Interview with James Kugel – The Great Shift

Why do we not see God anymore? Why does He not walk around our neighborhoods the way He did in the Bible? Why do Biblical figures not ask what the law should be? James Kugel seeks to answer these questions in his new book The Great Shift, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017). 

great shift

In graduate school, instructors spoke often spoke of the Axial Age shift (approximately  8th-6th century BCE, but sometime stretched out from the 8th-3rd BCE), a term first coined by Karl Jaspers in 1949.  The Axial Age was when ancient consciousness of eternal religion gave way to a new consciousness based on an internal self. For Jaspers, the sacrifice of Leviticus gave way to the prophetic call,  the sacrifices of the Vedas became the theology of the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhism, and when Confucius and Zoroaster arose.  It also includes the shift between the many gods of the Greeks to philosophic Platonism.

In the classes I attended, the theory was mentioned to explain the shift between the Biblical descents of God to humanity as opposed to the visionary ascents of heikhalot. The Midrash itself senses the changes when it asks: What should the sinner do? And portrays Leviticus saying to offer a sacrifice and the rabbis saying to repent. Interestingly enough, the 19th century Hasidic thinker Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lubin has a version of it when he notes the change from Biblical religion to Rabbinic religion parallels the shift from ancient pagans to the philosophers of Greek, with the Torah responding correspondingly. (zeh leumat zeh). However, Jasper’s theory is, at best, only a heuristic tool since the theory is somewhat of a shaggy beast in that it does not have clear dates or causality.

James Kugel in the exciting new book The Great Shift discusses a great change, similar to the Axial Age theory, between the era when God walked with people and the era when he no longer did. Kugel quotes the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor “I do not know You, God because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside.” For Kugel, our modern selves get in the way of our knowing God and, more importantly for this book, understanding the Bible. Biblical people had very different semi-permeable senses of self, different than the modern self, that allowed a direct experience of God. This is the thesis of the book. But conversely, our modern sense of the self causes us to misread the Bible as if it shared modern concepts of the self.

Accepting this shift, Biblical religion was entirely an external affair. Biblical figures do not have internal soliloquies debating whether to follow God. Obedience to God, love of God, and rejoicing before God are all physical and external activities of obedience. The classic work  Mimesis by Erich Auerbach is, therefore, incorrect about the Bible. The Biblical narrative is not fraught with background waiting to be fleshed out by the reader. The early reader did not expect such a background. Rather, it did not play any role.Abraham and Homer’s protagonists have a common worldview.  In addition, the modern concept of faith does not play a role since God is part of one’s cosmology.

In other later parts of the Bible,  Kugel shows that God has changed into a long range planner of human destiny so on-the-spot intervention by the Divine is unnecessary. The future has already been planned and determined. There is also a shift from monolatry the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities toward monotheism. There is also a shift toward following a fixed law as a means of obedience to God.

During the Second Temple era, conversing with God gave way to the presence of angels and demons, and then in later centuries even the divine messengers stopped. (Reb Zadok also notes this shift).

This is the fourth time Prof Kugel has graced this blog. The best and longest was the third time, a precis of his book  The Kingly Sanctuary (2014).  For those interested in the larger vision of James Kugel then read the first interview followed by the second. (For those, who want a window into contemporary Protestant Biblical criticism, I refer back to my interview with David Carr.)

Kugel leaves us with a deep divide between the world of the 21st century religious  reader of the Bible and the world of the Bible. At the end of this interview, Kugel acknowledges that this  approach is not for the pulpit or day school. Our current understandings are discontinuous with the Bible in context. Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic apologetic  is quoted a second time in the book as a way of rejecting 20th century literary readings of the Ancient Near East that made the Bible inner psychology and symbolism. “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!”

