Monday, February 07, 2011

James L. Kugel Shows How the Bible Works

Idling after some distraction the other night, I picked up Mrs. B's copy of James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible, in which Kugel with awesome learning yet seemingly without effort, guides is through that great historical anthology that Christians call "the Old Testament."  Kugel wears his formidable knowledge with an ease almost unnoticeable except that it is so different from anything else I've ever encountered in the way of Biblical exegesis.

I fell serendipitously into a summing-up chapter in which Kugel explores the question of when and how "the bible," small-b, a random, disjointed, overlapping compendium of cultural curiosities, becomes "The Bible," the fountainhead of oracular wisdom--in Kugel's apt characterization, subject instead of object.  How did it all happen?  "It did not happen all at once," Kugel explains.  And continues: "In the area of biblical law, for example, apparent contradictions or conflict between laws must have demanded the attention of interpreters from an early period."  He gives the example of  Passover sacrifice; in Exod. 12:8 we are told that it must be "roasted;" Duet. 16:7 says "boiled."  What is the conscientious believer to do?
We know that this contradiction must have bothered people from very early times, since a solution (o sorts) appears even within the Bible itself, in one of the later books.  "They boiled the Passover lamb in fire," reports 2 Chron. 35:13, thereby implying that "boil" in Deuteronomy really meant "roast" (= boiling in fire) as stated in Exodus.
It's a telling catch and it is only the beginning.  Kugel moves on to another early example: the "bailee" who (in one sentence) is absolutely liable to pay for stolen goods is, (in another) allowed to get off with a solemn oath.  "To ancient interpreters," Kugel observes, "it was simly axiomatic that the Bible couldn't contradict itself."   How to deal with the seeming contradiction? "Well obviously," as we might say today, the matter turns on the issue of payment. The paid bailee may be absolutely liable; the unpaid, not.  This is a satisfactory commonsensical solution, until you reflect that it is nowhere specified in the text.  Who wrote it then?  "Well obviously," again (my phrase, not Kugel's), there is only one suspect: God, who may speak in mysterious ways, but who comes to inhabit the text if we have ingenuity enough to tease him out.

Kugel carries this sort of analysis through several telling examples from the "transitional" period --the years around the time of the birth of Jesus, when Judiasm seems to have suffered from a kind of perplexity as some of the old certainties fade away.  Just as strikingly, he shows how the process goes into reverse with the coming of modern Biblical scholarship in the 19th Century--mostly from men motivated to strengthen and  purify the text, but who wound up in spite of themselves taming and desacralizing it, returning it from subject to object once again.

It's a bravura display and it struck me--this is old stuff, but still it struck me--how much this process resembles what we do every day in law, particularly in "prestige law," where people take seriously the task of teasing a coherent meaning out of a raw and ungainly text.   When Elena Kagan (for example) takes a dog's breakfast of a statute and exposes its inner order, she seems to do it with the kind reverence that you might expect from people trying to touch the hidden God.  It's an amazing process to watch and Kugel does a delightful job of suggesting a bit about how it works.

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