I was honored that BAR devoted so much attention in the most recent issue to my new book, How to Read the Bible,1 all the more so because the review was written by a distinguished Biblical scholar (and long-time acquaintance of mine), Professor Richard Elliott Friedman. But I confess I found the review somewhat disturbing.
The review starts off nicely enough; in fact, it’s full of compliments that I hardly deserve. (I am certainly not, for example, “the most learned Orthodox scholar of the Bible on earth.”) But when Friedman gets down to discussing the book itself, I’m afraid he distorts what it’s all about and who it’s for. The distortion is already hinted at in the compliment just mentioned. Basically, what Friedman seeks to claim is that this is a book by an Orthodox Jew for Orthodox Jews, one that therefore aims to defend ancient Jewish interpreters as better informed (!) than modern scholars. In fact Mr. Friedman just can’t seem to get over my affiliation with Orthodox Judaism. He mentions Orthodox Judaism (along with “Orthodoxy,” “Jewish Orthodoxy” and “Orthodox Jews”) 25 times in a review of six pages. My book mentions Orthodox Judaism exactly once in 689 pages.
On a Web site devoted to the book (jameskugel.com), I get e-mails— six or eight a day— from all sorts of people, and many of them refer to their own religious backgrounds. Some are Jews (Conservative, Orthodox and Reform in roughly equal numbers), and lots of others are Christians, of both liberal and conservative denominations (though far more of the former than the latter, it seems). It’s true, this is a self-selected group; I don’t hear much from people who dislike my book. But the people who do write come from a pretty broad spectrum of religious affiliations, and they are all responding to a book that seems to speak to them. Its subject is the Bible in all its details. Only in the last chapter do I get around to addressing the theological implications of modern Biblical scholarship. (Again, this chapter does not discuss those implications for Orthodox Jews, but for Christians and Jews of all denominations. And contrary to what Friedman asserts, when I speak of “traditional Judaism,” I mean to include a lot more than Orthodox Judaism. Surely it is not only Orthodox Jews who consider the Mishnah and the Talmud as part of Judaism’s sacred library.)
At least judging by the e-mails I’ve gotten, the last chapter is the one that least interests most of my readers— but it’s the only chapter that Friedman considers at any length in his review. He reviews a long book about many different parts of the Bible— the stories of Genesis, the Exodus account, the Israelite “conquest” tradition, David’s mighty kingdom— and discusses the various historical problems connected with each of these items. I talk about how differently God is represented in different parts of the Bible, about the psalms and ancient worship, the nature and basic assumptions of wisdom literature in Israel and the ancient Near East, Israel’s prophetic tradition and its development through the ages, the rise of ancient Biblical interpretation, and so on. One would think that a Bible professor who’s written extensively on many of these subjects would have something to say about them, if only to agree or disagree; certainly part of what I have to say hasn’t been said before. But Friedman really discusses only the book’s 4-page preface and its last 28 pages (in fact, only 7 or 8 of those pages), leaving him plenty of room to return to his favorite subject, Orthodox Judaism.
Everything seems to come down to that. Along the 069same lines, Friedman even identifies the ancient Biblical interpreters I discuss in my book as rabbis. Specifically, he says I write about a “largely anonymous group of scholars who flourished from around 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. or so. He is referring to the rabbis in the formative years of rabbinic Judaism”.
But this is nonsense. Friedman might as easily have referred to these interpreters as the “reverends,” or the “ministers” or “priests” or “pastors,” since their way of interpreting the Bible is as connected to Christianity as it is to Judaism. Indeed, as I pointed out repeatedly in another book, The Bible As It Was,2 one of our greatest sources for these interpreters’ interpretations is … the New Testament!
THIS JUST IN: Today I was notified that How to Read the Bible has been chosen as a finalist for the Christianity Today annual award for best book in Biblical studies. I wonder why such a publication would consider giving my book an award if it was, as Friedman claims, essentially a mouthpiece for Orthodox Judaism.
I’m not at all sure what motivated such an odd misrepresentation of my book. But it was all the more vexing to me because, in the process, Friedman got one of the main themes of my book all wrong. Let me summarize it with one example:
The Biblical book called the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon or Canticles) was interpreted, even before there was a Bible, as an allegory of God’s love for Israel. Christianity changed this interpretive line, but only slightly: It became an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. With the rise of modern scholarship, it did not take long for this whole approach to be questioned. Weren’t all those garden metaphors really talking about a woman’s body? Why, old King Solomon (the Song’s reputed author) was, by the 19th century, just a dirty old man! Of late, the basic identification of the Song as erotic love poetry has only been strengthened by the discovery of striking parallels between it and the erotic love poetry of ancient Egypt.
