Kugel Riffs on Biblical Poesy

As professor of Harvard's perennially popular Literature and Arts C-37, "The Bible and Its Interpreters," James L. Kugel is perhaps best known to undergraduates for his light-hearted personality and tendency to sing "Happy Birthday" to students in class. He is also known, however, as one of America's foremost Biblical scholars, an authority on issues from historical interpretation to translation. His 1997 book, The Bible As It Was, a history of biblical interpretation in antiquity, was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award and a popular favorite. In his latest release, The Great Poems of the Bible, Kugel again tries to recreate the spiritual and psychological imagination of the ancient Israelites for a contemporary audience. The result is an introductory book to the Bible as erudite as it is accessible, as grounded in historical scholarship as it is refreshingly, thoughtfully new.

Don't be fooled by the book's title, though, for Kugel's book is not a close reading of biblical poetry. Indeed, the psalms, songs, proverbs and prophecies that serve as the "subjects" for each chapter are little more than jumping-off points for explorations of more general Biblical ideas. An excerpt from the book of Amos, for example, gives Kugel the opportunity to discuss the nature of the Biblical prophet, while the quotation itself receives only minor attention. And, while famous Psalm 137--"By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept"--allows Kugel to comment on exile as well as to question the traditional dating and translation of the poem, he fails to address why this particular psalm has achieved so much literary fame.

Once the reader resigns himself to Kugel's rather perfunctory treatment of literary topics, he can then begin to enjoy Kugel's luxurious strolls through the Biblical forest. As the author points out a flower here, a bird there, all the while quoting liberally from diverse sections of Scripture, the fascinating nuances of Biblical thought are enlivened and made relevant to the modern reader. Sometimes Kugel dips into our own popular culture to clarify an idea, such as his citation of The Wizard of Oz as an example of theological disillusionment for which there is no Hebraic equivalent. At other times, he writes with a contemporary lyricism that brings to life, however anachronistically, the thoughts and feelings of an ancient people: "what we are actually given to know about God from the Bible no consistent and harmonious portrait but rather a set of often out-of-focus, and sometimes apparently contradictory, snapshots, action photos from different angles and in different lighting." As the author of his own translations, Kugel pays special attention to issues of philological and linguistic debate and includes detailed notes on his own poetic renderings. Indeed, it is often through these remarks on verbal etymology and evolution, rather than in passages of criticism, that the reader gains the most insight into the complexities of textual interpretation.

When Kugel does pay close attention to the text, however, the results are exciting. In what is by far the most satisfying chapter in the book, "Solomon's Riddles," Kugel elucidates the hidden meanings of several Hebrew "mashals," two-part proverbial sentences that provided the "basic building blocks of wisdom" for the Israelites. In any mashal, Kugel asks, "What is the relationship between A and B?" A puzzling proverb requires thoughtful contemplation before its meaning becomes clear. Take Proverb 26:23, for example: "Like thick glaze on a cheap pot, ardent lips and an evil heart." "The thick glaze [of the pot] deceives the eyes," Kugel elegantly summarizes, "but underneath is crumbling clay." Similarly, "however much the lips of a flatterer or hypocrite may say pleasing things, underneath them is an evil schemer."

For those with a working knowledge of the Bible, Kugel's introductory text may not have anything new to say; indeed, Kugel often lets the Scripture speak for itself, including lengthy passages but neglecting to analyze or comment on them. Those seeking a rigorous examination of the Bible's unique poetic forms should look elsewhere. However, if an unchallenging journey through the imaginative universe of the ancient Israelites sounds appealing, there is probably no better travel guide than this graceful text.

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