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About The Book

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.


Chapter One
Psalm 104
Bless the Lord, O my soul -- O Lord my God, You are very great.
[At the creation:]
Clothed in glory and honor, You wrapped Yourself in light.
Then You put up the sky like a tent and covered it over with water.
The clouds You took as Your chariot and rode off on the wings of the wind.
The winds themselves You made messengers, and flames of fire Your servants.

Once You had set the earth on its struts, so it never would swerve or sway,
You cloaked it with water all over, water loomed over the mountains.
How they flee at Your cry, those waters, at the sound of Your thunder they jump back in terror,
running up mountains or down into valleys, to whatever place You established for them.
You drew lines for them never to cross, never again will they cover the land.
You set loose the springs that gush into rivers, cascading down between mountains,
watering all the life of the plain and slaking the animals' thirst.
Above them dwell the birds of the sky, calling out from the tops of branches.

You let water flow from Your upper abode, down the mountains to sop the earth,
Ripening grass for cattle and grains for people to harvest, bringing food from out of the dirt:
wine to gladden the hearts of men, oil to brighten their faces, and bread to fill their insides.

Let the trees of the LORD drink deep, the Lebanon cedars He planted.
This is where birds make their nest, the stork has her home in fir trees.
High mountains are for wild goats, and crags shelter the hares.
You made the moon to mark off the seasons, and You know the route of the sun.

When You bring darkness nighttime descends, and all the forest creatures come out.
Lions go roaring after their prey, seeking their food from God.
With the sun's first ray back they go, to lie down in darkened lairs.
People trudge off to work, toiling until the dusk.
How great are Your works, O LORD --
every one You made with wisdom, the world teems with what You created.

The huge, the broad-armed sea, where numberless creatures swim, tiny alongside of big --
here the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan You formed for amusement.
All of them look to You, hoping You'll give them their food in its time.
What You give them they gobble up; if You open Your hand they are fed.
But if You hide Your face, then they are dismayed.
Should You take back their spirits they perish and return to the dust of the earth.
Let loose Your spirit and their fatness comes back, the land's surface is made new again.

May the LORD'S glory endure forever, let the Lord rejoice in His creatures.
When He looks to the earth, it shudders; if He touches the mountains they smoke.
I will sing to the LORD as I live, praise my God as long as I breathe.
May my words be pleasing to Him, I truly rejoice in the LORD.
And let sinners be wiped from the land, let the wicked exist no more.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, Halleluyah.

A Place in the System
By the start of the twentieth century, the previous two hundred years' accumulating doubts about the existence of God had acquired a certain swirling momentum and had begun to look to many people -- even the religious folk of the American prairie -- like a menacing storm, a cyclone, off in the not-too-distant plain. It might seem odd to seek to identify that cyclone with another, the famous one that sent Dorothy off on her extraordinary voyage to the Land of Oz. Nevertheless, I am always struck when I read that book (or see the movie) by its undertone of theological questioning. Certainly, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fable about disillusionment, about discovering that the one of whom all in the Emerald City speak in hushed tones of reverence does not exist in reality but is merely a human invention. Was it not the case that Oz's author, L. Frank Baum, had in the back of his mind another sort of disillusionment, the sort that most people at the start of the twentieth century still preferred not to talk about openly?
Dorothy and her companions -- four people in difficult straits who set out on a pilgrimage in search of a miraculous cure -- do not at first seem very different from the heroes of innumerable quest tales. Had this story followed the traditional scenario, it might indeed have been what Baum claimed it was in the preface to the first edition, a kind of non-frightening remake of the traditional fairy tale:

[T]he old-time fairy-tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as "historical" in the children's library; for the time has come for a series of newer "wonder tales" in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore, the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was written solely to pleasure children of today.

