Early Biblical Intepretation (A Review)

Below is the text of a brief 2 chapter review of the Kugel & Greer book titled Early Biblical Interpretation, which I wrote to present to some of my classmates. If you've had any interaction with this text and would like to share your thoughts, please do.

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Reviewed by T. Michael W. Halcomb. Early Biblical Interpretation (#3 LEC). By James L. Kugel & Rowan A. Greer, ed. Wayne A. Meeks. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986. 214 pp. $19.95 (paper).

The third installment in a series of books edited by Wayne Meeks, Early Biblical Interpretation is a volume that focuses on “the interpretation of Scripture as practiced in Early Judaism and Christianity” (7). The first two chapters of this work—and the central points of emphasis for this brief review—explore the common backgrounds of early & later forms of biblical exegesis. Thus, the first two chapters of the tome aim to explain what prompted “The Rise of Scripture” (13) and subsequently, “The Need for Interpretation” (27).

The idea is that Israel, people whom envisioned themselves as discourse partners with God, had within their circle of adherents, divinely attuned leaders called prophets. These individuals “sought to announce God’s judgments and desires” as well as to explain the meaning and/or significance of certain events (15). However, laying hold of God’s desires or even a “word” from God during the Diaspora, during a time period where the Temple sat in ruins, proved challenging to Israel. Eventually, the unbearable question that confronted the Israelites remained: “Where was the God of Israel now that His house had been destroyed, and what hope was there for deliverance?” (15)

As time passed and the rule and Edict of Cyrus surfaced, many of the Israelites began returning to their homelands. Soon, the desire to bring God back to the land arose and so, the Temple structure was rebuilt. Of course, it was not nearly as majestic and in fact, it was quite “damaging to the prestige of [Israel’s] Deity” (16). At this point, religious, political, economic and spiritual decay set in, with leaders abusing their restored roles. Israel began wondering if, at present, she could truly refer to herself as God’s dialogue partner? To remedy the ever-present fallout, Israel returned to her past, a past found in texts.

With the emphasis shifting from the Temple and its priests to the texts and their interpreters, Israel’s sacred writings and their commentators took on more significance than ever. Seeking out Divine approval, Israel had its exegetes scour the texts for guidelines and meaning. Yet, some passages were ambivalent and interpretations varied from one reader to the next. Soon, scriptural interpretation turned into a sort of sacred exercise or enterprise. “If these texts were to play a critical role in governing community affairs, in setting forth models of ethical behavior and educating the young, then [passages that raised questions] surely did not die in the breasts of readers and listeners; they were asked often, and in public, and they demanded unambiguous response” (34).

This “return” to the days gone by, a philosophy that drove the communities of ancient Israelites, here, began consistently using the past as a standard bearer or measuring rod for the present. The hope was that the great days of the pre-exilic monarchy would serve both as a basis and a “model for national revival and…hopes for the future” (37). If a return to the past was the desire, the fullest means of such a return was through texts. The return wasn’t merely for the sake of returning but rather, with the hopes that in diving into even the tiniest minutiae of the past, fruits would be yielded in the present.

As Kugel & Greer note, “…it was precisely the intermittent obsession with past events and the necessity of having them bear on the present that gave interpretation of all kinds its urgency” (38). Indeed, in a time when Israel felt as though the conversation between her and her dialogue partner was waning, a visit to the Temple experienced relegation to the shadows while a visit to the text or to some hermeneutical event whereat the texts were being expounded or proclaimed, came to the fore. The desire to experience a “word” from God permeated the community as people waited eagerly to see how a hint of their past might just transform their present.

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