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The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery…

The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (edition 1995)

by Richard Elliott Friedman (Author)

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1094110,750 (3.42)1
Title:The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery
Authors:Richard Elliott Friedman (Author)
Info:Little, Brown and Company (1995), Edition: 1st, 335 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Biblical teaching, Bible, O. T.--theology, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, big bang, creation, Cabala

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The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery by Richard Elliott Friedman



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About the author, quoting from the book's dust jacket, "Richard Elliott Friedman is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature and holds the Katzin Chair at The University of California, San Diego. He received the degree of doctor of theology at Harvard and was a visiting scholar at Oxford and Cambridge. He was an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow and is a member of the distinguished Biblical Colloquium. Friedman is the author of the best-selling 'Who Wrote the Bible?'" About the book, Frank Moore Cross, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Emeritus, Harvard University said of this work, "Friedman writes with clarity and charm. He captures and holds one's interest, pours out fresh ideas in a torrent, and thoroughly intrigues. . .An unusual book--moving from the Bible to Nietzsche to Kabbalah and the Big Bang--and should command a wide readership of those interested in religion or in science."
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  uufnn | Mar 12, 2017 |
Richard Elliott Friedman is a Biblical scholar who has written a couple of books on the Old Testament (Who Wrote The Bible? is pretty high up on my list). Guy knows his Hebrew, which is one of the reasons this book was so fascinating.

In a nutshell, The Disappearance of God is about just that. The book is divided into three sections, each detailing what Friedman calls a “mystery”:

The disappearance of God in the Bible
Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the death of God
the similarities between the Big Bang and the cosmology of Jewish Kabbalah

For the first mystery, Friedman whips out his Biblical scholarship in full force. The basic premise for this section is that while Yahweh starts out performing grand, impressive, and public miracles, as the Bible progresses he begins to scale down his interactions with humanity (both communication and signs/wonders) until by the time the books of prophets are being written, Yahweh has ceased to communicate with people except through visions and other dream-like states.

Friedman frames the interaction between humanity and God in the Old Testament as a “divine/human balance”. At the beginning, all humanity is basically a child, unable to make decisions for themselves and unable to behave the way they’re told. As time goes by, however, God seems to give humanity more “power” or influence in the balance, as seen by, for example, Abraham and Job arguing and debating with God, humans choosing the signs from God instead of being told what they’ll be, and Jacob wrestling with (and overcoming!) God and subsequently demanding a blessing. With Moses, Friedman argues that God begins a rapid fade from his previous behavior, to the point where at the end it seems as if Moses has been given divine powers without even needing to call on God. Then Elijah and Elisha perform miracles that don’t explicitly involve God and don’t necessarily “glorify him” as previous miracles had (wiping out a bunch of kids with bears, multiplying bottles of oil, a cloak (which passes from Elijah to Elisha) parting a river. Friedman describes this shifting of the balance of power as perhaps a growing child receiving more responsibility from a parent as the child ages.

Then Friedman ties in the New Testament. According to Friedman, the miracles of Jesus are of the type that haven’t been seen for centuries, since Elijah (which is why Jesus is thought to be Elijah by some). This is taken as a sort of wink from God as a confirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Friedman views the story of Jesus as a sort of culmination of the divine/human struggle throughout the Bible: God incarnates and moves among humans, and they kill him. When Jesus says “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” it “fits comprehensibly in a linear historical sequence that has near its beginning an account in which some human form of God meets Jacob and, with no reason at all given, they fight.

The second section begins with a lengthy biographical discussion of Friedrich Nietzsche. His madness, his family, his love life, and his religious upbringing are all discussed at length. Almost as prevalent in the chapter is Fyodor Dostoevsky (and how Nietzsche read and enjoyed his work). Friedman seems fascinated by the fact that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky seem to have arrived at the idea of the death of God independently. Friedman compares both men to Jacob, “for having wrestled, prevailed, and suffered the wounds of divine struggle. They did not play at it nor approach it as a set of intellectually interesting propositions.” Nietzsche feels that humankind cannot “be all that it is capable of being in a god’s presence.” In the Bible the generation that rebels the most is the one closest to God (wilderness) and the one with the least presence of God is the best-behaved (Ezra/Nehemiah/Esther). Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky agree that with the death of the divine, humanity must step in to replace it.