But where does that leave us 21st century folk who willy-nilly cannot return to an 7th century BCE understanding of the world? Theologians insist on integrating later canonical interpretation into our religious understanding of the Bible. For example, Cardinal RatzingerWalter Brueggemann, Michael Fishbane, and  Benjamin Sommers. For them, each in their own way, assume a text is read with tradition. In contrast, anthropologists defend that we may never be able to return. For example, Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, Jonathan Z. Smith, Evans Pritchard, Marshall Shalins and Clifford Geertz. In this book, Kugel clearly comes out on the side of the anthropologists. Our 21st century sense of self and the Biblical self remain unbridgeable.

As usual, this book is well-written. But this book  offers an especially wonderful capstone to the world of James Kugel’s views of the Bible.

1) What can you tell us about the subject of your last book?

My field is the Hebrew Bible, but for the past six or seven years, I have been working in an area more familiar to anthropologists (as well as psychologists and neuroscientists) than to biblical scholars, namely, the “sense of self,” that is, the idea that different peoples have about themselves, about what a human being consists of and what constitutes his or her “self.”

2) What does this have to do with the Bible?

All humans have a sense of self, but that self differs greatly from society to society and from period to period. For example, our own, modern sense of self is very different from the one that most non-Westerners today think they have. We tend to view ourselves as unique individuals, whereas elsewhere on the globe, people see themselves principally as part of larger group—a tribe, a clan, a kinship group—and they also believe that they are basically the same as all the other members of the group. We prize our individual achievements, whereas others consider such things as secondary, focusing more on family prosperity and wellbeing.

In fact, some scholars refer to our mentality by the acronym WEIRD, that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—all of these being traits that are not characteristic of the rest of humanity today, and almost certainly were not common in the West until a few hundred years ago. So we are probably misreading a lot of the Bible if we think that the biblical self was basically the same as ours.

3) What difference would this make to our understanding of biblical texts or biblical religion?

Scholars know that there is nothing physical in our brain that acts as its central clearinghouse, nothing that a brain scientist can point to and say, “This is the part that puts together all a person’s sensory inputs and memories and so forth to make up ‘I,’ the person speaking to you right now.” Almost all agree that our self is basically a construct, something with no particular physical reality, but something that we construct in our own minds. Some elements of this construct seem to be universal: we all think of ourselves as continuing to be the same person minute after minute and decade after decade (although we might have good reason to conceive of ourselves otherwise). We also seem to believe that we have a body, but that somehow we are not identical to that body; “I” is some floating entity that is somehow distinct from the body and mind that the self “owns.”

But then there are other things that make people’s sense of self in one society radically different from others’. Now, what interested me is how some of these differences are expressed in biblical texts. Perhaps the most striking thing in early biblical narratives is the relative lack of reference to a person’s insides, the thoughts and emotions that people experience. Everything important happens out there or comes in from out there.

So, for example, when God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, Abraham sets out the next morning to do it. What was Abraham thinking, and what was Isaac, the intended victim, thinking? Apparently, these inside things are not important: it’s the outside that counts, the fact that Abraham is willing to carry out this commandment.  It’s not that Abraham doesn’t think. It’s just that, at this relatively early stage of things, everything important still happens outside, so what Abraham thought is just not important.

The same thing is true of Abraham when we first meet him: God commands him to leave “your homeland and your kindred and your father’s house [i.e., your immediate family] to the land that I will show you.” No doubt this wording was designed to stress the difficulties Abraham would face: far from his homeland and kindred and even his immediate family, he would become a homeless alien, with no one to protect him. How did Abraham react? He did what he was told to do. We know nothing of what he thought about all this (on the inside)—it was just not important. What was important was that he did it (on the outside).

But when the Jewish historian Josephus retold these same events many centuries later, he felt he had to do what the Torah did not, namely, turn this departure into Abraham’s decision: “he, thinking fit to change his dwelling-place, at the will and with the aid of God, settled in the land of Canaan.” (Josephus was not alone, by the way; other retellings of Abraham’s departure in the book of Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and other texts from the end of the biblical period all feel the need to tell what Abraham was thinking.)

