James Kugel intends his book How to Read the Bible to be a guide to, and a tour through, the Hebrew Bible. With over eight hundred pages, the book showcases most of what professor Kugel knows about the Bible—and that is a lot! It was a little daunting for me to get through book as I found it almost impossible not to stop here and there to digest its content and to get better acquainted with some ancient interpreter, or conversant with a particular hypothesis of biblical scholarship. This is what the book does: it shows you how the Hebrew Bible was interpreted in the past by both Jews and Christians, and how biblical scholars understand the meaning of the same biblical texts today. Kugel also has a website dedicated to the book worth checking out. And, if you want to know how the book is being received by the public at large, you will probably appreciate the article by David Plotz in the New York Times entitled Reading Is Believing, or Not.
To understand why the “interpretation” of ancient interpreters and modern scholars are almost always divergent, it would be helpful to outline the assumptions that, according to Kugel, ancient interpreters brought to the text:
1) They assume that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B.
2) Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day.
3) Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes.
4) Lastly, they believe that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through his prophets
The assumption that the Bible is essentially a divinely given text came last because Kugel did not want to give the impression that the other 3 assumptions were just a by-product of it (for example, there is no need to assume that a divinely given text be cryptic). Kugel’s lecture Can the Torah Make Its Peace with Modern Biblical Scholarship? is also helpful in showing the dynamics between tradition and biblical scholarship. In this particular lecture, delivered at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he talks about the reference in the Mishnah to Rosh Hashanah as the “day of judgment” which is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. How this belief came about, and how it became an unquestioned tradition in the Jewish community shows that interpreters were doing much more than just reading the Bible. Kugel says that although the Jewish people are known as the people of the Book, a much better title would be “the people of the interpretation of the Book.” And, I would venture to say, this is no less true of Christians.
Let me show you an example of Kugel’s approach in the book. The passage is Numbers 20:2-13 which recounts the events at Kadesh where the people of Israel once more complained about the lack of resources, and God tells Moses to get water from a rock. At first glance, the account seems to be about a similar miracle as the one back at Meribah in Rephidim. But, what is puzzling about it is that Moses says “these are the waters of Meribah.” Of course, we could look at this assertion theologically and say that Moses is just using a metaphor; in other words, he might be just making an allusion to the waters at Meribah to remind the people that their lack of faith is the same even forty years later. But, how did the ancient interpreters handle this, especially when we keep in mind the four assumptions above? And there is one more thing: there had not been a word about the Israelites lacking water since the book of Exodus.
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