But what was truly different about Oz was not its avoidance of the "horrible and blood-curdling" (it is still pretty frightening to most children). Rather, it was that this was a quest tale that ends with the questers' discovery that their efforts have all been in vain. The thaumaturgical Oz, it turns out, is no supernatural manipulator of reality but merely the jerry-rigged front man for an ordinary mortal, nay, a humbug, and it is this discovery that is the central movement of the book, the conclusion of the quest itself. All is not lost, of course, after the questers find out the truth; they do eventually gain some measure of satisfaction, and Dorothy even finds her way back to Kansas. But the fundamental lesson that she and the others learn is that frauds do exist, and that most of the people can indeed be fooled -- are being fooled -- most of the time. Even the Emerald City, it turns out, was only emerald because the Wizard had rigged up little green-tinted spectacles for all the citizens to wear. "But isn't everything here green?" Dorothy asks. "No more than any other city," Oz replies. "But when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you."
Oz himself is sometimes presented in ways designed to evoke the Almighty, albeit indirectly. "I am Oz, the Great and Terrible," he booms out to every visitor, and to readers of the Bible, the cadence of this greeting is unmistakable ("the great and terrible God" is virtually a biblical clich&233;, Deut. 7:21, 10:17; Dan. 9:4; Neh. 1:5, 4:8, 9:32). "Who are you," he continues, "and why do you seek me?" The word "seek" here is likewise Bible-ese and hardly standard English; indeed, now seeing Oz face to face, how could a visitor be said still to be seeking him at all? But "seek" in Oz's greeting is the English equivalent of the Hebrew baqqesh or darosh H' -- usually mistranslated in English Bibles as "seek the Lord," but clearly intended in the sense of "seek the favor of the Lord" or "make a request of the Lord" (see Isa. 51:1, 55:6; Ezek. 20:3; Amos 5:4, 6; Ps. 40:16, 69:6, 105:3-4). To this inquiry Dorothy replies with her own pseudo-biblicism, "I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek."
Toward the end of the story, after completing their mission, Dorothy and her friends return to Oz's Throne Room only to find it empty:

Presently, they heard a Voice, seeming to come from somewhere near the top of the great dome, and it said, solemnly,
"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Why do you seek me?"
They looked again in every part of the room, and then, seeing no one, Dorothy asked,
"Where are you?"
"I am everywhere," answered the Voice, "but to the eyes of common mortals I am invisible."

Oz's invisible omnipresence (however fleeting) is another feature he shares with Israel's Deity. So when it turns out that the Voice is merely that of "an old man with a bald head and wrinkled face," I suspect that, especially among Sunday School graduates of a century ago, there must have been more than one or two who in their hearts identified this moment with the other one alluded to earlier, that still-largely-unexpressed disillusionment waiting somewhere at the back of America's spiritual closet.
Nowadays, people are less reticent about their doubts. It would be so nice, they say, if there really were a God. But in their hearts they know that it cannot be so, no matter what they tell their children. There comes a time in every life when some little Toto will always knock over the screen of transmitted fantasy and reveal the Deity to be of altogether human manufacture.

