The Bible As It Was: A review

A friend of mine lent me a terrific book, which I’ve just finished reading and plan now to tell you about: The Bible As It Was, by James L. Kugel.  It came out fifteen years ago, and has been in and out of print; I notice today on Amazon that it’s available in paperback. It’s a tremendous piece of research and scholarly acumen, but it’s also readable and fascinating.  Fun, even.  If you’re interested in Bible scholarship, you’ll have a ball with this.

The Bible isn’t like most other books of ancient vintage.  People today don’t read The Epic of Gilgamesh for up-to-date authoritative contemporary advice on how to live their lives.  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were once essentially considered ‘scripture’ by Attic Greeks, but not today, by anyone.  But lots of Christians and Jews do consider the Bible authoritative.  But let’s face it, the Bible is a difficult book, if considered as a single book, and not a library of different books by different authors written hundreds of years apart.  When we think of the Bible as, you know, ‘The Bible,’ it makes for a difficult guide.  Contradictory, violent, confusing.

This has always been the case.  And when the Bible was in the process of becoming The Bible, canonized, the foundation document of two major world religions, in that murky period from about 200 BCE-100 CE, a whole army of what Kugel calls ‘interpreters’ went through the whole thing, and tried to help readers make sense of it.  They expanded on the text, they explained the text, they reached conclusions about the text.  Or, to put it in a modern Mormon context, a bunch of scholars and rabbis and exegetes served as a Jewish/proto-Christian version of the Church Correlation Committee.

What they came up with, the conclusions they reached, became the Bible.  Premise A: understanding any text cannot be separated from an interpretation of that text.  The interpretation of a text includes interacting with what we might call an ‘interpretation community.’  Put more simply, no piece of writing stands alone. And this is, of course, particularly true of the Bible.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  What three beings were in the Garden of Eden?  Any Jewish or Christian kid can answer that: Adam, Eve, and a snake.  Who was the snake?  Again, we all know the answer; the serpent in Eden was the Devil.  Satan, Lucifer, Old Scratch.  We all know that; it’s how we understand the story of the Garden of Eden.  But the Bible never says anything about the devil.  It never identifies the serpent with any evil spirit or anything.  It just says ‘serpent.’  It’s sort of a weird serpent–it can talk, which most snakes of my acquaintance can’t do, and it may even be able to walk upright–but it’s never called anything but ‘serpent.’  Where did we get the idea that snake=devil?

From these interpreters, turns out.  That’s the greatness of Kugel’s book; he finds all these third century BCE sources and shows how they guided what most folks thought about the Bible.  He assumes that most of the extant written interpreters’ works built their conclusions on older oral traditions.  But maybe not entirely.

Another example: the Golden Calf mentioned in Exodus.  The Bible tells us that Aaron got everyone to melt down their jewelry and stuff to make a Golden Calf idol while Moses was up on Mount Sinai getting the Law of Moses.  But that can’t be.  Aaron was Moses’ brother and right-hand man.  He’s a prophetic figure.  He can’t possibly have done anything that wrong. The children of Israel had to have talked him into it.  In fact, they had to have threatened him.  In fact, the Bible very briefly mentions a guy named Hur who died about then.  So they probably killed poor Hur, to frighten Aaron into building the Golden Calf.  So that became the narrative.

Reading Kugel’s book, I found myself thinking of, for example, the Constitution of the United States.  Now, the federal Constitution is way shorter than the Bible.  And it’s clearer–it’s a legal document, it’s meant to be clear.

So why do we still argue about it?  Why, for example, do folks have such HUGE disagreements about the 23 words of the 2nd Amendment.  Because the understanding of any text depends up, relies upon, our interaction with an interpretation community.  That’s what the Tea Party is: an interpretation community.  That’s what liberal juriprudence entails: a different interpretation community.  Different words are emphasized as we read, different ideologies inform our reading. We don’t all read the same Constitution, or the same Bible. We read our own gloss on those texts.

Reading as a Mormon, I found myself thinking about the JST: the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.  Was the JST a new ‘translation?’  Or was it a gloss?  The Church response would be that it was an ‘inspired translation,’ that he was restoring original versions of corrupted texts.  I would suggest, however, that he gave us an ‘inspired interpretation.’  Or perhaps a combination of both.

Certainly the scribes and scholars Kugel quotes thought they were doing God’s work.  They looked at the Torah (and Kugel limits his study to the Pentateuch) and tried to find a way to make the incomprehensible comprehensible.  Because, let’s face it, the Bible has some really seriously difficult passages.

Now, these ‘interpretations’ are built on certain assumptions.  First, people who the Bible describes as ‘prophets’ can’t actually have made really serious mistakes.  So Abraham, when he lied to Pharoah about Sariah, said she was his sister and not his wife, had to have been acting under God’s orders.  We shouldn’t assume that Abraham did anything sketchy.  We just don’t understand the story if we think he did.  By the same token, Jacob, when he got Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, that wasn’t the act of an unscrupulous con man ripping off his dim-witted and hungry brother.  Esau has to have had it coming.  He has to have been wicked.  Jacob was acting under God’s orders.  Has to have been.

And sometimes the interpreters Kugel cites can fly pretty far afield.  Let’s face it, there are Bible stories that are just flat not edifying.  The story of Dinah, for example, in Genesis 34, is very very difficult to make ‘Biblically correct.’  Dinah is raped by Shechem, who is then forced to marry her, and he and his townsfolk all get circumcised.  Then, while distracted by the pain, Simeon and Levi go and kill ’em all; Shechem and his kin.  It’s a horrible story, and the Bible tells it so matter-of-factly.  The interpreters had their work cut out for them to make that story morally upright, but they do it.  End up, in fact, with Dinah marrying Job, and that’s her happy ending, I am totally not kidding.

But this kind of PC exegesis still happens today.  New Earth Creationists, for example, are perfectly capable today of reading the story of Noah and deciding that he had dinosaurs on the Ark.  Obviously, the Bible doesn’t include a single syllable on the ancient existence of Ark-o-saurs.  But this kind of Bible commentary isn’t anything new.  And that’s much of the value of Kugel’s book.

This is not how I read the Bible anymore, obviously.  Me, I like the ‘Jacob as lovable scamp’ idea.  I love the Book of Judges, what with the ‘fat-guy-stabbed-in-the-belly-so-the-knife-disappears’ stuff, and the story of Samson, a completely and wholly selfish muscle-bound jerk who we somehow find a way to valorize.  I like an imperfect Bible.  And other ‘imperfect Bible lovers’ have become my interpretion community. I believe the Bible to be the account of flawed and imperfect people of antiquity trying their best to make sense of the world and their own relationship to God.  I’m untroubled by mistakes they made along the way–in fact, I’m reassured by those mistakes.  But Kugel reminds us that the quest for a perfect scriptural text is of ancient derivation, and continues still today. Those interpreters read a different Bible than the one I read.  All the same words.  Not remotely the same understanding.



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