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How to Read the Bible

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How to Read the Bible

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How to Read the Bible
A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
By James L. Kugel
Free Press, 2007, 819 pages
ISBN-10: 0-7432-3586-X
ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-3586-0

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 16, 2010

From the very beginning, people differed in how they read the Bible. In the fourth century BCE, for example, some Jews called Pharisees taught that the Bible, the Torah, is supplemented by an Oral Torah that was not written down but was binding, and the Torah had to be understood as explained in the Oral Torah. The Pharisees were followed by the rabbis who held the same view. The Sadducees argued against the Pharisees and insisted that there is no Oral Torah: the Torah says what it says, nothing more.

Thus when the Torah states that there should be no light in a person's house on the Sabbath, the Sadducees sat in darkness and without warmth in the winter months. In contrast, the Pharisees taught that the Oral Torah explains that the biblical verse only prohibits igniting a fire on the Sabbath, but people can enjoy the light and warmth of a fire lighted before the Sabbath. Orthodox and many Conservative Jews follow the Pharisaic view. Christians do not accept the Oral Torah at all.

Another controversy about biblical interpretations among people of all faiths is whether the Bible should be taken literally. This is not a new contention. The first Jewish philosopher, Philo, who lived in the beginning of the Common Era, interpreted many parts of the Bible as parables.

There were many other ways of interpreting the Bible. In fact, there is a Jewish tradition that states that there are seventy different interpretations that can be deduced from biblical passages. The number seventy is used to indicate "many."

In the past few centuries the question is: should we understand that the Bible is made up of different documents from diverse sources with dissimilar agendas that were pasted together around the fourth century BCE without removing the differences? If this documentary theory is accepted, it effects how Scripture should be interpreted.

For example, should readers understand that there are two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2? Should they read Genesis as containing two flood tales, one where a pair of each animal enters the ark and the other seven pairs? How should people explain the two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus and a second in Deuteronomy? How should they deal with the fact that the writing style of Deuteronomy is unlike the writing in the other four books of the Pentateuch? What should they understand about the Ten Commandments starting in the first person, "I," and continuing in the second person, "you"?

James L. Kugel, a very popular professor at Harvard University from 1982 to 2003, is a very readable writer. He is well-qualified to address this issue. He explains the documentary theory very clearly and offers many examples to support this theory. Whether people agree with Professor Kugel or not, they will find his book very enlightening and when they finish the book, they will see the Bible differently.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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