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  • The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible
  • Serge Frolov
The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible, by James L. Kugel. New York: Free Press, 2003. 288 pp. $25.00.

This book does not lend itself to convenient categorizations. In terms of genre, it lacks the academic rigor—and the concomitant dryness—that normally characterizes a monograph. Its auxiliary apparatus is rather rudimentary and, regrettably, does not include any indices; there is no discernible thesis statement (Chapter 1, apparently functioning as an introduction, does little to clarify the author's objectives); the book's conclusion is somewhat fuzzy, and its style largely conversational. Overall, it clearly presupposes an audience that knows very little, if anything, about the subject. At the same time, it not only advances a profound, and stunningly novel, thesis but also marshals in its support a wealth of carefully assembled first-rate evidence—something that rarely happens in popular and quasi-popular publications.

In terms of subject matter, Kugel explores the biblical writers' idea of God; but I am reluctant to brand his book a theological treatise because it stands apart from most, if not all, treatises of this sort. Kugel obviously belongs to the small but rapidly growing group of authors who reject or ignore the presuppositions and methodological premises [End Page 166] of "biblical theology" as it has been practiced in the last two hundred years by mostly German scholars. However, Kugel's approach is unique even for this group, in that he claims to have discovered the concept of the deity that the Bible consistently presupposes but never cares to spell out.

Kugel maintains that this concept pivots upon the tacit assumption that the divine realm and the material world overlap and penetrate each other. All one has to do to discern the former without leaving the confines of everyday human existence is switch to a different mode of perception. Biblical authors repeatedly stress such a switch, or, as Kugel puts it, "click," when they recount the theophanic experiences of Abraham, Jacob, Balaam, Joshua, Gideon, and others: what the characters initially perceive as a "man" suddenly turns out to be God and/or his messenger/angel in human guise (Chapter 2). In a similar vein, these authors seem to assume that one does not need to search for the deity in order to encounter it; God reveals him/herself to apparently random and totally unprepared individuals who may find it difficult, like Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, to comprehend what is going on or prove reluctant, like Moses or Jeremiah, to do the deity's bidding (Chapter 6). And when the Hebrew Bible describes an apparently successful séance (1 Samuel 28) or has the dying foresee the distant future (as do Jacob in Genesis 49 and Moses in Deuteronomy 31-32), it appears to presuppose a penetrable boundary between the ambits of the living and of the dead (Chapter 7).

An identical or similar notion of the divine is also operative, according to Kugel, in those biblical texts that display what he calls "starkness" of vision, postulating, for example, a strict dichotomy of right and wrong (Chapter 3) or insisting that God does not tolerate the suffering of the innocent (Chapter 5). Since regular human experience in the material world is not characterized by "starkness," this vision must presuppose a different, spiritual reality discoverable through a "click" (as it happens to Moses in Exodus 33-34). Finally, Kugel submits that the assumed possibility of a "click" may underlie the biblical aniconism (rejection of tangible divine images), sharply diverging from the practices of most ancient Near Eastern cultures: if the deity is constantly present in the here and now and may reveal itself without warning and solicitation, surrogates are redundant, if not offensive (Chapter 4).

At first glance, Kugel's thesis may look like a sophisticated restatement of the age-old hypothesis that the Hebrew Bible (or, rather, certain strands therein, such as the putative J-source) presupposes a deity that is not far removed from humans and closely interacts with them. However, his choice of the mode of perception as a crucial hermeneutic element...


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