How to Read the Bible, Chapter 3, by James L. Kugel


Chapter 3 covers the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. In short, Cain was jealous and angry at Abel because Abel seemed to be preferred by God. Cain murdered his brother. God punished Cain by making him roam the lands without a permanent home. In order to prevent him from being murdered because of his deeds and roaming, God said that anyone who murdered Cain would suffer vengeance seven times over.

Ancient Interpretation: Ancient interpreters decided the meaning of this passage was that some people will stop at nothing – not even murder. But God will punish those who are wicked. Thus there is a moral order to the universe.

In addition, they decided that Cain was not human, but that he was half demon. Although most modern translations of the Bible say that Eve bore Cain “with the help of the LORD,” the word “help” is not included in the original text. What the Bible literally says is “I have gotten a man with the LORD.” Of course, that does not mean that the LORD God was the father of Cain, as angels were also referred to as LORD. The conclusion ancient interpreters reached is that an evil angel had impregnated Eve, and that Cain was the offspring.

Modern Interpretation: Again, the modern interpretation that Kugel mentions is the etiological one. In this interpretation, the individual Cain actually symbolized an entire group of people called the Kenites, who were fierce warriors and who were nomads. Thus, when one Kenite was killed, they would retaliate by killing “seven” Israelites.

Chapter 1’s review is here.

Chapter 2’s review is here.

How to Read the Bible, Chapter 2, by James L. Kugel


Chapter 2 covers the story of creation and of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In short, God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge or they would die on that day. Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, and gave some to Adam. They were expelled from the Garden of Eden, and had to now toil to survive. Adam lived till 930 years old.

Ancient interpretation: Ancient readers saw a problem with this story. Why did God say they would die on the day they ate of the fruit, if they were allowed long lives? Was it an empty threat? Certainly God doesn’t give empty threats. At some point before the second century BCE, someone thought of connecting this problem to a verse in the book of Psalms:

For a thousand years in Your sight are as yesterday, the way it passes, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4)

If God’s “day” was a thousand years, it makes sense that Adam would have lived almost that long before dying.

Another interpretation that was made after the fact (and was not directly included in the Bible) was that Adam and Eve were immortal and sinless when they were in the Garden of Eden. This explains why death is the punishment for eating of the forbidden fruit. The disobedience of Adam and Eve were then thought of as “Original Sin,” from which all subsequent sins followed. Ancient interpreters named the punishment for this sin “The Fall of Man.” This is how the story of Adam and Eve was thought of until modern times. In fact, there are many people who are surprised to learn that the terms “Original Sin” and “The Fall of Man” weren’t ever mentioned in the Bible. What’s more, the interpretation that the snake was the devil was also a later interpretation, and it was not mentioned in the Bible.

Modern Interpretation: The idea that the book of Genesis was actually etiological (that it explained the way things became the way they are now) was suggested by the German biblicist Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932). Thus, the story of Adam and Eve moving from the Garden of Eden to toiling for food outside the Garden was the story of how humans moved from hunter gatherer to an agricultural system. They now had to toil long days to plant seed and harvest it.

Modern scholars also know that the discovery of agriculture corresponded to the discovery that a man had to plant his seed in the woman in order to make her pregnant. Thus the quote the man “will cling to his wife and they shall be one flesh” (Gen 2:24).

Chapter 1’s review is here.

In the Beginning: Creation

Chapter one of Genesis sets the scene. The creation story is filled with beautiful imagery. My favorite line is before God actually creates anything. “And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 ESV) Because I liked it so much, I found it interesting to see how this line was translated in the different versions:
                    NABRE: And a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.
                    NRSV: While a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
                    kjv: And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Personally, I like the ESV best.
The style is formulaic with a certain set of ingredients on each of 6 creation days: 1) the announcement “and God said,” 2) a divine command beginning with “let” 3) the report “and it was so” 4) an evaluation “God saw that it was good” and 5) placement in time “there was evening and there was morning, the _______ day.” [1]
There is only one character in the chapter – God – and very little is said about who he is…only what he does. What we should think of God? He created the earth, but was he omnipotent? What were his reasons? Who was God? These issues are left a mystery. Most people already have an idea of who they think God is before starting the Bible. Is this why God was left a mystery? Or is it because God is a mystery?
[1] Ryken, Leland. Ryken, Philip.(2001) The Literary Study Bible, Wheaton, IL, Good News Publishers.