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How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now Paperback – October 21, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kugel's tour de force of biblical scholarship juxtaposes two different ways of reading the Bible: the ancient biblical interpretations, ranging from the Book of Jubilees to Augustine, that he explored in The Bible as It Was, and the modern historical approach that challenges the historical veracity of scripture and seeks instead to find its writers' original sources and purposes. It can be a jarring journey for those schooled in traditional views, but what emerges is a fresh, even strange, and very rich view of everything from the Garden of Eden to Isaiah's dream vision of God. Refreshingly undogmatic and often witty, Kugel brings an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Bible to illuminate small points as well as large. He discusses who the ancient Israelites were; the resemblances between YHWH and Canaanite gods; the unique role of the prophet in Ancient Near Eastern religions; the nature of ancient wisdom literature; and what the Bible means when it calls Solomon the wisest of men. The result is a stunning narrative of the evolution of ancient Israel, of its God and of the entire Hebrew Bible, contrasted with ancient interpretations that aimed to uncover hidden meanings and moral lessons. So, for example, for the ancients, the story of Cain and Abel is a tale of good versus evil. For the moderns, it was originally a story of origin, about the relation between ancient Israelites and the fierce Kenites to their south. While Kugel is a traditional Jew, he sees the modern approach as compelling, so the dilemma is whether a person of faith can read scripture in both the old way and the new. Drawing on Judaism's nonfundamentalist approach, Kugel's proposed answer is that the original purpose of the texts and their lack of historical accuracy matters less than their underlying message: to serve God. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Kugel intends his book as a tour through the Hebrew Bible based on an introductory course he taught at Harvard University for more than 20 years. His first aim is to acquaint readers with the contents of the Bible itself, and he points out that by the end of his introductory course, readers will have met all the major biblical figures: Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and Solomon, to name just a few. The book also covers all the major events, from the story of Adam and Eve to the Exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian exile, and Israel's eventual return to its homeland. The book not only focuses on what the text says but on the larger question of what a modern reader is to make of it. Geared to both the specialist and the general reader, this is an indispensable guide to a complex subject. Cohen, George --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (October 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743235878
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743235877
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James L. Kugel, Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003, now lives in Jerusalem. A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation, he is the author of The God of Old and The Great Poems of the Bible. His course on the Bible was regularly one of the two most popular at Harvard, enrolling more than nine hundred students.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

176 of 185 people found the following review helpful By mrliteral VINE VOICE on December 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At first glance, a book titled "How to Read the Bible" would seem like one of those "for Dummies" books that offers simple explanations to an often mysterious tome. It is quickly apparent that James Kugel's book does not actually fit into this category: instead, it is a much more in-depth and insightful look into the Bible (which is to say the Jewish Bible, or to Christians, the Old Testament).

The overall premise of this book is that through the course of history, there have been two general methods of reading the Bible, and that these two methods are often in conflict. First, there is the method of the ancient interpreters, which despite its name, was the dominant methods until relatively recently. For these interpreters, Biblical reading was based on four general assumptions: (1) the Bible is cryptic; that is, what it seems to say may be different from it actually means; (2) the Bible is a book of lessons for readers in their own day; it is not merely a historical text; (3) the Bible is perfect and without contradiction; any seeming error can be explained (assumption #1 is helpful with this); (4) the Bible is the divine word of God.

Modern interpretation, which really began in the nineteenth century, does not adhere to the ancient assumptions. In particular, the modern interpreter views the Bible as a text written by men, with all the flaws that are associated with mortals. This interpreter views the Bible in the larger context of the ancient world to determine how it was constructed.

Take, for example, the story of Jacob and Esau. An ancient interpreter would view the stories of this brotherly conflict as leading to the general hostility between Israel and Edom, the two nations that the siblings were the founders of.
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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful By B. Marold HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
`How to Read the Bible' by the former Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard University is about as different from the similarly titled `How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth' by New Testament professor, Gordon D. Fee and Old Testament professor, Douglas Stuart, and still be a superb read for anyone, especially lay readers, who are interested in understanding the Hebrew scriptures.
Yes, this book deals exclusively with Professor Kugel's specialty, the Old Testament, while the Fee / Stuart book deals with both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Another huge difference is that Professor Kugel not only advises us on how to read the scriptures today, he outlines how they have been read since they were first gathered together, sometime around the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE. The big surprise to us lay readers is that these scriptures were not taken as the perfect inspiration from God, with every statement literally, or at least figuratively true, given the right amount of interpretation. Professor Kugel does not make this comparison, but I suspect that the attitude toward much of the scriptures was very similar to the Achaeans' (early Greeks) attitude toward Homer's `Iliad' and `Odyssey', as national epic poems. Even without modern archeology, it would not have been difficult to detect anachronisms and downright errors when, for example, a Psalm attributed to King David describes events which happened 500 years after his death.
The attitude of `high reverence' for the scriptures developed shortly after the last book, `Daniel', was added to the canon, the era of the last prophet Ezra, and the Maccabean revolt.
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95 of 104 people found the following review helpful By César González Rouco on November 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Kugel's "How to read the Bible" is a masterful work that will join a number of important new works on religion this Fall (for instance, Rodney Stark's " Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief " or Charles Taylor's massive "Secular Age"). I felt like buying it because it offers a comment on the bible from a Jewish scholar point of view, which is a novelty for someone brought up in Spanish Catholic traditions.

After reading this book I much agree with DAVID PLOTZ's review [...], particularly when he states: "Though Kugel surely did not intend this, in its own way, his book proves as devastating to the godly cause as any of the pro-atheism books that have been dominating the best-seller lists in recent months". In my opinion, this is because the author is intellectually honest given that i) although one realizes he does believe in the God of the Bible, however ii) he clearly shows that the ancient interpreters' and the modern scholars' way of understanding the Bible clearly contradict each other; before that iii) he escapes from [in his opinion] non-well argued apologetics to save such a contradiction; and then iv) if I understood him correctly, he tries to square this circle in the last few pages, in the section called "The Very Idea of the Bible" (whether he achieves it or not, or whether his answer may please those who do not follow the Jewish path I let it to each one to decide on his own).

In any event, Kugel's work is a pleasure to read, which is very important for a book 700 pages long plus notes [plus an appendix and bibliography which are available at the author's web site,].
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