'Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine'

A detail from the cover of Harold Bloom's book.

hide captionA detail from the cover of Harold Bloom's book.

In his new book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom wrestles with the meaning of God's covenant with the Hebrew people. Bloom discusses his own troubled feelings about the Hebrew God Yahweh with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob spends a night wrestling with a messenger of God. In the morning, the messenger tells him, `You have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.'

Harold Bloom appears to be having his own struggle with God in his new book, "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine." Bloom is a renowned author and literary critic at Yale University. He spoke with us at length from his home in New Haven. Bloom describes himself as a cultural Jew and he reads the Bible as literature. Yet he appears tormented by what he thinks is the absence of the Hebrew God from the world, and Bloom is troubled by the meaning of the covenant, God's promise to preserve and bless his chosen people.

Professor HAROLD BLOOM (Yale University; Author, "Jesus and Yahweh"): I think when I was a very small boy, undoubtedly following the influence of my late mother, I trusted in the covenant. In normative Judaism, you ask not for belief; you ask for `Emunah,' the Hebrew word, which is `trust.' You're asked not even to trust in God, in Yahweh, but in the trust, you're asked to trust in the covenant between by Yahweh and yourself or between Yahweh and the Jewish people, which includes yourself.

ELLIOTT: And you no longer have that trust.

Prof. BLOOM: It seems to me that Yahweh could have been convicted of desertion and abandonment a very long time ago.

ELLIOTT: Explain.

Prof. BLOOM: All through the Hebrew Bible, the prophets perpetually proclaim that the Jewish people, that Israel, has failed to keep the covenant with Yahweh. Nowhere do they say what is palpably true on the basis of Jewish history and of human history in general, which is that Yahweh has failed to keep his covenant with the people. I say in the book again and again that when Yahweh, which is the name of the high god ultimately in the Hebrew Bible, that when Yahweh is asked by Moses to give Moses his name and in the Hebrew, Yahweh punning on his own name, massively says, `Tell them that (Hebrew spoken) has sent you,' which is translated in the King James Bible ultimately as `I am that I am,' which I translate in order to get it into an English that will make sense, `I will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present,' which also implies its rather frightening corollary, `And I will absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent.' It seems to me that he has chosen to be absent throughout most of human history, including Jewish history.

ELLIOTT: You're a literary critic. What does it mean to read the Bible as a literary critic? Most of us, obviously, don't read it in that way. What do you learn about religion from that view?

Prof. BLOOM: I have never accepted, and I argue against it throughout the book, the distinction between sacred texts and secular texts. There is a sense in which necessarily Yahweh, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jacob, Moses are just as much literary characters as are King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Falstaff. There are people who, of course, have direct experiences of the divine. There are--I have talked myself in the course of my life to literally hundreds--I guess by now it's thousands of Americans who feel that they have had frequent conversations directly with Jesus. I do not question this; I do not doubt them. But the figure whom they believe they are encountering, whom perhaps they do encounter, nevertheless is a figure known to them in the first place because he is in the pages of a book. Therefore, in some sense necessarily, he and God, in any manifestation, are literary characters.

ELLIOTT: We're speaking with Harold Bloom about his new book, "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine."

You compare Jesus to Hamlet. The trendy thing these days is to ask, `What would Jesus do?' People wear bracelets and such with little sayings on it as if Jesus would know exactly what to do in any situation. However, Hamlet is famously indecisive.

Prof. BLOOM: He may be famously indecisive. I don't think the actual dramatic character Hamlet in Shakespeare is indecisive. He is moody, he is abrupt, he is very violent, he is surpassingly intelligent and he is, in the end, a very dangerous if fascinating kind of a person.

ELLIOTT: I just don't know that that is the image that we have of Jesus.

Prof. BLOOM: We have, my dear, thousands and thousands of images of Jesus. There are, as I count them, seven different versions of Jesus in the canonical Greek New Testament, and they have nothing in common with one another. The one who fascinates me is the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, almost certainly the first one to be written. Most people do not have the actual image of Jesus as he appears in the Gospel of Mark, where he is, like Hamlet, subject to sudden changes in mood. He is not violent, but he is unpredictable. He is abrupt. The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark speaks endlessly in riddles and enigmas and dark sayings and parables of one sort or another. He, by the way, never says that he is the Messiah. Indeed, he seems to be genuinely puzzled as to his mission and his own identity. He's perpetually saying to the disciples, `But who do people say I am?' But he is an immensely moving figure. Unlike the Jesus of the other three Gospels, he goes through a night of incredible agony as he waits for the day in which inevitably he knows that he will be immolated, and that night is conveyed with powerful effect.

ELLIOTT: Well, if Jesus is to Hamlet for you, Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible, comes closest to King Lear, a passionate, impulsive figure.

Prof. BLOOM: I think that Shakespeare probably founds his extraordinary figure of King Lear--irascible, jealous, intense, immensely awesome, angry, bereft, dangerous--on the Geneva Bible's version of--which is essentially not very different from what is now the authorized, the King James...

ELLIOTT: I mean, I've got to interrupt you and just say that those descriptions that you just gave are not what we think of when people of faith think of God.

