Our understanding of God, such as His “omnis” comes from the end of the biblical era (and later), but Kugel wanted to know how people in the early biblical period thought of God. Early texts have encounters with “the angel of the Lord”, and all prominently feature the person having the encounter acting very confused (not in their perception, but in our perception). The fact that narratives go out of their way to include the confusion—Manoah’s confusion is most notable, but Abraham and the three men, Gideon, Balaam, Moses, and Joshua with the commander of the Lord’s army, all exhibit some confusion before they finally understand. After understanding, the response is always to bow down in reverence. This confusion is necessary, Kugel says, because the view was that the material and the spiritual worlds were not separate but occasionally crossed over. The fact that the angel’s form varies (usual a man, but could be a fire in a bush) is not important—the form of the angel is a facade because it is really God taking material form. The narrative records the confusion because that is what shows that this is a supernatural encounter, because when the spiritual clothes itself in the material, it obviously is going to be confusing.
One of the features of the encounters with the God of Old is that the people are not looking for God. This contrast can be seen in The Book of Jubilees, a commentary on Genesis from about 200 BC that commentates by means of rewriting Genesis. In the rewrite, Abraham looks at the stars and realizes that everything is in God’s control, so he prays that God would protect him from evil (because he had chosen God’s kingdom) and then asks if he should return to Ur or stay where he is; then God says to him to go Canaan. Similarly, in the contemporaneous Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham is arguing with his father Terah that God is the true God and asks God to reveal himself, at which point God calls to him audibly and tells him to leave his father. Consistently in newer texts, God is remote and comes in response to our righteousness and prayers.
In the biblical accounts, however, God comes unbidden. In fact, when He calls a prophet, they certainly were not expecting it (although they are not astonished; getting a prophetic call is within what could happen), and often they suggest that God might have made a mistake, or even just ask Him to choose someone else (e.g. Moses). Kugel notes that the Bible goes out of its way to note how “improper” God’s choices are: Amos was a sheep farmer, Moses was an exiled shepherd in the middle of nowhere, David was not important enough for his father to even invite, Samuel was a child, Gideon was the least of the smallest clan, etc.
Kugel suggests that the change in viewpoint came as a result of God being more global. Psalm 139 explores the old view. It does not say that God knows everything (which Hebrew certainly could say), but rather that God can find out everything (“you search me and know me”). It does not say that God is everywhere (which Hebrew could express), just that he can get there before the psalmist could. But at the same time, God, who is out there, is also in here, inside of me, and came in at the point which God formed stuff into the human that became the psalmist. But when Israel was taking to captivity in Babylon, they obviously encountered other religions, and God was clearly God of them, too, and of all the other nations. This caused a model of God that saw him as big, but necessarily far away, compared to the earlier, nearer, more personal God.
The kinds of things people prayed for also differed. The psalms tend to pray for mundane things, like you would someone personal. Kugel even argues that the older view was that God was not so much the dispenser of justice as he was the dispenser of mercy (hence why kings humbled themselves in sackcloth and ashes). Compare to the super-pious prayers of Abraham in Jubilees, where God responds to right theology.
One distinctive aspect of God is the prohibition on images of God. No images of God have been found, nor has any text suggested images of God (although Israel worshiped images of other things, including the snake Moses made). At a surface level, the prohibition seems to be because worshiping an image of God might tend to lead Israel to worship other gods, since the Mesopotamian cultures almost universally had images of their gods. So God is telling Israel that he is “unusually touchy” about this. But at a deeper level it may be about God’s relationship to humans. The Mesopotamian cultures saw the god as actually residing inside the statue, and they had a ritual where a priest symbolically cut off the idol-maker’s hands and he swore an oath that he did not make this image (having no hands and all), so it was declared that the statue was of divine origin. Then the god was invited to inhabit the statue in the “opening of the mouth” ceremony. Kugel suggest that this is sort of like a girl taking dolls which do not loot like babies at all (but which are identifiable) and playing in a world where she controls what happens, or a boy playing with a Superman doll to interact with an actual Superman (not an ephemeral Superman on a screen), where he is an actor in the world with Superman. They know the toy is not really a baby or Superman, but that is not the point, the point is to interact with a baby or with Superman. But Yahweh is not like that: he actually sometimes appears, and while he has a physical form when he does appear, it is not a consistent form, nor can our physical eyes perceive that it is the Lord; we need some other kind of seeing to perceive that this physical form is actually the Lord.
