The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible

The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible

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by James L. Kugel
     
 

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Our notion of God today -- all-powerful, invisible, and omnipresent -- is not the same as the God of the Hebrew Bible. So who is this "God of Old?" And what is His place in the modern spiritual world?
James Kugel is renowned for his investigations into the history of the biblical era, a time beginning more than three thousand years ago, when the Bible's earliest

Overview

Our notion of God today -- all-powerful, invisible, and omnipresent -- is not the same as the God of the Hebrew Bible. So who is this "God of Old?" And what is His place in the modern spiritual world?
James Kugel is renowned for his investigations into the history of the biblical era, a time beginning more than three thousand years ago, when the Bible's earliest parts first took shape. With The God of Old, Kugel goes even deeper, attempting to enter the pages of the Old Testament and see God as the Israelites first encountered him.
The God of Old appeared to people unexpectedly; He was not sought out. Often He was not even recognized, at first mistaken for an ordinary human being. The realm of the divine was not as it is today -- a spiritual dimension set off from the material world. The spiritual and the material overlapped, and the realm of the dead was a real domain just beyond the world of the living. Ordinary reality was in constant danger of sliding into something else, something stark but oddly familiar. And God was always standing just behind the curtain of the everyday world.
In this groundbreaking study, Kugel suggests that this alternative spirituality is not simply an archaic relic, replaced by a "better" understanding. Kugel's picture of the God of Old has much to tell us about God's very nature, and about the encounter between Him and human beings in today's world.
A book to treasure side by side with the Bible, The God of Old is sure to engage scholars and spiritual seekers alike for years to come.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
"Fascinating."
The Jerusalem Report
"Kugel is one of the world's foremost Bible scholars."
The New York Times Book Review
"The lectures...are as clear as water, explaining themselves effortlessly as they go."
From the Publisher
"A masterful survey of the way ancient Israelites understood God....In glimmering prose, Kugel leads us on a mesmerizing tour of the differences between early and modern conceptions of God."

"Fascinating."

"Kugel is one of the world's foremost Bible scholars."

"The lectures...are as clear as water, explaining themselves effortlessly as they go."

Most people think of the God of the Old Testament as a distant, omnipotent being who rains down punishment on sinners. But, according to scholar James L. Kugel, ancient Israelites thought of God as nearby and human in appearance. In The God of Old, Kugel shows that "primitive" Old Testament beliefs offer a fresh way of seeing the world -- and religious faith.
The New York Times
The seven short chapters in this book put me in mind of another short, deeply learned but utterly accessible book of seven chapters, Jorge Luis Borges's Seven Nights. True, the last 50 pages of Kugel's book consist of ''bibliographical and other notes,'' which are a proof of his erudition and a resource for professional students of the Bible. Yet the lectures themselves are as clear as water, explaining themselves effortlessly as they go. Even the word ''Mesopotamia'' is glossed on the spot, lest any child be left behind. — Jack Miles
Washington Post
Fascinating.
Jerusalem Report
Kugel is one of the world's foremost Bible scholars.
New York Times Book Review
The lectures...are as clear as water, explaining themselves effortlessly as they go.
Publishers Weekly
Kugel (The Bible As It Was) again exerts his considerable command over a wide array of biblical texts and topics to provide a masterful survey of the way ancient Israelites understood God. Biblical texts written around the time of late Judaism, he says, tend to portray God as a universal, omnipresent, but remote deity. Not so with the earliest biblical texts; the Genesis stories about angels or the Exodus commandments against the worship of false gods depict God as a deity who is close to this world and to humanity. Far from being remote, this God hears the cries of the victims of oppression and responds in physical ways by sending the divine presence. So close is the God of old to the people of Israel that this God breaks through the thin veil dividing the spiritual and material world to reveal itself. Thus, this God, according to Kugel, gets close enough to Moses that Moses hears God proclaim the name of the Lord. The prohibition against idols indicates that this God is a different kind of God than those in surrounding cultures, one who appears in a privileged moment and space not confined to a statue. In glimmering prose, Kugel leads us on a mesmerizing tour of the differences between early and modern conceptions of God. (Mar. 11) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, Kugel (The Bible As It Was) has written a thought-provoking but ultimately frustrating book whose goal is to demonstrate that through an examination of early religious writings, we can glean new insights into the Israelites' earliest concepts of God and what he meant to them-and to us today. Kugel's argument tackles such fundamental ideas as divine anthropomorphism, the practical moral implications of the immortal soul, Israel's tense relationship with its intellectual and cultural milieu, the social impact and theological basis of law, and divine immanence. Each chapter presents a biblical verse, from which the author teases out the text's original meaning and then examines the development of its main theological lesson through time. Given the popular audience for which the book is intended, scholarly apparatus and jargon are kept to a minimum. However, while the text is certainly readable for the informed layperson, it is not always easy to follow the author's argument or to see its importance in the history of religious ideas. This is more a personal essay than a scholarly study whose ultimate goal remains opaque. Not recommended.-Charlie Murray, C.S.S., Fordham Univ., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743235853
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
06/29/2004
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
442,822
Product dimensions:
0.65(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Project

