Review: Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal

W. Lee Humphreys. The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
ISBN: 0-664-22360-5. Paper. Pp. 294. $29.95.
W. Lee Humphreys is currently emeritus professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of several other books, among them Crisis and Story: Introduction to the Old Testament, Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study, and The Tragic Vision and the Hebrew Tradition.
In The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, Humphreys employs new understandings of literary theory to the Genesis text with the goal of illuminating how God functions as a character in the text. The volume is divided into nine chapters, focusing upon God in relationship with other characters in the Genesis narrative (for example, God in the Story of Abraham and Sarah, or Isaac and Rebekah, or Jacob and Leah and Rachel). Foundational for Humphreys is the contention that God is “the most compelling character in the book” (2, italics original). God not only is an open and active character at certain points in the text, but he is also “a character made of words” (3) . . . the words of other characters. At bottom, God is an equally dynamic figure in Genesis, changing and developing as the narrative progresses, and it is the task of the reader (Humphreys assumes a “first time reader” approach and, it appears, by extension a reader-response approach) to construct the character of God as the reader encounters God and what other characters say about God.
In the first chapter, “Reading God as a Character in Genesis,” Humphreys carefully outlines his methodological presuppositions. He adapts Robert Alter’s scale of textual indicators for characterization, distilling it from six points into three pairs: 1) external descriptions and what other characters say; 2) actions and speech; 3) inner thoughts and the narrator’s evaluation. At the beginning end of this short spectrum Humphreys cautions against an all-too-easy acceptance of other character’s words as a trustworthy means of characterization, while the latter end provides the reader with firmer footing. Regarding point #1, Humphreys holds that God is defined more by what he says and does than by the simple fact that he appears. Here, one may come to realize ultimately that statements about God on the lips of others in the text reveals more about their own characters than about God. On point #2, Humphreys helpfully points out that in some cases (i.e., the flood in Gen 6f.) God’s words and actions coincide with one another. Conversely, there are moments where God’s words and actions are in dissonance with one another, such as the recurring texts promising an heir to Abraham amidst the great amount of narrative time in which Abraham is without an heir. And on point #3, Humphreys notes that readers are not often privy to the deity’s inner thoughts. Emerging out of this understanding of characterization is the sense that the task lies with the readers in constructing God’s character.
There is indeed a dearth of scholarly treatment on God as character in Genesis. Humphreys avers the reason for this as being the possible tensions that may arise between God in Genesis and the construct of God the reader brings to the text. This possible dissonance, he suggests, has led to an a priori assumption that God is a coherent and consistent character, and indeed, must be so. These notices do not, however, derive patently from the biblical text. One’s task is then to see what the text says about God and not to impose one’s own views on the text. For Humphreys, what results from such an engagement is a recogntion that God is a character “in process of becoming” (20).
I cannot hope in this brief review to cover all the insights and nuances of Humphreys treatment of God in Genesis. I here wish to offer a brief sampling of Humphreys’ method by summarizing his reading of God in the story of Isaac and Rebekah as well as in the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.
According to Humphreys, God does not figure much at all–and only at the behest of the human characters–in the story of Isaac and Rebekah. Whereas Abraham was sought out by God, Isaac seeks out God, requesting that YHWH remedy Rebekah’s barrenness. Similarly, once she has conceived, Rebekah’s problematic pregnancy impels her to seek out and question God. The deity’s response in 25:23 is both enigmatic and communicates a future of strife and difficulty for the brothers. After this oracle is uttered, Humphreys sees God as utterly uninvolved in the ensuing narratives. In 25:29-34, the infamous birthright episode, God is not present, and he is likewise inconspicuous in the deception in chapter 27. God is only brought into the scene in chapter 27 in three instances, each of which results in another character speaking about God either in deceit or as the one deceived (vv. 7, 20, 28). It stands out as striking, also, that God does nothing to warn Isaac of the impending deception, says Humphreys. God’s role in chapters 25-27 is one who has announced (either his preference, or what was to happen, it remains unclear), and now withdraws and leaves its fulfillment to the human characters. Humphreys’ characterization of God here is nearly, if not, deistic. The final sentence of this chapter is quite telling, presenting God as almost disinterested in this generation: “For his part, God seems ready to move on to the next generation, so he can engage Jacob and get about what he has designed for this family” (168).
In the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, God is portrayed as much more engaged. At Bethel in chapter 28 God appears for the first time to Jacob, and what must be emphasized here, argues Humphreys, is that God’s acceptance of this deceiver is unconditional whereas Jacob’s acceptance of God is conditional. God then disappears from the narrative scene again and does not return until the birth of Jacob’s twelve children. Humphreys reads YHWH’s focus on Leah the unloved wife, giving her four children at the outset, in contrast to Rachel the loved wife, as not only an “implied judgment on Jacob’s own preferences among his wives” (176) but also as a unique circumstance in which the elder is favored by the deity over the younger. After the birth of Jacob’s children, God again recedes.
