An inquiry into how the contemporaries of Solomon and Sheba viewed the presence of the deity and why the reality of that highly personal divine/mortal relationship changed over time.
Talking to God is usually a silent affair these days, lest those around the conversant think him or her crazy. By Kugel’s (Emeritus, Hebrew Literature/Harvard Univ.; In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, 2011, etc.) lively, inviting account, the reason we read today of the likes of Adam and Moses talking before the living presence of the deity is that they really did talk to a living deity; in their reality, there was no question whether God existed or not, only how people came to him and he to them. Probing not just the texts, but also the secondary literature of neuroscience and anthropology, the author charts a trajectory that follows something like a child’s development of the sense of self, from the world as “not-us,” “this undifferentiated Outside that did almost everything,” to a place that we navigate and even master. At first, Kugel writes, God appeared, lifting the veil of illusion. Later, that work was done by intermediaries—by angels and souls and psalms that marked a newfound “steady gaze inward,” as if self-regarding humans somehow came to say, don’t worry, we’ve got this, even as God replied through the likes of “a human-sized angel who could communicate with prophets and sages by addressing them face-to-face.” Readers may feel that Kugel himself is a little nostalgic for the Yahweh who needed no temples or cedar palaces but instead found his home among the tents and tabernacles. Even so, the author is at home in every era from that of the ancient texts to our own, and he makes for an excellent guide.
Biblical exegesis at its best: a brilliant and sensitive reading of ancient texts, all with an eye to making them meaningful to our time by making sense of what they meant in their own.