The Great Shift: Encoun­ter­ing God in Bib­li­cal Times

James L. Kugel
  • Review
By – February 7, 2018

The Great Shift: Encoun­ter­ing God in Bib­li­cal Times by James L. Kugel | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

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.

Discussion Questions