The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

Princeton University Press
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Rife with incest, adultery, rape, and murder, the biblical story of Jacob and his children must have troubled ancient readers. By any standard, this was a family with problems. Jacob's oldest son Reuben is said to have slept with his father's concubine Bilhah. The next two sons, Simeon and Levi, tricked the men of a nearby city into undergoing circumcision, and then murdered all of them as revenge for the rape of their sister. Judah, the fourth son, had sexual relations with his own daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, jealous of their younger sibling Joseph, the brothers conspired to kill him; they later relented and merely sold him into slavery. These stories presented a particular challenge for ancient biblical interpreters. After all, Jacob's sons were the founders of the nation of Israel and ought to have been models of virtue.

In The Ladder of Jacob, renowned biblical scholar James Kugel retraces the steps of ancient biblical interpreters as they struggled with such problems. Kugel reveals how they often fixed on a little detail in the Bible's wording to "deduce" something not openly stated in the narrative. They concluded that Simeon and Levi were justified in killing all the men in a town to avenge the rape of their sister, and that Judah, who slept with his daughter-in-law, was the unfortunate victim of alcoholism.

These are among the earliest examples of ancient biblical interpretation (midrash). They are found in retellings of biblical stories that appeared in the closing centuries BCE--in the Book of Jubilees, the Aramaic Levi Document, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other noncanonical works. Through careful analysis of these retellings, Kugel is able to reconstruct how ancient interpreters worked. The Ladder of Jacob is an artful, compelling account of the very beginnings of biblical interpretation.

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About the author

James L. Kugel, formerly Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, is Director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where he also serves as Professor of Bible. Kugel is the author of ten books, including The God of Old: Great Poems of the Bible and The Bible as It Was (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and the winner of the Grawemeyer Prize in Religion in 2001). He lives in Jerusalem.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Mar 9, 2009
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Pages
280
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ISBN
9781400827015
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Language
English
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Genres
Religion / Biblical Commentary / Old Testament
Religion / Biblical Criticism & Interpretation / Old Testament
Religion / Biblical Studies / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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James L. Kugel
As soon as it appeared, How to Read the Bible was recognized as a masterwork, “awesome, thrilling” (The New York Times), “wonderfully interesting, extremely well presented” (The Washington Post), and “a tour de force...a stunning narrative” (Publishers Weekly). Now in its tenth year of publication, the book remains the clearest, most inviting and readable guide to the Hebrew Bible around—and a profound meditation on the effect that modern biblical scholarship has had on traditional belief.

Moving chapter by chapter, Harvard professor James Kugel covers the Bible’s most significant stories—the Creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his wives, Moses and the exodus, David’s mighty kingdom, plus the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets, and on to the Babylonian conquest and the eventual return to Zion.

Throughout, Kugel contrasts the way modern scholars understand these events with the way Christians and Jews have traditionally understood them. The latter is not, Kugel shows, a naïve reading; rather, it is the product of a school of sophisticated interpreters who flourished toward the end of the biblical period. These highly ideological readers sought to put their own spin on texts that had been around for centuries, utterly transforming them in the process. Their interpretations became what the Bible meant for centuries and centuries—until modern scholarship came along. The question that this book ultimately asks is: What now? As one reviewer wrote, Kugel’s answer provides “a contemporary model of how to read Sacred Scripture amidst the oppositional pulls of modern scholarship and tradition.”
James L. Kugel
From the Psalms to the Prophets, from job to Ecclesiastes, much of the Bible is written in poetry. The poems of the Bible include some of its best known and most beloved passages: "The Lord is my shepherd," "Let justice roll down like waters," "By the rivers of Babylon," "Remember your Creator," "Arise, shine, for thy light is come!" These poems live in the hearts of those who are familiar with the Bible and offer rich rewards to anyone who is approaching the world's greatest book for the first time.
In The Great Poems of the Bible, Harvard scholar James Kugel presents original translations of the most beautiful and important poems of the Scripture. Taken together, these poems represent the very essence of the Hebrew Bible. Reading them one after another is like taking a guided tour through Scripture, meeting firsthand some of its most important teachings and opening the way to an understanding of the Bible as a whole.
Each poem is accompanied by an eloquent and accessible explanation of the poem's language, and a reflection on its meaning. These learned, compact essays introduce readers to the broader spiritual world of ancient Israel. What did people in biblical times believe about God? Where is a person's soul located and what does it do? Is there an afterlife? How does one come to "know" God? Why wasn't Eve meant to be Adam's "helpmate" (Kugel shows how this was just a translator's slip-up), and what does the Bible have to say about the role of women?
Kugel's sparkling translations of the poems, together with the fascinating insights that accompany them, distill the very best that the Bible and modern scholarship have to offer. Kugel brings new life to some of history's greatest poems, and offers a new look at a Bible we thought we already knew. Here, in one volume, is a "Bible's bible" that belongs in every home.
James L. Kugel
As soon as it appeared, How to Read the Bible was recognized as a masterwork, “awesome, thrilling” (The New York Times), “wonderfully interesting, extremely well presented” (The Washington Post), and “a tour de force...a stunning narrative” (Publishers Weekly). Now in its tenth year of publication, the book remains the clearest, most inviting and readable guide to the Hebrew Bible around—and a profound meditation on the effect that modern biblical scholarship has had on traditional belief.