What is surprising is not that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, along with quite a few other books of the last few centuries, have in one way or another evoked the doubts that nag at people's faith. Rather, what is remarkable is that there is not some ancient Israelite equivalent, some text somewhere in the Hebrew Bible that, even if only as indirectly as Oz, at least raises the question of God's existence or delicately, allegorically, suggests that perhaps a great fraud is being perpetrated. But there is not. Job and Ecclesiastes question God's justice, Jeremiah may wish even to take Him to court, but His existence, it seems, was simply not open to question, not even perceived as a possible subject of discourse. The Bible does not hesitate to report blasphemous statements made about God by other nations or renegade Israelites -- to the effect that some foreign deity is more powerful than Israel's God, or that God does not see the suffering of innocent people, or that God does not punish wrongdoers, or that God has abandoned Israel -- but nowhere do these blasphemous statements ever include the simple assertion that God does not exist. Apparently, such a thought just never occurred to the blasphemers in question, nor to anyone else. On the contrary, God's being and fundamental nature seem everywhere simply to be assumed, a fact so well known as to require no further elaboration. For the same reason, it would seem, the Bible does not begin by defining God or demonstrating His presence in reality. There must have been no need.
Those who have sought to account for this state of affairs have sometimes chalked it up to a kind of intellectual inertia. People had always believed in "the gods," they say, so even after Israel had come along and replaced a plurality of deities with One, this alone did not necessitate a reexamination of the whole concept of divinity. God simply came to substitute for the gods without any more fundamental change. But such an answer hardly seems convincing. Inertia can carry the human spirit only so far; eventually, people do end up asking fundamental questions. Certainly life in the ancient world offered up its share of undeserved suffering; did not frequent droughts and famines, wars and natural disasters, as well as massive outbreaks of disease and an infant mortality rate that might have reached fifty percent -- did not such things cause people to wonder who this God might be who was solely responsible for their fate? By what standards did He judge the world? Yet even Job's wife, seeing her husband's undeserved pains, can only say to him, "Curse your God and die." Why did she not say, "It seems you were wrong about God after all. He cannot exist if all this can happen to you"? It could hardly have been inertia that prevented one hundred percent of the people from ever considering such a possibility.
Nor, for that matter, do I think it has to do with any "primitive" state of thought that is sometimes alleged to have existed at that time. Primitive thought was left behind long before the time of biblical Israel, and there really is no indication that the ancient Israelites would have had difficulty in grasping our sort of conceptualizing or abstract thinking. People sometimes say, for example, that the argument from creation was inevitably persuasive to ancient societies: since anything like the theory of evolution was inconceivable to them, the world as it exists simply had to have a Creator somewhere minding the store. But even if such an argument is correct (and I do not believe it is), it would hardly account for the biblical evidence. After all, a divine Creator could certainly have made the world and then disappeared, ceased to exist, having set in motion the autonomous forces of the universe. In fact, this idea was advanced elsewhere in the ancient world; it was just never expressed, even by the greatest blasphemers, in the Bible.
Perhaps it is most natural for us today to explain the differences between our view of things and those of earlier civilizations by saying that in premodern times people simply did not know this or that fact, that they were under this or that misapprehension, from which we have now happily freed ourselves. No doubt there is some truth in this proposition. But it seems to me we ought at least to be prepared to entertain the opposite hypothesis as well, that however much progress the intervening centuries may have brought in some domains, they have also led us to lose a way of seeing that existed in former times. By "way of seeing" I mean to suggest something more than simply another point of view; perhaps people were actually enabled by this way of seeing to observe things that we no longer observe today. It is difficult for one who reads the Bible carefully, and takes its words seriously, not to arrive at such a conclusion: something, a certain way of perceiving, has gradually closed inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible in an earlier age. What we have -- all we have -- are those texts of the Bible that bear witness to that other way of seeing (and perhaps invite us, with the use of some spiritual imagination, to try to enter into it, open our eyes, and look).
One thing that is strikingly different in the biblical way of seeing -- and it is certainly related to the matter at hand -- has to do with the whole notion of the self that is found in the Bible and the way in which that self fits into the larger world. A human being just is very small, and God, as the opening line of this psalm asserts, is "very big." In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason -- because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. This is especially true of his own capacities. They extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a form of reference beyond himself.
Psalm 104, like certain other psalms, is concerned essentially with this matter of fitting into the world. Characteristically, God's greatness -- the psalm's announced subject -- is not expressed in His own being. Apart from a phrase here or there ("Clothed in glory and honor, You wrapped Yourself in light."), the psalm really has nothing to say about what God Himself is like; it all has to do with what He has done, how He has arranged the universe. This description of God's deeds has at times something oddly light-hearted or whimsical about it, for that is how this world must look from God's point of view. So it is that God has, in most homey fashion, set up the universe like a tent or hut, thatching it up on top with the waters that descend on us from time to time in the form of rain. The mighty oceans and rivers (an ancient figure of disorder and threatening chaos) here cower and jump back at God's might, their precious liquids now tamed to be part of the great food chain. Nothing here is fearsome.

When You bring darkness nighttime descends, and all the forest creatures come out.
Lions go roaring after their prey, seeking their food from God.
With the sun's first ray back they go, to lie down in darkened lairs.
People trudge off to work, toiling until the dusk.

