In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with James Kugel about what the Bible tells us about understanding God as they explore the following questions:
- How is God portrayed in the Bible?
- What does our sense of self have to do with how we view God?
- What is the importance of the early religious thinkers in how we understand the Bible?
- How do we see a shifting view of God within the Bible?
- What is a collective identity?
- What was the understanding of sin during the biblical period?
- What is the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs?
- When did people start understanding God as omnipresent?
- What was the function of prayer in the biblical period?
- Can the Bible teach us what God is like?
- What is mitzvot?
- What is the importance of practice in understanding God?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from James Kugel you can share.
- “Look at much of the Bible – these people seem to be living in a different reality from ours.” — James Kugel
- “People in different places and in different periods have very different ways of conceiving of themselves and consequently they perceive things differently.” — James Kugel
- “If you just look at much of the Bible, these people seem to be living in a different reality than ours.” — James Kugel
- “In a sense, biblical prophets are rather like poets.” — James Kugel
- “The human being never quite disappears from our thinking about God.” — James Kugel
- “People have these basic assumptions about what they’re capable of doing, how they fit into the world, and those assumptions are not universal. They change from place to place and from time to time and clearly in earlier times in ancient Israel people did perceive things differently.” — James Kugel
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: The Great Shift
- Book: Exodus for Normal People
- Class: Beyond the Prince of Egypt
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music plays, then fades as speaker begins]
Jared: Well, before we get started with today’s episode, I just want to mention that the second book in our series in The Bible for Normal People, Exodus for Normal People is out now. So, Pete, why don’t you give us a word about it?
Pete: Yeah, this book is all about trying to get into the really difficult and challenging stuff of the book of Exodus, looking at it through ancient eyes and also through how scholars have dealt with some of these challenging parts. And it’s a book that I hope you like and I hope you love and it was fun to write it and I’m really excited about it.
Jared: So, go now to https://peteenns.com/books/exodus-for-normal-people-book/, you can learn more, you can order the book from there, or you can go online wherever you might order books and find it, Exodus for Normal People. Really excited to have this accessible commentary on the book of Exodus available for you now, https://peteenns.com/books/exodus-for-normal-people-book/.[Transition music plays, then fades as speaker begins]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. You’re in for a treat today. We have a repeat guest, a rare and special honor for a few of our guests, it’s Dr. James Kugel, Professor Emeritus from Bar Ilan University as well as Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, which is where Pete would have met Dr. James Kugel. And today, we’re going to be talking about shifting perspectives on God in the Bible.
Pete: Yeah, this is an issue that’s really, if you stop to think about it, this is pretty fundamental. Like, how God is portrayed in the Bible, and not just how but like, why? Why do people talk about God the way they do in the Bible which is somewhat diverse, it’s varied, it’s not just one way. But then, you know, the larger question of why we think about God the way we do and how we sometimes have difficulty connecting with the way God is presented in the Bible. And you know, most people I’ve run into have a problem –[Laughter]
With bringing those two things together. And what’s really interesting, and we’re going to let Kugel tell this the way he wants to tell it, but one of the things that really comes into this that makes it such a sort of thick and rich discussion is that it’s also how we look at ourselves that affects how we look at God and sometimes it’s hard to know the direction of influence, but maybe we don’t have to worry about that too much, Jared.
Jared: I appreciated the conversation because it allows for this evolution of who we are and how that changes how our perspective on God is, and that we see that in the Bible itself, which is something we keep coming back to, is that there is kind of nothing new under the sun. That in the same way, even personally, our views of God shift as we have different view of ourselves and new views of God, we see that in the Bible as well. So, I appreciated that perspective in this conversation. All right, let’s have this conversation with Dr. James Kugel.[Music begins to play]
Jim: We don’t really espouse anymore, this collective punishment. As Ezekiel says and Jeremiah says, “don’t say that Proverb anymore that the fathers ate unripe fruit and the teeth of the children are set on edge.” In other words, the children are being punished for what the fathers did. At a certain point, we stop believing in what’s called transgenerational or vicarious punishment.[Music ends]
Jared: Well, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you back again!
