The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible

James L. Kugel
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

Like many con­tem­po­rary Bible schol­ars, James Kugel takes it on faith that the Bible was writ­ten by men over a long peri­od of time and incor­po­rates mate­r­i­al and con­cepts that changed dur­ing the peri­od. That fact notwith­stand­ing, his book does not deal with ques­tions of the devel­op­ment of the text of the Tanach, but rather the very mind­set of its authors. What did peo­ple of thou­sands of years ago actu­al­ly think about when they thought about God? 

By com­par­ing scenes of inter­ac­tion with God or his mes­sen­gers, Kugel tries to tease out just how ancient Israelites per­ceived the Holy One dur­ing the days when He more clear­ly inter­act­ed on earth. Clear, well-writ­ten and hard-rea­soned, the book is inter­est­ing­ly, if scant­i­ly, ref­er­enced. In these long end-notes, Kugel suc­cinct­ly reviews much of con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cal thought on the ear­ly reli­gion of the Hebrews. 

Kugel exam­ines the Bib­li­cal text with a scalpel and a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. For exam­ple, he dis­cuss­es the phe­nom­e­non of the Cry of the Vic­tim,” the call for jus­tice that God appears help­less to resist, as when a stranger, wid­ow or orphan is oppressed. In Exo­dus, God seems to have to wait for the vic­tim to cry out before act­ing; not so in Deuteron­o­my. Kugel builds a chapter’s worth of inter­pre­ta­tion on this dif­fer­ence and uses it to but­tress his book’s the­sis. Strange­ly, he seems to be unaware of or unin­ter­est­ed in the same kind of close read­ing that has occu­pied rab­bini­cal exegetes for two mil­len­nia. They, too, seek to back up their own world view. Should Kugel’s be privileged? 

This leads us to the great ques­tion that needs to be asked of this author, and indeed, of many of today’s Bib­li­cal schol­ars. They have built moun­tains of inter­pre­ta­tion upon their sup­po­si­tions, some­times with sci­en­tif­ic sup­port, some­times not. Why should they be read? What val­ue can be derived from a foren­sic study of the text? 

Kugel strug­gles in one fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter with the mean­ing of the Tow­er of Babel sto­ry. He posits that the Israelites were prob­a­bly ear­ly back to the lan­ders’ who escaped from wicked old Mesopotamia and its teem­ing cities, thus explain­ing the sin of Babel. 

Accord­ing to the received tra­di­tion, the Bible was writ­ten by God and His Prophets. The great­ness of the text is to be found in the pow­er the read­er can uncov­er in its con­tem­po­rary mean­ing, filled, as life is, with con­tra­dic­tion and lack of clar­i­ty. In this book, Kugel, with the best of inten­tions, seeks to lev­el those con­tra­dic­tions by point­ing to an ear­li­er, less dimen­sion­al under­stand­ing of the nature of God by the ear­ly Israelites. But what val­ue will be achieved by this flat­ten­ing of the heights? Will the result be Sinai or Babel?

Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

Discussion Questions