Those lions aren't really pious; they don't know that they are seeking their food from God, and there is something a little whimsical about saying they do. But such is the happy world of this psalm -- for indeed, it says, were it not for divine generosity, the pious lions would certainly starve. They are another, equal member in the great machinery of God. So also for the leviathan. Its frightening, half-mythic, character may be its salient feature elsewhere in the Bible. But here, all the air has been let out of it; it is just a divine plaything, an utterly harmless curiosity in that great world that the great God has made. What is not subsumed? The roaring winds and flashing fire from heaven -- these are God's angels, His own chosen messengers and intermediaries.

Since God is very big, man is very small. To put it another way, God's space begins precisely where man's ends, so that there is no temptation for man to fill the void. Thus, when Jacob's wife Rachel finds herself unable to conceive and she begs him, "Give me children!" he quite naturally replies, "Am I in God's stead?" What lies beyond human capacity or human reckoning is not simply part of some undefined wasteland: it is all actively part of a coherent space controlled by, defined by, God. There is like-wise no frontier, no outer space: "He counts off the stars by number, calls them all by name" (Ps. 147:4). That is, human ignorance in one matter or another does not mean that the thing is simply "unknown"; it is part of the coherent body of things known to God of which we humans possess only a small portion. Indeed, what is striking about the psalm from which this last line is cited -- a hymn rather similar to Psalm 104 -- is precisely how the cosmic and the historical, society's domain and a person's inner psyche, everything is jumbled together, all part of God's great machine:

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering the scattered ones of Israel;
He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.
He counts off the stars by number, calls them all by name.
Great is our Lord, and mighty, His wisdom is unfathomable.
The LORD lifts up the lowly and humbles the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving, make melody to our God with the harp.
He covers the skies with clouds, preparing rain for the earth; He makes the mountains green with grass.
He gives food to animals, even to the crows when they caw.
He is not swayed by the horse's pull, or the strength in the legs of a man;
the LORD delights in those who fear Him, in those who yearn for His favor.
-- Ps. 147:2-11

To feel, in this sense, part of God's world was the primary force that shaped the religious outlook of a great many psalms; indeed, it is found abundantly in other parts of the Bible as well. Biblical man, one might say, was fundamentally small, always part of a larger system. Another passage in the Psalms presents a little human hounded by God, unable to draw a breath or leave his house or even think a thought without bumping into the Impinging Deity:

O LORD, You search me out and know me.
You know when I sit around or get up, You understand my thoughts from far off.
You sift my comings and goings; You are familiar with all my ways.
There is not one thing I say that You, LORD, do not know.
In front and in back You press in on me and set Your hand upon me.
Even things hidden from myself You know, things that are beyond me.
Where can I go from Your spirit, or how can I get away from You?
If I could go up to the sky, there You would be, or down to Sheol, there You are too.
If I took up the wings of a gull to settle at the far end of the sea,
even there Your hand would be leading me on, holding me in its grip.
I might think, "At least darkness can hide me, nighttime will conceal me."
But even darkness is not dark for You; night is as bright as the day, and light and dark are all the same.
-- Ps. 139:1-12

And so, biblical man is still Little Man, even if he is slightly less little than his predecessors (see "The Death of Baal"). That is how he is often glimpsed, from above, a little fellow who sometimes suffers from delusions of grandeur:

From the heavens the Lord looks out, seeing all of humanity.
From the place of His dwelling He looks down on all of earth's inhabitants.
He who made the hearts of all of them [likewise] perceives their every deed.
No king will triumph through force of arms, no mighty man through power.
The cavalry's useless for victory -- no matter its force, it will not be saved.
But the Lord's eye is turned to those who fear Him, who trust in His beneficence.
-- Ps. 33:13-18

