cover image The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times

The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times

James L. Kugel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30 (560p) ISBN 978-0-544-52055-4

Bible expert Kugel (How to Read the Bible), a Harvard professor emeritus of Hebrew literature, puts his decades of interdisciplinary scholarship to effective use in this thought-provoking and ambitious attempt to answer a challenging question: “What was the actual, lived reality of God in biblical times, and why have most people lost it today?” Kugel takes the texts literally when they refer to people such as Abraham and Moses hearing the voice of God or having visions of the divine, arguing that they “must have felt that they were telling the truth, at least in some sense.” His fascinating quest for an answer touches on virtually all of the Hebrew Bible, examining its changing theologies, including its views of human free will, as well as theories of the evolution of the self and the development of the concept of a soul. Kugel concludes that “as God came to be conceived as increasingly distant and abstract, the human [soul] went from being a general form of self-reference... to being a special, separate entity inside the human body, an entity uniquely attached to God,” and eventually this led to our “modern sealed-off individualism.” Kugel demands a lot from his readers, but all students of Scripture, whether religious or not, will benefit from this impressive synthesis. (Sept.)