The Bible as It Was, by James L. Kugel

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The Bible as It Was, by James L. Kugel

Every once in a while a book comes along which has the possibility of truly modifying our understanding of a text which has more written about it than any other text in existence. The book, The Bible as It Was, by James L. Kugel, is a very valuable, well written, and important document in the quest for understanding not only how Tanach came to be, but also the crucial need for understanding how interpretation comes to be.

The Tanach has the characteristic of being all things to all people in all circumstances, all the time. Using multiple sources, focusing on multiple levels of analysis and interpretation, the author is able to coax out of Tanach the fullness of the oral tradition. This is truly an impressive work, which at its heart represents the hermeneutical circle. The hermeneutical circle discussed by such scholars as Gadamer, Hirsch, and Palmer essentially says that to read, one must understand; yet, to understand one must read. Kugel gives the reader a context for understanding how the original redactors and editors of the massive oral text that would eventually become the biblical canon.

As a scholar of rhetoric and Jewish Studies I find this book to be of exceptional usefulness. It provides both the scholar and the lay person with resources and understanding difficult to reach in works like Louis Ginsberg's The Legends of the Jews or the more traditional work of Sefer Ha-Aggadah. Tanach, like other works derived from oral tradition, contains layer upon layer of interpretation. At the same time it underwent significant redaction from original sources; that very process removed essential contexts which might have permitted more complete comprehension of the oral. Kugel has begun the process of recapturing for us the original. In 25 chapters and an epilogue we see an outline of the Bible stories as they developed into what we know today.

Kugel's analysis is remarkable in its ability to see the layer upon layer of interpretation as well as the core concepts embedded in the text of the Tanach. Through his intriguing analysis and explanation the reader is able to get through those layers to the essence of the biblical story. The variety of perspective used as evidence in this work covers Jewish, pagan, and Christian sources. This breadth of approach permits the reader a continuum of vision that permits multiple levels of comprehension.

The usefulness of this approach is evident in the chapter on "The Life of Torah." In the discussion on divorce we clearly see the continuum at work. Kugel sets out using first primarily Jewish sources the perspective that divorce is permitted and second that divorce is not permitted from primarily Christian sources referring to Jewish sources. Sections are subtitled "Necessary Paperwork," "No Divorce -- Except for Indecency," and "Any Old Reason Is Valid. …