This radical sense of smallness is crucial; it is, as suggested above, the very foundation of the religious consciousness of a great many psalms and other biblical compositions. Of course, to see the world in such a fashion may appear odd to some today (though it is always wise at least to consider the question of who, in any given circumstance, might be wearing the green spectacles). But it should in any case be noted that "small" is not quite all that the Psalms had to say about man's place in the universe.
The God of the Hebrew Bible is a who, not, even at His most remote, an unfathomably great force or a vector. Although this "who-ness" of God's has inspired some discomfort among mod-ern theologians, it is precisely that in which biblical Israelites, and even people in more recent times, took comfort. (The French philosopher Pascal is said to have had sewn into the lining of his jacket a little scrap of writing: "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob -- not the God of the philosophers.") For, were it not for such a God, the "God of Abraham," there would scarcely have been any point in temples: God's grandeur might better have been grasped in sacred planetariums, and humanity's smallness a lesson drearily obvious there. But a line connected those two, God and man, a line sketched not in light-years across galaxies, but beaming into and out of the human heart. So, for all His grandeur, God did not disappear in the world of the Bible, nor did humanity, for all of its smallness:

When I see the heavens that Your fingers have fashioned, the moon and stars You have made:
What is a man that You should call him to mind, a human being that You should take note of him?
Yet You have made him almost a god, crowned him with glory and honor.
You set him over Your other creations, and put all of them at his feet.
-- Ps. 8:4-6

This was the perfect equilibrium to which the author of Psalm 104 likewise gave expression. Humanity is fundamentally Little Man, part of a great Breughel canvas, trudging off to work in a corner somewhere as the lions head home after their night of roaming, each comfortable with his place in the system; elsewhere, leviathan and dinky ships frolic in the sea. Yet the God whose world this is, the God who is "very big," nevertheless calls Little Man to mind, indeed exalts him above the other little things "with glory and honor." That was all there was to human glory; it was never in danger of filling the sky.

The view of things described above is "biblical," but it certainly lives elsewhere; indeed, anyone who has traveled in the modern Middle East will not find it altogether foreign. Something quite akin to this biblical outlook, the sense of smallness, is still there, very much the way of seeing common to most people.
Actually, the religions matter little, Islam, eastern Christianity, or Judaism. Once I had the occasion to hear an Iraqi Jew describe the culture shock he experienced when, as a young man, he was forced to leave his native Baghdad to settle in the West. "In
Baghdad," he said, "there were all kinds of people, some very traditional, some -- like my own family -- modern." (By "modern," he gave me to understand, he meant that they were not particularly punctilious about keeping the Sabbath or other religious duties.) "But all of us, modern and traditional, knew one thing: God is very big and man is very little. Once, some years after I had left Baghdad and moved to Western society, I went one evening to hear a famous theologian speak. I hoped that he would give me some piece of wisdom. But the more he spoke, the more his ideas and my own swirled around together in my head and the more upset I became. I could not get out of my mind this new thought: Man is very big, and God is very far away."

Copyright © 1999 by James L. Kugel

About The Author

Photo Credit: Erwin Schenkelbach

James L. Kugel served as the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003, where his course on the Bible was regularly one of the most popular on campus, enrolling more than nine hundred students. A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation, he now lives in Jerusalem. His recent books include The God of Old, In the Valley of the Shadow and the forthcoming The Great Change.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (April 24, 2012)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451689082

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Raves and Reviews

"Mr. Kugel's commentaries... are marvelous -- fresh, original, deeply thought, deeply felt. They are the responses to the Bible of a scholar who, far more than just a scholar, is above all a reader and knows that, even more than knowledge, taste, and discrimination, the most important thing to bring to a text is oneself: not a part of oneself, but the whole, entirely focused and entirely open, ready to give and take all. To be more able to read in this way is a rare gift, and Mr. Kugel, who can also write, has it." -- The Forward

"This fascinating book includes familiar texts like Psalms 23 and 137, and Ecclesiastes 12, as well as some that are less well known to modern readers. Throughout, James Kugel's linguistic and historical learning, modern literary sensibility, love of poetry in all languages, and special commitment to biblical interpretation frame this exciting examination of the power and energetic meaning of the great writing of the Hebrew Bible." -- John Hollander, coeditor of The Best American Poetry 1998 and winner of the Bollingen Prize in Poetry

"Kugel has produced both beautiful translations of beloved passages from the Hebrew Bible and inspired essays on 'the spiritual reality' those passages evoke." -- Commentary

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