Reading the Bible Anew

By Reviewed by Jerome Segal
Sunday, December 16, 2007


A Guide to Scripture,

Then and Now

By James L. Kugel

Free Press. 819 pp. $35

Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they've read from it in the past week, it's hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you're in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.

Eighty years ago, the Jewish philosopher and Bible scholar Martin Buber maintained that modern man cannot, if he is honest with himself, approach the Bible with the solid faith of previous generations. At the same time, Buber judged that one loses all that is biblical if one takes what the Bible has to say as merely figurative, metaphorical or allegorical. His solution was that "modern man" must "read the Jewish Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before him ready-made, as though he has not been confronted all his life with sham concepts and sham statements that cited the Bible as their authority. He must face the Bible . . . as something new." Within the Jewish tradition, which emphasized reading the Bible through the interpretive lens of the ancient rabbis, this was a radical break. Part of Buber's rationale rested on his assessment of the Bible as literature. It is not that Buber viewed the Bible as mere literature; being literature was not incompatible with being a source of revelation. Rather, he argued that scripture "uses the methods of story-telling to a degree . . . that world literature has not yet learned to use." And so, he said, "it remains for us latecomers to point out the significance of what has hitherto been overlooked, neglected, insufficiently valued."

Despite the title, How to Read the Bible, James Kugel does not offer us latecomers a new way to read the Bible. Instead, over some 700 well-written pages, Kugel goes through the Hebrew Bible (which Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament) alternating a discussion of how ancient interpreters understood key passages with what modern scholarship can tell us about the origins and accuracy of the text. This is wonderfully interesting stuff, extremely well presented.

But what really drives Kugel -- a former Harvard professor who says he's been writing this book for 30 years -- is his need to reconcile modern knowledge with his own religious practice; he is an orthodox Jew committed to fulfilling all 613 commandments traditionally found in the Hebrew Bible. Essentially, Kugel exemplifies the quandary of "modern man" that Buber discussed.

For Kugel, biblical scholarship has played a decisive role in undermining the traditional view of the Bible as God's inerrant word. It has done this in myriad ways: by exposing traces of diverse human authorship, by showing the connection between biblical ordinances supposedly revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai and other codes embraced by earlier Near Eastern peoples, and by disputing the historical truth of key stories, such as that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they conquered Canaan.

But we don't need modern biblical scholarship to doubt divine authorship. If we read the Bible free from the assumptions that religion brings to the text, we find that the first several books neither assert nor suggest God's authorship. On the contrary, they often portray Yahweh in such a critical light that it is difficult to believe this is how Yahweh would have presented himself.

The ever-startling fact about the Hebrew Bible is that, from the Creation to the conquest of the Promised Land, it is dominated by a conception of God that is at odds with how God is understood in Judaism and Christianity. Kugel is aware of this, introducing the term "God of Old" to refer to the earlier conception and focusing on God's lack of omnipresence and omniscience in Genesis and Exodus. But what Kugel does not take up is what immediately engages anyone who reads the Bible as a fresh story: the moral character of Yahweh. It is not merely that the Bible sometimes presents God anthropomorphically, but that Yahweh is presented as a distinct individual with a distinct personality and very human character flaws.

The ability of Judaism (and subsequently Christianity) to conceive of the Bible as divine scripture, authored by a God who loves and deserves to be loved, rests upon a disciplined distortion of the core story. Kugel, who is remarkably clear-eyed about these early interpreters, has a different way of putting it. He explains that "the very idea of the Bible" -- a divinely inspired and perfect text that tells us what to think and do -- is the product of an "interpretive revolution" that took place in the last three centuries before the birth of Jesus. "Most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts," he writes, "but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way." And further, "It was this way of reading, as much as the texts themselves, that Jews and Christians canonized as their Bible." Kugel's lucid explanation of this point is a major contribution to popular understanding.

In contrast to Kugel's tight focus on ancient interpreters vs. modern researchers, Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography tackles the entire history of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament in scarcely more than 200 pages. Her volume belongs to a series of short primers on "Books That Changed the World" and may have suffered from that format.

Nonetheless, it has definite strengths. Not least is her success in describing the radical freedom that the early rabbis took in their non-literal approach to the Bible. She relates one tale in which Rabbi Akiva's fame reached Moses in heaven, and Moses decided to come down to earth to attend one of the rabbi's classes: "He sat in the eighth row behind the other students, and to his dismay found that R. Akiva's exposition was incomprehensible to him, even though it was said to have been part of the revelation he had received on Mount Sinai." As he returned to heaven, Moses proudly mused, "My sons have surpassed me."

Armstrong's final chapter is on "Modernity," which she dates from the late 17th century. Like Kugel, she sees modern-day biblical literalists as breaking with centuries of religious interpretation. Implicit is her agreement with both Kugel and the ancient interpreters that the Bible should be read as a guide to life. But for Armstrong, crucially, each reader is an agent, and interpretive choices must be set within the political realities of our world. Thus she writes, "Because scripture has been so flagrantly abused . . . Jews, Christians and Muslims have a duty to establish a counter-narrative."

In a far lighter spirit is A.J. Jacobs's zany project, The Year of Living Biblically. He set out to spend 12 months following all the rules in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. He began by making a list of more than 700. These he intended to follow literally, except where they are clearly figurative.

Jacobs is a humorist, and at times he had me laughing out loud. To stop ogling women, he silently recited Bible verses; when his 2-year-old son hit him, he chose to overlook Exodus 21:15 ("Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death."). Still, his focus on following the commandments is in the long Jewish tradition of putting doing before understanding. In the end, he emerged from his year without experiencing revelation, but in the perfectly sound place of embracing Shabbat -- or in his closing words, "a quiet Friday night."

Yet if one gets serious about this light-hearted book, one must ask about its key presupposition, that the Bible should be read as God's guide to life. This brings us back to Kugel's problem: how to accept modern scholarship and "yet not lose sacred Scripture in the process." Kugel's answer is that the purpose of Scripture, to show us how to serve God, is more important than its historic truth. Believing that the Bible is, at least in part, divinely inspired, he views it as "the most accessible avenue" to God and "a basic program for the service of God in everyday life."

Kugel is content with this, but for skeptics, I would suggest an alternative way of approaching the Bible. Don't assume that it is a guide to life, and don't worry about modern research. Instead, try to read the Bible as you would an unknown novel. You may be startled. You may, in fact, gasp. And its human power may even transform you. ¿

Jerome M. Segal is the author of "Joseph's Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible."

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