But in earlier times, things still needed to take place on the outside. In another incident from Abraham’s story in Genesis, God comes to him disguised as three strangers stopping off at his tent; still later, his grandson Jacob wrestles with an “angel,” a divine emissary, all night. These things are also depicted as happening outside, even if they seem to be altogether visionary.

  1. Was there something special about biblical narratives, or was this preference for the outside demonstrated in other parts of the Bible as well?

This may be another manifestation of the same phenomenon in biblical law: What does it mean to love someone in the Bible? Sometimes it seems to means love in our sense: for example, Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:18).

But I was always curious about the fellow in the law described in Deut 21:15-17. He has two wives, one of whom he “loves” and the other he “hates.” I used to think, “What a coincidence! Two wives and two exactly opposite emotions!” (And by the way, if he really hates the other one, why doesn’t he seek to divorce her?) But this text is not talking about (internal) emotions; these two terms are used to represent the wives’ (external) standing. So the husband may rank the “loved” wife above the “hated” one in all sorts of external behavior, giving her all manner of benefits, but when it comes to passing on his inheritance, he is not allowed to favor the son of the loved wife over the hated one’s son.

Again, this is not a reflection of his feelings toward one or the other—the text couldn’t care less about that!—but the external matter of status, namely, which son gets the firstborn’s share of the inheritance. Though she may be the less favored wife in other external matters, the “hated” wife’s son comes first in inheritance.

My former colleague at Harvard, the late Bill Moran, wrote a famous article about the use of “love” in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties. There too, emotion has nothing to do with it. When the Assyrian overlord Essarhadon commands his vassal, “You shall love Assurbanipal like yourself,” he is surely not telling the vassal to fall in love with his son’s winning personality. Love here, Moran said, is not the inside emotion but the outside expression of loyalty. The same is true of “love” in Lev 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The text is not talking about the internal emotion, but external behavior.

Then what about the obligation to love God “with your whole heart and soul and power”? This may be a more complicated example, but when love of God is mentioned elsewhere in Deuteronomy, it is coupled with “keeping His charge and His laws and His statutes and His commandments” (11:1), “serving Him with your whole heart and your whole being” (11:13), “walking in all His ways” (11:22) “walking in His ways at all times” (19:9) “to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules” (30:16)—clearly, these passages are all talking about “love” in the sense of external performance, not internal emotion. In short, for much of the biblical period, the focus is not on what people felt on the inside, but what happened on the outside.

5) Then what is the “great shift” of your title?

Gradually, things shifted from “out there” to “in here.” So, as in the above examples, people at first are not said to think; instead, they say, an outside event, even when the text probably means to tell us what they were thinking. Sometimes the text says that someone said something  in his heart, and this is clearly a kind of thinking: for example, Esau “said in his heart” that “when the days of mourning my father are here, then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). Strange to tell, however, , this internal thought of Esau’s somehow was heard by his mother Rebekah, as reported in the very the next verse.

How could that happen? But it could, because important things still somehow belong on the outside. Lots of Jews nowadays are puzzled today by the commandment to be happy on a festival (Deut 16:14). How can you command someone to be happy? But vesamachta doesn’t mean to be happy—an inside thing—it means to celebrate or rejoice, on the outside.

All this began to change in later centuries. On the one hand, God was now deemed more remote; it is His angels who intervene in human affairs. Even prophets stop hearing from God directly; angels deliver God’s words to them. At the same time, people now had minds, and saying what was going on inside them became a necessity. It’s not that they didn’t have minds before, but the way that they conceived of themselves had come to involve this inner self much more than before. This is evident in late biblical psalms, and still more in the prayers and hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once you know this, I think, your whole way of reading biblical texts has to include the possibility that Abraham, Moses, earlier biblical psalms as well as biblical laws suddenly acquire a very different sense.

6) How did you, James Kugel, get involved with this stuff?

