`How to Read the Bible' by the former Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard University is about as different from the similarly titled `How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth' by New Testament professor, Gordon D. Fee and Old Testament professor, Douglas Stuart, and still be a superb read for anyone, especially lay readers, who are interested in understanding the Hebrew scriptures.
Yes, this book deals exclusively with Professor Kugel's specialty, the Old Testament, while the Fee / Stuart book deals with both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Another huge difference is that Professor Kugel not only advises us on how to read the scriptures today, he outlines how they have been read since they were first gathered together, sometime around the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE. The big surprise to us lay readers is that these scriptures were not taken as the perfect inspiration from God, with every statement literally, or at least figuratively true, given the right amount of interpretation. Professor Kugel does not make this comparison, but I suspect that the attitude toward much of the scriptures was very similar to the Achaeans' (early Greeks) attitude toward Homer's `Iliad' and `Odyssey', as national epic poems. Even without modern archeology, it would not have been difficult to detect anachronisms and downright errors when, for example, a Psalm attributed to King David describes events which happened 500 years after his death.
The attitude of `high reverence' for the scriptures developed shortly after the last book, `Daniel', was added to the canon, the era of the last prophet Ezra, and the Maccabean revolt. This fits remarkably into the picture we have of the state of Judaism at the time of Jesus, and Jesus criticisms of the priests and Pharisees for their excessive dedication to a strict reading of the scriptures and the intense interpretation to which the scriptures, especially the law of the Torah was put.
The overall plan of the book is based on instructing us on how to read the scriptures `by example'. Of the 36 chapters, all but the first and the last deal with books, such as Psalms, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and individual episodes from books, such as chapters on the episodes of Cain and Able, Noah and the flood, and the tower of Babel from Genesis.
The first chapter introduces us, in a novel fashion, to the rise of modern Bible criticism over the last 200 years, by recounting the trial of Professor Charles Augustus Briggs by the ruling body of the American Presbyterian church, for making strongly positive comments about the type of scholarship he saw in Germany, where the strong tradition of Luther fueled critical studies of both old and new Testaments.
The last chapter summarizes all the points detailed in the individual studies throughout the rest of the book.
It is easy for those whose Christian beliefs run to the more conservative to dismiss this book and its findings out of hand. For those, I may point out that Professor Kugel is a devout Orthodox! Jew, now living in Jerusalem, who has no problem maintaining his faith and his analytical approach to his subject.
For the lay reader, Kugel's text is eminently readable, as almost all the scholarly impedimenta are relegated to endnotes and the usual index to the scriptures in an appendix. For the Christian reader, there is much here to enlighten. Even Luther had deep interest in much of the Old Testament, especially Genesis and Psalms. It would be really interesting to read Luther's commentary on Genesis in the light of Kugel's information.
If there is anything in this book which reaffirms my own inclinations to Bible study, it is the attention to external archeological information. This is most famously represented by the discovery, in the early 19th century, of the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, which has a flood episode which predates the writing of Genesis by almost a thousand years. And, many passages in Genesis' account of the flood seem to almost be copied idea for idea, from the Gilgamesh. This `borrowing' is made more plausible by the fact that while the sub-desert heights of Judea received very little rainfall, the delta of the Tigris - Euphrates probably floods quite often, albeit not as often as the dependable Nile.
Anyone with any interest at all in understanding the Old Testament really needs to read this book to have the advantage of the broadest possible perspective on issues regarding the origins and interpretation of these scriptures.