“The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times” by James L. Kugel— Changing Encounters with Goc

Kugel, James L. “The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2017.

Changing Encounters with God

Amos Lassen

Have you ever wondered why in the Bible humans actually meet the divine and have no choice as to do so or not. Obviously there stories had a very different purpose at the time they were written than they do now. The have a very different idea of what reality is and of the human mind. Looking back at the era of the Bible and the thousand years that it covered, encounters with God changed and did so dramatically. Writer and scholar James L. Kugel argues that this transition allows us to get a look at a massive shift in human experience that, in effect, became the emergence of the modern, Western sense of self.

Kugel’s accessible book includes detailed scholarly notes (pages 347-412), a bibliography of works cited (pages 413-441), a subject index (pages 443-467), and a very useful index of verses cited (pages 469-476). In the text of his book, Kugel does assume that the reader will be familiar with the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible.

Kugel is an Orthodox Jew who believes the Bible must be accepted as absolute but he is also a literary and Biblical scholar who persists in the enterprise of digging out how messages in the Hebrew Bible thatebrew Bobl were conceived and written down and how perceptions of God, our relationship to him, etc., etc., have changed over time. As a scholar, he is acutely aware that the Bible wasn’t handed down unedited and inspired by God but that it was written by men over long periods of time, with consequent modifications, second thoughts, and reversals of judgment or commandment.

The book looks at how over decades and centuries, the unknown authors of the books of the Old Testament modified their take on the critical questions of how God communicates with us, if we perceive reality differently than we did early on, and what are we then as psychological/social entities, and related religious matters of importance, such as: Where is God located? When did God become the one and only God, and why? What do angels do and why? Why the emphasis on the written and rules later in Biblical writing? What happened to all the prophets from earlier times? Why don’t we have prophets now?)? (Or do we?) When and why did the concept of the soul appear in the Hebrew Bible? When and why did praying become important, as opposed to priests praying for us in the temple?

Kugel is well prepared to look at these questions, and others like them. He is an exceptionally astute reader of texts and findings in the fields of anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, linguistics and neuroscience. In the foreword, Kugel warns his audience that “this book is not for everyone.” He anticipates that his analysis, in its use of modern scholarship, will go against core religious teachings. At the same time, he recognizes that some modern scholars are inclined to throw out religious conviction and the Bible’s authenticity entirely. In response, Kugel suggests that his “program is to avoid either approach.”

“The Great Shift” is divided into four sections. The first introduces several ways that the Bible depicts encounters with God through a close reading of several biblical and apocryphal narratives, including the rise of several judges, the story of Joseph and his brothers, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The third section surveys transformations in the Bible’s record of divine encounters.

In his conclusion, Kugel reminds the reader that “transformations on one side of the human encounter with God has often been accompanied by a parallel one on the other side,” changing the way individuals create a sense of self and how they place themselves in regard to others. By closing with this, he brings the conversation on divine encounters full circle, showing a deep appreciation of how humanity’s struggle to meet God has had an equally lasting impact on how we understand ourselves.

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