Commentary Magazine


How to Read the Bible by James L. Kugel

Book Sense
How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
by James L. Kugel
Free Press. 848 pp. $35.00

James Kugel has had an interesting career. In the early 1970’s, he served as poetry editor for Harper’s magazine while pursuing graduate work in the historical-critical study of the Bible. He went on to teach the latter subject for many years at Harvard before moving full-time to Israel, where he now directs the Institute for the History of the Hebrew Bible at Bar Ilan University. He is also an Orthodox Jew—and for a professional Bible scholar, as he frankly admits at the outset of his massive, massively erudite, and very entertaining new book, this is a problem.

Kugel’s first major work was The Idea of Biblical Poetry (1981), but he really made his mark with The Bible as It Was (1997), a brilliant and sympathetic account of the interpretive techniques of such ancient readers of the Bible as Philo, Josephus, the rabbis of the Talmud, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the authors of the New Testament, and dozens of others.* All of them, Kugel argued, shared a basic approach. They did not passively read the biblical text; instead, they rewrote it, filling in its narrative gaps with fanciful back-stories and subplots, and treating difficult phrases as jumping-off points for leaps of moral sermonizing, theological fancy, and legal innovation. In the Jewish tradition, the results of this interpretive exercise became part of the “Oral Torah,” supplementing the “Written Torah” of Scripture. In Christianity, a similar exercise forged the connections between the “Old” and New Testaments.

This much has been known, more or less, for a long time. For the English reader, many of the ancient Jewish stories and elaborations were collected and retold in the early 20th century by the scholar Louis Ginzberg, whose multi-volume Legends of the Jews is still in print. But whereas Ginzberg implied that these were simply a species of folklore, Kugel recovered the underlying principles of creative close reading (midrash) that gave rise to even some of the more extravagant of the ancient interpretations.

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Here is an example, adduced by Kugel in The Bible as It Was. When God commissions Moses at the burning bush to return to Egypt and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, Moses famously resists. “I am,” he protests at one point, “a man of uncircumcised lips”—an odd phrase, which seems to suggest a speech impediment. The Bible declines to tell us what exactly was wrong with Moses’ lips or, indeed, much about his early life at all. But Jewish readers who went to Sunday school know the midrashic back-story, which also found its way into Christian sources and became a motif in Western art.

As an infant prince in the court of Pharaoh, it seems, Moses once grabbed Pharaoh’s crown. (In the version preferred by painters like Poussin and Tempestini, he then trampled on it.) This seemed like a bad omen to the court advisers; they devised a test, placing before him a platter containing a piece of gold and a burning coal. If he chose the gold, then the incident with the crown was a dangerous portent of royal ambition. If he chose the burning coal, then he was just a baby attracted to bright objects. Moses reached for the gold, but at the last moment the angel Gabriel, unseen, pushed his hand toward the coal. He seized it and, in bewildered pain, brought it to his mouth.

Is this a fairy tale, or an interpretation? In an ingenious feat of scholarly reverse engineering, Kugel showed how this and hundreds of other, similar midrashim were composed. The ancient interpreters proceeded on the assumption that the Bible’s words always carried the maximum freight of meaning. They also held that the collection of books making up the Bible was a harmonious and self-glossing whole, which hinted at incidents and teachings that it did not spell out. So if you wanted to understand what Moses might have meant in objecting that he was a man of “uncircumcised lips,” you had to search through the Bible for the same or similar expressions.

Such an interpreter would quickly hit upon the prophet Isaiah’s terrifying commission in the Temple. There he sees God Himself and His angelic attendants. Isaiah cries out in words reminiscent of Moses: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” whereupon an angel flies to him with a live coal, taken from the altar, and touches it to his lips, purifying him. Furnished with the image of the angel touching a coal to the prophet’s lips from this linked (one might almost say hyperlinked) biblical passage, the ancient interpreters then proceeded to tell a story about Moses’ childhood accident in the Pharaoh’s court.

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In the undergraduate course he taught at Harvard, Kugel liked to counterpose such creative ancient interpretations (the Bible as it was) to the disenchanted spadework of modern biblical studies (the Bible as it is, in itself, to critical scholars). When enrollment in this course outpaced even Harvard’s introductory course in economics, thereby becoming the most popular on campus, the undergraduate Crimson ran the news under the headline, “God Beats Mammon.”

How to Read the Bible grew out of this course, and in many ways it fits the genre of college-survey-become-bestseller. Over the course of 36 chapters, Kugel covers all of the major books and incidents of the Hebrew Bible and many of the minor ones, tacking back and forth between the interpretations of the ancients and the moderns. The attractively produced book is so breezily written, with forbidding scholarship tucked away in closely packed endnotes, that one can still hear the seemingly spontaneous, occasionally corny lecture-hall asides.

Yet something more serious than a conventional survey is going on here. On the dedication page, Kugel quotes but leaves untranslated an Aramaic passage from the Zohar, the medieval classic of Jewish mysticism. It reads:

Rabbi Simeon sat and cried. He said: If I reveal and if I don’t reveal. He opened and said, “it is time to act for God, they are nullifying His Torah.” Why is it time to act for God? Because they are nullifying His Torah.

Why the tears? Rabbi Simeon’s fear was that the divine secrets of the Torah were being revealed and distorted by those who were unworthy of them. Kugel’s problem is more or less the opposite. Biblical scholarship over the last three centuries has argued that the Bible can be explained as a set of entirely human documents, a position codified by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen at the end of the 19th century. In his “documentary hypothesis,” Wellhausen proposed that the Five Books of Moses had been written by four distinct authors (designated J, E, P, and D), none of whom was Moses. For his part, although he duly notes that the details of Wellhausen’s theory have been refined and his evolutionary scheme—which posited a straight line of development from one biblical source to the next—has been scrapped, Kugel accepts the basic framework. Hence, for this Orthodox Jew, the tears.

