Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB [Part 11]: Reading the Bible as a Familiar Servant of God

"Please don't stand so close to me." --God
We continue to read Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. This is the eleventh installment of the series.

Last time, Kugel argued that the Bible's ancient interpreters established its real meaning. As I summarized it:
Kugel's position, then, seems to be that modern biblical scholarship may be correct about the history and original meanings of biblical texts, but the scholarly consensus has no effect on what the texts really mean. The texts still mean what the Oral Torah says they do, even if they were originally created to communicate a very different kind of message. At some point in history, ancient interpreters got hold of the texts and were able to integrate them into a philosophy of God and Israel. By doing so, these interpreters brought out divine instructions and moral insights in the texts. The interpreters were building a textual universe predicated on God's relationship with His world, His patriarchs, and His people Israel. Their overriding mission was to help their own world of men and women follow from the textual universe; to make, in other words, the real world live out the model of the Torah.
Kugel allows that the Bible has multiple meanings, and that the texts originally meant something different from what later ancients took them to mean. Yet, he privileges the reading of the ancient interpreters above all others, as when he reasons:
The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation along the lines of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters--a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah. Read the Bible in this way and you are reading it properly, that is, in keeping with the understanding of those who made and canonized the Bible. Read it any other way and you have drastically misconstrued the intentions of the Bible's framers.
Of course, the argument cuts both ways. That privilege granted to the ancient interpreters sounds pretty good. I'd like to grant the same privilege to Abraham Joshua Heschel, or to the late Christopher Hitchens, or to Augustine of Hippo. My point is that Kugel makes a great case for promoting one interpretative tradition, but other great cases can be made also. When scholarship reveals or develops original meanings of biblical texts, it shatters faith in the interpretive tradition more so than in the Bible. To use one of Kugel's illustrations: one can fervently sing a spiritual yet not hold to a certain religious interpretation of it. One's reasons for singing it, for wanting to sing it, need not have anything to do with its "proper" spiritual message.

I have dwelt on the previous subsection of Chapter 36 because in the new subsection, Kugel leaves behind the argument we just discussed and layers on another one. As Kugel says of the previous argument:
This seems to me a plausible position in light of all we have seen about the emergence of the Bible. And yet, for someone who takes the Bible seriously, this stance alone hardly resolves the difficulties posed by the last century or so of biblical scholarship.
Kugel's new approach--which he says up front "is probably not the sort of answer that will satisfy most traditional readers of the Bible"--has to do with seeing oneself as a servant of God and with seeing orthodox practice in particular as the way of being a servant of God.

In a world where God will not encounter us here in our own reality, we must choose and act to stand close to God. Kugel explains:
The idea of human beings as the gods' servants has an ancient pedigree in the Near East, but in Israel this commonplace came to define a relationship, first between God and specific individuals, then between Him and the whole people: "They are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 25:42,55). To be a servant or slave was to be in a state of humble subjection, ever eager to do the master's bidding; but it was also conceived to be a state of closeness, even familiarity. (This English word, it might be noted, is related to the Latin familiaris, the household of the slave who "belonged to the family.") To be God's servant was to be part of his household.
To serve God, one must carry out His statutes in everyday life. Civil law is also Divine law, and people must learn to live intuitively in the ways that God has instructed.

After the Babylonian exile, Kugel says, Israel renews its dedication to God's will, and "it is in this context that one should locate the seeds of the very idea of the Bible, a great, multifarious corpus of divinely given instruction." At this point in time, the knowledge and practices of being God's familiar servants start to be discussed and argued about and codified.

What's more, the Torah is preeminent but not absolutely immutable:
Yet here is a most interesting point: the words of that Torah were not sacrosanct. On the contrary, as we have seen throughout this study, their apparent meaning was frequently modified or supplemented by ancient interpreters--sometimes expanded or limited in scope, very often concretized through specific applications or homey example, sometimes (as with "an eye for an eye") actually overthrown.
How did humans dare to intervene in holy writ? What possible justification could they have to change or re-direct the meaning of the text? Kugel responds:
From the perspective offered above, what do we make of biblical scholarship's insights? My own opinion is that the discoveries and theories of Biblical scholarship would not undercut the religious belief and practice emerging out of this perspective. I also think my opinion largely agrees with Kugel's view. Traditional Judaism, Kugel says, is such a set of beliefs and practices deriving from the supreme sense that serving God overpowers everything, including Scripture. Kugel writes:
Judaism is not fundamentalism, nor even Protestantism. What Scripture is, and always has been, in Judaism is the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God, a manual whose trajectory has always led from the prophet to the interpreter and from the divine to the merely human. To put the matter in, I admit, rather shocking terms: since in Judaism it is not the words of Scripture themselves that are ultimately supreme, but the service of God (the "standing up close") that they enjoin, then to suggest that everything hangs on Scripture might well be described as a form of fetishism or idolatry, that is, a mistaking of the message for its Sender and the turning of its words into idols of wood or stone.
The Bible, from Jewish vantage, is an expression of apprehending God as His familiar servants. It is one way of apprehending God, the way that came to prominence after the Babylonian exile. In later periods, Scripture would be viewed by different interpretive traditions that would make it undergo three significant revisions:
  1. Christian interpretive tradition.
  2. Protestant interpretive tradition.
  3. Modern scholarship.
Kugel's point here asserts the importance of understanding the sequence of interpretive events, from pre-exile to modern times, that have influenced the way we see and understand both the Bible's words and its role in religious (and scholarly and skeptical) communities. His argument to us, then, is that we should broaden our perspective.

And what of the Bible's divine inspiration? Kugel suggests that our commonplace ideas of divine inspiration are not applied correctly to the Bible:
Divine inspiration is not, at bottom, a matter of conferring a seal of divine approval on this or that passage of Scripture, or even on Scripture as a whole....Rather, as some rabbinic texts themselves intimate, it all has to do with the great, single revelation that inaugurated (and on which was predicated) Israel's changed apprehension of God.
Kugel seems to be saying here that we really don't know what specific words or instructions might be from God Himself. Rather, the divine inspiration of the Bible holds insofar as it derives from the authority conferred by the liberation from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel.

Kugel has made a fantastic overall argument in this section, a case that has been developing from the beginning of the chapter. He has built the assertions carefully, balancing fact and opinion as deftly as anyone can do it. We will have time to consider the larger argument and to criticize it as we must, but let's close this installment by appreciating scholarship of the very highest order.

1 comment:

  1. A curiosity, Which is the mean you give to the word apocryphal?


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