[K:JNWTS 28/1 (May 2013): 23-25]

Book Review

James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York, NY: Free Press, 2007. 848 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-7432-3587-7. $21.00.

Kugelís book is very well written and clear. His purpose is to share with us all that he knows about the Hebrew Bible, at least in summary. Kugel goes through the Hebrew Bible from the beginning to the end. At each stage, he first provides the interpretation of the ancient interpreters. These primarily include Jewish sources, but Christians are also considered. Then he gives us the interpretation of "modern scholars". While Kugel may at first seem to some to be giving a dispassionate account of the views of different interpreters, it is clear as we progress that he accepts modern higher critical views. One is clearly left with the impression that higher criticism has gotten it right. That is, it has properly understood the various portions of the Hebrew Bible in their ancient context. This is the case, even though Kugel concludes the book telling us of the advantages for interpreting the text within the tradition of the ancient interpreters. At the same time, he claims that the ancient interpreters did not interpret the Bible the way the authors of the texts intended them to be interpreted. For the original authors wrote for their own times, not with a view to having their works canonized in the Hebrew Bible as we have it. However, when the Bible was compiled (along the lines of the documentary hypothesis), the texts took on a new meaning. And the ancient interpreters interpreted them in light of their canonical composition, with which the original authors were not familiar. Still, the interpretations of the ancient interpreters were and remain formative for Judaism (and Kugel might include Christianity here). Therefore, we should value their interpretations and allow them to inform our understanding of how we view the texts. At this point, readers may feel like they are left with a Neo-Orthodox form of Judaism. Kugel might not be directly influenced by existential philosophy. But he does suggest that in spite of the supposed cogency of higher criticism and the fact that the texts originally had a different meaning than that attributed to them by the Jewish faith, we should still value their traditional meanings. That is, we should still read the texts in the light of the ancient interpreters whose views were formative for later Judaism.

Because of its very readable style, we believe Kugelís book could have the effect of undermining the faith of many in the veracity of Scripture. It will probably lead some to embrace liberal forms of Judaism and Christianity and others to embrace different religions and atheism. The book will certainly not promote the classic Christian faith. But are we simply discounting its higher critical sympathies out of pure prejudice? We do not believe so.

Kugel presents many higher critical views as if they were universally accepted amongst all "modern scholars". However, for this to be true, he must limit his field of scholarship to modern higher critical biblical scholars. Outside this group, there are very meticulous historians that do not agree with the conclusions of these "modern" higher critical "scholars". Kenneth Kitchen and Edwin Yamauchi represent two examples of such historians. Space does not allow us to rehearse their criticisms of all the higher critical views dealt with in Kugelís book. After all, Kugelís book deals with the major higher critical views of most of the biblical books (though he gives the Minor Prophets very short shrift). Still, as an example, we will summarize one of Kitchenís critiques of the higher critical consensus, namely their view of Noahís flood.

Before doing this, we should note that Kugelís book does not even reflect a knowledge of scholars like Kitchen or Yamauchi even though their painstaking historical research has seriously challenged many of the dubious historical claims of "modern scholars". It is here that the instance of the flood is representative of Kugelís approach. Without qualification, Kugel suggests that "modern scholars" believe the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis is built on the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh dates from around the twelfth or eleventh centuries B.C.E., we might also see another implication of this view. That is, higher critics also see this as more evidence that the Pentateuch was not written as early as it claims to be. However, Kitchen has shown that there is no compelling evidence that Genesis borrowed from the Gilgamesh Epic. Instead, the Epic of Gilgamesh itself borrows from a much earlier sourceóthe Epic of Atra-khasis from around the eighteenth century B.C.E.[1] This and other evidence indicates that the story of the flood was a universal story throughout the Mesopotamian world of that time. Thus, there is no clear indication that Genesis borrowed from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Further, the Sumerian king lists are interrupted by the story of the flood, treating it as an actual historical event, not as a myth.[2] None of this evidence is even hinted at in Kugelís book.

Any honest inquirer should read both sides of the story. And reading a world-class Egyptologist like Kenneth Kitchen is a good place to start in evaluating the opinions of "modern scholars" about a whole host of issues presented in Kugelís book. That includes Wellhausenís documentary hypothesis (JEDP). This does not mean that Kitchen, Yamauchi or other historians of their caliber are flawless (consider Kitchenís late dating of the Exodus).[3] However, their excellent historical research often shines out over the poorer historical research from which many modern biblical scholars continue to support the documentary hypothesis and the evolutionary theory of Israelís religion.

This does not mean Kugelís book is without value for those who are trained to throw out its higher critical presuppositions. While I did not find as much literary critical insight into the biblical text as I had hoped, the book has other helpful content. Kugel has included a lot of material that sheds light on the ancient Jewish interpretations of various biblical texts and stories. And for this it is helpful. But that does not mean I would run out to buy the book.

Kugel, with all his erudition, has missed the heart of the Hebrew Bible which is the heart of the Scriptures as a wholeótheir redemptive-historical orientation. That is, they tell us the story of the good news of salvation, a salvation leading to eternal life in heaven. That life which Adam failed to attain, God now gives to his people who trust in him. The Bible unfolds this from its first presentation in Genesis 3:15, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise you on the head and you shall bruise him on the heel". This message unfolds throughout the pages of Scripture the way a plant grows and blossoms. The seed of the woman is seen in the seed of Seth and the seed of the serpent in the seed of Cain. This leads up to the days of the flood when Noah (the seed of the woman) triumphs over the seed of the serpent in the flood. After the scattering of Babel, God called one man, Abraham, as the seed of the woman, from whose seed the final seed of the woman shall come to bring redemption to his people. This seed is then focused in the line of Judah and then in that of David. And in spite of the fall of the house of David in exile, the Hebrew prophets look to the future, in which the final seed of David will bring salvation to the nations. He will bring the final (eschatological) day of eternal wrath and everlasting life in heaven. The only true fulfillment of this promise is found in Jesus Christ. Have the Jews ever promoted any other Messiah who has truly succeeded and fulfilled the ancient promises? No, Christ is that seed, as the gospels proclaim. And he alone fulfills all that the Hebrew Bible contained in substance and foretold in prophecy. In his death, he was bruised on the heelóa heel-wound from which he would rise. In death, he took upon himself the eternal (eschatological) wrath of God for his people. In this act, he also bruised the head of the serpent, dealing him a deadly blow, freeing his people from the powers of darkness. And having satisfied Godís wrath, he was raised from the dead to give life to the world, to those who trust in his name. Even now he gives them eternal lifeólife from his own lifeóhis heavenly life. In his resurrection, Christ possesses the heavenly life, that is, the life of the eschatological age to come. And that life belongs to Godís people even now through faith. They have it now as a semi-realized participation in the life to come. And they look by faith to the fullness of the end, when God will glorify his name forever, crushing Satan under their feet. Christ will be glorified in them through their final triumph and redemption. Satan and his hosts will suffer eternal defeat in everlasting judgment. The instruments of death are dead. But all the seed of the women in Christ will live. They will live, resurrected before the throne of Christ foreveróeternal victors in him.

óScott F. Sanborn


[1] K. A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in its Context: 1. From the Origins to the Eve of the Exodus." Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin 59 (Spring 1971): 3. Available at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/.

[2] Ibid., 3-4.

[3] For a review of Kitchenís work, see James T. Dennison, Jr. On the Reliability of the Old Testament (K. A. Kitchen) in Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 20/2 (September 2005): 47-57. (Excerpt reprinted in New Horizons 26/10 [November 2005]: 23.)