My field is the study of ancient texts. I have spent the better part of my life working on them, mostly texts from the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other writings of the ancient Near East, but also Hebrew texts from the middle ages. One thing I have learned through my years of studying is that authors, although they are writing on some specific topic and for some definite purpose, often end up telling more than they set out to. Especially if a text is of any length or substance, it can open a window onto the inner world of the person who wrote it, revealing something crucial about how that person saw and understood things in general. Such information is often far more valuable than whatever it was the author had consciously set out to write about. The reason is that the author himself, and all the things he thought were obvious or took for granted, are by now long gone. The text is the only thing we have that will allow us to enter that lost world and, with some effort, restore its way of understanding, of seeing. The trick, of course, is to know how to allow a text to tell everything it knows about its author and his world.

This afternoon, I was in the library studying a poem written by a Hebrew poet of the middle ages. It is a poem about the soul, and reading it, I thought again of the Project. People in medieval times had such a vivid sense of their own souls! We often accuse ourselves nowadays of self-absorption, self-obsession, and there is more than a little truth to this. But in medieval times, even though the self in which they were absorbed was quite different, people were as aware as we are today, perhaps even more so, of what was going on deep inside themselves. They sometimes said that they felt their soul was "sick" and needed tender caring. They said they felt it, felt it, crying out in distress. Like a lovesick maiden (though, one might add, with the intensity of a dog chained to a stake), it was sobbing and moaning in its frantic desire to be reunited with its Creator. Some of this may have been literary convention, poetic boilerplate, but behind that must have been a certain reality in their world that has disappeared from our own. I thought of the dusty treatises I had once consulted, with their prescriptions for the soul's care and betterment, a diet of devotion and medicinal herbs, proper readings, and a path of penitence to bring the soul back to its native strength.

Outside the library, one comes to one's senses: the traffic, the brightly lit stores. But still, always lurking, is the Project. What is the Project? It is not mine in particular; many people have worked at it. Perhaps it began for me at the time of the Vietnam War, or perhaps even before that. Events conspire to put you on the spot, to cause you to make some fateful decision. And just then, facing life's ugly, jagged teeth, you suddenly feel a certain calm and a sense of the realness of things that isn't there most of the time, the realness of yourself as one distinct person, and certain ideas go through your head. A few years pass, perhaps. Then, on a day that you have set aside, sitting alone on a park bench above some municipal lake, you try to smooth things out in your mind, until the surface of the lake subtly starts to seem like an image of your mind, and once again you have a different sense of things. It is then that the Project can present itself most forcefully, reemerging from wherever it may have been waiting. The Project is: to get to the bottom of this, to see how far it goes; not to deceive oneself, not to be sentimental or weak, but to see how far one can go.

It can take you very far, even fill up a lifetime. Oddly, for me, it led eventually to (among other places) a most unlikely setting, the library. The reason is implied in what I have already said. I did not invent the idea of the soul, or of God, I was not the first to write about Him. Those who were, and those who followed them, lived long ago, and now all that remains of their world is those texts that they left behind. At first they seem so dry and dead, but if they are read in the right way — with sympathy and imagination, no condescension, only a relentless desire to enter — they can indeed come back to life, and their world, their way of seeing, can let us in to take the measure of things that are strange.

Copyright © 2003 by James Kugel

Meet the Author

James L. Kugel is Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, and a regular visiting Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of a number of books of biblical scholarship, including How to Read the Bible (2007), for which he won the National Jewish Book Award for best book, The Great Poems of the Bible (1999), and The Bible As It Was (1997). In 2001, Kugel was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize in Religion. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is for the reader whose notion of God is one being omniscient and omnipotent. The author uses the Hebrew Bible to show that this is not the only face of God. So, if you have not been reading the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, then you might want to read this book. I downgraded the book because of the Bibliographic and Notes section and scripture. I know a book about God needs scripture. But these two areas take up 25-45% of the book. I also did not like the Notes being listed by page alone. The problem is that while one is reading a page, the reader has no idea that there might be a note or bibliography for that page.