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Scholar traces shift in biblical encounters with God

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Author James Kugel

In most books of the Bible, God frequently appears unannounced to human beings. But in the later parts, and in post-biblical Jewish literature, humans seemingly no longer expect to experience God directly. What explains this shift?

James L. Kugel, one of the world’s leading and most prolific Bible scholars, addresses this question in his new book, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times. Kugel combines close readings of biblical and later Jewish texts with deep insights into religion and psychology to provide an overarching theory of how and why things changed.   His long, well-researched book is informative, at times witty, and often inspiring.

In the earliest biblical texts, God appears to characters who at first think they are experiencing something mundane. In Genesis chapter 18, the narrator says in the first words of the chapter that the Lord is appearing to Abraham, but it is clear that Abraham thinks he is just taking care of three wayfarers. Gradually he must have  realized this was not just a quotidian human encounter. Kugel comments that once ancient people realized they were seeing God, they were generally “surprised but not flabbergasted.”

The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times James L. Kugel, (Houghton Miffin Harcourt)

Kugel traces the shift from belief in a God who appears unexpectedly to belief in an omnipresent God who needs not – or, at a minimum, does not – suddenly appear.

His central thesis is that the change developed over time together with changes in the Jewish concept of “self.” In the earliest biblical texts, he argues, the word nefesh did not mean “soul,” as in later Hebrew. Nefesh simply meant “person” (as in Numbers 31:28, where the word refers to Midianite women captured in war).

As time passed, Judaism began to teach that human beings had within themselves a very different kind of nefesh – a divine soul.

Searching for the divine, then, need not mean waiting for God to march into our lives without notice. God, or at least something divine, is always close at hand, inside each of us.

This is the second time in a decade that Kugel examines humans’ evolving sense of self and how it influences religious thinking. In his book In the Valley of the Shadow (reviewed in these pages in 2011), he explored how we relate to our own mortality. He argued that modern people tend to see ourselves and our own place in the world as being larger or more significant than pre-moderns, who saw the world as large but saw themselves as very small players in it.

READ: AUTHOR WRITES BOOK ABOUT ‘ORDINARY’ LIVES OF ‘ORDINARY’ PEOPLE 

According to Kugel, this made it easier for pre-moderns to face death. The more we exaggerate ourselves and our role (Kugel does not see this as a positive development), the more frightening is the prospect of our own demise or even the demise of a loved one, since it reminds us so forcefully that we too shall not escape death.

In The Great Shift, Kugel highlights other aspects, not all of them negative, of the shift in human understanding of self and of God. God now “speaks from the page.” We can compensate for the fact that God is not a direct presence in our lives by making the divine Torah the focus of our attention, since studying and adhering to the Torah brings us closer to God.

The great shift also affects our perception of religious duties – they are now understood in Judaism as personal duties, not just communal ones. Personal prayer has grown in importance. “Keeping God’s laws in all their particulars … became the central act of Jewish religiosity,” since individuals with souls can initiate contact with God.

Judaism in a sense still laments the absence of the suddenly appearing God

But he also points out that Judaism in a sense still laments the absence of the suddenly appearing God. As many of the Psalms show, ancient Jews used to celebrate the fact that God was king.  But in later Judaism, where God is not expected to appear, this idea of kingship turns into an unfulfilled desire. As we say in the Kedushah prayer on Shabbat and festivals, “From your place, O King, appear and rule over us, for we are waiting for You. When will you rule [again] in Zion?”

In an interesting twist, Kugel uses the absence motif to explain one of the riddles of the Jewish Bible: why is the Song of Songs, a collection of some occasionally earthy human love poems, part of the canon? The rabbis famously interpreted it as an allegory for the love between God and His people, Israel. But why did they do this? Kugel’s answer is insightful: “Suspended over the breathless phrases of earthly love [in the Song of Songs] hangs a certain sadness.  There is so much yearning! The two [lovers] are together for a while but then they have to part. She looks and looks for him, but he keeps fading away. ‘One night, when I was on my bed, I looked for my true love – looked for him but couldn’t find him’ (Song of Songs 3:1).”

Perhaps, says Kugel, the rabbis found this part of the book a suitable allegory for the relationship that Jews have with a more distant God now that the great shift has taken place.