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

James L. Kugel, Author . Free Press $35 (819p) ISBN 978-0-7432-3586-0

Kugel's tour de force of biblical scholarship juxtaposes two different ways of reading the Bible: the ancient biblical interpretations, ranging from the Book of Jubilees to Augustine, that he explored in The Bible as It Was , and the modern historical approach that challenges the historical veracity of scripture and seeks instead to find its writers' original sources and purposes. It can be a jarring journey for those schooled in traditional views, but what emerges is a fresh, even strange, and very rich view of everything from the Garden of Eden to Isaiah's dream vision of God. Refreshingly undogmatic and often witty, Kugel brings an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Bible to illuminate small points as well as large. He discusses who the ancient Israelites were; the resemblances between YHWH and Canaanite gods; the unique role of the prophet in Ancient Near Eastern religions; the nature of ancient wisdom literature; and what the Bible means when it calls Solomon the wisest of men. The result is a stunning narrative of the evolution of ancient Israel, of its God and of the entire Hebrew Bible, contrasted with ancient interpretations that aimed to uncover hidden meanings and moral lessons. So, for example, for the ancients, the story of Cain and Abel is a tale of good versus evil. For the moderns, it was originally a story of origin, about the relation between ancient Israelites and the fierce Kenites to their south. While Kugel is a traditional Jew, he sees the modern approach as compelling, so the dilemma is whether a person of faith can read scripture in both the old way and the new. Drawing on Judaism's nonfundamentalist approach, Kugel's proposed answer is that the original purpose of the texts and their lack of historical accuracy matters less than their underlying message: to serve God. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 06/25/2007
Release date: 09/01/2007
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