Regarding Dostoevsky, Friedman spends a significant section of one chapter on The Brothers Karamazov (which, he notes, Nietzsche never got a chance to read) and more specifically the chapter involving the story told by Ivan Karamazov describing the meeting of the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus Christ. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he shouldn’t have rejected the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, because they would have given him miracle, mystery, and authority, the three things which the Church needs to control people. The Inquisitor then says that the Church isn’t working for Jesus, but for Satan, and “that is our mystery.” Jesus responds by kissing the Inquisitor. Friedman notes that both an atheist and a believer could read the story and feel vindicated, reflecting both divine hiddenness and the divine/human balance. The divine voice “acquiesces in the human appropriation of powers from the divine realm.”

Friedman finishes the section by describing both Nietzsche’s and Dostoevsky’s “fear” (moreso in the latter than the former) that without God “all is permissible”. Nietzsche saw a “death of traditional morality” and predicted that in the twentieth century, “there would be wars the like of which have never been seen.” Obviously he was vindicated, but his belief came from this disappearance of God. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

The last section describes, as I mentioned above, the uncanny similarities between the Big Bang theory and the cosmology of Kabbalah (a Jewish mystical movement). in Kabbalah “the fundamental fact of creation takes place in God…the creation of the world, that is to say, the creation of something out of nothing, is itself but the external aspect of something which takes place in God himself.” The deity became concentrated in a point which exploded outwards and filled space with emanations. These emanations, Sefirot, are what everything in the universe is made out of. Friedman compares the Sefirot with the fact that all matter emerged from the same single point at the beginning, as in, we are all made of matter that was present at the formation of the universe.

I’ve done a horrifically poor job of describing the last section, but it ends with the idea that perhaps God was a divine parent to humanity, allowing it more responsibility as it could handle it and finally receding from view until now, when we are starting to discover that, as Friedman concludes, “there is some likelihood that the universe is the hidden face of God.” ( )
1 vote godinpain | Mar 29, 2013 |
This book is divided very neatly into four parts. And part one was fascinating. Friedman carefully and methodically traces God's presence and interaction with humans through the course of the chronological books of the Hebrew Bible. First God creates people. He visits them, chats with them, reveals his plans to them, and makes covenants with them. In Exodus God is spectacular and amazing, but not a personally close to people as in Genesis. As the Bible stories move along, God becomes more remote still. He stops speaking to people directly, and speaks only through prophets... and the later prophets only encounter God in dreams and visions, not personally. God's once grand public miracles become smaller and more private, affecting only a few people. And in the last few chronological books, (With the exception of Daniel) God disappears altogether. In Esther, He isn't even mentioned. Up to this point Friedman had me hooked.

Part two examines similarities between the philosophy of Nietzsche and the novels of Dostoevsky. This portion reads like a long graduate school Literature/Philosophy essay. Although he touches frequently on the concept of the "death of God" I never felt a real connection to the first part of the book.

Part three examines Kabbalah and the Big Bang. Now to be fair, I must admit that I know little about Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, and even less about the science behind the Big Bang theory. However it seems that Friedman's idea in part three is that scientists are finally discovering and proving what the Jewish mystics of the 6th century discovered in their day. I found this completely unconvincing, and also rather unrelated to the subject of part I.

Finally, the last few chapters make a noble attempt to tie these three disparate elements together. There are some interesting points in the concluding chapters, and I certainly think his heart is in the right place. The direct advice is good. But as a unified book, The Disappearance of God just doesn't hold together. Wild theories are insufficiently supported, and barely related issues have only the thinnest of threads linking them together.

All the same - Up through page 140 - highly recommended. Just stop there, and pursue your own quest to find an answer to the question with which you can make peace. ( )
1 vote fingerpost | May 24, 2011 |
The Disappearance of God, at once scholarly and popularly accessible, is packed with wonderful insights into Scriptural narrative, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Kabbalah. Friedman notes that the narrative structure of Hebrew Scripture is marked by a disappearance of God-God's hiding of God's face to see what our end will be-that corresponds to an increasingly important role for human beings, a "coming of age" in Bonhoeffer's apt and often cited phrase. Each of the three parts of the book addresses a mystery related to the title (the disappearance of God in Hebrew Scripture, the death of God and madness in Nietzsche, and the relationship of religion with science), but it is the one mystery of the title, the disappearance of God, that binds the whole together. The disappearance is akin to what Thomas Sheehan earlier referred to as "the absolute absence of God," and it points Friedman toward a concluding moral reflection in which he maintains (as does Kabbalah) that the structure of morality inheres in the structure of the universe. God's absolute absence is a paradoxical revelation: "There is some likelihood that the universe is the hidden face of God."
1 vote stevenschroeder | Jul 31, 2006 |
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