Header image by Dikla Laor, used by permission.¹ Title from Emily Dickinson, used because I could.
§ indicates a section of the Book of J proper; page references are to the commentaries, and are either from Rosenberg or Bloom unless otherwise indicated.
Because the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. . . .Because you cannot make an animal and not expect it to act alive. (Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park)
The Book of J is a branch of a literary-critical project that’s arguably about two thousand years old, rooted in the questions of exactly how many animals did Noah bring into the ark (two of each or seven of each?) or how Moses, if he authored the Torah, managed to include his own death? Using details like styles of writing, references to historical events and figures, word choice, and a healthy dose of imaginative criticism, scholarly consensus arrived at probably the simplest answer to these questions: the Bible (and here we’re only considering the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the first five books) is a compilation of writing from different authors working at different times, with different attitudes, experiences, and purposes, woven together at a later date into a form that’s compelling if not quite coherent. (Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? is an excellent and highly readable summary of this argument, as is his The Bible with Sources Revealed, which provides a version of the Torah with each author in a different typeface.) The oldest of these writers (the “Chronology” provides a guide to this history), and what Harold Bloom would call the most original (the two terms are not synonyms), is J, the Yahwist.
Like Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” this is something less stable than a fact and something more interesting than “hey I got an idea here”: it’s a way into understanding. As Bloom sez, “All I have done is to remove the Book of J from its context in the Redactor’s Torah then to read what remains” (p. 16), and I’m not so much convinced of this by argument as I am changed by the force of the writing. (The latter is not a choice.) This argument, known as the Documentary Hypothesis, is literary, not really historical; there is no separate Book-of-J document and I doubt there will be, just as Nikos Kazantzakis wasn’t working off a distinct Gospel when he wrote The Last Temptation of Christ. The Book of J makes sense to me because J, David Rosenberg, and Bloom created a God I could believe in, in a way that the Bible and two thousand subsequent years of religions could not. There are books I like more than this, but there is not one more influential in my life.² For this reason, like all great stories, like all great works of art, I accept the premises but don’t make any claim as to their objective truth. There are other interpretations of Torah and I hope you are encouraged to pursue yours just as far as Rosenberg and Bloom did theirs.
In the chronology here, revising J begins about a century after her, with the Elhoist (or E; J always refers to God as Yahweh/Jahweh, E as Elhoi, hence the name), and continuing through the very un-J, even anti-J (P)riestly author(s), who gave us about a full third of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments and Leviticus, the (D)euteronomist(s), and the (R)edactor who compiled all of them into a fairly unified Torah ca. 400 BCE. (I suspect that the reason R let so many contradictions stand in the result was that they didn’t share our assumptions about authorship, that a single book was from a single source with a single voice. Some centuries later, the compilers of the New Testament would go even farther–four versions of the Messiah’s story? No problem bro.) It continues with the various translations, as Hebrew got turned into Greek and Middle English and so forth, and the resulting Bible. . .well, I’ll swipe a cadence from Kevin Smith’s somewhat J-like Dogma: to believe that the Bible is the Word of God takes a leap of faith; to believe that in three thousand years no one fucked with said Word for their own ends, that’s just gullibility.
The revisions often take the J text and add a lesson or moral justification–as an example, dig this bit of Exodus (here I’ll use the King James version for both passages, as my focus isn’t on language. It’s typical of the revisions to add an explicit statement of Law to J’s story):
J (15: 23-25, § 152): And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them.
E (15:26): And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
J tells a story; later writers use her stories to teach a lesson. The P texts really get into this, taking almost any opportunity J gives them to write the Law: if J sez (§ 161) “So Moses came down and spoke to the people” then P will make damn sure we all know what he told them (Exodus 20). (You can hear J, though, in the First Commandment: there’s not much daylight between “You will not fall prostrate to another God, as if Jealous One is my name, Jealous Yahweh” (§ 164) and “thou shalt have no other Gods before me.”) The Priestly vision is ordered, almost rational, starting with the step-by-step construction of the Creation in Genesis 1–no mudpies or nostrils for this God. P also rewrites the J and E stories by adding a priest acting as an intermediary between God and mortals. No surprise there.
Judaism strikes me as a powerful and continual struggle between the J and P texts, between the uncontainable vitality of life/Yahweh and the Laws of the Priests; whereas my experience of Christianity is that it weakens itself by displacing this conflict, starting with the identification of the snake with the Devil. The conflict in Christianity always comes from something outside of God: the world, the flesh, and/or the Devil, so God himself remains perfect, and kinda boring. That’s how you wind up with the Devil calling himself “a humanist–maybe the last humanist!” and, as Lester Bangs and many others have said, all the good musicians in Hell. (If the Devil gets the powers of creativity, something’s seriously fucked up with your theology.) In J, though, there is deception, rage, lust like you wouldn’t believe, intemperance, greed, avarice, murder, but no sin–nothing outside of Yahweh’s domain, nothing that could be called ungodly. What J gives us, instead, are people who go against what Yahweh wants–but he is too unpredictable, even contradictory, in his loves and hates to make defying him a moral category. Struggling with Yahweh doesn’t make you evil, and it’s in fact necessary.
Perhaps the greatest value of this work, the excerpting and translation, is the opportunity to read J with all the moral superstructures, what Bloom called the normative traditions, burned off. J is a storyteller in the oldest mode, the epic, a form not so much concerned with unity or even plausibility but with recording the deeds of the great; her Yawheh belongs in the lineage of Gilgamesh and Zeus, but is even more powerful, crazy, and memorable than either. (Following Aristotle’s definition, the epic has many stories, not unified by beginning-middle-end; “the Labors of Yahweh” would work as a subtitle here.) The epic writer witnesses, and just as J’s style is that of a witness, if she has a morality, it’s that of the storyteller: to be Blessed is to be included in the story.
