Final Architect

The Bible comes alive for scholar James Kugel, a Woody Allen in a state of grace.

This story has taken a surprising turn. Blame it on the tomatoes.

It started out as a profile of a popular professor, his populous course, and his newest book. The subject: James L. Kugel, since 1982 the Starr professor of Hebrew literature, whose course "The Bible and Its Interpreters" (Literature and Arts C-37) at times attracted more than 900 students, and whose book The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible was recently published to scholarly and critical enthusiasm.

James C. Kugel
Photograph by Stu Rosner

But that was then. Late in the summer Kugel announced that he was retiring from Harvard in order to settle in Israel. For 12 years, Kugel, 58, had frequently alternated semesters between Harvard and Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. Now he has decided to "take the plunge—permanently," as he says. "There was all that flying back and forth" to his family in Israel—he and his wife, Rachel, a social worker, have four grown children. "I've been living part-time in Israel since I was 46, but I'm not as young as I used to be! That's the practical reason, and the other is ideological; I have always been a Zionist. Anyone who wants the state of Israel to survive, as I do, should be a part of it."

A difficult decision, one imagines. "In some ways the toughest, the most painful of my life," he says. "I have loved teaching here; there's no other place on earth with students like Harvard's. And my colleagues, and Cambridge....I've been thinking about this and talking to people in the dean's office about it for years, but even so, it's very hard to say good-bye to all this. It's a wrenching thing."

This article includes two sidebars:

The Visit to Abraham

The Evolution of Abraham

Then one can't be a true Zionist in Cambridge? He laughs. "You know the classic definition of an American Zionist? Someone who contributes generously to help someone else move to Israel. And indeed, life there is full of difficulties." But then, as he has written, there are the tomatoes:

They are very tasty there—not at all like the durable, tasteless variety [sold here]. The tomatoes there are fine, and the olives, and also the afternoon sun—not at all like here, where at times it can have a subtlety quite magnificent, this I concede—but there it is very, very bright, so much so that you must squint when you stand outside, and the sunlight in America seems simply dim and pale by comparison. Then the morning's whiteness turns later to a gold or copperish color that is smeared over everything; it is quite impressive.

Yes, of course one returns to one's people, to the historic Jewish state. "And yet, in my experience it is the Zionists who return to America and only the tomato lovers who stay."

The lure of Israel here puckishly invoked comes from his 1990 book On Being a Jew, an imagined dialogue between a sophisticated and learned older Jew and a young Jewish poet aspiring to a deeper knowledge of Judaism—both aspects of Kugel himself, he says. He invokes the ecstatic light of Jerusalem in similar terms when he discusses the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 60) in The Great Poems of the Bible.

Has he felt himself an exile in this country? "No, no, no. As I've said, I love everything about my life and work here; I am an American to the core." A native of New York, a Phi Beta Kappa at Yale (1968), a junior fellow of Harvard's Society of Fellows (1972-75)—during which period he was also poetry editor of Harper's magazine—with a doctorate from City University of New York (1977), Kugel is readying himself for the move, gathering up the stuff of 21 years from his office in the Semitic Museum. Slight, vaguely elfin in appearance, with an almost constant, puzzling, smile, he is exasperatingly diffident and self-effacing; the personal, the political are cannily detoured as his conversation repeatedly dissolves into one or another of his texts or lecture notes. It is not surprising that even his friends call him an enigma.

Kugel, an Orthodox Jew, wears the traditional skullcap or kippah; in antiquity, he explains, it was customary, as a matter of personal modesty, not to go about bareheaded. "I think it is still a good thing." Although, as he explains in On Being a Jew, "the connection with modesty has long since disappeared, keeping one's head covered is a constant reminder, both to ourselves and anyone else who may notice, of our Jewishness and our devotion to God."

Other "blessed details" of being an observant Jew to which he scrupulously adheres are wearing the talit kattan, a small four-cornered fringed shirt worn by men beneath the outer clothes (in Kugel's case, generic Brooks Brothers); eating only kosher foods; keeping the Sabbath and keeping it holy, which is to say, setting it aside as belonging to God; saying the Shema, three special paragraphs from the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew bible), in the morning and evening, and the Amidah, 19 prayers of blessing and gratitude, three times a day; wearing tefillin, phylacteries, during morning prayers; and performing the numerous other mitzvot (commandments) that constitute the daily routine of halakhah (roughly, walking in the way of God).

