Imagine not a vengeful God, but a scared one, hiding away. Picture that same divinity capable of avenging the smallest slights by lashing out with unimaginable wrath. Pair that with a rational, caring cast of humans, subject to the whims of their creator but also, in some ways, responsible for him — and all the while wrestling with the slippery mystery of faith. That’s what Mary Rakow has done, with intriguing results.
For Rakow, who received her doctorate in theology from Boston College, nothing is to be accepted without examination, and in this short book the object of her sharp gaze is the Bible. She frames this re-evaluation with the story of a lapsed Catholic, a woman returning to the church after 30 years. It’s Good Friday when we meet her, and she is waiting to take confession. In her lap, she holds a childhood creation — a handmade book in which she retold her favorite Bible stories. As she dozes in the pew, waiting for her turn, she dreams of those retellings again, only with an adult perspective that upends what we’ve come to accept in terms of power, responsibility, and the ability to grow and forgive.
The outlines of the Bible stories are familiar, but their characters are more rounded, more poignant in Rakow’s spare but poetic telling. Cain, for example, is depicted as the gentler son of Adam, the one who loves animals and is appalled as they are slaughtered for sacrifice and food. He is a farmer, and after he grows jealous of his brother and murders him, he waits for Abel “to return like the grape and the wheat.” Only when his brother does not come back to life does Cain begin to understand what he has done. As he mulls over the consequences, he learns — he is the one to label himself and his family as “human.”
Then there is Jonah who does not merely dodge God’s message but actively disagrees with his deity’s stated purpose, which is to destroy Ninevah for little reason. As Rakow re-imagines him, Jonah’s role as a prophet is destroying him and wrecking his marriage. “They had vowed to love each other until death, and Jonah seemed dead to her already and he felt dead.”
When he is swallowed by a whale for disobeying God, he actually enjoys the interlude as a peaceful respite. Once freed, he seems equally concerned with making peace with his wife as with God, basically working to liberate himself from a bad job that he never wanted. In this episode, one of the book’s longer tales at 10 pages, he understands that his point of view will not be the one to be remembered and he ends it wishing that the truth would be told, that his epitaph would read, “I wanted a better God.”
When Rakow does assume God’s voice, it is plagued by self doubt and even fear. After hearing the complaints of the Israelites in the desert, for example, God asks himself: “[A]re they right? Is this who I am? Am I a God without mercy?” Such concerns lead God and Moses to cling to each other in a bond described as the one that Moses remembers from the mother who abandoned him as an infant. In her typically spare but evocative language, Rakow conjures the recollection: “Breath came down on the crown of his head. Skin against skin. A steady rise and fall of his body held from behind and below. His mother’s skin, that it smelled of moss.”
These tales, and the dozens others in this short book, are all ultimately human. If we are created in God’s image, Rakow seems to say, then this deity must have the same failings we do. How we resolve them — by reaching out to each other or, at the very least, like poor Cain, coming to a greater understanding of ourselves — may be the true moral of all these tales.
THIS IS WHY I CAME
By Mary Rakow
Counterpoint, 204 pp., $24
Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.