J has no need to ascribe goodness to her heroes, nor (and probably more importantly) badness to her victims. The revisions (from P to my Sunday school) often justify God by blaming others for his actions, and you can see that starting with the snake. I agree with Bloom that “the essence” of J’s Garden of Eden story is “when we were children, we were terribly punished for being children,” (p. 185) something to which we can all relate. (The fuck you think was gonna happen, Yahweh?) There’s nothing in the J text that supports reading the snake as the Devil, or Adam and Eve as fallen, or Eve as sinful. (That last one has a long, long and painful history.) You can see the same kind of thing with the stories about the builders of Babel or about Esau; those who merely not the winners in J’s text get labeled as prideful or sinful or wicked, and you simply don’t see that in J. (I was assured a few years ago that God scattered the people at Babel because they were all arguing with each other; not only is that not in the Biblical text, it’s the opposite of what’s clearly there.)
The religious revisions all point in the same direction: the changing of Yahweh, embodiment of life, into God, form of perfection. (Interesting trope switch: in J, the image of Yahweh is often fire, power uncontained by form; whereas the Gospels introduce the image of God or at least the divine as petros, rock, eternal, unchanging, indestructible.) The problem with perfection, as, again, Aristotle sez, is that perfect characters are the worst possible subjects for stories, and as God increases in perfection he decreases in interest. By the time of the New Testament, the crazyassitude of Yahweh has been almost completely effaced, allowing figures like Jesus or Mary to hold our interest–and then they have suffered the same fate as God over the last few millennia: characters reduced to the status of icons, at least until blashpemers like Kazantzakis, Smith, or Rosenberg/Bloom show up to restore them to characterhood, and therefore life. (Perhaps that defines blasphemy: refusing the authority of religion by daring to tell a story about its characters.) The Book of J burns off not just morality but iconography, and gives us the story of a living God, not a containable, definable object of worship for religions to use.
The revisions of J were probably necessary for religions to be built on her work–and if those religions hadn’t done so, none of J’s writing might have survived at all. (Isn’t it ironic?) How can you get Law out of J’s Yahweh, when perhaps the defining characteristic of the one is consistency and the other is contradiction? There’s nothing in J that could be used to create an institution; her stories are about vitalism, not architecture. (Which some parts of the Bible literally are.) Her work inspires, but it takes more than inspiration to build communities that last the way Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have for these many centuries. The “strong misreadings” of J become necessary in this sense; for the children to flourish, they had to kill their mother and father, J and Yahweh. You can see why this project appealed to Bloom: not just for the Freudian killing-your-parents aspect (his reading of Yahweh as the Superego on p. 305f is masterfully crazy criticism), the three religions provide the greatest case of the anxiety of influence (and big emphasis on anxiety) in history.³
. . .this fountainhead of of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was simply not a religious writer. (p. 31)
I’m not sure how to address this, because it shifts into the question of how to define “religious writer.” Bloom correctly notes that whatever tradition J wrote in has been lost to us; if she wrote a parody, critique, or version of Yahwism, we don’t know what that was. (I have my suspicions, and one of them was that so many creation stories of that time were more or less “1. [insert name of deity] has adventures; 2. [deity] makes world (ejaculation is a recurring motif); 3. Existence!” and I could see J being all “the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.”) Bloom’s definition seems to be that a religious writer accepts, at least somewhat, the authority of that religion, and I can see that; authority may be the defining difference between religion and spirituality. However, he strikes me as reading his own unbelief back on to J, although he’s pretty open about it: “what if one is a believer, of some degree or kind, and yet still a reader, unable or unwilling to keep reminding oneself that the pages one reads are sacred or holy, at least to millions of others?” (p. 11); it’s not so much that J isn’t a religious writer that Bloom doesn’t see himself as a religious reader. Whatever J’s degree of belief, she writes about themes and the material central to a religion (and she may well have invented them), so I’m OK with calling her a religious writer and reading her through my own belief. (James Joyce was a Catholic writer, no matter how many times he proclaimed non serviam! and Quentin Tarantino, at least in his early movies, is a Christian filmmaker.)
That we’ve lost the context of J is one of the consequences of reading a document from nearly three thousand years ago. Whoever J wrote for is not us, and that’s one of the things that writing does: allow words to travel past the boundaries of their origins. (Fascinating though it is, I’m not going to get into the details of the Solomon-Rehoboam regime change that Bloom uses to explain J.) Thing is, I consider this a feature and not a bug, because J’s story and voice has a power that still speaks to me and possibly to you, and this gets at what Bloom means by “We, whoever we are, have been formed in part by strong misreadings of J.” (p. 13)
When Bloom calls God “the West’s major literary character” there’s a simple way to understand that: if you say “God” on this planet, more likely than not, the listener will recognize the term. (By this standard, the Beatles at their height were most likely not bigger than Jesus, but probably got to about 75%.) The God the world has now, as I’ve said, has been so heavily effaced from J’s version that it has almost nothing of personality and therefore interest; maybe not even an icon but a meaning–but as a meaning, it’s as close to universal as you can get in this world.
