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Richard Elliott Friedman


A Divine Mystery

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
In a sense this is a sequel to Friedman's earlier book, Who Wrote the Bible?, but its focus is different and more personal, particularly in the later chapters. Like the first book, it has a detective story element, which is signalled by its being framed in the form of three Mysteries. The first of these, which takes up the first half of the book, is about the progressive hiding of God's face in the course of the Bible: the second and third mysteries concern what this implies for the modern world and its future.

Many people probably think of the Bible as a collection of stories and other texts of varying kinds but not as having a unifying plot. But Friedman says that if we read it as a whole, instead of, as usual, in small extracts, we see that it is really a coherent drama which traces the history of the Jewish people and their relation to God as it developed over a long period. What gives it dramatic unity is precisely the theme of God's progressive withdrawal. This is certainly a surprising idea—Friedman himself finds it "astounding". But he demonstrates it with ample citations.

The Bible begins, as nearly everybody knows, with a world in which God is actively and visibly involved, but it does not end that way. Gradually … the deity appears less and less to humans, speaks less and less. Miracles, angels, and all other signs of divine presence become rarer and finally cease. In the last portions of the Hebrew Bible, God is not present in the well-known apparent ways of the earlier books. Among God's last words to Moses, the deity says: "I shall hide my face from them. I shall see what their end will be." … By the end of the story God does just that. The consequences and development of this phenomenon in the New Testament and in post-biblical Judaism are extraordinary as well.
One might think that this discovery would lead Friedman to agnosticism or atheism, but not so. To understand why, we have to read his description of the remaining two mysteries.

The second mystery concerns two nineteenth-century writers, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. Although they never met they have much in common, notably their obsession with the question of God's existence. Dostoyevsky maintained his belief in God although he was tortured by the paradoxes he felt this entailed; Nietzsche became an atheist (of a sort) and wrote much about the death of God. But he recognised that this was a destructive idea and could lead to madness, as indeed it did for him. More significantly, he believed, it would lead to collective madness.

The idea that to have lost God means madness is tantalizing and provocative. It does not mean that every religious person who becomes an atheist goes insane, but it does have implications for a society that loses its deity…
Nietzsche died in 1900—a symbolic date, for Friedman believes that the consequences of God's death shaped the catastrophic events of the twentieth century. Nietzsche himself prophesied this: "There will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth." So what does the future hold for us? A return to a religious outlook? Not in the literal sense. Disastrous though the loss of faith may have been, Friedman doesn't think that a reversion to the former state of affairs is possible. In fact, even people today who believe in God nevertheless experience His absence. What is due to happen, he suggests, is humanity's coming of age, something that the Bible itself prefigures. This is what he writes about in his third mystery.

Perhaps rather unexpectedly, he finds that our salvation will come about through the relationship between religion and science, especially modern cosmology. This is a frankly mystical idea; he finds a correspondence between the Big Bang and the teaching of the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, and its concept of the ein sof, the infinite point from which everything emerges. He acknowledges that this resemblance might have alternative explanations, but he nevertheless thinks it is is significant.

I simply recognize that the parallel is there and that it suggests a hitherto unappreciated profundity to the biblical picture, no matter how that profundity is to be accounted for. For whatever reason, the Bible and scientific observation and deduction both reflect a common underlying human feeling about order and arrangement over chaos and lack of form.
Nietzsche comes in here again as well, because Friedman links his idea of eternal recurrence both to the Kabbalah and to modern cosmology. (He finds echoes in the Bible too.) He concludes the book on an optimistic note.
There is some likelihood that, as some of the conscious matter of the universe, we are created more in the divine image than we have suspected. There is some likelihood that the universe is the hidden face of God.
This is really a book of two halves. The description of the progressive disappearance of God that is the subject of the first half is illuminating and important. It is impossible to understand the largest two religions of the modern world, Christianity and Islam, without taking account of their roots in the Bible. If Friedman had confined himself to this he would have done enough to produce a valuable book. Here he writes with a light touch and occasional flashes of humour. But his ambition was to do much more than this and to place the Bible in a truly cosmic setting, and here I found my attention beginning to falter.

This was particularly the case in the discussion of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, which I thought was over-long. And I was not convinced by the mystical argument in the third part. It is notoriously difficult, in fact probably impossible, to translate the mathematical language of physics and cosmology into words, which means that metaphysical arguments constructed on such a basis are inevitably on shaky ground. In any case, modern cosmology is a moving target, a series of snapshots. What if the Big Bang hypothesis is replaced by something else in the future?

Friedman quotes the physicist Paul Davies a good deal—understandably, because Davies has written a lot about possible connections between physics and religion. But Davies concludes his book The Goldilocks Enigma, which came out ten years after Friedman wrote, with these words.

The whole paraphernalia of gods and laws, of space, time and matter, of purpose and design, rationality and absurdity, meaning and mystery, may yet be swept away and replaced by revelations as yet undreamt of.
Throughout my reading of the third mystery I kept wanting to say, "Yes, but what about … ?". Friedman asks: on what can we base morality if not on God? But Buddhism doesn't have a God in the Biblical sense, yet adherence to moral standards is central to its prescription for enlightenment. It was pointed out in antiquity that if things are moral only because God says so, it would be possible for God to make criminal behaviour moral. Alternatively, if God only ordains what is moral, why do we need God? And there is a naturalistic view that morality has developed in the course of evolution by natural selection; see The Bonobo and the Atheist, by Francis de Waal.

I was not convinced by the metaphysical part of the book, with its concept of a divine Plan, but in reading the first half I learned a great deal about the Bible and Judaism, and it was certainly worth while for that.


%T The Disappearance of God
%S A Divine Mystery
%A Richard Elliott Friedman
%D 1995
%K religion
%O kindle version; downloaded from, 2017

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