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How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

James L. Kugel

Free Press

New York

9780743235860 $35.00

The Bible is the holiest of books for 2.1 billion Christians and 14 million Jews. More than 1.5 billion Muslims deem the holy Koran to be a continuation of the Old and New Testaments. Jewish tradition says that Moses, at God's direction, wrote the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, no later than about 1400 B.C.E. The authors of the books of the prophets and the various scrolls that make up the Writings composed them between 1400 B.C.E. and 450 B.C.E. Yet, James L. Kugel in his newest book, How to Read the Bible, would have us believe that the Bible is not divinely inspired and the books of the prophets are not even written by the authors who bear their names.

Kugel presents a well-written and comprehensive analysis of many biblical stories; covering nearly every book of the Bible and though highly footnoted, it is comprehensible to both scholar and layman alike. How to Read the Bible begins by drawing on the work of mid-nineteenth century German theologian, Julius Wellhausen, who proposed that the Pentateuch had more that one writer. After extensive linguistic analysis, Wellhausen concluded that there were at least four different authors. Author J consistently used the Hebrew letters that correspond to the English letters Y-H-V-H (Y is spelled in German with a J) for the name of God. Author E preferred another Hebrew name for God, Elohim. P's style showed that he wrote the sections that emphasized chronology and laws, and D wrote the Book of Deuteronomy.

In addition to using the word YHVH for God's name, author J calls Sinai God's mountain and stresses Southern Israel. In contrast, E uses Elohim (a word that means god or gods, lower case), calls Mt. Horeb God's mountain and highlights Northern Israel. Among other things, author P emphasizes Southern Israel and focuses on genealogy and laws. Finally, author D refers to God as YHVH and accentuates the centrality of prayer in Jerusalem. An unknown redactor, about 500 B.C.E., united all the material written by J, E, P, and D. This is why, according to Wellhausen's hypothesis, the Bible has two creation stories (Genesis 1:1--2:4 and 2:4--2:25), two stories of the flood (Genesis 6:5-8:22 and 6:9-8:19, the two accounts are intertwined), two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18), and so on. Wellhausen's theory became known as the Documentary Hypothesis, which has survived scholarly scrutiny over the last 150 years, and is generally accepted by all but the most ardent literalists, such as Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians.

Kugel insists that these anonymous authors, as well as those who wrote after the Israelites settled Canaan, drew on and adopted folklore known from the distant past, including both Jewish oral history, narratives that were common knowledge in the Middle/Near East and historical material preserved by both kings and priests. The biblical stories were written, he asserts, in order to explain the authors'/editors' present based on past events (etiological narratives) or to make specific points (schematic narratives).

These anonymous authors used etiological narratives to explain to their contemporaries, for example, why different groups of Semites spoke different languages (Tower of Babel), to explain why the Israelites (fathered by Jacob) and the Edomites (fathered by Esau) were closely related by often at war with each other, to explain why Rahab's (the prostitute who sheltered Joshua and his men when they spied on Jericho) relatives (foreigners) stilled lived in Canaan, and why the tribe of Jacob's eldest son, Reuben, produced no King (see Genesis 49:3-4). Likewise, they used schematic narratives to tell what happens if you disobey God's command (Adam and Eve, Lot's wife), murder (Cain and Abel), or display general wickedness (Noah and the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah). The authors, Kugel asserts, never intended to predict the future; this idea surfaces later with another group of editors.

According to Kugel, between 300 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., mostly unknown "ancient interpreters" construed biblical stories in ways the original authors never intended. They mistakenly read the Bible with four assumptions: (1) the Bible is essentially cryptic, (2) the Bible is a book of lessons aimed at readers in their own day, (3) the Bible contains no contradictions, and (4) the Bible was given by God. In addition, after the death of Jesus, early Christian interpreters, using typological narratives, that is, reinterpreting the Old Testament to predict future events, showed that many of its verses predicted Jesus as the Messiah. For example, based on assumption 3, why would God test Abraham when He knew the outcome in advance? To eliminate the contradiction, the interpreters made an analogy between Abraham and Job. They said that God knew the outcome, but He had to demonstrate to Satan Abraham's loyalty to God through a variety of tests. Based on assumption 2, the ancient interpreters changed the story of Dinah's rape and the subsequent revenge by her brothers to be as an admonition to the Jewish nation not to intermarry.

In addition, the ancient interpreters saw biblical characters as either all good or all bad. They considered Jacob "good" although he stole his brother's birthright and lied to his father. They saw King David as a "good" person, brushing aside his adultery and other wrong doings, but considered Balaam "bad," even though he spoke God's words and blessed the Israelites. They altered the original meaning of the Song of Songs from a love story between a man and woman to God's love for Israel.

Kugel, by his own admission, is a practicing Orthodox Jew; so one would expect him to fall squarely on the side of the ancient interpreters, the message that congregants and parishioners receive at sermons during Sabbath services. This is not the case. In each chapter, he gives the reader a balanced approach between the original authors, ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholarship, but he clearly sides with modern scholarship. In the chapter titled "Moses in Egypt," Kugel begins by faithfully retelling the narrative of Moses' exploits while living in the Pharaoh's palace. He then follows this with stories that arose from ancient interpreters, such as Josephus, Philo and book of Acts. From here he moves into biblical scholarship by digressing into the fascinating birth of Egyptology and telling the story of the discovery and translation of the Rosetta stone, the archeology revealing the authenticity of the Exodus, the 'Apiru, an enslaved people in Egypt and an analogy between the birth of Moses and the legend, written in cuneiform, of the birth of Sargon I of Agade.

Kugel did not write this book to make fundamentalists become atheists, or turn believers into disbelievers. From his own admission, he is well aware that the human mind has the capacity to compartmentalize science and religion. He also knows that over time religion assimilates scientific ideas. Neither the Copernican revolution, which contradicts biblical cosmology, nor the publication of the Origin of the Species, which powerfully explains the evolution of life on earth without God, brought an end to religion. Instead, Kugel wants his readers to come away with a greater appreciation for the Bible. He believes that by understanding what the ancient interpreters wrote, we will be able to peel away the newer and transient meanings found in the Bible and come to understand its books at a deeper level, the level of what the original authors were communicating to the reader, "How to serve God."

Fred Reiss

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Author:Reiss, Fred
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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