‘The Great Shift’ tells of different viewpoints on God

The Great Shift: Encountering God In Biblical Times by James L. Kugel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, © 2017, ISBN 978-0-544-52055-4, p. 344, plus notes and appendices, $30

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California –  In the mid-nineteenth century Charles Darwin proposed that any species unable to adapt to its dynamic environment is doomed to extinction. Noted author and scholar James Kugel, in his newest book The Great Shift, offers an analogous suggestion, one in which the maturing perspective of God—the great shift—substitutes for species, and the social environment, the collective “sense of self” changing over time, replaces nature. According to Kugel, our transforming awareness of God and reshaping sense-of-self alters our encounters with God, which are reflected in the Hebrew Bible.

In biblical times, it was not unusual for individuals to directly encounter God, or an angel. For example, Hagar interacts with an angel of God (Gen. 21:17-19), Abraham encounters three angels (Gen. 18:1-2), Moses sees an angel of God in the burning bush (Ex. 3;2-4), and the Israelite nation hears the voice of God (Ex. 20:1). These “meetings” results from an ancient “external to the self” mindset, or what Kugel calls a “revelatory state of mind.”

Yet, the story of Joseph and his brothers is different. God is no longer seen, rather God is now understood to be a “strategic planner,” arranging everything in advance and then sitting back, so to speak, and watching events unfold. This difference carries into the time of the prophets, for instance, when Amos asks, “Can misfortune befall a town if the Lord has not caused it?” (Amos 3:6), and the psalmist declares, “The Lord overthrows the plans of nations” (Ps. 33:10-11). Kugel concludes that Joseph has a modern state of mind, a mind perceiving God as a long-range planner. Abraham and others like him have a different mindset, one in which God is “altogether unpredictable, threatening at every turn… demanding, commanding, intruding at will.”

The movement from revelatory to modern state-of-mind corresponds with our insights about the soul: changing from an unknown entity in early biblical times to one having an immortal status. One is hard pressed to find the idea of a soul expressed in the Five Books of Moses. But, perhaps due to Persian influences beginning with the captivity following the destruction of the first temple, and certainly after the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Hebrew words nefesh, ruaḥ, and neshamah became synonymous with the concept of an immortal soul, and subsequently a different understanding of God.

Prophecy ended with Malachi, who lived in the early post-exilic period. His teachings, together with his immediate predecessors Haggai and Zachariah, delivered a different message, one of events occurring in the distant future, from those preaching before the exile. Kugel points out that both the differences and the fact that prophecy ended says a lot about our changing sense of self and the new perspective of God. Indeed, there are so many pseudo-epigraphical works following Malachi, one might conclude that prophets were no longer revered for their connection to God. Kugel believes the “biblical texts from post-exilic times attest to the gradual move away from what existed in an earlier day… [suggesting] a new focus on the importance of a single human life and a person’s own virtues and vices.”  Many psalms and prayers, which are spoken in the first person, attest to this observation.

The Great Shift is a far-reaching study of humanity’s close encounters with God and how the changing human discernment of “self” alters the way people perceive and approach God. One has come to expect great scholarship and erudition written in an approachable manner from Kugel. The Great Shift does not disappoint.


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. His newest works are The Comprehensive Jewish and Civil Calendars: 2001 to 2240 and The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings. The author may be contacted via [email protected].

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