In the Valley of the Shadow

I’m interrupting our somewhat leisurely discussion of Late Biblical Hebrew for some comments on a current book—James Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow. I don’t intend to write a full review of the book (though I’ll summarize my thoughts in a paragraph or two), but I want to record my surprise at a couple of the things he says about the Bible.

The first one is his discussion of the phrase “the fear of God,” from p. 137 of the book:

It may not seem like it, but this expression is altogether different from a similar-sounding one, “the fear of the LORD.” The latter actually has nothing to do with what we call “fear”: it might best be translated as “the practice of Israel’s religion” or “the proper worship of Israel’s God.”… By contrast, there is nothing Israelite about “the fear of God.”

Kugel goes on to point out (correctly) that “the fear of God” might also be translated as “the fear of the gods.” He cites Gen 42:18, where Joseph tells his brothers “I fear the gods,” and Gen 20:11, where Abraham tells Abimelech that he was afraid there was “no fear of the gods in this place.”:

From both these examples it should further be clear what “fearing the gods” really means: respecting fairness and common decency.

Indeed, that clearly is the meaning in the two examples that Kugel gives. But he omits another example—one he certainly knows—which demonstrates both that “fear” can mean real fear and that “fear of the LORD” need not have a different meaning than “fear of God.” The example I’m thinking of comes from Genesis 22, the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In the NJPS translation:

9 They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11 Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

This is the Lord speaking (through His angel), and He is certainly not saying, “Now I know that you are a decent sort of fellow.” He is saying, “Now I know that you are so afraid of Me that you will even attempt to kill your son if I ask you to.”

The second place I must dissent from Kugel’s biblical discussion is in the same context, in the immediately following discussion of Psalm 82, on p. 139 of the book:

In Psalm 82, it is the God of Israel who presides over the council, just as the god Anu presided over a similar assembly in Mesopotamia and the god El held court in the mythology of ancient Ugarit. Normally, the council would deliberate and, when a course of action was determined, one or more of its members would be dispatched to carry it out. But in Psalm 82, God has apparently convened the other gods in order to decree their deaths.

Indeed, Kugel has translated the first line of the psalm this way, on p. 138:

God stands in the divine assembly, among the gods He passes judgment.

But (as Kugel of course knows) this psalm is part of the Elohistic Psalter. That’s a worthy candidate for a future post, but in the meantime I’ll just briefly say that many psalms in this section of the book of Psalms (chs. 42-83) have substituted the word “God” for the name YHWH. In Ps 82:1, the word elohim in “among the gods” is undoubtedly original, but the instance of elohim that Kugel translates as “God” was originally most likely a reference to the specific God of Israel by His proper name, YHWH.

More crucially, “the divine assembly” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew עדת אל. What that really means is “the assembly of El”—exactly the same as the Ugaritic divine assembly in which “the god El held court.” Psalm 82 is not about the God of Israel convening the other gods, but about His challenging them, in front of El, and being given the assignment—by the poet, by us the listeners, or perhaps by El himself—to replace them and start doing things right.

Kugel’s book has a subtitle: “On the Foundations of Religious Belief.” And the subtitle has a subtitle: (and their connection to a certain, fleeting state of mind). (The italics, the parentheses, and the lower-case writing are his.) It is really that state of mind that is the subject of Kugel’s book. His notion that our modern concept of “the individual” has managed to interfere with that state of mind is disproven by his admission that there is actually nothing modern about the concept; see p. 181. The disappearance of the “fleeting state of mind” that one regains when given a diagnosis of fatal cancer is not really explainable as a phenomenon in history; it is one of human psychology. I would add that the book of Ecclesiastes is a brilliant description of the loud “music” (as Kugel calls it) that blocks one from having this state of mind. There is nothing modern about it.

So why read this book? For one of three reasons:

1) Read it if you are interested in James Kugel—which I, as a colleague of his (in a very minor way) am, and which some of you, as regular readers of his, may also be.

2) Kugel is always extremely readable. If you enjoy his writing voice, you will enjoy this book even when you disagree with him. (I do not call him the most readable of biblical scholars only because that would sound like I was damning him with faint praise.)

3) The book is full of Kugel’s own translations of biblical texts. I have disputed some of them in this post, and others are quite idiosyncratic (his Job has an almost W. S. Gilbert patter-song rhythm to it)—but you can learn from the idiosyncracies of a great scholar like Kugel in a way that you never will from the bland, committee-driven words of the standard English translations.

Here’s hoping that Kugel’s cancer is as gone as it seems to be, and that he lives on to give us many more books. In the words of the old Yiddish joke, “Till 120 and two weeks!” (Why “and two weeks”? Because God forbid you should die on your birthday.)

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