Jim: Well, it’s great to be back again.
Pete: Yes! Well, Jim, we’re talking about this great shift and maybe one way of getting into it is let’s just sort of take this in order, like, what happened before this great shift? How did the Bible sometimes talk about God?
Jim: Well, I think for most people we’ve developed a kind of reflex of, you know, I won’t really take this stuff literally or, you know, other ways of reckoning with the material. But it just, look at much of the Bible – these people seem to be living in a different reality from ours. And eventually, I came to focus on what scholars call the human sense of self. The idea that we carry around in our brains and their conception of us as human beings. It’s not a universal phenomenon is what I’m trying to say. People in different places and in different periods have very different ways of conceiving of themselves and consequently they perceive things differently. I know this is going to sound like a bit of an apology for our now outdated ways, but that isn’t the point at all.
It’s really that people have these basic assumptions about what they’re capable of doing, how they fit into the world, and those assumptions are not universal. They change from place to place and from time to time and clearly in earlier times in ancient Israel people did perceive things differently.
Jared: So, can you maybe clarify that a little bit? In some ways what I’m hearing you say is how a culture or society or people conceive of God, you also have to think about how they conceived of themselves because there is this inner relationship. Of course, in the Protestant tradition John Calvin makes this point in the first part of his Institute of the Christian Religion. Sort of how we view God depends in some ways on how we view ourselves and how we view ourselves depends upon how we view God. So, there’s a shift, is what I’m hearing you say, in the way people perceived themselves maybe from the time when the earliest traditions and parts of our Bible were written down and passed along and how it is now. Could you talk about maybe what some of those things, and maybe I’m jumping the gun here, but maybe give people a sense of, you know, how is that different or how would they have seen it back then that would have had led to a different view of God or perspective of God?
Jim: Well, I guess it might be good, you know, clearer if I just mentioned some of the differences. When I got interested in this subject, I wanted to know what people in other disciplines, other branches of learning and universities know about our sense of self. And one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that it used to be that people thought there was some sort of clearing house in the human brain through which all information flows. It was the clearing house in a sense, not only that they got the information, but there must be some part of the brain where all the, you know, sense inputs and memories and all the other things that we seem to be perceiving are put together to make a picture. And Descartes, who’s not exactly all that recent, he supposed that the pineal gland was really the site of where all this information came together and was synthesized into a picture. It turns out he was wrong, that gland is mostly responsible for giving us melatonin and putting us to sleep at night, but the idea remained that there was some sort of central part of the brain that put everything together and now I think most neuroscientists agree that that’s an illusion. There isn’t any one particular spot that, nor is there one particular way of conceiving of ourselves. Each society has, as I was saying, kind of makes it up as, constructs itself that we then embrace because, you know, we’re human beings and we start off as kids and we’re taught a whole way of understanding the world around us. So, that in a way begs the question, why, you know, why is it that people stop thinking about themselves and started thinking differently? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for why, but I think the Bible is full of evidence of this great shift taking place. At first, human beings used to think of themselves more in collective terms than as individuals. And now, we are very much individuals. But, you know, in the Bible, for example, we’re told that God will punish people for not only whatever wrong they did, but for their whole family or some other group of people with whom they’re associated. You may remember it says that even in the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, God will visit punishment on people who have violated these commandments up to three or four generations. So, in other words, you know, your great grandchildren could be completely innocent. Whatever they did, they’ll, they may be bearing the punishment of some others. Right now, I think there are very few people, in fact, we have the biblical evidence of this shift taking place. We don’t really espouse anymore this collective punishment.
You know, as Ezekiel says and Jeremiah says, “don’t say that Proverb anymore that the father’s ate unripe fruit, and the teeth of the children are set on edge.” In other words, the children are being punished for what the fathers did. At a certain point, we stopped believing in what’s called transgenerational or vicarious punishment. But that, in turn, reflects some big change in us. We started thinking of ourselves much more as individual and individual beings and much less as great amorphous bodies or people or tribe or whatever it is.