It’s a meaning that has meaning even for those who claim not to believe in God, because God in our world has many names–and Bloom suggests that for rationalists, God travels under the name Objectivity. In any case, it’s a fixed, transcendent, eternal ideal, something not a character but a Form, something not of this world that is always Good, that should always be strived for and sacrificed to; perhaps the broadest way to interpret God in our world is to call it Authority, and that Authority has come a long, long way from its author, who gives it a different name. (This is my historian’s bias: you cannot know a thing in the present until you know its past.) You may not use the name God, but you might still believe under a different name, and if you do, reading J “will ultimately teach you how much authority has taught you already, and how little authority knows.” (p. 306)
J plays incessantly, in these passages and elsewhere, upon the Hebrew stem ‘rr, which means “to restrain or bind, as by a magical spell.” In J, ‘rr is not quite a curse but does constitute an antithesis to the Blessing of Yahweh, in which time loses its boundaries. (p. 54)
For more than any other reason, the Book of J works for me because it has something close to a unified story, and even more it has a unifying theme, expressed even in her language: the struggle of all its characters, including Yahweh, for and with the Blessing, life. (A theme like that will most likely not produce a fully unified story. Neither Yahweh, the Blessing, or life can be called neat.) The story begins with Yahweh breathing his spirit (breath/soul seems to be a common identification across languages) into clay, making life from not-life, and continues with the story of that life expanding, forever overrunning its boundaries, even those Yahweh sets for it, and ends with the last breath of Moses at the boundary of the Promised Land.
Bloom surely has it right when he sez that J “unlike every subsequent Biblical writer, shows no awe or fear of Yahweh,” (p. 31) but she shows no awe or fear of anyone here, and Bloom misses how much love she does show; he gets closer to the mark when he says she has an attitude that “resembles nothing so much a mother’s somewhat wary but still proudly amused stance toward a favorite son who has grown up to be benignly powerful but also eccentrically irascible.” (p. 26) (“Oi, again with the plagues.”) Every one of J’s characters, including Yahweh, does the best they can in a world that has no obligation to make any sense. Since there is no overarching order in this world, no one can come off as less for violating it–there’s no sense of shoulda known better. That’s why it’s so necessary, both for story and for theme, for Yahweh to be that clumsy and insanely powerful child, especially at the beginning. He’s the source of life, not order (as the P texts would have it), and life goes against life to become more life.
You see this in the Garden of Eden, as the firstmade of Yahweh just will not do what they’re told; you see it again, immediately after, as the first generation is born, not made: “I have created a man as Yahweh has,” (§ 11) sez Hava (translated in the King James as “I have gotten a child from the LORD,” hey LORD, thank you, couldn’t have done it without you, how darn swell thou art), throwing it right back in his face. Yahweh curses the earthlings, and life, literally the one named Life, comes right back at him with “yeah? Well I have your power now, I make life as you do.” (Bloom calls this “an ironic, narcissistic mistake on her part,” (p. 188) which, eat a bag of crispy dick, Harold.) He has made something that not only cannot be controlled, it comes right back on him and becomes his equal, “as Yahweh has”: Yahweh, the unbounded, keeps running into his boundaries, which are us. There has not been in three thousand years a better FUCK YOU in all literature.⁴
Not much later, the Flood story takes Yahweh to another boundary; later theologians and philosophers go paradox-hunting here (“well if God was all-seeing, why couldn’t he see his regret over destroying the world? Check and mate, believers!”) but it hits me as completely plausible, and devastating. Yahweh makes the world and discovers in the process, like anyone who creates does at least once, that it’s just not working: “Yahweh looked upon the human, saw him growing monstrous in the land–desire created only bad thoughts, spreading into all his acts,” (§ 21) and then decides, again like any creator, to drown the whole thing and start over. The media and scale are different but the emotions and the overall action are identical to this:⁵
And then, immediately after he wipes out everything but Team Noah (the quickness of the emotional reversal is one of the links between Yahweh and the Court Historian’s David), he repents: “Never again will I judge the earth because of the earthling. Imagination bends his human heart to bad designs from the very start. Never again will I cut off all that lives, as I have done” (§ 26) and this moves me to tears. There is no paradox here, only the truth of action: Yahweh can never know all because his power cannot be bounded by knowledge; and more than that, because in creating, no one, including God, can know more than their actions. The consequences cannot be known, even the consequences to yourself. Take Bloom’s reading of the Garden of Eden and add this as the story of the Flood: when I was a child, I made terrible and irrevocable mistakes because I was a child.⁶ Yahweh learns something here (an all-knowing entity could never learn, never Recognize, and would therefore be a craptacular subject for a story): creating life also creates an obligation to that life, and just because you made it doesn’t mean it agrees with you, nor you with it; but that doesn’t give you the right to destroy it. He had to wipe out almost everything he made to do it (and notice that he doesn’t Hulk-snap all the life back) but everyone pays a price for knowledge, even God.
“No other great writer cares less than J does to tell us how persons, places, and things look” (p. 287); in fact, even when J does describe an appearance, it’s more about the effect on others (think Rachel and Leah) than about what the appearance actually is. (Of course, Bloom is bound by the word “great”; there are many writers who are all about the action, but they tend to be genre writers, and Bloom only goes to genres to congratulate himself on being better than them.) More than that, J rarely if ever cares to explain anything; she places us in the action but not really the mindset of her characters. (Like another author we know, and as Drunk Napoleon has explained about said author, when she describes thought, she often elides it with action, so thought becomes one more form of acting.) J’s focus on action over appearance and explanation reinforces the theme here: life is what matters, not appearance, and certainly not reflection. (Reason, as we would conceive of it, simply doesn’t exist here.) Everyone, whether beloved of God like Joseph or outside the Blessing like Esau, has got to do something, which is also, y’know, a basic principle of storytelling. “To be part of the story” and “to have Yahweh’s life within you” mean the same thing: to act, and J will not write you into the story unless you do. To realize the life of God within, to realize the fame of God without: that is the Blessing for which these characters struggle.
