Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Early Rabbinic Interpretation of the Bible According to James Kugel
As most of your are aware, I generally listen to a book on tape while running in the morning. My current book on tape is James Kugel's How to Read the Bible. Kugel is a conservative Jew who teaches at Harvard. The book therefore deals with the contrast mainly between Rabbinic (and some patristic) readings of the Old Testament, and the modern liberal, critical view. Kugel is honest enough to point out that if one seems more plausible than the other, it is because different assumptions are present in the interpreter. Amen! Kugel though, definitely believes in critical scholarship and I'm certain at the end of the book we'll get some sort of fact/value split speech about how we can pretend the ancient interpreters were right, when we actually know they weren't. Yeah! A couple of interesting point come from the comparing and contrasting the the two models. 1. The historical-critical method always comes off as special pleading when (ironically!) critically examined. First, Kugel is clear that many of the reading of the ancient interpreters (for example, thinking the serpent in Eden is Satan, thinking of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as the Fall, etc.) go back as far as we can trace interpretation. So, why are we supposed to believe that people ever understood them differently? Oh, but they did! Even if we have no record of it! The second follows from the first. Although the traditional interpretation goes back as far as we can go, the real meaning of the story is always different than the traditional interpretation. Why? Because the original story existed in an imaginary social situation and had a function in that social situation that, although it can't be verified, most certainly falsifies the traditional reading of the text. Again, how are we supposed to have access to this original social setting or take this reading serious? I suspect the answer is A. It bucks against traditional piety, which is a self-authenticating good. If religious traditionalists protest, it's because they're emotional and backward. B. It tends to be Materialistic in it's metaphysical presuppositions, which as modern people we know is intrinsically more rational! Any harmonizing reading assumes that God is the author, so it can't be right. 2. One good thing that Kugel points out is how the ancient interpreters (Rabbinic ones in particular, but some Christians as well) tried to overcome the bad behavior of the Patriarchs. In this case, I think he has a point. The Patriarchs are quite rotten in their personal behavior. But why pretend otherwise? The issue is actually about law and gospel. The Rabbis worked from the rather strange assumption that God elected the Patriarchs (just like he elects anyone) because they were good people. There was a debate among the Rabbis about who exactly merited election for Israel. Was it Abraham or another Patriarch or was it the moral purity of the exodus generation (this last one is especially amusing)? Of course, read in light of the gospel, we can be quite honest about the Patriarchs and how bad they were. After all, so are we! But for the sake of Jesus, "Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness!" Interestingly enough, if you read the Genesis commentary, Luther is rather similar to the Rabbis. He tries to rationalize almost everything that the Patriarchs did. But we need not be dishonest about how bad they were, anymore than we should be about ourselves. Freedom of the gospel is the freedom to admit that we're wrong.