Commentary Magazine

The Bible As It Was by James L. Kugel

The Bible as it was
by James L. Kugel
Harvard. 680 pp. $35.00

“How obvious,” one some times thinks of a new idea, thus bestowing high praise on its conceiver, since nothing is so well hidden as the obvious. James L. Kugel, a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard, has written a praiseworthy book.

Kugel’s project, on the face of it, is an obvious one. He has compiled and analyzed a large collection of early commentaries on the five books of Moses, or Pentateuch, the latest of which date from the end of the classical period—roughly, the 6th century of the Common Era (C.E.). There are, of course, several anthologies available of ancient rabbinic exegesis of the Bible, and a voluminous scholarly literature besides. Much has been written on how the Christian church fathers read the Bible. Many studies exist of the extrabiblical Apocrypha, of the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the religious texts of the Gnostics, and of the relation of these to the biblical canon, and many others of Hellenized Jewish authors like Josephus Flavius and Philo of Alexandria. But no one before Kugel has thought of collecting a representative sample of all these sources and ranging them alongside the biblical verses they interpret. Now that it has been done, a clear forest emerges where we have tended to glimpse only clumps of trees.

This large body of interpretation, Kugel asserts, reflects a tradition of reading the Bible that was common to nearly all ancient commentators despite the fierce polemical disputes among them. On the one hand, the tradition can be defined by its base assumptions, which Kugel lists as four: the belief that “all of Scripture is somehow divinely sanctioned, of divine provenance, or divinely inspired”; the belief that “Scripture is perfect and perfectly harmonious”; the belief that “Scripture constitutes one great Book of Instruction,” so that “biblical figures were held up as models of conduct” and “biblical prophecies were similarly read as relevant to the interpreter and his audience”; and the belief that “the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic document,” and that “in place of, or beyond, the apparent meaning of the text is some hidden, esoteric message.”

But, Kugel argues, the common tradition goes beyond mere general axioms. In the details of their hermeneutics, too, the ancient biblical commentators shared a large chunk of ground, sometimes because they directly influenced one another and sometimes because they were simply responding to the same textual challenges and problems. By walking us through the Pentateuch chapter by chapter and showing us what was said about it by books and authors as various as the 2nd-century-B.C.E. Hellenistic writer Artapanus and the 4th-and-5th-century-C.E. church father Augustine of Hippo; the 2nd-century-B.C.E.-and-on-ward Sybilline Oracles and the 5th-century-C.E. midrashic work, Leviticus Rabba; the 2nd-century-B.C.E. Alexandrian Jewish dramatist Ezechiel the Tragedian and the 3rd-century-C.E. Gnostic treatise The Hypostasis of the Archons, and so on, Kugel repeatedly demonstrates such joint strands of exegesis.



For an example of how he does this, we might take a puzzling passage in Exodus. It occurs after God has revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush:

It happened that, at an inn along the way, the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him. But [Moses’ wife] Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to his feet and said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me,” and He left him alone.

As Kugel points out,

These verses seem completely mysterious. Why, having commissioned Moses to return to Egypt, should God then decide to kill him? And why should Zipporah’s circumcising her son . . . have apparently led to God’s leaving Moses alone? Even today, most biblical commentators seem baffled by this brief passage.

The first known attempt to make sense of these lines is to be found in the 3rd-century-B.C.E. Jewish translation of the Bible into Greek that is known as the Septuagint. As quoted by Kugel, the Septuagint’s rendering of Exodus 4:24 goes:

It happened that, on the way, in the inn, an angel of the Lord met him and sought to kill him.

This implicitly exegetical version of the biblical text did not necessarily originate with the Septuagint; it may have been current in Jewish circles even earlier. But although it subtly shifts the onus for the attempt on Moses’ life from God to an angel, it fails to explain why the latter, too, would have tried to kill the leader of the Israelites. The first recorded attempt to do that occurs in Jubilees, a 2nd-century-B.C.E. book of apocryphal writings whose sectarian Jewish author, clearly aware of the tradition represented by the Septuagint, has a friendly angel tell Moses:

And you know . . . what Prince Mastema [a wicked angel] desired to do with you when you returned to Egypt, on the way, when you met him at the shelter. Did he not desire to kill you with all his might and save the Egyptians from your hand, because he saw that you were sent to execute judgment and vengeance upon the Egyptians?

Kugel next gives us two 1st-century-C.E. targums or translations of the Bible into Aramaic, which, picking up on the figure of an evil archdemon sketched by Jubilees, refer to him as “the Destroyer” or “the Angel of Death.” But to a strictly monotheistic Jew, this would only lead to a new question: why would an all-powerful God have permitted a devilish fiend to attack His chosen servant? And so the next text cited by Kugel is the 3rd-century-C.E. rabbinic tractate of Nedarim in the Mishnah, where—the story of Zipporah now entering as well—we read that Moses was being punished for having delayed his eldest son’s circumcision. And by way of amplification, Kugel also gives us a midrash from Exodus Rabba which states that Moses was so busy searching for an inn to lodge in that “as a consequence [he] neglected the matter of circumcising his son Eliezer.”

