Book Review: Encounters with the Deity

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One important trend in anthropology and sociology is for authors to explain their racial/ethnic/socioeconomic background in order to place their interpretations in context. In many books about religion, especially those by rabbis, it’s easy to know what influences the authors’ thoughts: their biographies generally mention the movement to which they belong. The same is not always true of scholars of religion, something that came to mind when reading James L. Kugel’s excellent, but challenging, “The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The fact that Kugel is an Orthodox Jew doesn’t play a major role in his new work, but it still exerts an influence: his book speaks to humans’ encounters with a deity as something that actually happens.
However, Kugel’s focus is not on whether the stories in the Torah occurred as written because no one can attest to that truth. Instead, he concentrates on the way the people who heard these tales thought about them, especially about how they conceived their relationship to God. The first problem Kugel encounters is that the biblical text contains contradictory thoughts about the nature of God’s connection to humans. For example, the author compares the story of Abraham – who encounters a god with a body who speaks to him – with the religious statements of Joseph, who feels his every move was planned by God, although Joseph never relates a personal encounter with God or says He speaks directly to him. 
Kugel notes that the text does not present Abraham as having an inner life (or at least, it never suggests how Abraham feels when, for example, he’s asked to sacrifice his son), while Joseph not only seems to have a very clear view of himself, but experiences great emotions when dealing with his brothers. The author explains this by suggesting “this difference between the selves of Abraham and Joseph... is paralleled by the difference in the way God acts, or doesn’t, in their two sagas. Joseph, with his fairly modern self, knows of God only as the remote, long-range planner, a God whose universe runs on automatic pilot, obeying rules established long ago. Abraham’s God is altogether unpredictable, threatening at every turn to intervene, telling Abraham what to do, demanding, commanding, intruding at will. Both men believe in God as the great Unseen Causer... but they differ as to how this causality is expressed.” The God of Abraham acts more on whim than plan, while the God of Joseph looks to the long-term results of actions.
In order to discuss biblical characters’ relationships with God, Kugel raises the question of whether the Torah claims there is only one God, or whether the Jewish God is the only one the Israelites are allowed to worship. The author looks at the Ten Commandments to say that God commands the people to worship only this one God, but does not specifically say there are no other gods. According to Kugel, “the text could have easily, and far more clearly, said ‘You are to have no other gods besides Me, because I am the only god – thinking that there are other gods is just stupid.’” This God is demanding “exclusive loyalty” from the Israelites, rather than a change in their beliefs. Additionally, this version of the deity is not characterized by what Kugel refers to as “the three omni’s: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, that is, all-powerful, all-knowing, and existing everywhere at once.” That way of viewing God began in the post-biblical period.
The central focus of “The Great Shift” is the different ways people experienced God over time. Kugel sees the development of this as:
People believed that God could appear on earth in a human form, even though God normally dwelled in another domain (i.e., heaven, or what Kugel calls the other side of the “curtain”). During these encounters, humans were often unable to tell they were speaking to God, rather than a human. When they realized the person before them was God or an angel of God, their first reaction was usually fear. 
God then came to have permanent residence on the other side of the “curtain.” Now, rather than God appearing to people, God sent angels/messengers to bring His message to humans. One example of this is prophecy. Sometimes the messages or visions the prophet received had to be interpreted by God’s agent because their meaning was not always clear.
Finally, God no longer reached out to humans, either in bodily form or by prophecy. Now people began to seek out God – something rarely done in prior periods. In Judaism, the way to grow closer to God became following the written commandments, studying the Torah text and praying at set times, rather than waiting for private divine guidance.
Kugel believes this came about because people grew to see themselves first as unique individuals, rather than primarily as part of a group. This change is reflected in the way Judaism portrayed God’s treatment of sin: rather than punishing large groups for an offense done by a member of their family/tribe/group, people were now only responsible for their own behavior. 
It’s impossible to describe all the material offered in the almost 350 densely written pages of “The Great Shift.” (There are also more than 70 pages of endnotes.) Kugel offers an intriguing, if not entirely convincing, look at the biblical texts and the changes in people’s perception of what it means to encounter God. Anyone interested in biblical studies will find his work well worth reading, whether or not they believe God exists.