James L. Kugel, former Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and a recipient of Israel’s highest award in Jewish studies, is the author of numerous books on biblical studies for a lay audience. Through a close reading of biblical texts, a comparative analysis with contemporary Near Eastern religion and literature, and a survey of anthropological and sociological studies, his most recent work, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times, considers God’s changing relationship with humanity throughout the Bible.
In the foreword, Kugel warns his audience that “this book is not for everyone.” He anticipates that his analysis, in its use of modern scholarship, will go against core religious teachings. At the same time, he recognizes that some modern scholars are inclined to debunk religious conviction and the Bible’s authenticity entirely. In response, Kugel suggests that his “program is to avoid either approach.” He writes:
What I wish to do is make use of everything modern scholars have discovered about the Bible and the ancient Near East (as well as a few other topics) and try to use these insights, along with a little imagination, in order to enter the world of the Bible as fully and truly as possible, to see things as they were seen then
The Great Shift is divided into four sections. The first introduces several ways that the Bible depicts God encounters through a close reading of several biblical and apocryphal narratives, including the rise of several judges, the story of Joseph and his brothers, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. A chapter in the second section of the book explores the Temple as a place for divine encounter. Here, Kugel writes of the unique nature of Israelite practice, defined as aniconic worship: “In the Babylonian or Assyrian temple, the god was simply there, present in the temple itself” but, by contrast, “the particular sort of aniconism practiced in the Israelite sanctuary…suggests a rather different idea of not just what the temple is, but what the deity is.”
The third section of The Great Shift surveys transformations in the Bible’s record of divine encounters. The first chapter of this section, titled “To Monotheism…and Beyond,” explores Judaism’s transition from monolatry (the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods) to monotheism. This occured simultaneously with the recognition of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Kugel makes it clear that this transition, fundamental to current Jewish belief, was “to have the most profound effect on how people encountered God from this point on.”
In his conclusion, Kugel reminds the reader that “transformations on one side of the human encounter with God has often been accompanied by a parallel one on the other side,” changing the way individuals create a sense of self and how they place themselves in regard to others. By closing with this assertion, The Great Shift brings the conversation on divine encounters full circle, showing a deep appreciation of how humanity’s struggle to meet God has had an equally lasting impact on how we understand ourselves.
Jonathan Fass is the Chief Operating Officer of Jewish Family Service in Stamford, CT.