I can think of no better description of J’s writing and its vision than “Actuality is the fact of power and action, which are life,” [Gerhard von Rad] particularly if one substitutes “Yahweh” for “actuality” as the subject of that sentence. (p. 277)
. . .which is to say: Yahweh’s domain has no judgments, no explanations, only consequences. (“Story” works as the subject of that sentence too.) The world of J is too marvelous to need another realm, either heaven or hell; so there is no vision of the Good separate from action. There really isn’t even the question of faith here; Yahweh is too present and J’s voice to intimate for him to be anything but reality. (I can get there might be a problem here for anyone reading this after, say, 1700.) Even Pharaoh doesn’t question Yahweh’s existence, only what he’s going to do. Before the New Testament God of love, before the Old Testament God of Law, there is J’s Yahweh, which is Life; and J’s characters struggle not to believe, not for goodness, but for the Blessing, Life.
J could never author what Malcolm X saw as the worst of Christianity, its way of comforting the enslaved with the promise of another world, with duty and goodness its price of admission. J could also never give us the normative readings of the snake as Evil, of woman as Temptation, of wealth as wicked; there is no original sin here, but neither is there original innocence. In J, no one can unbind you but yourself, but only through your actions, and never without a price, because that unbinding means you will touch God’s boundaries, “and on that day death touches you.” (§ 3) Yet J’s characters keep doing exactly that.
It’s necessary, again, to read J’s version of Biblical stories because she approaches her characters without judgment, and allows us to see something very simple: “they are not good people, they do not do good things,” as thesplitsaber sez. They cheat and steal. They hurt and betray others. They deceive (Bloom correctly catches that both J and Shakespeare use the “disguise plot” quite a bit). (They do these things because that is What It Takes to hold on to the Blessing. Ruck Cohlchez, writing under a different nom de disqus, said something a bit like this about Nic Pizzolatto’s characters in the first season of True Detective, but the author who really plays in J’s domain, both in how fucked-up, often misguided, and how alive the characters are, is Stanley Kubrick.) If David really was the model for Yahweh and the Blessing, then this makes a certain sense in terms of character, because (although I don’t like the term), the David of 2 Samuel is the West’s first antihero, the protagonist not by virtue of, well, virtue (seriously, is there a more sick fuck in the whole Bible?) but by sheer interestingness; and the attribute that binds David and J’s chasers of the Blessing is they’re (Kubrick again) the crazy-brave.
All the Blessingchasers have it, but none with more screentime than Abram and Jacob; the latter, fighting his brother from before birth, cheating him first out of his birthright and then Isaac’s Blessing with some assistance from his mom, Rebecca. Bloom notes that although power is central to J, her sense of it is familial rather than the administrative sense in 2 Samuel, and she locates that power for women in childbirth and motherhood. Starting with Hava, J’s women are fierce about getting children and raising them, because that is their way into the bloodline and the Blessing. (J is a Classical, and as Bloom suggests, aristocratic writer: people have roles in the world but that does not bind them. To use J’s concept of unbinding as what we would call liberation is to read her beyond her intentions, which we should absolutely do. In J, the Creation goes beyond the boundaries of its creator; she is not an exception.) Past Hava, Sarai, Lot’s daughters (yikes), Rebecca, Tamar (more Disguise Plots here), and Zipporah all pursue and defend their families, and arguably with more devotion than J’s men, and as unbound from any conventional morality. (The writer of Lot’s daddyfuckers hasn’t even heard of respectability, much less is bound by it.)
J’s understanding of the home as a site of power, especially maternal power leads her to create some of the most memorable families in all literature. (If there’s a recurring theme in world literature, it’s “wow your family is fucked.”) In particular, J writes favoritism–what it’s like to be the favorite child, what it’s like not to be one, and how that can drive an entire life–better than anyone of her, or almost any, era, giving us the central figure of Jacob, the secondborn wanting always the Blessing due the firstborn, Esau, a heel clutching at his brother’s heel, aided and abetted by his mom. Rebecca schemes to get Jacob the Blessing from Isaac, but it’s her act and her agency; she knows exactly what she’s doing: “My son, any curse would be mine.” (§ 60) J never writes women as passive (she never writes anyone as passive), and they know better what they’re doing than her men.
J sets up Jacob perfectly as the spoiled young man undeserving of the Blessing. Yet, when the time comes, when Jacob isn’t a young man anymore (after 14 years in service, and how fantastically over-the-top the Rachel/Leah/Jacob triangle is; in fact, another good summary of J’s genrebending would be “origin story as telenovela”), as he waited for his brother to kill him, he gets jumped by–J never sez who it is, tradition has a lot of answers, but I’m sure it’s Yahweh (so many other characters disguise themselves here, you think he can’t? I’m guessing he masked up all WWE-like), Jacob fights and fights and holds out until dawn: “Not anymore, Jacob, heel-clutcher will be said in your name; instead, Israel, God-clutcher, because you have held on among gods unnamed as well as men, and you have overcome.” (§ 73) Jacob’s life has been overcoming: of his brother, of time, finally of God, and it took an absolute commitment, past any kind of morality or reason, to come through in the clutch–and the prize is to become history. Don’t imagine, J tells us, anything less than this can keep you from being scattered, can make you part of the story.
