A Midrash on the Apocalypse

Stephanie Friedman

July 11, 2019

Ed. Note: Spoiler Alert: Details from the sixth and final episode of the recent television adaptation of Good Omens lie ahead. (On the seventh episode, Neil Gaiman rested.)   

The satiric television series Good Omens has been both praised and censured as an attack on religion in favor of a more humanistic creed. Its claim that the real Final Battle will be "Heaven and Hell against humanity" seems to bear this out, but a closer look reveals the target is more specifically fundamentalist dogmatism and the arrogance that attends it. Responses to the series demonstrate how, thanks to Christian hegemony, people often unknowingly criticize a simplified version of Christianity when they object to "religion." For all the fun Good Omens pokes at biblical stories, its assertion that what human beings (as opposed to angels or demons) do in this world (as opposed to the next) is crucial to "God's plan" is also a deeply Jewish one, as is the shared belief that God desires ongoing engagement. This compatibility suggests that the series’ target is not every aspect of religion, but certain attitudes that can become identified with it.

The fact that, of the original novel's two authors, Neil Gaiman survived to helm the adaptation alone could explain its heterodoxy. Gaiman was fascinated from childhood by Norse mythology, raised by parents captivated by Scientology, given bar mitzvah tutoring courtesy of his Jewish relatives, and educated in Anglican schools. As an adult, he claims he doesn't have the "hardcore sense of beliefs necessary to be an atheist." What he appreciated in his Jewish education was his tutor's conviction that even though the Bible itself can "have two texts one after another, completely contradicting each other," both of these accounts, just like all of the "weird, gloriously mad" midrashic tales he told young Neil, were true. Gaiman professes to be "a terrible Jew," but this desire to accommodate contradictory stories, not as "parable," but as part of a world in which "[e]verything has to be true," appeals to his imagination as a writer. The tension that results from being drawn to mythology but resistant to belief animates many of Gaiman's fantastical works, including Good Omens

Shaped in the image of its creator, Good Omens has what might be called a Talmudic approach to divine revelation: to say "it is written" is to invite interpretation, rather than to forestall it. Gabriel and Beelzebub seek to extend their own power and start the "war of fire and flame … as it is written." They want to shut down the choices and changes that the eleven-year-old Antichrist, the demon Crowley, and the angel Aziraphale have introduced into what should have been a more predictable Armageddon. "God does not play games with the universe," Gabriel insists, to which Crowley responds, "Where have you been?" The answer is up in heaven's glass-walled headquarters, removed from the daily round of 6,000 years of human history, during which Crowley and Aziraphale have come to realize that they understand humanity (and each other) better than anyone back at their respective home offices. 

Their own lack of dogmatism inspires Crowley and Aziraphale to try to stop Armageddon and the subsequent destruction of the world; it also gives them better insight into what God's plan might be than their doctrinaire superiors. God herself claims that she "does not play dice with the universe. I play an ineffable game of my own devising. For everyone else, it’s like playing poker in a pitch-dark room for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won't tell you the rules and who smiles all the time." (Or, as the Yiddish proverb would have it, "Man plans, God laughs.") As they watch Adam and Eve leave the Garden, Crowley observes that God was "not very subtle," putting the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of Eden. Aziraphale insists that it is all part of the "ineffable" Great Plan, whatever that must be. By the series' end, however, Aziraphale has a different appreciation for God's plans: not as something to be invoked uncritically, but as a game to be played as well as possible, given the circumstances. "I wonder if this was the Great Plan all along," Crowley muses as they pass a bottle back and forth on a bus stop bench. "I wouldn't put it past her," Aziraphale replies.

The series pokes fun at the concept of the ineffable, but it also relies on it, to the extent that the playfulness of God is what makes a world of choice and interpretation possible. Crowley, Aziraphale, and the rest may never know for certain all of God's plan, but they can catch glimpses of what they think God may have wanted at particular moments when individuals, with all their flaws, come together to look out for each other and their messed up but ultimately worth-keeping world. The celestial beings of heaven and hell can only comprehend an inflexible plan that serves their side's power. By partaking of the pleasures of this world (be it sushi or Queen), Crowley and Aziraphale have come to partake of human complexity, and are thereby better equipped to play God's game, or at least to appreciate that there is one. 

God’s playfulness can make human life seem absurd or unfair, but it can also accommodate human complexity: good and evil inextricably and necessarily jumbled up in every person, what Judaism calls the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. Adam the Antichrist has begun the fall into adulthood—confirmed the fact that he is "human incarnate"—by choosing his earthly father over "his father who is no longer in Heaven." As narrator, God paraphrases the boy's thoughts when he steals an apple from a neighbor's tree: "There never was an apple that wasn't worth the trouble you got into for eating one," implying that the falls of both Adams were part of her plan, or, at least, that she encourages, with a wink, the contradictions inherent in human psychology. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the ineffable as something preconceptual, with a surfeit of meaning, rather than something that is absurdly unknowable, as Good Omens satirically suggests. The mythology that captivates Gaiman demonstrates how much stories matter, because they evoke those layers of meaning that can only be experienced, rather than rationally derived. The room may be dark, the rules unclear, and what is behind the dealer's smile unknowable, but we keep on playing, affirming each other and this world we have been given as best we can.

Image: Michael Sheen and David Tennant star in Good Omens. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

714bdaa9-57ba-43cc-8e0f-a9d597b934ea.jpeAuthor, Stephanie Friedman (MA’91), is Director of Academic Programs in the Summer Session Office in the College at the University of Chicago.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

See all articles by Stephanie Friedman

Topic Tags: