Mark S. Smith, How Human Is God?: Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. 192. $19.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-3759-3. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110
Mark S. Smith is professor of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. He is the author or co-author of eighteen books and is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. Smith describes himself as a “committed Catholic” (p. xviii).
Smith is concerned that there is too little thought today about the nature of God. While people often speak of their experience of God, the challenge for readers of the Bible is to “think from the heart” (p. x). One of Smith’s inspirations for this approach to Scripture is the classic book by Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. In the monastic culture, love for God is cultivated through the intellect and not simply the heart. Additionally, Smith’s approach to Scripture owes a debt to his professional engagement with Jewish scholars and his own marriage to a Jewish woman.
Smith’s approach to the Bible is refreshing and serves as a model for how the Bible might be studied in churches. He listens to the multiple voices that emerge from the texts, noting harmony where it legitimately exists, but refusing to press the texts into an artificial uniformity that muffles the diversity of opinions. Smith does not think of the Bible as a “book of answers to life’s problems” (p. xix) but rather a book that raises fundamental questions about life and reality. The Bible, then, is a “record of Israel’s great voices debating and discussing the nature of God” (p. xix). As contemporary readers, we have the opportunity to join in the discussion and debate.
After a brief Prologue, How Human Is God is divided into two parts. Part 1, asks four questions about God: Why does God have a body in the Bible? What does the Bible mean in attributing body parts to God? Why is God angry in the Bible? and Does God have gender or sexuality in the Bible? Part 2 asks three questions about God in the world: What can creation tell us about God? Who—or what—is the Satan? and Why do people suffer according to the Hebrew Bible? Smith’s focus is principally on the Hebrew Bible, with the Christian New Testament is cited when relevant to the question being examined.
The format of the book is similar for each chapter. The particular question is addressed by looking at the diverse answers given in the Bible. Each chapter concludes with implications of these answers for our human condition. Because our language about God is drawn from human experience, we are left with the paradox that we think of God as both human-like but not human-like (p. 129). This fundamental symmetry/asymmetry keeps us searching to know more about this great mystery we call God.
As a sample, let’s consider what Smith does with the question, “Who—or what—is the Satan?” Building on the etymological meaning of “satan” in the Hebrew (“adversary”), Smith traces the development of the adversary concept from its use in Numbers 22, where “the satan” is an angel acting on God’s orders, to 1 Chronicles 21:1, where “the satan” acts as an accuser in a court, to Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3, where “the satan” works for God in the heavenly court. Only in the New Testament does the word become a proper name for one who is the head of demonic forces and Hell.
So, is the notion of Satan and the demonic an outdated superstition? Smith believes the issue is more complicated. While he acknowledges the ugly history of Christians using passages such as John 8:44 to demonize Jews, Smith does not want to explain away the demonic as simply a sociological or psychological phenomenon. He believes that the concept can help us recognize that evil in the world is greater than any single individual, that our own failures individually have a collective impact on others. “We are all participants in the great complexity of human interactions (political, social, economic), which are having terrible, evil effects on ourselves and on the physical condition of our world” (pp. 108-09).
How Human Is God is a book that can be read with profit by both scholars and lay people alike. The endnotes, which make up almost one-fourth of the book, do not intrude in the text but are available for scholars to pursue. Smith also provides a section of recommended readings for each chapter. I recommend this book for any who want a more complete understanding of the issues surrounding God and the world, especially for those who are interested in the many ways the Bible approaches these questions.