Moving chapter by chapter, Harvard professor James Kugel covers the Bible’s most significant stories—the Creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his wives, Moses and the exodus, David’s mighty kingdom, plus the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets, and on to the Babylonian conquest and the eventual return to Zion.

Throughout, Kugel contrasts the way modern scholars understand these events with the way Christians and Jews have traditionally understood them. The latter is not, Kugel shows, a naïve reading; rather, it is the product of a school of sophisticated interpreters who flourished toward the end of the biblical period. These highly ideological readers sought to put their own spin on texts that had been around for centuries, utterly transforming them in the process. Their interpretations became what the Bible meant for centuries and centuries—until modern scholarship came along. The question that this book ultimately asks is: What now? As one reviewer wrote, Kugel’s answer provides “a contemporary model of how to read Sacred Scripture amidst the oppositional pulls of modern scholarship and tradition.”
James L. Kugel
TEN YEARS AGO, Harvard professor James Kugel was diagnosed with an aggressive, likely fatal, form of cancer. “I was, of course, disturbed and worried. But the main change in my state of mind was that the background music had suddenly stopped—the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities. Now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. There you are, one little person, sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do.”

Despite his illness, Kugel was intrigued by this new state of mind and especially the uncanny feeling of human smallness that came with it. There seemed to be something overwhelmingly true about it—and its starkness reminded him of certain themes and motifs he had encountered in his years of studying ancient religions. “This, I remember thinking, was something I should really look into further—if ever I got the chance.”

In the Valley of the Shadow is the result of that search. In this wide-ranging exploration of different aspects of religion—interspersed with his personal reflections on the course of his own illness—Kugel seeks to uncover what he calls “the starting point of religious consciousness,” an ancient “sense of self” and a way of fitting into the world that is quite at odds with the usual one. He tracks these down in accounts written long ago of human meetings with gods and angels, anthropologists’ descriptions of the lives of hunter-gatherers, the role of witchcraft in African societies, first-person narratives of religious conversions, as well as the experimental data assembled by contemporary neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists.

Though this different sense of how we fit into the world has largely disappeared from our own societies, it can still come back to us as a fleeting state of mind, “when you are just sitting on some park bench somewhere; or at a wedding, while everyone else is dancing and jumping around; or else one day standing in your backyard, as the sun streams down through the trees . . . ” Experienced in its fullness, this different way of seeing opens onto a stark, new landscape ordinarily hidden from human eyes.

Kugel’s look at the whole phenomenon of religious beliefs is a rigorously honest, sometimes skeptical, but ultimately deeply moving affirmation of faith in God. One of our generation’s leading biblical scholars has created a powerful meditation on humanity’s place in the world and all that matters most in our lives. Believers and doubters alike will be struck by its combination of objective scholarship and poetic insight, which makes for a single, beautifully crafted consideration of life’s greatest mystery.
James L. Kugel
From the Psalms to the Prophets, from job to Ecclesiastes, much of the Bible is written in poetry. The poems of the Bible include some of its best known and most beloved passages: "The Lord is my shepherd," "Let justice roll down like waters," "By the rivers of Babylon," "Remember your Creator," "Arise, shine, for thy light is come!" These poems live in the hearts of those who are familiar with the Bible and offer rich rewards to anyone who is approaching the world's greatest book for the first time.
In The Great Poems of the Bible, Harvard scholar James Kugel presents original translations of the most beautiful and important poems of the Scripture. Taken together, these poems represent the very essence of the Hebrew Bible. Reading them one after another is like taking a guided tour through Scripture, meeting firsthand some of its most important teachings and opening the way to an understanding of the Bible as a whole.
Each poem is accompanied by an eloquent and accessible explanation of the poem's language, and a reflection on its meaning. These learned, compact essays introduce readers to the broader spiritual world of ancient Israel. What did people in biblical times believe about God? Where is a person's soul located and what does it do? Is there an afterlife? How does one come to "know" God? Why wasn't Eve meant to be Adam's "helpmate" (Kugel shows how this was just a translator's slip-up), and what does the Bible have to say about the role of women?
Kugel's sparkling translations of the poems, together with the fascinating insights that accompany them, distill the very best that the Bible and modern scholarship have to offer. Kugel brings new life to some of history's greatest poems, and offers a new look at a Bible we thought we already knew. Here, in one volume, is a "Bible's bible" that belongs in every home.
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