One Word in many, many words: A Review of Thom Stark’s “Human Faces” (Part 2)

Posted on 07/28/11 5 Comments

Thom Stark. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture reveals when it gets God wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011, 248 pp. ISBN: 13:978-1-60899-323-9.

For Part 1 of this review click here.

In the first chapter, “The Argument: In the Beginning was the words” Stark introduces us to his foundational premise: the Bible is a collection of different voices. Indeed, the following passage may be the most pivotal statement in the entire book: “before there was a Bible—a ‘Word of God’ as a singular entity—there was an argument about God, reflected in diverse texts and traditions; and it is in fact that argument that is today enshrined in the Judeo-Christian canons of scripture.” (1) Once we recognize, or at least concede the possibility, that there are a diversity of perspectives or words in the one Word of God, we are able to listen in to that conversation. But why think such diverse perspectives exist? In the remainder of the chapter Stark introduces us to some of that diversity.

Stark juxtaposes a discussion of one such example of “Biblical Bickering” in the tension between xenophobic nationalists like Ezra (see for example Ezra’s “pious” decree to expulse foreign wives from the land in Ezra 10 in marked contrast to Yahweh’s permission of foreign wives in Deut. 20:14) against a critique in voices like the book of Jonah. (Stark has a an excellent digression on page 4 explaining how fictional short stories like that of Jonah and Tobit reflect a well established genre in Jewish sacred writings. As he says: “It is simply a matter of recognizing its proper genre, and treating it as such. We do not accuse Jesus of lying when he told fictional parables splashed with historical details….” (4) As Stark points out, Jonah is a “brilliant piece of satire” which calls out precisely the kind of xenophobia that drives the book of Ezra. I’ll return to this in a digression post.)

The contrasts between these different conversations are many. For example, Stark observes how the Book of Jonah’s condemnation of Jonah’s greater concern for his bush than the people of Nineveh stands in marked contrast to Deuteronomy 20’s stipulation that trees are to be spared even as people are massacred: “To Yahweh, according to this perspective, trees apparently have more intrinsic value than humans.” (6, emphasis added) However, “According to the Yahweh worshiped by the author of the book of Jonah, Yahweh cares more about human beings than he does about trees.” (6) With such tensions Stark brings us immediately into the thick of the arguments embodied in the text.

Stark’s next example concerns the problem of suffering and theodicy. He notes how some passages in scripture (e.g. the Proverbs) view suffering as just desserts for unrighteousness in this life. But this diverges sharply with other perspectives such as we find in Job and Ecclesiastes which point out that “the righteous are not always rewarded, and the wicked are not always punished.” (7-8) Stark’s take on the end of Job as satirical is particularly interesting:

“While in the end Job is rewarded with a new family, the satire is not lost on the astute audience. ‘Yahweh gives and Yahweh takes away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.’ This is not a statement of happy confidence in a benevolent deity, but a sigh of resignation—resignation to the fact that justice may be too much to hope for in this life.” (8)

Stark’s final section in the chapter is titled “Manufacturing Conformity” (a rather bald allusion for anyone remotely familiar with media studies over the last twenty-five years). In this section Stark provides a brief overview of a common reconstruction of the social and political forces that were operative in the emergence of an official canon of scripture: “Before there was a canon, there was a curriculum—a collection of literature that for a variety of reasons was important to Yahwists.” (12) The question is how we got from this diverse collection of texts to a canonical whole. If the texts were human (and they certainly are that, as any orthodox bibliology will require; the Bible did not originate through quasi-Quranic dictation), then we must consider whether the processes that brought them into a canonical whole were likewise at least human. For Stark the process most certainly was human. Indeed, one might call it all too human. Here is an excerpt from his brief reconstructive summary:

“After the loss of the monarchy, the vassal rulers of Judea—under the authority of the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans—struggled to find ways to maintain political control over the people. The obvious resources at their disposal were the institutions of sacrifice and the corpus of literature that had been acquired over the centuries. Maintaining the geographical centralization of the rites of sacrifice ensured that people would continue to depend on the temple in Jerusalem for the favour of their deity. This also guaranteed a steady stream of income for the ruling elites in the capital, and marginalized the significance of rival religious factions. Moreover, bringing the broad corpus of literature under the domain of the establishment helped to ensure that it could not be sued to inspire dissenting ideas.” (13)

I am not a biblical scholar and am simply not equipped to challenge on historical grounds the reconstruction of the social and political forces which led to the Hebrew canon we recognize today. However, Stark’s summary is, so far as I can see, representative of a mainstream opinion. And certainly for anyone who would wish to challenge it there is an obligation to provide an alternative reconstruction of the social and political events that brought about the canon and the diversity that exists therein. But even if we quibble about details, Stark has achieved ably the goal of his first chapter: there is a diversity of perspectives, opinions, and debates within the one Word of God. The question now lies with the reader: what shall we do with them?

  • Jeff

    Nothing much to add, just wanted to give a huge thumbs up to Thom for writing a very brave and honest book that has helped me tremendously in my spiritual journey, and to give a big thanks to you Randal for highlighting it here!

  • Jeff

    Just realized Randal that you didn’t specifically mention my very favorite example, which Thom covers, so thought I’d bring it up: The hilariously ham-fisted ending that was tacked onto Ecclesiastes (12:9-14). Up to that point, the Teacher has been doing his best impression of Sartre, only to make a jarring u-turn at the very last minute by saying, in effect, that the righteous shall live happily ever after. Or as Thom puts it (p. 12, Kindle version):

    “The status of Ecclesiastes was disputed among the rabbis. To them it was questionable because of its hedonistic and skeptical message, but it was ultimately salvaged with the help of some earlier editorial emendations, and by virtue of a tradition (wrongly) attributing the book to King Solomon. A redactor had added an introduction (Eccl 1:1) and conclusion (Eccl 12:9-14) to the body of the Teacher’s book. The editorial conclusion essentially gives the audience permission to ignore the contents of the book, undermining its message by adding a reference to a final judgement in which all that is wrong will be made right–a possibility the Teacher himself had repeatedly denied.”

    • randal

      Yes, a Hebrew literary example of the “Hollywood ending”.

  • Mike Gantt


    I, too, have read Thom’s book. While there’s no denying that Thom is thoroughly educated and an artful writer, I disagree with the thesis of his book. Even if one were to concede that Thom’s succeeds in case against the veracity of the the Bible (and it is a bloody assault indeed), he fails in the end to provide a compelling or even logical case for continuing any allegiance to it.

    I think the book’s fundamental weakness is a failure to fully engage Jesus’ view of the Scriptures. It is clear from many passages that Jesus held the Scriptures in a very high regard, one at odds with the view that Thom holds (however popular it might be among certain scholars). Thom deals with only a couple of them, and not very successfully. To write a book about the reliability of the Scriptures that does not adequately address the extent to which Jesus relied on them seems to miss an essential point.

    I wrote a 12-part review of Thom’s book, which elaborates on this point, and which begins with an introduction here:

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