Judaism, he writes, is "about the service of God, and that service consists precisely of [such] blessed details. Because an idea, such as 'contemplating ultimate reality,' or 'God is love,' will not go far on its own. It needs legs." No easy task, surely: "I can think of no casual way to be a Jew." This athletically demanding way of devoting oneself to God (always capitalized, always the traditional masculine) is far removed from other, more relaxed forms of American Judaism (a "halfway affair" to which he ascribes an "elsewhere" quality)—not to speak of the various genera of "spirituality." "It seems to me," his alter ego says in On Being a Jew,

that so much of the appeal that meditation and the like have for Americans is precisely that they promise to deliver, to reward steady effort with peace of mind, altered consciousness, and so forth. Nothing could be farther from
Judaism. And the fact that their orientation seems to me
ultimately so far from the heart and from what is real makes it hard for me to imagine that there is anything of substance to them. Their approach seems more like a kind of spiritual jogging, guaranteed to lower the heartbeat and make you a happier, all-around human being.

He thus seems to reject any suggestion that his absolute assumption of God's existence is somehow pre-modern, and that we moderns have "happily freed ourselves" from this or that misapprehension held by earlier civilizations. On the contrary, as he writes elsewhere, "we ought at least to be prepared to entertain the opposite hypothesis as well, that however much progress the intervening centuries have brought in some domains, they have also led us to lose a way of seeing that existed in former times." By "way of seeing," he suggests something a great deal more than simply another point of view. As he writes in Great Poems of the Bible:

[P]erhaps people were actually enabled by this way of seeing to observe things that we no longer observe today. It is difficult for one who reads the Bible carefully, and takes its words seriously, not to arrive at such a conclusion: something, a certain way of perceiving, has gradually closed
inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible
in an earlier age.


His exploration of this earlier "way of seeing" underlies his many publications—particularly his most recent book, The God of Old. His earlier book, The Bible As It Was, won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2000 and was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle award. And that book in turn was begat by the aforementioned popular course, "The Bible and Its Interpreters." This course was intended, as he explained in the sourcebook,

to acquaint students with the principal parts of the Hebrew Bible and to provide some exposure to the different ways in which the Bible has been read and interpreted in various periods, from late antiquity to modern times. To achieve this, the course will concentrate on a group of central biblical figures whose stories will be examined in the context of ancient Israelite history and society, and then compared with later, often fanciful, elaborations of these same biblical tales by Jewish and Christian interpreters.

An observer sitting in on that huge class in Sanders Theatre could watch classic Kugel—melancholy mien, slightly uncomfortable, smiling his inscrutable smile—and be forgiven for fancying something like Woody Allen in a state of grace. One had to listen carefully, though, so as not to miss the frequent salty throwaways: "If you don't own a Bible, you might want to slip into a motel and steal one"; or, "I used to post office hours, but no one would ever come. It was very depressing." Or, discussing the ancient belief that the stars control our everyday reality, "Of course, now we understand more about astronomy, and this belief has pretty much disappeared, except for certain areas of southern California."

But there were also his words of caution: "If you come from a religious tradition upholding the literal truth of the Bible, you could find this course disturbing." Such a tip might have been addressed to the few kippah-wearing students scattered through the hall, but equally to Christians of a conservative bent—and to mainline, liberal Protestants as well. Kugel's point was that the Bible's most ancient interpreters—from the third century B.C.E. onward—had a lot to do with how the Bible has been read ever since. These often anonymous scholars were responsible for much of the "spin" put on biblical texts: that the story of Adam and Eve was really about the "Fall of Man" and original sin, or that the snake in the Garden of Eden was actually Satan, or that Abraham was the first monotheist. In short, much of what we think is in the Bible is in it only if it is read in the light of ancient traditions that began with these early interpreters.

