Israel Drazin

Jews, according to J. L. Kugel, shifted in their understanding of God

As is well-known, there are many ways that are used to interpret the Bible. There is even a tradition that there are seventy ways to do so. Seventy was in biblical days a symbolic figure indicating a large number.

Thus, for example, Exodus 1 states that seventy descendants of Jacob came to Egypt even though anyone counting the names will find that there were less than seventy.[1] So, too, the captivity in Babylon was said to be seventy years even though the exile was far shorter than seventy.[2] The Torah according to legend was given in seventy languages.[3] Stones were said to have been placed in the Jordan containing the Torah in seventy languages.[4] Seventy was considered old age.[5] This symbolic number aside, as previously stated, there are many different ways that the Torah can be interpreted. Yet the many ways can be reduced to two general methodologies: (1) reading what the text actually states, and (2) seeking messages or meanings in the Torah which are not explicit, such as seeing the command “an eye for an eye” meaning monetary compensation.

James L. Kugel takes the former approach. The thesis in his book “The Great Shift, Encountering God in Biblical time” is that the Bible describes God in different and evolving ways, depending on when the biblical book or section was composed, and this points to a developing idea about what God is and how God functions, as well as what humans thought about themselves and their abilities.

For example, Genesis 3:8 states that Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking about the Garden [of Eden] at the breezy time of day.” Kugel understands that this depiction of God is different than later ideas. God in Genesis 3:8 is not remote, “nor a deity who inhabits a special temple or shrine reserved for Him, along with a specially trained cadre of priests who serve Him in a state of ritual purity.” God is depicted as being present in the same garden inhabited by the naked humans God created. Still later, Kugel writes, “God is generally just elsewhere and only on occasion crosses over into the world of human beings,” unlike Genesis 3:8 where, “He is already there.” (Emphasis by Kugel.)

Another development is a new view of what God wants. Why, Kugel asks, did Abel’s sacrifice to God of meat gain divine favor while his brother Cain’s gift of vegetables did not (Genesis 4:4-5); and he answers that the ancients, Jews and non-Jews, felt that God liked meat. He points out that the modern concept of a temple being a house of prayer is not the ancient idea; the Bible describes the sanctuary as a place where sacrifices were offered; prayer is not mentioned in association with sacrifices. The early idea about the gods was that the gods controlled nature and needed to be bribed; the ancients didn’t think of the gods as the makers of laws. Later, after the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Jews ceased thinking that God wanted or needed sacrifices.

Kugel asserts that the early Hebrews changed from being convinced that there were many gods to the idea that there is only a single deity. The introductory sentence of the Decalogue, he writes, does not mean “there is no other gods except Me.” Scholars recognize that the Hebrew should not be translated “except Me,” but “in My presence” – “You can’t worship Me and some other god or gods.”

The ancients also did not think that God or gods were all-knowing and all-powerful; and this would explain why God asked Cain where his bother Able was (Genesis 4:9). Kugel also tells us that the ancient Hebrews thought that the Israelite God had power only in Israel, similar to the pagans who had a different deity for every location.

The greatest shift resulted from an understanding of human nature. Why, he queries, did prophecy cease? He explains that this was due to the developed sense of God as no longer being present on earth, a new sense of self and understanding of human capabilities, including knowledge that people can act to control their lives.


[1] See also Bava Batra 123a-123b.

[2] Megillah 11b-12a.

[3] Shabbat 88b.

[4] Sotah 35b.

[5] Moed Katan 28a.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.