If so, what is the Song of Songs doing in our Bible? Its interpretation as an allegory of divine love is just that: an interpretation; now that we know what the text “really” means, what its original author intended it to mean, let’s get rid of it. Such stuff certainly doesn’t belong in a holy book! Unless, as I repeatedly suggest in my book, texts can sometimes change their meaning. Actually, this happens all the time. Societies change, circumstances change, and then suddenly, no matter how hard you try to stifle it, the Merchant of Venice has a completely unintended resonance with the whole later history of anti-Semitism, and Othello with modern racism. It was just such a change— in this case, however, quite deliberate— that turned the erotic Song of Songs into the allegorical one. Long before there even was a Bible, someone put forward the idea that this song could be understood as if it were all about divine love, not human eros; the idea caught on, and soon everyone was singing it or humming it, with the new meaning in mind. The discovery of what its original author may have intended certainly enhances our understanding of how the Song got started, but it does not cancel out the allegorical meaning. Indeed, it was only in that reinterpreted, allegorical sense that the Song was included in sacred Scripture in the first place.
The same might be said for much of the Bible. What scholars now know about the psalms is that most of them were written for a particular setting, the ancient Israelite Temple, where God was deemed to be in residence. Over time, however, ideas about God changed, and with them ideas about prayer— including the psalms. “I come before You, Lord” no longer meant “I am entering Your temple,” but “I am appealing to You, O omnipresent deity,” and the psalms thereby became the heartfelt expression of anyone seeking to turn to God— anywhere, any time. By the same token, the great history of Israel that stretches from Genesis through 2 Kings was not originally intended to be “Biblical,” that is, full of lessons to take to heart today, or even full of interesting characters who develop and change. According to most scholars, this history was sewn together from individual snippets, many of which had begun as “just-so stories” of a type well known to anthropologists and students of folklore. Even when, later on, they were first stitched together into a sequence, it was not as part of an histoire moralisée, but simply as history, an account of where Israel came from that was intended to culminate in the glorious rule of King Josiah. It was only later interpreters who turned King David into a penitent sinner and the history as a whole into a collection of lessons. Biblical laws were similarly reinterpreted— and sometimes changed radically: “an eye for an eye,” for example, actually came to mean “not an eye for an eye,” and “do not give of your offspring to be sacrificed to [the god] Molech” became a prohibition of intermarriage.
In one part of his review, Friedman responds to my highlighting these interpreters’ role in changing the meaning of the text:
The ancient interpreters did not know more than we do about the Biblical world or about history or the Bible’s authors. They knew less. But the basis of the system that Kugel favors is a doctrine that the ancients knew more than we do: They had Oral Torah going all the way back to Sinai.
But what I have to say about the ancient interpreters has nothing to do with their knowledge! Of course they knew less about the Biblical world than we do— but that wasn’t their concern. They were involved in a massive movement to change the (often obvious) meaning of these ancient texts into something else— and they were successful. Their basic approach to reading these texts became widely accepted among both Christians and Jews and remained basically unchanged for 20 centuries. Without it, as I said repeatedly in the book, it is doubtful that there would ever have been a Bible in our sense; its various components would have been deemed of only antiquarian interest, and they would have disappeared long ago.
As I indicated in my book, this process of transformation started even earlier than the third century B.C.E. The moralized reinterpretation of ancient narratives is evidenced here and there in the Book of Deuteronomy and, more 084abundantly, in Chronicles. Scholars have shown that the sayings of Isaiah and other prophets were quite consciously rearranged and supplemented by later editors to bring out an entirely different message from the one originally intended by the prophets themselves. In pursuing this theme, however, my aim was to point out the great gap that has now been opened between how the Bible was approached by the ancient interpreters— an approach that has persisted to the present day— and what today’s scholars have discovered about the original meaning of these texts.
Faced with this gap, Friedman’s reaction is “no problem!” The Bible only becomes “more special,” he says, once we learn all that modern scholarship has revealed about these texts. But this seems somewhat disingenuous. If that were so, then one would expect everyone— not just people like him, but Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians and all sorts of other people who have hesitations about modern scholarship— to welcome this scholarship with open arms. This hasn’t happened. Surely it is not just a finicky minority of readers who are troubled by such modern ideas as: the Exodus from Egypt never took place; the Israelites never conquered Canaan; David’s mighty kingdom never existed; Moses, David, Solomon and other reputed Biblical authors never wrote the things attributed to them; and so forth. These ideas pose a challenge to any reader who seeks to take the Bible’s words seriously.
How that challenge will be met certainly depends on the individual; as I wrote in my book, “I do not think it can be the same for both Christians and Jews, or for Catholics and Protestants, or even for Episcopalians and Southern Baptists”. For that reason, I think Friedman is wrong in supposing that his one-size-fits-all assessment is the only valid one. In any case, I have no such global solution to offer. All I tried to do was to set this question in its historical perspective by putting down almost everything I know about Scripture, its past as well as its present.
I was honored that BAR devoted so much attention in the most recent issue to my new book, How to Read the Bible,1 all the more so because the review was written by a distinguished Biblical scholar (and long-time acquaintance of mine), Professor Richard Elliott Friedman. But I confess I found the review somewhat disturbing. The review starts off nicely enough; in fact, it’s full of compliments that I hardly deserve. (I am certainly not, for example, “the most learned Orthodox scholar of the Bible on earth.”) But when Friedman gets down to discussing the book itself, I’m afraid […]