This message is likely to surprise Protestants in particular, Kugel explained, because Protestantism itself arose out of the doctrine of "Scripture alone," the belief that one ought to put aside all traditional interpretation and let the Bible "speak for itself." As he has written, traditional biblical criticism is "Protestant in its very attitude toward the text."

For the Protestant movement as a whole was predicated on the unmediated encounter between man and God—unmediated, that is, by the saints or semidivine intercessors, by professional clergy, eventually even by the church itself.

At one point, he writes, Protestant biblical scholars turned to Jewish tradition as part both of their rejection of "Popish" exegesis and of their perception that Jewish concern with "the [the traditional] wealth of marginalia, bits of background information about this or that biblical personage," were—by reason of being Jewish—"infinitely closer to the source of the original." But "soon enough, even Jewish mediation was done away with" and "eventually Jewish exegesis, and even Jewish philology, chronology, and the like were banished from Protestant Bible study."

Says Kugel, "The question that Jews have always brought to the reading of Torah is, 'What is it telling me to do?' And they passed this way of reading on to early Christians. Historical accuracy was never the focus. You should love your fellow like yourself? Well, how do I do it?" But by the nineteenth century, the principal concern of biblicists had evolved into "What really did happen?" Thus, he continues, today's modern biblical scholarship—the work of archaeologists, historians, and Semitic linguists—really began as an act of Protestant piety.

Many saw this work as a kind of archaeology of the biblical text itself, digging through the accumulated body of past interpretations in order to excavate the original, unadulterated Bible. As one practitioner put it in 1901:

The valleys of biblical truth have been filled up with the debris of human dogmas, ecclesiastical institutions, liturgical formulas, priestly ceremonies, and casuistic practices. Historical criticism is digging through this mass of rubbish. Historical criticism is searching for the rock-bed of the Divine Word, in order to recover the real Bible. Historical criticism is sifting all this rubbish. It will gather out every precious stone. Nothing will escape its keen eye.

However, continues Kugel, "biblical bedrock has proven to be an elusive item, and far less adamantine than had been imagined. Moreover, we have been shown time and again that the process of paring books down to their original units or to the supposed ipsissima verba of this or that historical figure hardly yields the sort of purified sacred corpus that [scholars] had hoped for."

As Kugel sought to make clear in both the course and its offspring, The Bible As It Was:

[What] we have come to see is that biblical scholarship, far from peeling off layers of debris from atop a long-buried, pristine building, has accomplished something rather different. It has revealed to us that a building in plain sight, whose dimensions had been familiar to us for two millennia, was actually put together over the course of the preceding millennium from building blocks many of which were originally hewn for quite another purpose; that it was assembled in different stages by different hands; and—here is the most important point—that the architects who finally put it together and made of it a usable edifice were something like collagists or the "junk sculpture" artists of the 1960s, whose creative eye could turn the front bumper of a Buick into a giant lady's smile, and combine that with other finds of metal and of plastic into a mammoth countenance worthy of our reverence.

"The upshot of all this," he continues, "and indeed of the whole general course of biblical studies in this century, has been...not only a greater respect for those final architects whose quirky vision helped to assemble these diverse fragments into an entity that made sense and was usable, but also a decrease in some of the energy and urgency that characterized the quest for 'original meaning' in an earlier day."


Those "final architects" of the Bible can be glimpsed here and there even within the Bible itself, in late passages that explicate or modify earlier ones. Then, too, the commentaries of sages, priests, prophets, judges, and teachers helped explain—each writer according to his political view—the traumatic destruction of the First Temple, the Babylonian exile, and the return to Judah (586-532 B.C.E.). But the commentators really seem to come into their own from approximately the third century B.C.E.through the first century C.E. (when the Romans razed the Second Temple): one finds "expansive retellings of biblical stories, first-person narratives put in the mouths of biblical heroes, pseudonymous apocalypses, the sayings and proverbs of ancient sages," as well as the sermons and textual commentary dating from the so-called Rabbinic period and the early Christian redactors—in other words, about when the biblical texts became canonized as the Bible. A wealth of information on these interpretations has come from the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran, in the Judaean desert, starting in 1947, "the greatest manuscript find in history," says Kugel, who is currently coediting a new edition of many of them. The scrolls contain fragments of the long-lost Hebrew originals of numerous books of ancient biblical interpretation, known principally from Christian translations into Greek, Latin, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and other languages.