Perhaps that is J’s deepest imaginative stance and purpose in portraying Yahweh: Yahweh sometimes must be struggled with, for his own sake, since in struggling for the Blessing, one affirms the life of Yahweh. (p. 302)
Jacob’s grandfather, Abram, may be even more impressive, and Bloom gives his story a close and knowing reading in “The Psychology of Yahweh” chapter. For most of his life, Abram acts with a certainty of the Blessing, and like Jacob, this leads him to be a cowardly little shit, ready to give up Sarai to the Pharaoh or to let Hagar be punished. (Let’s appreciate, though, Sarai’s shrinkage gag in § 41.) Yet in § 43, he finds it within himself to stand up to God, and actually talk him down from destroying Sodom. Smooth as the snake, always letting God think he’s in control here, Abram gets him down, increment by increment, to saving the city for ten innocent men. (A few more lines and he would have gotten God to sign off on the Tru-Coat.) J gives us not just Abram’s smarts and sneakiness but the details of the process; as in the Jacob/Yahweh Smackdown!, she emphasizes the need to endure to gain the Blessing. Bloom notes how the story ends with “to his place” (p. 303), as Abram and Yahweh return to their respective realms. Abram carried the Blessing, but here, like Jacob, he went up against God and took it.⁷ J led me to a truth that every religion founded upon her has tried, so hard, and in the end so unsuccessfully, to deny: to truly love God you must defy God. (Corollary: we must all struggle with the thing that made us to become the thing we are.)
J’s skill extends beyond the Blessing; she knows the art of the minor character necessary for all good storytellers, giving characters life and independence even if they’re not the focus of the story. One of the most vivid of these is Esau, the unblessed, the negative space to Jacob. Esau’s (and Isaac’s) pain in § 62 hurts (and the Hasidic maxim on p. 213 “the Messiah will not come until the tears of Esau have ceased” should always be remembered), but that pain doesn’t define Esau: J is far too good at this to cast Esau as a victim and end his story there; she knows that evoking pity out of someone’s passiveness is the cheapest form of storytelling. He’s ready to kill Jacob for taking his blessing (which leads Jacob and Rebecca to get him the fuck outta Dodge) but so many years later, when they do meet, Esau weeps with joy, saying “I am rich enough, my brother. What is yours–should be.” (§ 74) (Another scene, like post-Flood Yahweh, that is guaranteed to start my own tears.) Offstage, Esau healed, and accepted; that even if Jacob stole his birthright and his Blessing, he still had a good life. The Blessing is always about more; but there are also people like Esau, who have enough and Recognize that, who don’t desire to cross any boundaries and are content. J knows to include them in her story.
This reading of J increased my affection for Moses more than any other character. Moses is an instrument of the Blessing but never seems to want it, and he’s forever bound between forces way above his pay grade: Pharaoh, the Israelites, Yahweh–who, remember, tries to flat-out kill him once. In this way, he’s J’s most modern character, the man caught between earthly and godly powers, the man pushed to his own boundaries by his faith but not able to cross over them. (Lost’s John Locke and Moby-Dick’s Starbuck both owe something to J’s Moses.) Unlike every other character so far, Moses sets boundaries given to him by Yahweh; he is the beginning of Law in J’s story, the suggestion that one day his people will move from the Blessing to a nation, though he will never see it. (Not for nothing did Taylor Branch, the great historian of the Civil Rights Movement, explicitly identify Martin Luther King with Moses.) Moses has something of the professional’s attitude: “they don’t go through the door, we don’t ask why. That’s not a cost, it’s benefit.” If those orders are difficult, contradictory, involve killing or placating his people, well, he does the job. (I see him as Garrett Dillahunt in No Country for Old Men, stuck working with a Tommy Lee Jones-like Yahweh.)
Reading J led me to understanding probably the toughest book of the Bible, Job. You can see remnants of J in God’s characterization as a whirlwind, in the line “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” (38:4) (“Listen, ya no-universe-creating punk, how about you have a nice warm bowl of Shut The Fuck Up and let me do my job”), and in Job’s nice comfy life inside the boundaries, until God, at Satan’s suggestion, burns it all down. Job has a lot in common with Esau, but there’s a crucial difference: J never suggested that Esau was righteous, and bloody well nobody in the Book of Job ever shuts up about Job’s righteousness–it’s the righteousness that makes Satan to suggest him as the target. (Allowing Satan to take some of the blame for God’s actions is another of the very non-J aspects here.) The chaos of God comes from J, as does the sense of the boundary between us and God; but the author of Job introduces the idea that living by Law, within the boundaries, defines Good, and that is not compatible with J, not for us or for God.
Philip Roth often seemed to be rewriting the Old Testament in contemporary America; his Swede in American Pastoral is his Job (just as Bucky in Nemesis is his Moses), the man who achieved success by living by the rules, the most assimilated Jew in the neighborhood, loved by all, and who was visited by disaster after disaster. Roth was at his most compelling as a Yahwistic preacher, and Pastoral’s best passage comes when Jerry, the Swede’s brother, Yahweh-like (“he had a cyclonic personality you either fled or yielded to”) in contrast to the Swede’s self-discipline and -denial, comes at him with full-force Roth:
But whatever chunks and fragments remain of the big manly barrier against crying, his brother’s response to his pain demolishes. “If what you are telling me is what I was. . .” he begins, “wasn’t, wasn’t enough, then, then. . .I’m telling you–I’m telling you that what anybody is is not enough.”
“You got it! Exactly! We are not enough. We are none of us enough! Including even the man who does everything right! Doing things right,” Jerry says with disgust, “going around in this world doing things right.”
