Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Understanding the Misunderstood: The Bible

I had the pleasure of listening to the illustrious and brilliant scholar James Kugel not once today, but twice! I mean, this is the man behind The Bible As It Was and How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. I've known his name for years, and every time an amazing scholar enters my orbit, I'm elated. Kugel's big thing is understanding the Bible by understanding those who understood the Bible. Is that confusing? It shouldn't be. Kugel focuses on the evolution of how people understood the Bible and how we understand them and the Bible ourselves. Still confused? Okay, let's do this. Let's talk about what people call the "outside books," those that ended up in the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha. These books essentially attempt to understand the books of the Bible with a particular end in mind.

Kugel sees four points by which people in ancient times (he offered that it likely was around 500 BCE) started to look at the Bible:

  1. The Bible is fundamentally cryptic
  2. The Bible is a book of lessons -- aim is not merely history, but guidance
  3. All texts agree with one another, there is no contradiction
  4. All texts are divinely inspired
Okay, so that's good and well, right? But what does it mean for us. Let's look at an example.

In the beginning -- that is, in Genesis -- Adam is told that if he eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he surely shall die. If you recall the story, Adam ate from the tree and didn't die. So what gives? Assuming that the Bible is cryptic, there's a greater meaning here. Assuming the Bible is a book of lessons, there's a lesson here. The text can't be a contradiction, so we have to figure that out, and the text is divinely inspired, so it just has to work. Let's work this out.

Two books -- especially the books of Ben Sira and Fourth Ezra -- tackle this issue in their own special way. The idea is that the "you surely shall die" bit is understood as you are now a "person who WILL die." The assumption, then, is that before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they were meant to be immortal, and after eating from the tree they didn't die instantly, but the result of the sin is that they're meant to die eventually. Then we quip, what about that Tree of Life, then? Was that something from which they would have needed to eat every now and again in order to stay invigorated during eternal life? But let's not go there.

Then we have to ask -- because every explanation in the "outside books" and other commentaries always produces and equally frustrating question -- what about divine justice? Just because Adam and Eve screwed up and their punishment was eventual death, why should their descendants be visited with the sins of the fathers? After all, elsewhere the Bible talks about this not being the protocol. The explanation is simple: It wasn't the act, but the inclination to sin evident in Adam and Eve, that makes us mortal and insists upon eventual death. 

So we figure out the cryptic meaning, the lesson (inclination to sin = bad), the contradiction in the text is gone (even the visiting of sins of the father on the sons), and because all of those items are qualified, the text is provable (er, cough) as divinely inspired. Right? Right. Oh that feels so good. 

Kugel emphasizes the fact that texts are not, despite what we might want to think, immutable. This, of course, is incredibly vivid in my experience as a blogger -- people bring their baggage with them to every post, every text I write up. I can't change that, I can only embrace it and hope that it works itself out in a productive (and not destructive) way. I'd say 60 percent of the time it does, and the other 40 percent, it doesn't. Sometimes, what people bring to a text is far more destructive than productive. 

When considering the Bible and its extant texts, it is clear in the "outside works" that the authors have their own baggage at the table with them while writing/gleaning/revealing the text. We have expectations for texts depending on the genre we identify it as. Kugel gave the example of a letter, which starts "Dear ..." He said, "Dear?! We barely know each other!" The assumption, however, is that within the genre of the letter, "Dear" is a simple, typical, benign letter opener. But you look at a text and see it as a genre and you make your suppositions about it based on that information. 

So, I guess the same could be said for my blog. People come here, see it as a blog post written by me, probably with the assumption that it's about me, for me. Added that you have the baggage that an individual chucks with them, and that's what makes for a recipe for disaster. 

It's a delicate balance, and the theory works for anything and everything that is written -- be it Bible or a blog post. 

Stay tuned! I also want to blog about what he had to say about the two instances of G-d telling Avram to go forth (lech lecha!) and how Jubilees and other texts happen to reconcile the issue. It's fascinating, and maybe I can talk @DovBear into letting me chuck this and the upcoming post on his blog. 

And now? I'm going to finish up what's on my agenda for the night and try to track down a copy of "Life of Brian." Kugel quoted some hilarious lines from the Sermon on the Mount scene regarding the cryptic nature of the Bible :) The great thing about Kugel is that he's 100 percent brilliant, and his knowledge of language and the history thereof is not to be compared. Oh, and he has the perfect balance of jokes/information to keep his listener informed and involved. I only hope to have such mad skills as a teacher someday. 

Sidenote: Of Philo, regarding his birth and death dates, Kugel said: "In one era, and out the other!" I was rolling!