Though these early interpreters were a varied lot, they all seem to share four basic assumptions, he says. The first is that the Bible is "a fundamentally cryptic document"—one that speaks indirectly, metaphorically, symbolically, typologically—and is therefore in need of clarification, which the interpreters were only too happy to supply. This assumption gave them the freedom to depart from the text's apparent meaning, arriving at something more consonant with their own religious ideas or the spirit of their times. The second assumption is "that Scripture constitutes one great Book of Instruction, and as such is a fundamentally relevant text." As Paul says in 1 Corinthians: "Now these things [that happened to the Israelites in the desert] happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of ages has come." The third assumption is that the Bible is "perfect and perfectly harmonious"—any apparent mistake or contradiction simply requires cleaning up; the Bible should deliver a single unitary message, despite its having been composed by many different hands in different periods and social circumstances. And finally, Kugel says, to the ancient interpreters "all of Scripture is somehow divinely sanctioned, of divine provenance, or divinely inspired."

The Bible As It Was deals mainly with Torah, from Creation (Genesis) to the death of Moses (Deuteronomy). The list of interpreters, plus terms and sources, in the book tips the scale at some 40 pages of citations from the Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew—all languages (as well as several more, ancient and modern) that Kugel reads fluently.

To see how all this works, let's take an example from Genesis: the first patriarch, Abraham (see "The Evolution of Abraham"). In his book, Kugel dissects the story of Abraham using more than 40 wide-ranging sources, among them the biblical books of Joshua and Isaiah; the apocryphal books of Judith and Maccabees; the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria and the anonymous author known as Pseudo-Philo; the first-century historian Josephus; various pseudepigrapha, such as Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Books of Enoch, and targums (Aramaic translations and exegeses of the Hebrew Bible); Genesis Rabba (a rabbinic anthology of comments on the Book of Genesis); Christian interpreters (generally of a typological inclination, who read in the binding of Isaac, for example, a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion), including Augustine, Jerome, Paul, Peter, Matthew, Irenaeus, Clement, and Justin Martyr; and, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The course, for obvious reasons, required a shorter list, but that list still constituted a heavy dose of ancient interpretation. Scholars find all this fascinating. But what is the point of such extensive midrash, or exegesis, for students in a Core course? Does the story of Abraham become more sacralized, or at least more comprehensible?

One possible reply appears in Kugel's essay "The Bible in the University." Note again his comparison of the Bible to an edifice constructed of discrete components:

Such, then, is the course I have in mind, a tracing of the construction of this edifice from its earliest building blocks until its completed form. This course certainly begins its treatment of Genesis 15, for example, with a discussion of the ancient Near Eastern institutions of covenant and why, at a certain point, it was important for ancient Israelites to know that their reputed ancestors had been the recipients of such divine grants. But it will also talk about how Israel's thinking about its ancestors and such traditions as Genesis 15 began to change under new historical circumstances; about how the reference to Abraham in Joshua 24:2-4 reflects one such change, and how this passage eventually was "read back" into our Genesis passage (evidence of this collocation is to be found as early as Judith 5:6-8)—indeed, it might go on to trace the whole story of Abraham's transformation from faceless founder and aetiological front man to early Judaism's Abraham the Tested One (known from Jubilees and elsewhere), Abraham the Astrologer, the primordial Convert, the one saved from the Chaldeans' fiery furnace...and on to the New Testament's Man of Faith.

In other words, he continues, "it is not sufficient simply to address the moment of origin, the event itself or the earliest text recounting it, as if to say, 'Anything after this is degeneration and irrelevant fantasy.' Clearly it is not irrelevant, because there is an enormous gap within the history of biblical Israel between the Abraham of the world of ancient Near Eastern covenants and the Abraham of a book called The Bible." The only reason a teacher would ignore this gap, he continues, would be if some "theological preconception compelled him to do so, as if he believed that the moment of a text's origin corresponded to the moment of divine inspiration or divine-human interaction...[that] the 'original meaning' was the meaning meant by God, or meant by a narrator fresh from the real encounter between God and Abraham—whereas everything else was merely human and uninteresting."

