December 1999


By James L. Kugel
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James Kugel regards the Bible as sacred scripture; he does not particularly like to write about prayers, psalms, or prophetic speeches as poems. But when asked to prepare a selection of biblical poems for publication, Kugel a noted scholar and poet, author of the highly praised book The Bible as It Was, and former poetry editor of Harper’s magazine agreed to do so. The result is The Great Poems of the Bible. This exceptional volume gives us not only what the title promises, but much more.

In addition to his own translations and commentary on the poems, Kugel provides historical background and religious insights that introduce us to Judaism. He says that his goal throughout has been to try to concentrate on what might be called the spiritual reality addressed by different biblical texts. He also attempts to create in English the same impression that the biblical text would have made on the ears of its first audience. Those are difficult objectives to achieve, but the author succeeds admirably.

One of the fascinating subjects Kugel explores is the nature of the prophet. He points out that prophecy did not mean simply predicting the future, and writes, Nor is it a poetry of social protest, crafted to persuade listeners of the worthiness of this or that cause, although it addresses issues of social injustice and out-and-out politics. In the end, the prophet is someone who has been called, summoned, to carry a message from God. He also notes, It is striking that, after a certain point in Israeli history, prophecy seems to have become a steady, reliable presence; the Ôprophet in your midst’ was someone whom you could count on to be there, like any other public figure. There are wonderfully readable discussions of the character of God and of biblical wisdom. Kugel writes, though different parts of the Bible were written down in different periods and social settings and political circumstances, the idea that God is fundamentally good, that He cares for humanity and upholds what is right, seems everywhere to be maintained. But doesn’t that go without saying? Perhaps not . . . Would it not have been more reasonable for Israel’s prophets and sages to conclude that God is quite inscrutable? Kugel’s discussion of the 23rd Psalm, which includes both the King James version and his own translation, is beautifully done. The author points out that the psalm is almost unique in that it neither offers thanksgiving nor celebrates God’s grandeur. It is just about ordinary daily life, a psalm about you and me. This book deserves a wide readership, especially among those interested in religion, monotheism, Judaism, and literature.

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