Pete: So, would you say then, that, I mean, this might be a chicken and egg kind of question, but it seems like how humans conceive of this sense of self, how they see themselves, affects how we think of God, and is that sort of the order? Is that a causal link? I mean, maybe that’s something we can’t even ask. But it seems like, you know, to explain Ezekiel’s non-transgenerational view of punishment vis-à-vis the Decalogue which clearly has it, it might not be enough to say, well, their views of God are changing. It might, we have to work into this, I think you’re saying how they just understood what it means to be human.
Jim: Oh, I thought you were going to go in the other direction and say that once they begin to have a different conception of God, they began to think differently about their fellow humans. I don’t think we really have a chronology to explain those things. But it is, you know, I guess a fairly undisputed fact that the depiction of the human being as an individual as opposed to part of a collective is pretty easy to find in the Bible. I mean, I mentioned the, you know, Decalogue but then there’s, I think there are much more spine-chilling illustrations of this. There’s a fellow in the book of Joshua named Achan and he violates the provision of God. And when it’s discovered that he has violated this provision he has taken from the herem, the material, the goods that were supposed to be destroyed in battle and put them aside for himself – this seems to have happened more than once – then he gets punished. He gets killed. But it doesn’t stop there – his wife, his children, his livestock, they all get killed. And they didn’t do anything, but they’re related to Achan and that seems to say he must somehow have been identified with his larger family and they with him. Or to take maybe a more common example, at a certain point in Genesis, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, avenge their sisters having been raped by going into the town of Shechem and killing all the adult males. And, you know, what did they do? Convict the rapist and kill him, by all means! Maybe even his father, but to kill the entire town seems really over the top to us. But that’s because, you know, we don’t have much left of this collective identity that was very uncommon back then.
Jared: Well, and one of the more practical things that I think was really insightful in looking through your book is some of the practical realities of this shift. As we start to think of ourselves more individually, and we see this in the Bible, there’s also this shift in how our, how we think of our bodies and our minds as either being, you know, open or permeable to outside influences when you have this collective idea versus when you’re a kind of solid individual that you don’t have a lot of these permeability aspects of your mind. Can you speak to that idea of how this shift to, toward individuals, individual beings with clear physical boundaries played out in kind of the spiritual realm and our minds and how supernatural beings can interact with us?
Jim: Well, I think I can mention a specific text and one that also demonstrates the fact that this great shift didn’t park on a dime, it didn’t just change direction immediately, it came bit by bit. And there’s a book that was written towards the end of the biblical period, but it never made it into our cannon of texts. It’s called the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a testament in the sense of the last will and testament of Jacob’s twelve sons. It’s, I mean, a fake. We know that this wasn’t really written by Jacob’s sons, but it was by somebody who wanted to use the twelve sons of Jacob as examples of proper or improper behavior. And one thing that really obsessed the author was to know what really brings human beings to sin? Just, is it, does it come from somewhere inside me or does it come from some marauding spirits flying around and that you can’t see but they see you and they can enter your mind and make you do things that you really would rather not do? Well, this book is actually pretty late. It goes back to maybe the late 2nd or early 1st century before the Common Era. But in this book, there are two different explanations. One of them is there’s something inside me that makes me go wrong. But it really must be, you know, my fault and we can identify even the author. One of them is also part of some Christian Bibles, Ben Sira, or Sirach as he’s sometimes known lived right around the beginning of the 2nd century before the Common Era, maybe 170 or 180 BCE. And he quotes the opinion of earlier people who said, you know, if we sin it’s because we somehow cause ourselves to sin. We have an inclination that we’re born with, to do evil. We may not like to admit it, but you know, I really wanted that, so I just took it. And don’t tell me anybody else made me take it, I did it on my own. But in that same book, same Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, some of his other characters are saying the opposite. That there are these external spirits that invade our minds from the outside. In a sense, both of these explanations are still around. I would say they’re, if I had to guess, I would say the idea of the first version that sinfulness comes from within me is now-a-days, at least most of the western world basically accepted. Although, you know, there are still people who quite seriously think that the devil is an external force who somehow causes us, tempts us into sinning. But the most people I guess give the rap to ourselves. One way or the other, that’s what you find way back in the 2nd century. The author of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs was someone who fervently believed in alien spirits. I think if you really put the question to him, he would say “of course they exist.” But in the language that he uses in some of his comparisons, it seems he’s really not sure. Sometimes one son will say one thing in his testament, and another will say something quite different.