Unlike Job and the Swede but like Jerry, J’s Blessed characters are bound by their arrogance, and for them, its denial, sometimes disguised as humility, may be the greatest insult to God. (I can’t be the only one who just wanted to smack Job for never shutting up about how worthless he was.) Arrogance is what makes us go to and beyond the bounds of our life and risk destruction by the thing that made us, it’s what makes our names last, what makes our lives bigger than they are. (I don’t mean presumption, which can be seen as the opposite of arrogance: arrogance makes you larger than yourself, presumption makes everything else as small as you, just as Job presumed to know the rules that would bind God.) To be arrogant is to be one of J’s characters–Hava, Abram, Jacob, Tamar–who refused to keep to their place, who were bound to break the boundaries, to chase the Blessing at any cost. Never mistake this for morality, because J’s characters are not moral: they fight and fuck and charm and cheat their way into the Blessing, into more life, because that is what it takes.
I’m always a sucker for unity in artworks; it’s usually what raises something from “liked” to “greatness” in my book. With J, that struggle with the boundaries exists not just on the level of plot but in her words too. Although Bloom sez “the central literary glory of J. . .is the ironic complexity of her tone,” he does that at the end of almost two pages (25-26) where he rejects almost every definition of irony. Writing before the word got beaten to death in the 1990s, it still doesn’t quite describe J; irony connotes a distancing that Bloom may feel but I do not. The word he really uses for her writing is incommensurate, and I’m gonna go with fewer syllables here and say mismatch: between the scales of the characters, between their actions and their consequences, between what Yahweh wants and what he gets, most of all between Yahweh and himself. J has no problem writing the contradictions of God because for her, God must be a contradiction: a figure of too much power to be subject to anything, including himself. (The best of Kubrick hits me this way too: not ambiguity, which suggests something that refuses to resolve into possibilities, but multidimensionality, existing fully as many incompatible things, all at once.) No wonder Bloom’s description of J’s writing calls in so many different authors from so many mismatched times, places, and traditions: “a Jewish Chaucer writing with the uncanny ironies of Kafka and Isaac Babel and Nathanel West, but also with the high naturalistic wisdom of Tolstoy and Wordsworth.”⁸
Barry Qualls observes (p. 317) that the Gospel of Mark is the most J-like one, and it’s based around a similar mismatch, between the Apostles and their Savior. Believed to be the earliest Gospel, the original version doesn’t include the Resurrection, ending with the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb and the word “afraid”; it’s about the struggle to believe and serve Jesus as much as J is about the struggle for the Blessing. Moving the time frame up a few millennia, the Kazantzakis/Schrader/Scorsese Last Temptation of Christ, the Watchmen of Moore and Gibbons, and Smith’s Dogma are all about the mismatch not just between human and god, but the mismatch of being God, and also about the mismatch of representing God. Like J, all these authors represent their gods, angels, and Jesus without awe or fear, only love; like J, all these authors used the means of representation closest to them, be they New York voices, Silver Age comics, or dick jokes. The mismatch can’t be avoided, it becomes the defining aspect of these works: it can’t be done and you have to do it.
That mismatch, that unbinding, registers throughout in the intimacy of J’s voice, part of what Rosenberg calls “the stance of the poet.” Rosenberg renders this voice as a living thing, a dynamic thing in Martin Buber’s words (p. 327) and as he sez, that means avoiding the “false simplicity” (p. 329) of most modern translations. (That dynamic sense of language, the way meanings live in the text and keep coming back on us, is thematically crucial in J.) Using Now look and Now and Listen and So it was and on and on, create a voice for J that’s right there with us (I hear her as always standing behind me and a little off to the side, never appearing, never pointing) and that means we’re right there in the action too. (The shifting tenses of Hebrew help with this as well.) This world–our world–is where all of this happens; J makes an origin story immediate and intimate as no other such author has done, certainly no Biblical author; her intimacy is the opposite of sacredness, which separates God into another realm.
The intimacy of J’s voice and her focus on action create passages so intense that my imagination creates things that she doesn’t tell us, an in-process midrash. Story writing requires something nearly identical to what Glenn Gould called “the real secret of all successful keyboard writing” in music: “compelling the listener to flesh out, via his imagination, the material on the printed page,” making listening or reading a collaboration. (After thirty years, my voice carries some elements of J’s. Collaborations go both ways.) I can hear Jacob yelling “THAT ALL YOU GOT?!” around dawn (and the crack of Yahweh breaking his hip); I know Lot’s younger daughter complained about always getting sloppy seconds; I can see Yahweh digging in the adamah at the end, returning Moses to the source–he looks a lot like the silhouette of Eastwood in the opening of Unforgiven.
Effacing J’s intimacy, so many widescreen, static-composition epics have been made from the Bible, and of course they did: the King James translation already had that tone, stately, broad, static. What J and Rosenberg created here was a tone more evocative of close-ups, smaller in scale but so much more intense, unsettled and unsettling, the prose equivalent to the style of The Shield. The final passage (§ 178) becomes even more powerful because of this, as Yahweh sweeps his arm (another thing not in the text but I know it happened) and shows the land to Moses, at the final moment of his life: the perspective goes wide for the closing shot, a style move to match the plot beat.
As far as prose writers go, well–in use of alliteration, in the uncompromising understanding of human behavior, in mixing of the most intimate and most historical of events and characters, in the cast of bad men and strong women, in the ability to get me to imagine what isn’t written, in the way thought and action are elided together, in the way chunks of time can be traversed in a single sentence, most of all in a shared faith in the power of the declarative sentence to create a reality, the James Ellroy of American Tabloid is our most J-like writer, and you can easily imagine a lost beginning for J: Israel was never innocent.
