh being (294).”

He sets the limits on human activity and potential, the boundaries, while always pushing them to be more, to thrive, but then coming back with a vengeance when they go too far. The patriarchal stories are about this give and take, push and limit relationship. The patriarchal stories are not real histories, but psychological dramas.

“Probing psychological elements in the stories of how Yahweh deals with Abram or Jacob or Moses is the heart of J’s activity as a writer (287).”

Her literature, as Bloom insists, is a literature of incomensurates. Human beings challenge God or obey Him or follow his voice (in the case of Abraham), but ultimately it’s a one-sided act. The fight to resist or obey God is a fight humans can’t really win, but the beauty of J’s art work is in showing that despite these incommensurates between man and the divine, man and other men, the humans still try to thrive and survive anyway. Some instances include Abram challenging the justice of God and haggling to save the city prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Moses the stutterer inflicting plagues on mighty Pharaoh, and even Pharaoh foolishly attempting to challenge the might of God, etc.  God is a force beyond their ability, yet many characters still strive against this incommensurate force. At the same time, He is the force that makes everything happen, blessing who He will and Creating.  Bloom’s insight into Yahweh’s character and central issue in his relations with humans: be like me, but don’t be too much like me.

For Bloom, J’s greatest originality is the scope of her work. It is full of puns, jokes, ironies, a God who creates and destroys, who pushes forward and limits, all while employing a minimalistic style. J tells wonderfully creative stories and probes deeply into the human mind, along with the unknown, while giving us bare minimum details, making her a master of minimalistic writing.  Likewise, her great character as an author is Yahweh. However, her portraits of Yahweh are anything but reverential. Only Shakespeare and handful of other writers outperforms her in their insight into humanity and sheer writing ability according to Bloom.  For all these reasons, this is a work that will probably annoy both traditional theologians in the way it challenges traditional readings and reverent portraits of God, as well as secular scholars in the way it abandons traditional scholarly standards, relies heavily on surmise and generalizations, and sometimes ignores scholarly debates.

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