Pete: So, are we at a period of, like, transition here historically? Is this –
Jim: You mean, us now-a-days? Or…
Pete: No, us humans. Looking at the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, are we at a point there historically in this Hellenistic period perhaps of a, like, we’re seeing this shift happen? Is that what’s happening here?
Jim: I think that’s a very good way to put it. I think maybe your answer suggested that it had to do with Hellenization of the triumph of Greek military and culture over, you know, a number of its neighbors including the people of Israel. So, if that’s, if that’s so, maybe we are indeed watching things change. But it’s a bit of a problem, because sometimes things seem to change and then they really don’t.
I gave the example of punishment, vicarious punishment, you know, punishing people who aren’t directly guilty of the sin, and if that was a changing point, you know, somewhere in the middle of the biblical period, we’d be tough, you know, it’d be hard to explain the book of Esther in which without any apology, Esther, you know, asks when the king asks her if she has anything else she wants him to do. “Yeah, well, you’re gonna kill about 75,000 other people just because,” there isn’t any actual reason given. So, these things do, you know, shift back and forth but I think we’re definitely in a different place when it comes to transgenerational and vicarious punishment nowadays.
Pete: Yeah, it’s hard to, and we should not give into the temptation to find sort of a clear evolutionary development of some such thing in the biblical stories themselves because it sort of has fits and starts and some things maybe catch on and then – people are idiosyncratic, even in the Bible, you know? They have ways of thinking about things that not everyone agrees with, even in the same period, I guess.
Okay, before we go too far afield with this, can we just back up and help us understand what maybe the prophetic voice or the prophetic literature, how that contributes to this discussion of how people perceived of the reality of God.
Jim: Well, I’ve always thought that it’s instructive to look at other cultures because there are some things that cross over pretty easily. Ancient Greek literature, specifically Homer, the poet begins his poem by what’s now called rather unsanitary language, the invocation of the muse. But Homer starts off not by invoking the muse, but he’s just asking for help. I want to tell this story, but I really can’t tell it on my own. I just don’t have the tools or the ability, you have to inspire me. And so, he calls on the appropriate muse and that’s how he starts off. Sometimes, I admit, these things come to be a cliché, maybe even in those days or a little bit later, a lot later, in Latin you have, you know, Virgil invoking the muse, but I think even back then, you know, you needed help to be a poet. I think if you actually talked to some real poets nowadays, they might say the same thing. I remember a conversation once with the now departed Israeli poet, Heine, said well, you know, I don’t really know about actually being inspired, but “what happens to me,: he said, “is I have to be given the first line of the poem, and after that I can write it on my own.” And I think, I think poetic inspiration is something rather akin to prophetic inspiration. In fact, it’s sort of interesting to think about how biblical poets, biblical prophets seem to write in what we would call verse, you know? They have their measured sentences that, you know, give you that sense that the whole thing is being spoken in verse. The lines are pretty much the same length, though they don’t quite match anybody’s formula, and they also invoke God and ask for his help to say this or that. So, in a sense, biblical prophets are rather like poets, not altogether the same, but there is a definite similarity.
Jared: Okay, so, I want to go back to talking about, we have this great shift of how people conceive of themselves in, from permeable, you know, permeable, collective senses of self to more boundaried or individuals, but we hinted at this a minute ago in terms of influence maybe of Hellenism, but when did this happen and what caused it?
