In The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times (HMH, Sept.), Bible scholar and professor emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Harvard James Kugel looks at people’s encounters with God as they are depicted in the Bible, including Moses speaking to a burning bush. Closely examining ancient texts and drawing on modern psychology, neuroscience, and more, Kugel explores why encounters with God have changed dramatically from the Biblical Era to today.
After writing books such as How to Read the Bible, what inspired you to write about the changing nature of God through history in The Great Shift?
I’ve been thinking about [encounters with God in the Bible] over the last 30 or 40 years, but most of the books I’ve written were about how the Bible had been interpreted after it was composed. This is also an important subject, but I never stopped thinking about the reality underlying the original texts. What did it mean for a prophet to say that he or she had heard these words directly from God, or for a visionary to report that he ascended to heaven and saw armies of angels surrounding God on his heavenly throne? So, in this book, I tried to provide the answer, or answers, that an ancient Israelite might have given.
Why do encounters with God in the biblical era matter today?
Because I think that many religious people still believe in the reality of encountering God today—not just in some abstract, theoretical way, but as something real in their own lives. However different things may be nowadays, I think it is very helpful to be able to look back and see how such matters were talked about 2,500 years ago.
What has been the most important change in humanity’s development that’s altered how encounters with God are viewed today?
One thing that’s clear is that people’s ideas about their own minds have changed. In biblical times —at least judging by the texts that we have—people seem to believe that their minds can be penetrated from the outside, actually entered by God or by various demonic spirits sent by Satan. This is reflected in the whole idea of prophecy: God is repeatedly said to have “put his words in the prophet’s mouth,” after which the prophet says what he has been instructed to say. This in turn reflects a different sense of self that existed in ancient times. If you study the Bible with this in mind, you can actually track how people’s “sense of self” changed over time.
What do you consider to be the most important things that readers can learn from this book?
I hope my book can help readers to read the Bible slowly and carefully—something I’ve learned over the years. A particular phrase or passage can say a lot, especially if you ask: “Why did he put it this way and not that way?” Also, there’s a big misconception that the Bible isn’t serious, that its depictions of humans encountering God are just some kind of imaginary pipedream. On the contrary, I believe that, for all their changing forms, these encounters were altogether real. Readers of my book should understand that ancient writers were trying to tell the truth, trying to describe reality as they understood it.