Jerome M. Segal. Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible. Riverhead Books, 2007.
This is one of those books that probably makes a better contribution in how it stimulates the reader’s own thinking than in the particular argument it makes or information it conveys. Segal is a professional philosopher and (in the best sense of the term) an amateur biblical scholar. This book mainly operates in the latter of these arenas, though its strongest suit (being its questions and testing of speculative hypotheses) surely reflects Segal’s own active philosophical mind.
That is, Segal obviously loves the Bible and draws on his long experience of teaching the Bible to young people in his Jewish community–but he writes as an outsider to the biblical studies guild. This “outsider” stance works mostly to Segal’s advantage. He is free to ask fresh questions and not bound to the distracting kind of scholarly apparatus that dooms so much biblical scholarship to irrelevance due to its thousands of qualifications, its “objectivity,” its arcane debates and butt-coverings, and its focus on minutia.
The book’s main argument has to do with the portrayal of God in the first six books of the Bible (Genesis through Joshua, the “Hexateuch”). Segal proposes that these books recount God’s process of learning how to be moral. This is a fun thesis to consider, and Segal gives us good reasons to take it seriously. However, I didn’t really find his argument that persuasive. I think he reads the materials fairly selectively and it seems artificial to limit the discussion to just the first six books since there is no sense that they stand as a distinct unit (you could talk about Torah [minus Joshua] as a distinct unit or the “Deuteronomic writings” [Deuteronomy through 2 Kings] as a distinct unit, but the “Hexateuch” seems a merely arbitrary unit). My tendency is to want to take the Bible as a whole, though, and think about the picture of God in the first several books in relation to what comes later in the story.
Nonetheless, I did do a lot of creative thinking stimulated by Segal’s discussion. It does seem like he is on to something in the sense that the picture of God in this part of the Bible (and what follows) is much more complicated and dynamic and variable and problematic than our settled theology would allow for. So it is an excellent idea to read the Bible with more openness to what it actually is communicating about God rather than how we can fit it into our comfortable orthodoxies.
For me, though, the idea that arose was not that the issue is how does God change, rather that the issue is how does the understanding of God change. Isn’t it more likely that the real character here is not God but Israel’s conception of God. Maybe what’s being challenged by the thread of the story is not God’s morality but the morality Israel projected on to God. If that’s the case, we probably have more to learn from the story that could apply to us.
In the end, Segal’s exercise seems more to be about speculative and playful thought than present day ethical faithfulness. However, if we read these biblical materials as addressing how human beings project their own violence and judgmentalism onto God (projections that are profoundly challenged by later prophets such as Hosea and Jeremiah and even more by Jesus), then they contain more useful challenges for our faithfulness.