Jim: You mean from us to have that collective sense to –
Jared: Yeah, this great shift.
Jim: Yeah. Well, I actually like the word shift as opposed to change because shift seems a little bit vaguer and what I was trying to suggest is that at most one step forward and maybe half a step back. So, it’s hard to, you know, put a particular label on it and especially hard because we’re talking about the different aspects of this shift. I mean, the obvious thing that changed, perhaps the most obvious is how people began to conceive of God differently. It, you know, reading back in the book of Genesis or Exodus, it seems sometimes that God is, you know, basically human sized. Now that I think about it, Moses descends on Mount Sinai according to the account in Exodus next to, I’m sorry God, next to Moses, and he stood right next to him. That’s rather human sized God and it’s only much later of a time we’ll say the latter part of the book of Isaiah that he has a remarkably different sense where God is just huge, and he says you see the heavens are my throne and the earth is a little footstool or ottoman that I put my feet up on. That’s a huge God. It’s not, however, an omnipresent God. You really don’t find that there. That only comes after a later stage of this great shift, which is really, for the most part, after the Bible, postbiblical. Then suddenly God is what I call the three omni’s – omnipresent and also omniscient and also all powerful.
Jim: But getting back to these, the first – God isn’t omniscient in much of the Bible. To take, I don’t know, it’s maybe an extreme example, but you know, there’s the story of Cain and Abel and God somehow doesn’t know where Abel has gone after Cain has murdered him and buried him in the ground. So, he asks Cain where is Abel? This very much troubled later biblical interpreters because if, you know, God is asking it would seem he doesn’t know. And then he apparently approaches to the place where Abel has been buried and now he’s close enough to hear the sound of the voice of Abel coming up from the ground. And then he turns to Cain and says, “I see, I see what you’ve done,” but that means I didn’t see before. Well, later on towards the end of the biblical period, this was just intolerable. God was huge, but God was also omniscient. So, we had to find a way to explain why an omniscient God would say “where is your brother, Abel?” And it becomes among ancient biblical interpreters a story of God who knew perfectly well, but wanted to trip Cain up in his own words. So, he says, you know, Cain says, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And God said, “well, that’s exactly what I wanted you to say. Now, you have to understand what the depth of your depravity in killing your own brother.”
Pete: So, that’s a step beyond the huge deity where the heavens are God’s, heavens are the throne of God, his footstool or some such thing. Right. This is a step beyond that.
Jim: Well, you’re right to connect those two –
Jim: Because God is indeed so huge then he presumably is able to simultaneously keep track of everything humans are doing everywhere.
Pete: Well, let me ask a question that I think is going to come up in some people’s minds about this and they may be quick to point out – listen, Jim, at the very beginning of the Bible you have this huge deity in Genesis 1. It’s sort of a cosmic button pusher and makes everything.
I mean, I think there’s a historical/critical explanation for that but why don’t you give yours if, whatever that may be, because it sort of begins with a huge God and then we get to the God of the Adam and Eve story and of Cain and Abel where God is basically figuring things out. You know, he’s plan A doesn’t work, you know, let’s make animals to give Adam some companionship. Well, that’s a bust. I know what I’ll do. I’ll put him to sleep, I’ll take his side, I’ll make a woman and Adam wakes up and he goes, finally, you got it right now. This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; and the flood is like if, this isn’t working at all, I have to start over. You have that kind of a, like you said, the human voice that people hear, you have a very humanlike kind of God, but I don’t know if Genesis 1 quite fits that portrayal.
Jim: Right. I mean, I wouldn’t want to push the point, but plenty of modern scholars say we can’t use this material to understand chronology, the order in which things are presented and not necessarily the order in which things evolved.