But as I mentioned, I’ve been reading anthropologists and neuroscientists for some years, and what I’ve been saying so far is really not controversial to them. Everyone agrees that the human self is a construct, and that this construct differs greatly from period to period and from one society or civilization to another. So it’s pretty clear that throughout the biblical period, ancient Israelites did believe that their minds were open to penetration from the outside, by God or by demonic spirits. For example, God inserts His words into the prophet Balaam’s mouth, making him say the exact opposite of what he wants to say. This should not be a minor item for biblical scholars: here is an operating assumption in the biblical sense of self that is very different from our own conception of the human mind, its fundamental permeability.  I’ve always thought that the scholar’s principal task is to try to enter into the world of the Bible, to get inside the head of these people and live their reality. And all this, I think, is very important to that task.

7)      What did you agree with in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and what do you disagree with?

Jaynes’s book covered some of the same ground that I have in the “Great Shift”—that is, he tried to explain what seems to be a basic shift in the way human beings perceived the world— including the divine—and themselves.

But Jaynes (who, incidentally, wasn’t much interested in the Bible; he was a psychologist and brain scientist) tried to argue that the shift was attributable to a fundamental change in brain function, suggesting that originally there were two independent speech areas in the brain’s two hemispheres. But that this feature of the “bicameral mind” ultimately gave way to the unified, modern consciousness.

It was an interesting idea, but I agree with most scholars today, who doubt that the change was one of the brain’s hardware or basic functioning. Rather, it was a matter of “software,” that is, of the gradual emergence of a new way of conceiving of the human self. What I tried to do in my book was specifically to document this shift via the different ways that God is represented in the Bible.

8)      How do you disagree with the chapter on the Bible in Mimesis by Erich Auerbach?

I love Auerbach’s book—except for the first chapter, the one about the Bible, where he describes the biblical account of the Akedah (Genesis 22, when Abraham is commanded to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice) as “fraught with background.” Auerbach relates to the text as if it were Western literature: there are thus three “characters,” God, Abraham, and Isaac; “their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts—on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.”

I’m afraid I have to disagree. This narrative isn’t fraught with background at all. For all we know, Abraham may be some kind of automaton: God commands him and he sets out to obey. The text says nothing about what Abraham was thinking because thinking, that inside the brain activity, is still not on the map, at least not very often.

9)      How is Abraham really like Homeric heroes?

Well, in the story of his nearly sacrificing Isaac, Abraham behaves (contra Auerbach) very much like a Homeric hero. Actually, the person who investigated this (a few decades before Jaynes) was the German classicist Bruno Snell, in his book The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature.

9)      How did biblical figures not worry about faith since they encountered God?

People in the Bible have faith in God in the sense of trusting that He will come to their aid or save them. But they don’t have faith in God’s very existence—no one even raises that issue. It’s not that ordinary people had all personally encountered God, but that God’s existence was simply obvious to everyone, like the rising and setting of the sun or the regular changes of the seasons.

Little by little, however, things did change. It’s as if the center of gravity was slowly migrating from outside to inside. People now interrogate their own souls while lying on their beds late at night; in fact, they come to be “in search of God”—something people  weren’t in earlier times. They pray to God not because they need something, but simply to “establish contact,” and they sometimes pray regularly far from the Jerusalem temple. Now, retellings of biblical narratives—such as those of the 2nd century BCE Book of Jubilees, or the Genesis Apocryphon found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Josephus and later writers—have to give some account of what motivates human beings or how they react to changing developments. All these seem to indicate the emergence of a different “sense of self.”

10)      What is the revelatory state of mind? Why do you say biblical were only surprised by an encounter with God, but not flabbergasted?

This is another striking difference between us and ancient Israelites. In those biblical stories of people meeting up with God or an angel, at first all the people see is an ordinary human being. They converse for a while, and then, at a certain point, the people suddenly realize that their interlocutor is really an angel or God Himself. At that moment, they are surprised but not altogether bowled over; such things do occur, apparently.

Nobody says, “Wow! This just can’t be happening!” Usually, they bow down in reverence, not surprise. Similarly, prophets may not want to be prophets, but when God summons them, they don’t think something’s wrong with their brains. As one biblical scholar put it, they are already in the “revelatory state of mind,” in which such things are possible.