Again and again in How to Read the Bible, Kugel relays the bad news, for traditional believers, that has been brought to us by modern philological and archaeological excavations. The stories of Abraham do not cohere. Moses’ rescue from the bulrushes is borrowed from a much earlier story of someone named Sargon I of Agade. The exodus may have happened, but not on a biblical scale. The Psalms of David are not only not by David, they are not the cries of an individual to his Maker but rather “cultic pieces penned by anonymous temple functionaries, studded with conventional phrases and themes and worded in a one-size-fits-all vocabulary . . . designed . . . for multiple re-use.” And, just to round things out, the God of the Bible is not always the God of monotheism, which is precisely why He is so concerned about other gods.

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But what about the underlying ideas of the Bible? Here Kugel’s treatment is less than satisfying.

One example will have to suffice. In 1872, the English Assyriologist George Smith translated the cuneiform Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains a strikingly similar but apparently much older rendition of the biblical flood. About the consternation this caused in Western theological circles, both Christian and Jewish, and the efforts to deal with it, Kugel writes:

A distinctly apologetic tone crept into theologians’ reckoning. . . . “Our” flood story has a tone and message quite different from that of the various Mesopotamian versions. In the Bible, the flood comes as a result of human sinfulness (and not, as in Gilgamesh, because of human overpopulation and excess noisiness); Noah survives because he is virtuous. . . . God rewards him with continued life but not with immortality. . . . [T]he story ends in a . . . covenant between God and Noah’s family, a characteristically biblical idea.

“All this is true,” Kugel grants. But even so, it does not “quite put to rest the uneasiness created by the similarities.” The real difference between the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, he insists, is not in the stories themselves but entirely in the way the Bible was subsequently transmitted and interpreted—not in the “content” but in the “context.”

This, of course, is in line with Kugel’s approach in his earlier book. Here, he recapitulates it in the form of a piece of advice to potentially troubled readers: “keep your eyes on the ancient interpreters.” And he reasserts it as a kind of credo in a final chapter entitled “After Such Knowledge”:

What Scripture means is not what today’s ingenious scholars can discover about its original meaning (and certainly not about the events and persons it describes), but what the ancient interpreters always held it to mean.

Kugel is making two points, one historical and the other theological. The first is that what we call the Bible was actually created by the ancient interpreters: thus, what makes Exodus and Isaiah part of the same “book” is the assumption that each must be understood in light of the other. The second is that the approach of the ancient interpreters to the text of the Bible—as a work divinely inspired and, fundamentally, meant to teach us how to live—is the right one.

There is, clearly, much to be said for these two claims. But is that all there is to say? Was there really nothing deep and distinctive about the biblical ideas of sin, righteousness, covenant, and so forth, before the ancient interpreters ever got hold of them?

A famous talmudic dictum states that “no verse can be deprived of its plain sense (p’shat).” Part of the charm and daring of rabbinic exegesis turns on the often startling contrast between the plain sense of the narrative, or of the law, and its proffered interpretation. But it is precisely at the level of that plain sense—the powerful images and theological ideas on the surface of the text—where Kugel seems to me least compelling.

For him there are really only two ways to read the Bible: either to get under it via critical scholarship, or to go beyond it via midrash. Yet each entails a significant loss, and the second almost as much as the first. For one characteristic of midrash is that, considered as narrative, it is often measurably flatter and less resonant than the biblical text it supplements. The ancient rabbis were themselves conscious of this weakness, which is one reason they insisted upon the integrity of the Bible’s plain sense and (unlike early Christians) never claimed to be producing new Scripture.

Take, for instance, the midrash about Moses. Whatever its charms, no sensitive reader would imagine that it was part of the Bible. Where the Bible, here as elsewhere, is evocatively spare, mysterious, and unpredictable, midrash is often schematic, apologetic, and predictable. Sometimes midrashic interpretations will highlight or develop a thematic motif or theological idea of the Bible, but just as often they will ignore, obscure, or deny it. Indeed, something of the sort may be happening in this very midrash. Where the texts in Exodus and Isaiah may be trying to express something profound about the difficulty, even impossibility, of giving human voice to divine speech, the ancient interpreters focus, however charmingly, on the medical issues.

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Needless to say, Kugel knows that one can read the Bible as literature and as theology, but he himself is evidently too wary of the dangers of anachronism to do so. The desire to see the Bible as “great literature” is, he says, “apologetics-lite.” In his own case, there may also be another reason for resisting an aesthetic approach to the Bible: religiously speaking, it simply does not satisfy. In this connection, Kugel quotes another famous passage from the Zohar:

Rabbi Simeon said: Woe to him who regards the Torah as a book of mere tales and profane matters. If this were so, we ourselves might write a Torah nowadays . . . even more excellent.

As the midrash itself proves, however, re-writing (let alone writing) Scripture is easier said than done. The Bible’s intrinsic literary and theological power, I would contend, is very much part of its plain sense, and the reader deprives himself of this at his peril.

Kugel has written a wonderful book, one that lays bare the worlds both of modern biblical scholarship and of ancient biblical interpretation with wit and erudition. It is small criticism to note that these two ways of reading the Bible do not exhaust its meanings.

About the Author




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