Jared: So, just to be really clear, what we’re saying is, you know, in biblical critical scholarship, the reason why that portion we begin our Bibles with was probably written later and then added to the front of our Bible to start it in the way that the final editors and redactors wanted it to start, but you do see that distinction in this distant, big God at the beginning in those two creation stories there in the second chapter when it seems like we’re starting over, we’re getting maybe an older portrayal of God as one who’s more humanlike and smaller. And so, we have to make sure we take into account the editing of the text and not try to read it chronological. And when we do that, based on what critical scholars have concluded, it actually kind of fits your thesis here of this evolving depiction of who God is and how, you know, big God is and how humanlike God is. Is that a fair way of summarizing that?
Jim: I won’t object to your formulation, but what I guess I’d say is when I read that chapter one of Genesis, it sems to me more and more that it’s not really about the creation of the world so much as it’s about the Sabbath. That it’s, you know, that all the elements that make up our reality are divided into six units, presumably reflecting the order in which they were created, but all the better to say at the end God rested on the seventh day and so should you.
Jared: Okay. So, let’s go back though, to this idea of the, because I think that will be new for people to say yeah, go back in your Bible. We don’t see really an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God – that is, comes later and is postbiblical and I really appreciated what you said about this Isaiah passage because it seems to be, as Pete was saying, it seems to be a transition moment where we have a very humanlike God and then we get this big, you know, outsized sort of God and then that God gets even more powerful and big in the postbiblical world. Is that kind of the evolution as you see it?
Jim: Well, yes, but I think I would also say, I guess philosophers are not unfamiliar with this problem that a God who is everywhere is also, in some sense, nowhere. You know, you can’t enter into his presence because he’s already been there. So, I think people have wrestled with the implications of this omnipresent God. One thing you do find, again, in postbiblical texts but pretty close to the end of biblical times is that there are various angels whose job it is to patrol around all of humanity and the whole world and then report back to this omnipresent God and that way, you can sort of balance the implications of his omnipresence with the reality that really seems to undercut it. So, that would be one of my turning points anyway.
Pete: So, a reality we experience which we don’t really experience this omnipresent God. There’s sort of a gap between what we think God is like and the fact that we don’t experience God that way. We might believe it, but we don’t really feel it and that’s a very different kind of thing than God is sort of up there and out there someplace and makes cameo appearances who knows when.
That’s even, that’s a little bit easier to stomach, so to speak, than a God who’s all-knowing and, well, it gets us to the problem of evil which we’re not going to get into here, but you know, God knows everything and is all powerful and, but we don’t experience that way. Which, I think could bring us, you know, even if we touch on it just briefly on just the nature of prayer and how that might’ve changed with respect to how people were perceiving God.
Jim: Well, yeah, I think prayer is one of the areas the most clearly reflects this shift. Back in the olden days, the pre-shift text that we have, prayer is pretty much a cry for help or if help has come, then the offering of thanks. But you know, as time went on and people became individuals, it’s striking that at the same time God became more distant, you know, people could call on God for help, but really for the first time in the development of Israelite religion you have people who aren’t praying to ask for anything in particular. They are, as the common idiom says now, in search of God. He’s more remote and sometimes just somehow establishing contact with this remote God is all a person could ask for or want. So, we develop prayers again, just after the close of the biblical period where people get up in the morning and pray. They don’t have requests for anything, they just want to thank God for bringing up the sun and starting a new day for us. And sometimes, prayers on the other end of things too when we’re about to sleep and people will pray to have a peaceful sleep and be able to thank God the next morning –
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jim: Or the need to thank God now as the day ends. So, this is quite a different reality. Prayers are often associated, not exclusively, but they’re associated with worship in the temple. This is a place where a god, because I’m not speaking just about Israel now, but you know, everyone from the ancient Near-East and beyond, they have a temple because the god is supposed to inhabit that and if you wanted to and you could afford to, you could arrange to request things of this god. You can always cry out and hope for help, but actually, some Babylonian text is clear that you could actually send what scholars call letter prayers to deposit it in the temple of the god. And presumably, over breakfast or something he would scan whatever the request that you’ve submitted and maybe you might grant it. In fact, at least one scholar has pointed to a kind of hierarchy of prayer interventions where if you really wanted to make sure that the deity got the message, you could submit along with your letter a, some sort of favor, you know, a knife or you know, other tool that might be useful in the hope that the deity would find this useful and keep your request in mind. And then, I think this is the most surprising, that the highest level of gift that you could give which only the king or some very high official could manage would be a little statue of yourself kneeling in front of the god who would be much bigger in this temple as a sign of your eternal devotion. And you’d be there, at least in statuary, forever and ever.
