Talking to God

Renowned Bible scholar James Kugel explores when and why God stopped reaching out to speak with man, and man started reaching out to communicate with God.

A DRAWING by Pierre Brébiette c. 1632 depicting God appearing to Moses (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A DRAWING by Pierre Brébiette c. 1632 depicting God appearing to Moses
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In his most recent book, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times, James Kugel, renowned Bible scholar, professor and author, has set a difficult, if not impossible task. Kugel attempts to understand the actual, lived reality of communication between man and God in biblical times, and why people have lost that relationship today.
Kugel attempts to utilize the findings and insights of modern Bible scholars to enter the world of the Bible and see things as they were seen at that time.
At the outset, he states an important caveat – that The Great Shift is not for everyone. “Many of the things that modern scholars have discovered about the Bible,” he writes, “go against the established religious doctrines of Judaism and Christianity.” Numerous sections of his book express points of view that are contrary to established tenets of traditional Judaism, including how and when the Bible was written, whether the Bible favored monotheism – belief in one God, exclusively – or monolatry, worshiping one deity principally while not denying the existence of other gods.
While readers with a more traditional bent may find the book a bit too heretical for their tastes, those who have fewer compunctions about Jewish beliefs, as well as those traditional-minded readers who feel a bit more adventurous, may enjoy this work.
KUGEL FIRST analyzes the encounters between God and various biblical figures. Hagar, Abraham, Moses, Gideon and Samuel all experienced communication with God via visions, apparitions, messengers, or audio communication.
Others, like Joseph, had relatively little direct contact with a divine source. If these things really happened, asks Kugel, what was it that caused them to cease happening? Did God just lose interest in direct encounters with human beings? While the answer to this question is not immediately forthcoming, at least from the heavenly side, Kugel remains undeterred. He theorizes that in ancient times, people had a lesser “sense of self,” which allowed for “greater penetration” from outside sources, including divine communication. Modern man, he posits, has a greater sense of self, which may prevent such exchanges.
Kugel extends this idea to prophetic visions as well.
Did God tell Jeremiah exactly what to say, or, for example, did he receive an indication of what to say, which he assumed came from God? Perhaps, prophecy is, as he puts it, “a flash of insight that he [the prophet] then elaborated on his own, rather like an inspired poet in modern times.”
While people who “hear voices” are nowadays assumed to have some form of mental illness, Kugel is not convinced that the prophets had such maladies. Conceivably, he suggests, their minds were “semipermeable,” open to receiving communication from the outside, as were the biblical figures, by his estimation.
For Kugel, the ultimate question about prophecy is whether there is any reality to it. The answer, he writes, depends on whether the questioner believes in an external God who can enter a prophet’s mind.
KUGEL THEN turns his attention to man’s need to communicate with God, via the Psalms. Regardless of their provenance, he says, the Psalms serve as an important means for man’s request for divine help. No matter where the divine spirit dwells, God is thought to react to the prayers and cries of human beings who are suffering.
According to Kugel, pure monotheism, the belief that there exists only one true God, cannot be demonstrated to have existed in Israel before the seventh century BCE.
Thus, he says, when the authors of the Psalms called out to God for help, they were addressing a specific God – the God of Israel – who was one among many deities.
Following the biblical period, says Kugel, God came to be characterized by what he calls “the three omnis” – omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent – that is, all-powerful, all-knowing, and existing everywhere at once.
Kugel continues his survey of the developing relationship between man and God and discusses the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and how that transformed Judaism into a religion of laws.
He then turns his attention to Judaism’s belief in the soul and human spirit, expressed in the Bible as neshama, nefesh and ru’ah. In his view, in biblical times these words meant nothing like the word “soul” as we understand the term today.
“People were people,” he writes, and as long as they had breath that entered their lungs and went out again, they were alive and had a “neshama,” referring to the Hebrew word for breath. It was only late in the biblical period, he asserts, that people began to believe that they had something inside them that reflected their spiritual essence.
Kugel describes the novelty of Job and Ecclesiastes among the books of the Bible, in that unlike earlier books, both express some amount of dissatisfaction with the notion that God’s supreme control of reality guarantees that life is fair, righteousness is rewarded and evil is punished. Additionally, he adds, in both books, the protagonist examines his own life and how he fits into the world, something not found in earlier books of the Bible.
With the end of prophecy, the balance shifted, says Kugel. Instead of a God who sought out man from a burning bush, man is now in search of God, via prayers and supplications. God no longer appears to man in visions or miraculous appearances, but rather via the Torah scroll, or through fixed, statutory prayer.
Kugel is an excellent writer, even if one does not always agree with his point of view. He expresses himself clearly, cogently, and with not a little bit of humor, making difficult subjects understandable. He draws from a vast body of knowledge about the Bible, science, history and archeology, as well as contemporary psychological and behavioral research.
As one would expect, the book is amply footnoted, and the notes are easily found and referenced by page sections.
For example, if the reader spots a footnote on page 250 that he wants to read, it is easy to scan the section in the back marked “notes to pages 249-259.” While the book meanders at times, especially when discussing abstract subjects, Kugel sums up each chapter with a sentence or two that clarifies his reasoning.
What then, is his “great shift”? How, when and why did God decide to cease direct communication? Obviously, the answer to that question must be largely speculative.
Kugel is on somewhat firmer footing when dis cussing how man’s approach to God has changed over the centuries, though more traditional points of view would undoubtedly take issue with some of his positions.
Regardless, until such time that the other side decides to initiate further direct communication, we are limited, perhaps, to a paraphrase of the Kotzker rebbe’s (1787-1859) answer to the question, “Where does God dwell?” “God dwells wherever we let God in,” the Kotzker was reputed to have said. In that sense as well, perhaps God communicates with us wherever we let him in.