Commentary Magazine


The Great Poems of the Bible by James L. Kugel

The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader’s Companion with New Translations
by James L. Kugel
Free Press. 350 pp. $23.00

A book like James L. Kugel’s The Great Poems of the Bible could probably have been conceived only in the modern age, which has dispensed with the notion of biblical truth and finds the Bible’s principal glory in its literary art. Yet Kugel, a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard, is himself no unbelieving aesthete; when he was asked to compile a selection of biblical poetry, a part of him resisted the very thought: “even the idea of making a selection—sifting through the Bible to find its high points, as it were—was bound to be somewhat repugnant to anyone who, like me, thinks of it all as sacred Scripture.” One is therefore doubly glad that Kugel got over his repugnance, for he has produced both beautiful translations of beloved passages from the Hebrew Bible and inspired essays on “the spiritual reality” those passages evoke.

Good as his translations are, the essays are even better. Kugel balks at calling them commentaries, which implies philological close work, or historical criticism, with its emphasis on cultural background and textual development. Rather, he is trying to recover “a certain way of perceiving, [which] has gradually closed inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible in an earlier age.” He is after nothing less than the heart of the matter: what we know of Who God is, and where we stand in relation to Him—in short, what people always turned to the Bible to find, until it lost its unique status and became just another book among many.

The great poems that Kugel translates comprise seven Psalms; passages from the prophetic writings of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah; and selections from Samuel, Job, Judges, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. In writing about them, as about the numerous other passages he cites and translates, he helps us understand, first of all, what precisely biblical poetry is. What marks it, Kugel writes (he is hardly the first to point this out), is not rhyme or meter but rather a kind of formalized sentence structure that is repeated over and over, each sentence made up of two parts, each part a phrase or clause usually no more than three or four words long, the second part being a symmetrical extension of the first.

This characteristic two-part sentence, Kugel suggests, was derived from a more loose-jointed, “seconding” style in which successive brief phrases were linked by a studied echoing effect. Here, for example, is the account in Judges of Yael’s killing of the Canaanite general Sisera:

He went down between her
feet, fell down, splayed out;

between her feet down he went,
fallen; and where he went down,

that’s where he stayed fallen,
the oppressor.

The more formal style attained perhaps its most pronounced refinement in the grand utterances of the Prophets, as in this typical passage from Isaiah:

Now I will bring your children
from the east, and from the
west I will gather you up.

I will say to the north wind,
“Come on!” and to the south
wind, “Don’t hold back!

Give me My sons from afar,
and My daughters from the
ends of the earth!”

Kugel helps us to see how the Bible’s use of formal poetic style can achieve a variety of rhetorical effects. With unsparing directness, Amos condemns the voluptuaries who fill their bellies while ignoring the hungry:

Hear this prophecy, you Bashan
cows on Samaria’s hill—

you who swindle the poor, extort
the needy,

then say to your husbands,
Honey, go get us something to
drink.

To take another example: the decidedly plainspoken, even rustic, style of the Song of Songs establishes the innocent beauty of its unabashed eroticism, which in rabbinic tradition also bespeaks the love of Israel for God. By contrast, no biblical book is more terrible than Lamentations, whose subject is the Babylonian siege and conquest of Jerusalem; yet this account of war’s horrors, in which starving women eat their own children, is written in acrostics, the most stylized of biblical literary forms—for Kugel, “an act of control” that embodies “the profound conviction that life must always make sense, and then follows that conviction down into life’s darkest corridor.”

_____________

 

This brings us to the “spiritual reality” that Kugel wishes to illuminate through his analyses of biblical poems. It simply does not occur to anyone in the Bible, he writes, to declare that there is no God. Even the blasphemers who deny His power or His goodness do not question His existence. God is ever and unmistakably present, and He has an unfailing knack for getting men’s attention. “A man’s soul is the lamp of the Lord, who searches out his innermost parts,” says Proverbs. In the very center of every human being, the soul is an outpost of divinity, and it never lets one forget for long Who is proprietor.

Biblical poets do not talk of God after the fashion of theologians, trying to piece together an intelligible explanation; rather, they present the living God as He appears to a few select men in His terrifying inexplicable majesty. Kugel cites an exchange in which the prophet Jeremiah seeks an answer to a fundamental question of earthly justice:

You will always win, O Lord, whenever I lodge a complaint against You;
still, I would address You on a
matter of law.

Why is it that wicked men prosper, why do liars and backstabbers thrive?

The Lord’s response suggests that this is the wrong question: “If you topple over when things are fine, what will you do when the Jordan floods its banks?” Rather than explaining why He has made the world as it is, God indicates instead that Jeremiah needs to find the strength to face the world’s cruelty—for things can always get much worse. As Kugel observes, “This [answer] hardly contributes to the debate on unjustified suffering or the apparent prosperity of the wicked, but it provides something else, actual footage of the real prophet and how God answered his question one day.” To put it another way: bumping up against what we cannot expect to know helps us come to grips with what we can, and indeed had better, know.

_____________

 

Knowing, fearing, and loving the Lord are the intricately braided main themes of Kugel’s book. He notes that the Bible makes a distinction between “fear of God” and “fear of the Lord.” The former, he writes, “actually has nothing to do specifically with the religion of Israel”; it refers, rather, to “common decency,” which anyone will practice who realizes that he is small and weak while God is big and strong. The latter includes both the awareness that Jews in particular owe the Lord certain reverent duties and the behavior that necessarily follows from that awareness.

To moderns, fear and love typically have little in common. But in the Hebrew Bible they are not so far apart: as Deuteronomy puts it, “But now, Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you, save that you fear the Lord your God, follow all his ways and love Him?” The obedience that man shows God is itself an act of love; and this love is reciprocated. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, Kugel notes, images of intimacy highlight the divine tenderness toward Israel: God, a loving father, carries His people “like an eagle carrying his young on his wings as they learn to fly, and they are dearer to Him than the pupil of His eye.” Similarly, the psalmist acknowledges joyfully and repeatedly God’s nearness and dearness: “For You have been my benefactor since the womb, my support even at my mother’s breast”; “though my soul is filled up as with a feast, my lips and mouth keep praising”; “even if my mother and father should abandon me, the Lord will take me up.”

In an elegant summation, Kugel does away once and for all with the notion that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a harsh, distant, unforgiving Lord:

The fear of the Lord, it is tempting to say, apprehended God on the outside. He was there, the Great King, and He is to be worshiped and served. But in the world of the soul, the great Outside and inside meet. God was no longer remote; He was the “living God,” right here. And so, the God of the “fear of the Lord” was no longer only outside and no longer only fearsome. It is in the Psalms that one finds the fullest expression of this spiritual truth.

This is but one of numerous spiritual truths to which Kugel astutely points the way in The Great Poems of the Bible. They may seem obvious enough once they have been brought to one’s attention, yet one would likely never have noticed them without his help. Although Kugel’s translations will hardly supersede the peerless solemn magnificence of the King James Version, they are supple, graceful, vigorous, and far preferable to most English renderings in our parched age. As for the commentaries, if one may call them that despite Kugel’s disclaimer, they are models of what criticism at its most serious can achieve. This is a book to be cherished.

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About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.




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