Kugel then observes: “But was Moses really the sort to neglect God’s requirements? Given the fact that his father-in-law [ Jethro] was a ‘priest of Midian,’ some interpreters were more inclined to place the blame elsewhere.” Whereupon he introduces us to yet another rabbinic commentary from the 3rd century C.E., the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, in which Zipporah’s father Jethro tells Moses:

Accept this one condition . . . and I will give her to you as a wife.” He [Moses] said: “What is it?” Jethro said to him: “The son that is born to you first will be given over to idolatry [and hence, not circumcised]; those [born] thereafter can be given to the worship of [your] God.

Finally, Kugel adduces a text from the 4th-century-C.E. Christian commentator Ephraem of Edessa—who, evidently familiar with the story given by the Mekhilta (and possibly, I suspect, believing he had found in it a precedent for the non-circumcision of God’s faithful), wrote:

He [Moses] married Zipporah who bore him two sons: one he circumcised, but the other she did not let him circumcise. . . . She thus allowed one to continue in the circumcision of Abraham, while forbidding the other, through whom her father’s tradition of the foreskin would be preserved.

Clearly, Ephraem’s religious thinking was not the same as that of the author of the Mekhilta. Clearly, too, neither adopted—and very likely, neither was familiar with—the story in Jubilees of the Satanic “Prince Mastema.” Yet equally clearly, all three of these sources are situated in a single line of hermeneutic development that stretched over hundreds of years and was impelled by a common set of concerns.



Indeed, Kugel believes, so pervasive was the interpretive tradition—it actually begins in the Bible itself, where we find later books like Daniel and Ezra commenting on earlier ones—and so greatly did it continue to influence readings of the Bible up to our own time, that there is no longer any possibility of approaching Scripture outside of the tradition’s frame of reference. Our modern notion that there is a pristine, “real Bible” waiting to be discovered, if only we can brush away the traditional exegetical scales from our eyes, is illusory. For, Kugel writes,

the spindly sapling of texts that began to sprout even before the 1st millennium B.C.E. was only enabled to grow into the great date palm of Scripture thanks to the nourishing presence of the ancient interpretations and interpretive assumptions that soon enveloped and strengthened its roots.

The interpretive tradition, in a word, is the Bible.

Taken at face value, this assertion, which is intended to nail down Kugel’s more modest point about a common tradition of interpretation in the ancient world, would seem an exaggeration. In recent years alone, after all, there has been a great renewal of creative Bible-reading, much of it consciously going against the grain of traditional interpretation and giving readers the satisfying feeling that they are in more direct contact with the biblical text than those who depend on the mediation of accepted commentaries and of the churches and synagogues that base their instruction on them. I can even think of one such modern reading, by the Israeli poet and novelist Pinhas Sadeh, that deals with the selfsame passage in Exodus.

Speculating on the mysterious assault on Moses, Sadeh writes:

Can it be, strange as it may sound, that God now regrets having revealed Himself to Moses and having sent him on his mission to Pharaoh? Or is God now revealing another side of Himself, not only different from but actively opposed to its predecessor?

Perhaps the Bible is concerned with that side or face of God when it calls Him “a consuming fire,” “vengeful and jealous,” and when Paul writes that “it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God.” That is the face of God which makes “the hairs stand up on the flesh” of Job’s friend Eliphaz when it appears to him in a dream; which reveals itself to Abraham, even while blessing him, as “a great and awful gloom”; and of which Jacob exclaims upon awakening from his dream, “How terrible is this place!” Such infinite, indefinable dread is perhaps the original sense of the phrase, “the fear of God.” Man gazes for an instant into the abyss, then shuts his eyes again.

A 20th-century romantic, Sadeh stands the interpretive tradition traced by Kugel on its head. God, in this reading, did want to murder Moses—and not because of any guilt on Moses’ part. Rather, God as Sadeh understands Him is quite simply loving and murderous at once: such is the existential, amoral, bedrock truth about reality that the pre-interpreted Bible seeks to communicate. And a man who knows this, Sadeh goes on in the language of religious entreaty,

grows icy with fear. With the coming of the time of the abyss. Yea, You have created that too. And You know and You understand. I pray, then, if only it please You. For there is no other defense. I sue for mercy from God.

And yet, in writing these words, Sadeh is not standing outside; not only is he being a biblical interpreter himself, he is squarely within an interpretive tradition, if not the specific one that Kugel has brought to our attention. The notion that God has two alternating aspects, one clement and one terrible, is firmly rooted in classical rabbinic midrash, where these manifestations are called midat ha-rahamim and midat ha-din, the “quality of mercy” and the “quality of rigor.” Along these lines, the iate-4th-century or early-5th-century-C.E. midrashic compilation of Genesis Rabba includes an exegesis of the verse in Exodus:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face and stood behind them.

According to the midrash, this verse suggests that “the quality of rigor” oscillated between the Israelites and the Egyptians, now striking at one, now at the other. God and “Prince Mastema” are one and the same.

In this sense, Kugel is quite right: no matter how we rebel against received interpretation, we are also its creatures and heirs. None of us has Adamic eyes; all are caught in tradition’s web. The Bible As It Was guides us deftly through a web that turns out to have been far more extensive and ecumenical than most of us would have thought.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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