October 3, 2017

Encountering God: James Kugel on The Great Shift

By In Interviews

“But if biblical stories are any kind of guide, people in ancient times sometimes encountered God, or at least they thought they did. Moreover, the whole way in which these encounters took place seems quite foreign to the experience of most of us today. My aim in the present study is to try to understand why this is so. The question I wish to answer, using all that we now know about biblical Israel and its neighbors, is: What was the actual, lived reality of God in biblical times, and why have most people lost it today?

– James Kugel, The Great Shift

“Later, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks belonging to Mamre. As Abraham was sitting near the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day.”

– Genesis 18:1, International Standard Version

Purchase Mr. Kugel’s Selected Books:


Biblical scholar James Kugel consolidates a lifetime of research into his new book The Great Shift. The book asks readers to consider why ancients seemed so comfortable and convinced that God could be encountered and why it seems we no longer speak in such ways.

James Kugel was the Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University for twenty-one years. He retired from Harvard to become Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he also served as chairman of the Department of Bible.

A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kugel is the author of more than eighty research articles and fifteen books, including The Idea of Biblical PoetryIn Potiphar’s HouseOn Being a Jew, and The Bible As It Was(this last the winner of the Grawemeyer Prize in Religion in 2001). His more recent books include The God of OldThe Ladder of JacobHow to Read the Bible, awarded the National Jewish Book Award for the best book of 2007, In the Valley of the Shadow, and A Walk Through Jubilees. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and Editor-in-chief of Jewish Studies: an Internet Journal.

OR: Congratulations on the new book, it’s extremely thought-provoking. 

The “Great Shift” of the book’s title is about a shift in our understanding of ourselves, and maybe, even reality. When a contemporary of a Bible writer read about divine encouters, how would they have interpreted them?

JK: I suppose it all depends on who the contemporary was. My sense is that ancient Greeks, for example, conceived of their world, and of their own selves, in ways rather similar to those of ancient Israelites. The divine could sometimes intrude uninvited into the everyday world. Even if most ancient Greeks or Israelites never experienced this personally, they knew that such things did happen; the world was fundamentally uncanny, enchanted. Then, gradually, things began to change in both Greece and ancient Israel and came closer to our own, modern sense of things. But anthropologists have certainly identified somewhat similarly “enchanted” worldviews in contemporary societies in parts of Africa, South America, and elsewhere.

OR: Paralleling this “Great Shift” is how the word soul is meant to be understood. Most everyone today thinks of a soul (if they think of it as all) as a distinct entity from our body. You say that the early biblical authors didn’t see things that way: the earliest words for soul in the Bible were usually used to refer to an individual person or even a whole species. But then, especially in parts of the Psalms and the Dead Sea Scrolls, we see flashes of a new kind of “soul” emerging. At what point did this new sort of soul appear?

JK: There are three Hebrew words that are commonly translated as “soul” in the Bible, and all three were for a long time roughly synonymous; they meant things like “a person,” “a living thing,” or “me,” “myself.” But gradually, these Hebrew terms came to refer to a special part within that person, a part conceived to be connected to, or specially devoted to, God. This change didn’t come about on a rigid timeline, but eventually, this new kind of soul became a sort of spiritual island inside a person. Still later, souls were thought to be capable of leaving a person’s body—at night, for example, while the body was asleep, or after death.

OR:  You seem to have invented the phrase “semipermeable mind” to identify a crucial element in divine encounters. What exactly does it mean—and does it still exist?

JK: Underlying most of the Bible is the belief that human minds can be entered from the outside—by God or, sometimes, by evil spirits. The whole idea of prophecy is that an external God can enter the prophet’s mind and tell him what to say, “put his words in the prophet’s mouth,” to use the biblical idiom. Nowadays, people still pray to God, often in the hope that they may get some sort of answer, so in this sense, the minds of such people are still conceived by some to be “semipermeable.” But in late biblical times, God is also represented as increasingly remote. Prophecy ceased at some point, and God’s messages were increasingly conceived to be found written in sacred Scripture rather than spoken by the live prophet’s mouth. Still, a modern rabbi once observed: “God is still talking; it’s just that we’re not listening.”

OR:  You conclude by quoting 2nd Samuel 7 and then saying, “God has no need of a kingly palace – this is a strictly human demand. But what sort of palace is it be? Since the time of King David (in fact, starting well before then), the divine accommodations have kept changing. And it’s not over yet.” Is there not great danger here? If our apprehensions of God are constantly subject to change, are we at great risk of completely covering the moon with earth’s shadow, as Flannery O’Connor put it? Are there not fixed standards that survive permutations of the self?

JK: Certainly people nowadays are in danger of overshadowing the divine light with their own, bulky selves, as Flannery O’Connor suggested. When I wrote that “the divine accommodations have kept changing,” I meant it in two senses. God’s accommodations—His dwelling-place, as it were—have indeed changed, as humans have conceived of Him as increasing remote. But this word has  another meaning for theologians: it refers to God’s accommodating Himself to human beings by presenting Himself in terms that we humans can understand. I really meant accommodation in both these senses: as we have changed, so have God’s accommodations.

OR: This book is to be the culmination of your work. You’ve had a remarkable career. Are you open in any way to publishing another book?

JK: Well, I’m not quite done, but my next project, at least, will probably interest about a dozen people at most: it’s a commentary on The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a pseudepigraphic Jewish-and-Christian work completed in the first century C.E. or so.

OR: You might be surprised how much interest there could be. 

Thanks so much for your time today and good luck with the book.

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