Humphreys next turns to the various ways in which the other characters construct and define God. One should remain mindful that, based upon Humphreys’ conclusions about characterization in the opening chapter (see above), such constructions are less trustworthy. First, Jacob introduces God in chapter 31 as the impetus and cause for the success of Jacob’s numinous activity with Laban’s flocks in chapter 30. Despite all that Jacob narrates about God here, Humphreys reminds that the narrator has said nothing of God during the description of the selective breeding in chapter 30. Humphreys sees Jacob’s story as just that, a ‘story,’ “designed to compel [Leah and Rachel] to take sides, specifically to take his side” (182). Never does Humphreys go so far as to say Jacob cannot be trusted, but such an implication seems quite clear to me. Jacob is “eras[ing] his own deceit from his version of events as he recounts them” (184). Second, Leah and Rachel accept Jacob’s construction of God, and God himself only appears in the story briefly in 31:24, where he cautions Laban to say and do nothing to Jacob. Third, Laban must himself also accept that God is clearly on the side of Jacob. Yet from Humphreys’ perspective, God-as-character here is little more than a rhetorical construct, and his actions and words are placed in the mouths of “other characters who have their own agendas and intentions” (186).
In the final chapter, “Perspectives on the Character of God in the Book of Genesis,” Humphreys sketches out the dynamic nature of God’s character across the entire book of Genesis. On the question of what “type” of character God is, Humphreys argues for an overall movement from narratorial insights about God’s words and deeds to a heavy emphasis on how other characters construct God. God also seems to change as the narrative progresses. This movement mirrors the distillation of Alter’s scale of characterization outlined above. Humphreys’ analysis also says something of the ‘structure’ of the book: Gen 1 and 37-50 cohere in their portrayal of God as agent, while Gen 2-36 shows God to be a “complex, multi-faceted, and changing figure” (241). This division persists also in the question of what “kind” of character God is; Humphreys treats seven subcategories here: 1) God is more maximally stylized as an ideal type in Gen 1 and 37-50 and more particularized in 2-36; 2) God is more coherent in 1 and 37-50, which stands in tension often with the incoherence in 2-36; 3) God’s character is whole and not fragmentary throughout Genesis; 4) God is more symbolic in Gen 1 [i.e., creator] and 37-50 [agent for justice, life, and reconciliation] and more specific and literal in 2-36; 5) God is far more simple in Gen 1 and 37-50, and quite complex as a character in 2-36; 6) God in 1 and 37-50 is relatively transparent, whereas in 2-36 the reader’s experience of God is more opaque; 7) God is more static in Gen 1 and 37-50 and strikingly more dynamic in 2-36. Seminal for Humphreys’ discussion is that in each of these subcategories one can discern a movement from one end of the spectrum to another, from Gen 1 to 2-36, and back to 37-50. At bottom, Humphreys sees God as dramatically present and sovereign in creation, but then as the story advances he is increasingly constructed and reconstructed to fit the needs and desires of the various characters in Genesis.
As a student of the book of Genesis, I am especially grateful for Humphreys’ volume. It fills a gap in studies on Genesis, which he rightly points out seem to focus often on the human characters, to the detriment of the (central?) divine character. He clearly lays out his methodology at the outset and adheres to it. His interpretations are strong and grounded in the text rather than any preconceived notions about God’s character. And while I disagree with much of his reading of the Jacob cycle, he has helped me to refine my own position on God in the book of Genesis.
My main difficulty with Humphreys–and it is a significant one–is his contention that characterization on the lips of other characters in the text is less trustworthy and thus does not carry the same weight as if the narrator were to say it, for instance. I would argue, conversely, that the narrator (ancient Israel, in this case), is by means a disinterested party. In fact, one could argue–as I do in my current article–that one needs to regard ancient Israel as THE narrator of her Scriptures, and how she portrays various characters is important overall. Thus, for example, Humphreys’ treatment of Gen 30-31 I outline above is highly problematic. Simply because the narrator has said nothing in chapter 30 of God’s involvement in Jacob’s activity does not necessitate the view that God was not involved. In fact, Robert Alter has convincingly argued that there are clear instances when later narratives force one to rethink prior ones (see his The Art of Biblical Narrative and my article, “Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster: The Covenantal Framework of God’s Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle,” PRSt 36). In fact, Humphreys himself makes this very same point, yet he fails to apply it here. I am also mindful of Fokkelman’s claim–with which I agree–that simply because Jacob, a trickster figure, speaks deceptively in one context does not mean he speaks deceptively always. Jacob, indeed all biblical characters, must be evaluated anew in each narrative situation.
I would also quibble with Humphreys that God is “absent” in Gen 25-27. Rather, as I argue in my upcoming SBL New Orleans paper, and will argue in part in my dissertation, the oracle in 25:23 governs the entire Jacob cycle, and even where God is not explicitly present, the moments of theophany reveal that he has been clearly at work throughout. More on this, though, as the dissertation progresses, and at SBL.
Despite these difficulties, Humphreys’ study is a thorough, fair, and judicous one. His voice is a welcome addition to the unfortunately thin discussion of God as character in Genesis.
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2 thoughts on “Review: Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal

  1. josephrkelly says:

    You have piqued my interest! I am going to check this one out…right after I finish my copy of Alter.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Outstanding. That, in my view, is what a review is meant to do: make the prospective reader aware of whether this volume is worth his or her time. I think is volume is surely worth your time, even despite my significant disagreements with parts of it.

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