Pete: Hmm. Yeah, I mean, jumping ahead to, again, thinking of listeners and maybe even ourselves a little bit, I don’t mean to be reductionistic, but there’s something about the Bible that is largely pre-shift or maybe the beginnings of some soundings, I’m including the Christian Bible here too, because I don’t think it’s much different there. It’s more the creeds where things get really omni, you know? The omni’s are shouting at us in the 4th century and maybe a little before that.
But, you know, we’re living in a post-shift world and we have a pre-shift Bible and that can be a little bit difficult for people to accept, especially in, I think I’m maybe largely speaking of Protestants here, but especially if they have a religious tradition that only takes as sort of a guiding principle the things that are on the page itself and not the traditions that come out of it. So, that’s just an observation which leads me to another question, so, like, what do you think? You know, what do you believe about all this? I mean about God and how do you process the information that you have in this wonderful book and in your thinking with your own view of how to even approach the question of what God is like. Is that too vague?
Jim: No, I think I’m with you.
Jim: I guess what I’d say is that the human being never quite disappears from our thinking about God. People say, well, you know, if an elephant could think about God, he would conceive of a god with four legs and a tail and so forth. But that’s much more than saying we have an anthropomorphic God, a God acts and looks like a human being because we’re human beings doing the thinking. That’s all true, but it’s not going far enough. There really is no way that we can take the human out of our conceiving of God. That doesn’t bother me. I think really, that’s, you know, altogether the way it should be. And obviously, it has implications for not only the way that we think about God, but the way we think about our fellow human being and how those two, as I think Jared was suggesting earlier, might reflect one another.
Jared: Well, maybe just, I’m gonna ask one more practical question for people who maybe this has raised a lot of questions for them similar to what Pete said. And so, it may be similar to what you just said, but if you had any other thoughts for practically how can people in a post-shift world approach the Bible and you know, what do we do with it? That’s one of the foundational questions we ask on this show all the time. You know, what is the Bible and what do we do with it? How do we engage in a text knowing that there are these things within it? What have you found as helpful ways for people to continue to engage in the Bible in a way that is, engages them where they are, which is kind of in this post-shift way of thinking?
Jim: Well, I think that the thing that I suggested before, just before your question, you know somehow anticipates my answer. I think the way that it becomes a sectarian question, so I can say Jews have this notion that their day is organized into things that God has ordered. Get up in the morning, you know, you put on your shoes in a certain way and you utter these blessings that are really directed to God, thanking God for, you know, for bringing us back to consciousness again and so forth, and really just Jews do this. And then you go off and you go to the synagogue and as a community you pray together for 45 minutes or so and then you go home and you have your breakfast, which of course, won’t involve mixing meat and milk or any of these forbidden animals like a ham sandwich and so and so forth. So, these are all acts of fealty, of obedience to God and a way of coming close to God. I don’t mean to say that in a way that excludes other religions, but it’s done a bit differently. And so, in all these ways I think, I mean, the whole matter is predicated on what you want. And I think that most human beings, although it’s maybe a little frightening, they do want to somehow know how to come close to God and that can express itself in what we would say is a social program. And prayer doesn’t need to be, you know, the same thing you pray day after day but rather heartfelt different each day sort of prayer. It’s just that, you know, religions differ on those things, but I think they, I think underlying them has to always be this desire to come close to God.