Trying to read the Bible outside the context of its ancient interpreters, he suggests, is a bit like yanking a tree out of the ground the better to get an unadulterated view of its root structure. And the inevitable result is "the separation of biblical texts from the great, fostering environment of ancient interpretation which had allowed the Bible to emerge in the first place, that is, which had allowed its diverse members to be combined into the great, unitary, sacred corpus that would occupy the central place that Scripture did occupy, and still does, in Judaism and Christianity."


As it happens, this separation is paradoxically just what Kugel attempts in his most recent book, The God of Old, where—despite all his aforementioned work—he essentially yanks the tree out of the ground to study the root structure. His many years as a "teacher of ancient texts," he says, only sharpened his "relentless desire to enter" with "sympathy and imagination" the lost world of the Bible and even, daringly, the heads of the biblical characters themselves as they find themselves confronting God.

Kugel here introduces a God who, until somewhere in the sixth century B.C.E., often seems to have a body; who moves from one place to another and appears or speaks to his chosen ones or sends an envoy of sorts in his place—usually an angel. This angel is not the resplendent, winged Gabriel of the Annunciation known to us from Christian art. On the contrary, angels in early biblical narrative are always mistaken for ordinary human beings, at least for a while. They "look like men, they talk like men, they can sit down and walk around and maybe even eat like men."

To illustrate, let's return to the Abraham story (see "The Visit to Abraham"). Here, too, there is an annunciation, but in Kugel's folksy retelling, we have three dusty travelers coming out of the hot sun to Abraham's tent. Kugel's gloss:

What is interesting is that in this narrative...we are never really told that Abraham has understood who his visitors are. The passage begins by asserting that "the Lord appeared" to Abraham—but this assertion seems to come from the narrator's point of view. What Abraham sees is "three men standing near him," and his exaggerated courtesy and zeal in preparing a meal for his unannounced guests seems intended simply to show what a generous host he is—it is no indication that Abraham has somehow figured out his visitors' secret identity....

In any event, Abraham wishes to feed the visiting strangers, and they agree to eat (or, at least, to pretend to). Their gruff answer to Abraham's invitation—"Do just as you have said"—might have tipped Abraham off that these were no ordinary visitors, but he seems to notice nothing unusual. He tells Sarah and the servant boy to prepare the food without mentioning who these guests are—apparently, he himself has no idea. Even their question, "Where is your wife Sarah?"—but how do these strangers know his wife's name?—seems to arouse no curiosity in Abraham....Abraham seems to be in some sort of fog. [This] "moment of confusion" here is much more than a moment, it is apparently dragged out throughout the strangers' meal. But in the end, the truth does seem to have dawned on both [Abraham and Sarah], for when God ["the Lord" and no longer the three men, notes Kugel] says to Abraham "Why did Sarah laugh?...Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?" Sarah immediately denies [laughing,] "because she was frightened."

If she was frightened, Kugel continues, "it would seem that she has figured out with whom she is speaking. But not much is made of this—the moment of recognition here (if that is what it is) certainly seems to receive less attention than the 'moment of confusion' that precedes it."

The moment of recognition resolving a cloudy "moment of confusion" is the common element in all the stories revisited by Kugel: of Abraham and Sarah, of Manoah and his wife (Judges), of Gideon (Judges), of Jacob (Genesis), of Moses (Exodus), of Balaam (Numbers)—or rather his donkey. ("Some prophet!" observes Kugel. "At a crucial moment, even his donkey was more discerning than Balaam was.") In Kugel's retelling, this "moment of confusion" is resolved by a "click," a realization, an epiphany. In virtually every case, this recognition reveals a changed universe, and it is God himself, not his messenger, who has come calling—and not only to the great figures, but to many humbler men and women.