One of the first clues that scholars used to discern the J material from the rest of the Torah was “that J would not use a phrase, not a single word, without playing upon it, sometimes in the same sentence, sometimes in the next.” (p. 325) J/Rosenberg’s language embodies her themes, just as Yahweh’s breath turned clay into life. Rosenberg creates a near-rhyming texture for J’s voice, and it’s important that it nearly rhymes, because it never stabilizes into poetry or prose. There’s wordplay all over the place here; ‘rr is, natch, the most important and the most thematic but J starts right away with Adam (from adamah, red clay) and Hava (life). (“Adam and Eve” botches the reference here; “Clayton and Livia” would get it across.)⁹ People and places get named for the things they are, blurring the distinction (sometimes literally) between the map (OK, the atlas) and the territory. Martin Buber caught how J uses words or even word-fragments musically, as motifs that keep coming back in waves; past things keep coming up in present contexts like memory. And all through it, J renders the mismatch of action and consequence, of life and dirt, of Yahweh and everything else, without ever registering it as anything than just what happens. Along with, y’know, being the founding document of a global culture, the Book of J is as fun as Ellroy or Paris Is Burning.
Rosenberg is the MVP of this work; yes it’s great having Bloom present several centuries of scholarship and add his own singular vision to the mix, but Rosenberg makes it come alive, takes it out of “the reign of mere fact.” Rosenberg drops the key to the whole project all Gene Wolfe-like when he tosses off a parenthetical citing Emily Dickinson as his model for J’s style, noting her “ear for a combined religious and secular context.” (p. 332) For her, Eternity and Amherst were equally real, equally remarkablem and equally present. It’s a particularly American stance, as DH Lawrence sez (although he left Dickinson off his list, the dumbass): “The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it.” The only other model I can think of for J’s voice would be Robert Johnson, who had the same ability to see the eternal in the everyday (“Because I could not stop for Death” and “Me and the Devil Blues” are pretty much the same work), and a long blues version of the Book of J would be a thing to hear.
. . .it cannot be said that Israel [J] regarded God anthropomorphically, but the reverse, that she considered man as theomorphic. (von Rad, p. 291)
America–the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power. . . (Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night)¹⁰
Bloom speaks in the faith of a writer and a scholar when he sez that “Reality appears, rather than remains latent, because [Shakespeare/J/Pynchon/Dickinson/etc.] summons it; [they] do not imitate a reality already manifest.” (p. 319) To go all Lacan on everyone’s ass, these original poets transform the Real (the undifferentiated, external world) into the Symbolic (the realm of the names and the named). More broadly, all representation does this, and its not an accident that the Adam’s very first action, his first power exercised on the world, is to name things (§ 4), to create the Symbolic order. This makes even more sense in Hebrew, as Ephraim Ulach notes (p. 277) because “non-existent” in Hebrew is lo dabhar, “no word.” Adam calls a world into Being; so does J, by telling a story that’s built to last (even if we have to do some major restoration to find it), by creating characters, including God, that have so much force that the question of mere fact is thoroughly beside the point. Storytellers from J to Neil Gaiman have always known this: all stories are true. Some of them even happened. (My mom taught me that.)
J wrote to call a people to their greatness, I believe, and anyone who hears her can answer that call; and greatness is not the same as goodness, just as living is not the same as existing. In J, life, and Yahweh, are struggle, not peace, as so many of J’s revisers and redactors would have it. Clay is at peace, and J starts with Yahweh breathing his life into it, so life comes with all the struggle, power, and contradictions of Yahweh. J never backs down from that; if one of my terms of praise for artists is merciless, J may be the most merciless of all, never flinching from unfairness, never hiding the violence, never withholding the consequences, and most of all, never pretending the winners and losers here are anything else. J offers sympathy but never comfort; if you want the latter go ask Jesus, or maybe his mom, but even the Priestly texts offer the comfort of order. Faced with the world, the New Testament assures you are loved, the Old the wicked shall be punished, and J sez nothing but act: because that is the power given to you by God (and that always goes against God), because that is the only way to keep your name from being scattered, because greatness will not be found on any other path.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of religions is their ascription of a morality to the Creator; how it makes whatever version of the good it has not just good, not just Good, but a function of existence: therefore your will, if it accords with your religion’s, is the will of God and the universe. I don’t have to recount here how much destruction of life has happened under the banner of My Desires Happily Coincide with the Transcendental. Joan Didion got this in “On Morality” (“Because when we start deceiving ourselves not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble”); so did Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night (“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too”), although I’d add to the latter “. . .or loves,” because love can be as destructive as hate.
Reading J purged me of this, because in J, will comes from God and to act on it opposes God. In the Garden, at Babel, with Noah, at Sodom, at Deiface, at Sinai, Yahweh continually warns everyone not to use the power he gave them, and then the best of J’s characters go and do it. We are made by God and of God’s very breath, and God is never on our side. (So, yeah, it would take some massive editing here to make this the foundation for a religion.) We are the boundaries of our Creator, so, as Abram and Bloom figured out, we are bound to bind him with the will he inspired into us. That will is always holy, and never moral. Robert Penn Warren caught something of this in the following passage late in All the King’s Men, although he necessarily gave it a more Catholic spin with concepts of absolute knowledge, sin, and redemption; Warren’s God creates consciously as J’s Yahweh does not–but there is still, millennia later, the sense of humanity as the boundary of God:
The creation of Man whom God in His foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God’s omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection. To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension. Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, to truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself and to be separate from God is to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God’s glory and His power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man’s glory and power. But by God’s help. By His help and with His wisdom.