Prof. BLOOM: No, they are not, dear. But if they would read the Hebrew Bible or read the authorized version of the Hebrew Bible, the King James Testament, we have a little problem here. There are four different layers in the five books of Moses. The original strata of Yahweh as written by the author we call the Yahwist is of a remarkably impish kind of a person. He is not God the Father. He is something of a mischief maker. He conducts on-the-ground inspections all the time to satisfy his curiosity. He is very much a human being. He prefers the cool of the day in the Garden of Eden because evidently he gets hot as human beings get hot. He picnics on the side of Mount Sinai with Moses and 70 elders of Zion, who stare at him silently while he sits there silently and he eats and they eat. He closes the door of Noah's ark with his own hands. With his own hands, he buries his prophet, Moses. And most of all, with his own hands, at the beginning, almost like a child playing with a mud pie, he plays with the moistened Earth and makes there a figurine. And then he breathes life into that figurine, and man becomes, as the Hebrew Bible says, a living soul and this is Adam. That is not what most people, I admit, think of as God.

ELLIOTT: No, I think most of us have this image of God the Father.

Prof. BLOOM: Yes. But God the Father is a later invention, on the one hand, of the Talmudical rabbis but primarily of Christian theology when they devise the Trinity, when Jesus of Nazareth, the more or less historical figure, has become an absolutely different figure, a Greek dying and reviving, God, a theological God. Yahweh is not a theological God at all. He is a human, all-too-human God. But I'm not saying any of this to startle or shock anyone. I'm doing this in the same spirit in which I teach my students to read "King Lear" or to read "Hamlet," to pay close attention to what is on the page.

ELLIOTT: We're talking with Yale University Professor Harold Bloom. His new book is "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine."

Harold Bloom, you say that Shakespeare would have never let Hamlet and Lear share the same stage.

Prof. BLOOM: Absolutely not. No.

ELLIOTT: And now you make the case that the God of the Hebrew Bible is just as incompatible with the God of Christianity.

Prof. BLOOM: The basic argument of this book, "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine," is that we have three very different personages or beings: the more or less historical Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew of the first century of the common era; the Greek theological formulation, or God, Jesus Christ; and the original God of the Hebrews, now greatly shrunken into God the Father, Yahweh, he who will be present wherever and whenever he chooses to be present and will keep himself absent when perhaps we most want him and need him. These three figures are so incompatible with one another that I don't believe it is possible to bring them coherently together in any single statement. They come out of totally different realms of discourse. Trying to think them together is really an act of psychic violence. In the end, the disturbing thing I...

ELLIOTT: What do you mean psychic violence?

Prof. BLOOM: I mean that the operations of the mind have got to become extremely distorted in order to bring the more or less historical Jesus, the Greek theological God Jesus Christ and the human, all-too-human God, Yahweh, into some coherent relationship. The normal processes of thought are being disturbed, and an act of imposition is taking place.

ELLIOTT: Now you write that a Messiah who is God and who dies on the cross as an atonement for sins is irreconcilable with the Hebrew Bible. Why is that?

Prof. BLOOM: Yahweh does not commit suicide. And if one is to take the argument of Christianity, then Yahweh is, in effect, committing suicide through his supposed son. Yahweh also does not, even as a descending dove upon a human female virgin, bring forth a son. This is material that comes to one out of Greek and pagan traditions but has nothing to do with traditional Judaism.

ELLIOTT: Harold Bloom, you conclude that it's really a myth for us to talk about this Judeo-Christian outlook.

Prof. BLOOM: I think that it is very good for social reconciliation, but Judeo-Christian tradition is a myth. As I quote the great scholar of Hebraic matters Jacob Neusner as saying, "Judaism and Christianity are different groups of people talking different languages about different Gods to very different people." There is no Judeo-Christian tradition anymore than there could be, say, a Christian-Islamic tradition.

And, of course, I'm a great realist, my dear. As I say at one point in the book, there are now at least one and a half billion people in the world who are Islam. There are at least one and a half billion people in the world who are self-described as Christians. Whether 50 years from now, there will be of the 14 million now self-identified Jews more than a mere scattering, I would not be prepared to say. What that means about the existence of Yahweh is also a very interesting question. He is, after all, covenanted. Would he survive the disappearance of the Jewish people if that, indeed, is what happens? I do not know. I may, as I say, lack trust in the covenant, but though I keep asking Yahweh to go away, I say so many times in this book, he won't go away. He haunts me.

ELLIOTT: You really want Yahweh to go away?

Prof. BLOOM: Yes, I would love him to go away, but he won't.

ELLIOTT: He wakes you up at night.

Prof. BLOOM: He wakes me up at night, yeah. He gives me nightmares. I brood about him during the day. My mother died fully trusting in the covenant with him, and I suppose my father did also. That Yahweh will not go away even though I want him to...

ELLIOTT: It could be a sign of a covenant.

Prof. BLOOM: Yes, but not a covenant in which I am willing to trust. He does not seem to me trustworthy. But, of course, rather massively, it may be that he never meant to be trustworthy. To say, `(Hebrew spoken), I will be present or absent depending upon where and when I wish to be present or absent,' is, from a literary as well as from a human point of view, an extraordinary remark. It carries enormous authority and force, and again, it is very difficult to argue with or against.

ELLIOTT: Harold Bloom's new book is "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine." We spoke with him from New Haven.

Thank you so much, sir.

Prof. BLOOM: Thank you very much.

(Announcements)

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.

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