Wednesday, February 6, 2008
I'm trying and trying not to get too obsessed with this election season ... but it's HARD. What ends up happening is that I get way too emotionally involved and before you know it I'm yelling at the TV, talking back to the New York Times via laptop screen, and avoiding people I know who don't support my candidate. So, I'm gonna keep it together this time around. All, I'll say is Senator Obama is what this country needs right now. If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination .... well, John McCain's wife will make a beautiful first lady. I just wanted to post a quick review of How to Read the Bible by James Kugel. This book is over 700 pages long -- 691 of text and the rest is reference material. But it is so worth it. The most striking thing about it is its honesty and even-handedness. I believe the author is an Orthodox Jew as well as a renowned scholar who taught at Harvard for a long time. What does that mean? The book is thoroughly researched and contains all different points of view. Sometimes it reads like a legal treatise -- he lays out all the different arguments and takes each one apart piece by piece. It can be very academic at times but Kugel's sense of humor lightens it up. Overall, the book is balanced, well-written and accessible to all readers. Kugel makes me wish I could go to divinity school and study under brilliant guys like him. But this is not the kind of book you're gonna read and shout Hallelujah every two pages. It makes you think and it challenges your beliefs. For example, Kugel points out that there is absolutely no archeological evidence that points to the Exodus ever taking place and that the people of Israel may have lived in Canaan before all this wandering in the wilderness. He also examines the cultural norms of the entire region during biblical times and writes that some of the best-known stories of the Old Testament may exist to serve a utilitarian purpose. Story telling was a way for those communities to explain their present while holding some significance to the past. He also points out that there is much disagreement among scholars about whether Moses wrote the first five books; whether Isaiah was written by one person; that David may not have written the Psalms at all. However, there is enough evidence to quiet the naysayers. For example, the discovery of the Mari tablets near the Euphrates and other archeological finds that coincide with the story of Abraham. Also, discovery of pottery and other artifacts that establish the presence of various peoples of the Bible during certain periods. So what does it all mean? Kugel makes it clear in the beginning that his faith is not swayed by any of this. And I feel the same way. I'm glad that I'm more aware now of what Biblical scholars argue about -- and I pity them. This, to me, is like making sausage. In fact, Kugel writes at one point that some students tend to study this stuff and lose their belief. But I wonder why. My opinon is that the Bible is the word of God but it's also a historical document and if I can't write an accurate account of what happened to me last week then how can a person accurately present a story that was passed down orally from a previous generation, translate it into another language and not make a single error? I know it's not that simple, of course. Apparently there are the Four Assumptions, Documentary Hypothesis and all these other fancy theological concepts discussed in this book that make the arguments more cogent -- and more complicated to me. I will say that this book takes the reader on an intellectual journey that won't soon be forgotten. If you're a firm believer you'll be challenged by what Kugel writes but ultimately you'll be grateful that you have more understanding. Now, I really am prepared to get into an argument with some of these folks out there who say the Bible is just a fairy tale. Ha ha.