Was Something Lost?

James Kugel’s elegantly written How to Read the Bible tries to be at least two things at once. On one level, it is an introductory textbook. On another, it is a meditation on “the larger question of what a modern reader ought to make of” the Bible. The book’s unusual character, on either level, lies in Kugel’s juxtaposition of two kinds of interpretation: that of the earliest Jewish and Christian interpreters, which he has already covered at length in The Bible as It Was and The Traditions of the Bible, and that of modern biblical scholars. It is clear that Kugel’s heart is with the traditional interpreters, but he also appreciates the intellectual achievement of modern scholarship.

Viewed purely as an introduction, the book suffers from some imbalance. Genesis receives 146 pages; the entire prophetic corpus (excluding the “Former Prophets” or historical books) gets less than a hundred. About half the book deals with the Pentateuch. In part, that discrepancy is due to the wealth of early interpretations of the Pentateuch, but it also reflects a theological priority. The distinctive character of the book as an introduction lies in the fact that it gives traditional interpretation-that of the earliest Jewish and Christian interpreters-equal time with modern scholarship. In some cases, modern scholarship gets short shrift. The theory that the story of Adam and Eve is a reflection on the discovery of agriculture is hardly representative. And recent scholarship has not been as obsessed with etiologies as some of the early form-critics. But in many cases Kugel deals with modern theories in depth (the treaty analogies for the covenant, the current debate about the origin of Israel, the genres of the Psalms). The discussions of the prophets, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature suffer from their relative brevity. Kugel notes, correctly, that many modern scholars have an apologetic approach to the text that ultimately derives from traditional assumptions about the status of the Bible. He pays very little attention, however, to modern critiques of biblical values. Feminist criticism of the story of Adam and Eve is not acknowledged, athough there is a very brief discussion of feminist interpretation in the context of Judges. Neither is there any acknowledgment of a moral problem in the story of the Conquest-a story of the invasion of another people’s land and the slaughter of its inhabitants, ostensibly by divine command.

The survey of the books of the Bible and their ancient and modern interpretation is framed by an introductory chapter on the rise of modern scholarship and a concluding reflection titled “After Such Knowledge.” The introductory chapter is learned and sympathetic, and, like all of Kugel’s writing, witty besides. The concluding chapter is by far the most problematic part of the book, in part because of its brevity (less than thirty pages). Kugel finds it ironic that “the fundamentalist stance-occasional antiintellectualism and all-has succeeded in preserving much of what is most basic about the Bible, the ancient approach to reading it” (emphasis mine). In contrast, he finds naive “the liberal faith that despite their abandonment of a good bit of that approach, the Bible can somehow still go on being the Bible.” He has some sympathy with the canonical approach of Brevard Childs-which emphasizes the shaping of the text by its final editors, rather than the history that lies behind it-but criticizes it for its reliance on the Bible alone, and its failure to appreciate the importance of the early interpreters. Kugel affirms the orthodox Jewish position, in which the Torah must be interpreted in the context of the oral Torah-the elaboration of the Torah in Jewish tradition-which claims to fill in what is implied in the written Torah. Consequently, Kugel concludes, somewhat startlingly, that “modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable.” He has no objection to speculation about the composition of the books:

The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation...a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah...its true meaning is not the original meaning of its constituent parts, but the meaning it had for the people who first saw it as the Bible, God’s great book of instruction. If it doesn’t have that meaning for you anymore-if all it is is etiological tales and priestly polemics and political speeches-then why are you singing it?

Kugel recognizes that this alone is not an adequate response to the dilemmas of modern scholarship, so he concludes with another sort of answer. In Judaism, it is not the words of Scripture that are ultimately supreme but the service of God: “What Scripture is, and always has been, in Judaism is the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God.” This frees the scholar from concerns about verbal inerrancy, but it does not get us much further in dealing with the problems raised by modern scholarship, which are not only historical but also moral, such as that of the Conquest in Judges.

Kugel’s conclusion is startling because it comes at the end of a long book in which his delight in traditional interpretation seemed evenly balanced by his respect for the intellectual honesty of modern scholarship (except when it is perverted for apologetic ends). There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to read and study the Bible without subscribing to the views of the earliest interpreters, who were children of their own culture, two thousand years ago. And the intellectual honesty that Kugel seems to admire in C. A. Briggs-best known as co-author of the standard Hebrew-English dictionary, tried for heresy in 1893-is hardly alien to the service of God. Students can learn much from Kugel’s book about modern as well as ancient interpretation. Unfortunately, they may be left in doubt, quite unnecessarily, about the value of what they have learned.

Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: 

John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University.

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