Jared: Yeah, and I appreciate that because it does fit with some of the lines of thinking that we’ve had on the podcast where we, what we see in the Bible is a group of people wrestling with the divine, which is in a lot of ways, beyond our comprehension and it’s challenging to sort of fit it into our categories of thinking and ways of being, and that shifts over time. So, I appreciate you saying the sectarian way, because our tradition and our own experiences inform the language we use when we talk about God, the practices we have when we’re talking to God or in devotion to God. And that’s an important part that we, you know, in my tradition we would want to try to strip all that away and get to just the facts, but when we’re talking about God, that is a challenging thing to do. And so, it’s important that we cultivate these traditions and practices in various ways as we try to talk about God, and the Bible models that for us.
Jim: Well, that’s all true, but I would say, I argue, you know, this is my own particular obsession, it isn’t always or even so much what the Bible itself says but what the people who first interpreted and put a certain spin on these texts said.
Jim: That’s certainly, obviously true in the Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions. A little less obvious for protestants, but still, the unnamed and then later well-known religious thinkers of any of these traditions enacted a way of dealing with the biblical text that made it into an ever more perfect scripture.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jim: It’s good to begin with, but it gets better I like to think.
Jim: A translation I once saw of the works of Shakespeare into Yiddish, and on the front page it said that, you know, in Yiddish it said “these are the works of William Shakespeare put into Yiddish and improved.”
Jim: That’s the way I like to think about ancient interpretations of the Bible.
Pete: Yeah. We don’t mean this as sort of a cheap commercial, but it really is interesting how this episode and our previous episode, they do, they mesh together. They’re not unrelated. So, everyone, go listen to whatever episode number that is, Google it, you’ll find it on your own. So, one last thing – you end your book with I think just a beautiful illustration from Flannery O’Conner. Could you just utter that for the benefit of our listeners, because I think it’s really beautiful.
Jim: She was as, you know, I suppose you may know, she was quite a religious thinker and she was a beautiful novelist. She had, you know, suffered greatly in her short life. She died I think at the age of 39, but before that when she was just I think 19 or 20 years old, she kept a prayer diary and I was struck by it. Here’s what she says right at the beginning: “Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are,” and by the way, she doesn’t know the difference between thee and you, but she switches from the by then mostly religious Old English form of expression to our own. So, “I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all of it. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that is blocks the whole moon, that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” And what I think is so well said about it is it says something about our own sense of self. We become so big that our shadow is overcoming the beauty of the moon, so we’ve got to somehow slim down to being nothing more than ourselves and we can begin to look out at what is not us.
Jared: That’s a wonderful, I think, way to wrap up this episode and it gives us something to think about. I appreciate that we’re ending with something so poetic in many ways. But, do you have any other projects that you’re working on or other things that we might be able to point people to, to learn more about not just this great shift, but also just the other works that you have on the Bible. Is there anything else that you can point people to?
Pete: Yeah, another 600-page book you’re working on at this point with 200 pages of footnotes? No? Okay.
Jim: I’m getting to be a pretty old guy, and I said at the beginning of this book, The Great Shift, I said this is my last book and so far, I’ve been, you know, pretty good –
Jared: Famous last words, famous last words.[Laughter]
Jim: I do have, I mean for years, you know, I’ve been carrying around this contract to do a commentary on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarch’s, which is why I quote them at every occasion. But I also used to say, I mean, I said this for 20 or 30 years – that commentaries are for people who have run out of ideas and it bothers me that now I’m concentrating on the Testament’s full time. That’s, I think, the only thing I really have on the horizon.
Pete: Okay, well, that’s a nice horizon. Anyway, thank you so much, Jim, for being with us again and it was great, and we had a wonderful time just talking about God with you. Can’t get any better than that.
Jim: Thank you very much, my pleasure too.[Music begins]
Megan: All right everyone, that is it for this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show. We also want to give a shout out to our producer’s group, who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Narrator: Thanks as always to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.[Music ends] [End of recorded material]