J gets her glory from a simple storytelling move: by privileging plot over character, she ascribes no morality to the Creator, she ascribes nothing to him except creativity, and really defines him as creativity. (For secular-identifying readers, consider replacing every occurrence of “Yahweh” in J with “Creativity.”) That the Creator is reasonable, lawful, just, loving, or beautiful seems a big ol’ presumption; but I am certain that the Creator is creative. Like fire, that Creativity keeps making and throwing forth other beings, other creators, that burn and create (and destroy) with their own light and heat, and that is where our world comes from–not only the Creator’s will and action, but the unbounded will and action of the Creation itself. J begins with the Creator breathing his creativity into his Creation, giving his power to us, and the rest of the story tells how that Creation keeps coming back on him, keeps exceeding the bounds he sets on it, no matter what he does. God did not create a stone so heavy he could not lift it, he started a fire he could not control, and it’s us. We are not so much in the image of God as we are possessed of the fertile madness of God, created by the Creator to create and therefore forever opposed to him. (How weak a work, to reflect nothing but its own creator! How weak this world would be, if it was only God’s!) And if you want humility or morality, if you want to think less of yourself or you want a world with rules, you won’t find that in J; like fire, creativity has neither mercy nor morality, it cannot be bounded, it leaves ashes in its wake so something new can grow.
Once a thing is created, the world cannot go back to being what it was, not for God and not for us. J doesn’t judge because that cannot alter reality, cannot uncreate, and the Book of J is her struggle with the realities of God and of this world. That may be why she is not in Bloom’s sense a religious writer: neither faith nor worship is part of the story here. Her Yahweh is too intimately present to be a subject for faith or doubt, and too unbounded to be worshipped, although not too unbounded to be loved. What J loves in her God and her people is not goodness, not love, not even, in the last analysis, power, but creativity, and the Book of J is the greatest song of Creativity ever written; it has come unbound from her time, to last for three thousand years so we could hear her. (Maybe we already have. “Community,” as Augustine sez, means a group of people bound by a common object of love, and the one thing we all love here at the Solute is Creativity, in all its unbound power.) “Awe” can be defined as the emotion of being in the presence of something truly (as opposed to Bloom’s term, “belatedly”) created, and she is clearly awed by Creativity itself, and I am still awed by J.
As a conclusion, a prayer, inspired by Barry Hannah’s prayer in his introduction to the Gospel of Mark:
Children of the clay, sons and daughters of David,
Creators against your Creator, bound to come unbound,
Given not peace but struggle,
Look: what could have more glory than this world?
What could be worth more than you who I made?
What more reason do you need than your life?
The breath I gave you is all you get and all you need.
Take it: live to honor me with your defiance,
Live to make the world against the world;
Desire, create, build, wound,
Become worthy of this madness,
Become worthy of the stories you tell,
Become worthy of my destruction, and my love.
You are always more than you know.
¹“Tamar, Judah’s Daughter-in-Law” from Laor’s Women in the Bible series, where she photographs (see title) at locations throughout the Golan Heights. In this shot, Laor catches the fierce willfulness (that gaze!) not just of Tamar but of J, and the way she makes an ancient story contemporary is, natch, exactly what Rosenberg does in his translation. (Dig the negative space, too, showing Yahweh’s raw material.)
²Look at the title of Bloom’s last chapter and (what you’d have to call) my first essay. I didn’t realize what I’d done until I wrote this.
³Greil Marcus is a fan of The Book of J, and you can see why, because Bloom sees J in the same way Marcus sees Elvis: the secret origin of an entire culture, including the culture of denying that origin. Good as the “Presliad” chapter of Mystery Train is, it would be Michael Ventura (the J to Marcus’ Court Historian) who would express this view most completely in his essay “Hear That Long Snake Moan.”
⁴This is one of the many places where I can see that we’re reading a woman. Bloom is far from the only scholar to make this claim (he sez at one point that he came to this view “recently.”) As he notes, his reading doesn’t depend on that, and neither does mine, but given how little we know about the origins or existence of J, my feeling is very much “why not?”
⁵Not gonna lie, this is where I often get a look that could be described as “why exactly is a bolt of lightning not striking you dead right now?” from students.
⁶Ian McEwan echoes this in the ending of Atonement, an author trying to repent the mistake she made as a child.
⁷For some years, I taught The Book of J and Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms together. Ginzburg tells the story of “Domenico Scandella, called Menocchio,” a miller in 1500s Italy who developed a theory of Creation where beings came out of the universe like worms out of cheese. Well, that did not go over well with the Inquisition, and Ginzburg wrote the book based largely on the transcripts of his trials, playing Bloom to Menocchio’s J. There’s a remarkable, even stunning, moment where Menocchio flips the script all Abram-like and tells his interrogators “I beg you, sir, listen to me”: I am the one in charge here, it is my story you will hear, and that you can kill me (and they did) is beside the point. That’s what it takes to get the Blessing, and Menocchio did: if you know this story, you know his name, and his interrogators and executioners are scattered and forgotten.
⁹It makes sense that the story of the Father would have so many Dad Jokes.
¹⁰So many writers, including Bloom, who call back to J are most definitely Bad Men. She always was fond of them, with Yahweh her favorite of all. Maybe what makes them Bad is that they all have J’s sense that “life is conceived as power.” And maybe this is why I just can’t get interested when the latest Artist gets revealed as a Bad Person: if God behaves this way, who would expect human creators to be better?