As Kugel says in his book, this whole concept might be disturbing to both scholars and lay readers. Surely, we assume, "biblical faith, at its earliest stages, was a primitive thing; much of what people believed then would only embarrass us now." But "the interpenetration of the domains we like to separate under the headings of 'spiritual' and 'material' is a theme that, considered in its fullness, could hardly be described as 'primitive.'" Indeed, he says, the susceptibility of ordinary reality to "sliding into something else entirely, something stark and eerie and nonetheless familiar" is really quite sophisticated.

Kugel, tipped back in his office chair, describes a generic biblical confrontation: "You see, the person who is being visited by this angel thinks he's talking to another human being. And then there is this moment when suddenly there is a kind of click in the human being's mind—boom! 'Now I understand!' And then suddenly he's no longer talking with a human being. In fact, he's no longer talking with an angel—it's God. This whole angel identity seems like a fiction, and it seems to me that the 'click' is a very sophisticated moment. It's a matter of consciousness, of altered states, like waking up from a dream. But it's a moment of privileged consciousness. That's the meaning of the angels; the Israelites were telling us that God is not an ongoing permanent presence: He comes from somewhere else, steps from behind the curtain, as it were, and suddenly—whoops!—the person profoundly understands, his consciousness is changed. Why is this sophisticated? I think it is ultimately about one's perception, one's sense of reality. What these biblical texts are saying is that our sense of reality can suddenly change in the presence of God."

If one's thoughts here turn unbidden to Roger Rabbit or the Wizard of Oz, it is no more than Kugel himself encourages: as his book evolves—with the God who buttonholes Everyman gradually morphing into a vast cosmic deity who fills the skies, having "fired" all the other gods—we get discussions of baseball, the hymn "Amazing Grace," and yes, animated cartoons. On this delightful journey through the world of the Bible's ancient narratives, Kugel also gives us a short history of Mesopotamia and of the Sumerians who thrived there until they were absorbed into the Akkadian culture. But Sumerian concepts survived, writes our impish author: "Indeed, the Sumerian word KU.GAL (which for some reason I have always found unforgettable), 'irrigation supervisor,' was one of the many Sumerian words that passed into Semitic languages, in this case not only Babylonian but Old Aramaic."

Kugel deals head-on with the burning bush squarely in his path: the biblical horror of visualizing God. Catching sight of the Lord, after all, could be fatal: "No man can see Me and live" (Exodus 33). In biblical Israel, surrounded and indeed undermined by idolators—who "said to wood, You are my father/ To stone, you gave birth to me" (Jeremiah 2)—divine images were strictly proscribed. To date, even with all the excavating, not a single anthropomorphic statue of Israel's God has ever turned up. Thus Kugel's "way of seeing" in The God of Old can seem especially provocative, perhaps disingenuous—and charming.

And so we are back at the Semitic Museum with this faux-naif, who is gathering up his movables and preparing to leave for Israel, where he will teach twice as much and earn less than half what he makes here. He will teach—in Hebrew, of course—"a mix of biblical books," he says, "especially Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah; post-biblical writings like Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Pseudo-Philo's book of biblical interpretation, the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the poetics of biblical poetry."

This article includes two sidebars:

The Visit to Abraham

The Evolution of Abraham

"It's very different in Israel," he says. "Students all have very good backgrounds in Bible; around here the fact that I know a lot of the Bible by heart seems to strike students as unusual, but in Israel a lot of people know as much as I do, and oftentimes the students correct me! Most of my students in fact are Bible majors, who want to go on to teach; the Bible is taught in high school and it's part of the matriculation exams that high-school students have to take. Students have to declare a major before they start university; no Core courses, no shopping around and deciding their concentration after a year or two. Don't forget the average student there, because of army service, starts college when he or she is 21, 22 years old."

But, he continues, "there is a mental agility, an openness to connections, here at Harvard that I will miss terribly. Sometimes over there, I hear, 'Why should I learn about X or Y? I just want to learn about the Bible.' That's not the way Harvard students talk. Boy, will I miss that."

It is safe to say the sentiment is reciprocated. But for now at least, the tomatoes have won.


Contributing editor Janet Tassel has profiled Harvardians from Harvey Mansfield and Ruth Wisse to Helen Vendler, Robert Levin, and Yo-Yo Ma.    

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