11)      How is the biblical God different from the God of later generations?

My overall theme is that God’s nature—or rather, the way that He is depicted—changed strikingly within the biblical period itself. There is a gradual move from the outside to the inside. People’s inside souls become the true meeting-place of God and humans (the old meeting place was the outside temple).

In addition, God is no longer described as having a human-sized and human-shaped body; He becomes more abstract and, eventually, omnipresent. An omnipresent God must exist on a completely different plane: He no longer enters or moves about, so (I also tried to show this in the book) all those earlier stories about Abraham or Cain and Abel or the Tower of Babel had to be reconfigured by later commentators or interpreters to accommodate their new notion of who God is.

12)      How in other places is God a long-range planner? 

Eventually, God ceases to intervene directly in human affairs: when intervention is needed, it is accomplished by God’s angels, while He remains in heaven. In keeping with this, He is sometimes represented as having arranged everything in advance, sometimes for centuries and centuries, so on-the-spot intervention is unnecessary; He, and we, can just watch the divine plan unfold.

This understanding of God is in part anticipated in the biblical story of Joseph. Joseph’s narrative presupposes that dreams (his own and his interpretation of others) are essentially a peek into a future that has already been planned and determined. Thus, Pharaoh’s dreams inform him of events that are to take place over a period of fourteen years in the immediate future (seventy years of plenty followed by seven of famine). In later times, the book of Jeremiah represents Jeremiah as saying that seventy years will have to pass before the end of the exile (25:11, 29:10). Still later, Daniel is said to revise the understanding of Jeremiah’s seventy years: what he really meant was seventy “weeks” of years, that is 490 years (Dan 9: 24).

The book of Jubilees, written still later (the early second century BCE), divides history into chunks of seventy years apiece: there will thus be exactly 50 jubilees from the time of humanity’s creation until Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. All these present God as a long-range planner—more and more so!

13)      How was the Bible an enchanted world of monolatry? 

Biblical scholars have shown that monotheism only came to be espoused as such somewhere toward the middle of the biblical period. Before that (and, in some places, after it as well), monolatry seems to define biblical religion, the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities.

The Bible makes no secret of the fact that other peoples had their own gods—indeed, the book of Deuteronomy (4:19) at one point suggests that God had assigned to ther nations the worship of deities associated with the sun and moon and stars; that just wasn’t for Israel.

14)   Was the Law always important in Biblical religion?

Well, it is striking how little reference to keeping biblical laws there is in early times. Why don’t the various people in the books of Judges or Samuel or Kings keep the Sabbath? When David commits his great sin with Bathsheba, why doesn’t the prophet Nathan say to him, “David, you’ve just violated two of the Ten Commandments,” instead of giving him that parable of the poor man’s lamb? But after a while, keeping God’s laws becomes the whole focus of Judaism, not only in the Bible, but in all of post-biblical religion. The service of God, or what is called ‘avodat ha-Shem, truly became the essence of Judaism—as it is to this day.

You might see this as part and parcel of the great shift from the outside to the inside. After all, who is going to police laws commanding you not to hate your brother in your heart, or serve God with all your heart and soul, and dozens of other rules that have no outward manifestation? Keeping them was a matter between you and God, carried out—or not—in that inside world.

15)   Why read the Bible in its original context if the biblical God is not ours, and their sense of self is not ours? And their view of religion is not ours? What happens to canonical context?

You might as well ask, “Why bother with the Bible at all?” But the Bible depicts the reality out of which all of later Judaism developed. That’s why studying it—and getting inside the heads of ancient Israelites, as I said earlier—is crucially important.

16)   Do you believe in the God of the Bible? The God of the 5th century BCE? The God of Yalkut Shimoni? Or a 20th century God? 

All of the above. But I generally try to keep myself out of the discussion.

17)   Should Rabbis teach the content of your book from the pulpit? Should the contents be taught in day schools?

Definitely not. But maybe in an adult education class.



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