Kugel also notes that Israel’s worship of God has a lot of similarities to Ugaritic worship (but not to Canaanite worship, which was universally reviled in the Bible). Yahweh is described with many of the characteristics of the Ugaritic high god El, and the lower god Baal, and in fact “Baal” seems to be an early name for God, given some of the early Israelite names. There are also a few aniconic cultures (Kugel is unclear if Ugarit was one of them), and in these cultures the god was not represented, only a throne, or a rock on which he stands. This is similar to Israelite worship, where a room was set apart for him, and the cherubim on the ark of the covenant provide a throne which he inhabits.
Another characteristic of the God of Old is that he hears the cry of oppressed and saves them. Ancient physics said that sound traveled up, and so why the gods might not be able to see what was going on from being so high up in the heavens, they could hear the sound. One ancient account of the Flood said the reason was that people were too noisy and the gods could not sleep. Virgil poetically talks of Fama, a large bird whose name means Rumor took the words to the gods (and Ecclesiastes 10:20 advises not to curse the king even in your bedroom as a bird or winged creature may report it.
Now many places in the Law instruct Israel to not take advantage of the powerless (the widow, the orphan, and the resident foreigner) because they were powerless foreigners in Egypt, but many other places warn Israel that oppressing the powerless will cause the oppressed to cry out to God, and God will surely hear them and act against you. Krugel could not find a place where it is explained why God is like this, but he does note that Psalm 82 describes God as having fired all the other gods because they did not listen to the cry of the oppressed, and when that happens the foundations of the earth shake. (This also explains why God is the only god, given that the view in the Middle East was that each nation had their own god; indeed Deut 4:19-20 and Deut 32:8-9 suggest that other gods exist but that Israel should not worship them.) Krugel’s conclusion is that hearing the cry of the victim is axiomatically what God does, and what a good god is expected to do.
But this is problematic in the face of reality where God does not appear to listen to the cry of the victim. Not only were thousands murdered in gas chambers in modern times, but in ancient times about half of babies died, and losing a battle meant slavery or simply the massacre of your city. So why would the Bible insist that God hears the cry of the victim, instead of simply saying that God is inscruitable and sometimes hears and acts and sometimes does not? Krugel thinks this was not seen as a discrepency. However perhaps that is why the Bible keeps saying it—since otherwise we would not come to that conclusion. Certainly the Bible goes out of its way to say that God’s character is compassionate and merciful. The two words used (hannun and rahum) are only used of God. And in Exodus, after Moses succeeds in getting God to go with the people, he asks God to show him His glory. In Ex 33:17-23, God’s first offer is to say that he is compassionate and merciful, but not who he is compassionate and merciful to (that is, maintaining his inscruitability). Krugel’s interpretation is that Moses says nothing, so God says that no man can see His face and live. Moses still says nothing, so God says, okay, you can see my back, and I will proclaim my name to you. So God does that, and stands next to Moses, but hidden in a cloud, and then puts him in a rock and covers Moses’ face until he passed by, and proclaims his name: the Lord, compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness and faithfulness, showing kindness for thousands and forgiving sins, but not always acquitting, but may punish the sin of the parents down to the third generation. Then Moses bows down with his face to the ground, like everyone else who encounters the divine. He seems to not have seen anything new, but God has been specific about who He has compassion and mercy on. He hears the cry of the oppressed because that is who He is.
Kugel next takes up consideration of the starkness of biblical language, and the soul’s journey. The biblical language is very black and white: there are the righteous and the the wicked, and nothing in-between. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to choose between death or life; there is nothing in-between. This is very unlike the real world, and Kugel proposes that it has to do with a way of seeing. In a baseball game in person, you see players far away, and they are like the athletes you knew in high school and college. But on television, you see all the emotions of the batter in a closeup, and then you see the pitcher scheming how to outwit the batter. In the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton goes immediately from being blind to now seeing, in that instant, the hour that he first believed. In real life, his father got his uncontrollable kid a place on a ship, which he quickly deserted, got caught up in the slave trade where he excelled and became captain of a ship. His father—not, say, a prompting from the Holy Spirit, intervened to bring him back to England, and gradually over a period of time he became a follower of Christ. But Newton’s perspective of his journey is stark, from sinner to saved, in that hour of belief. It is a similar quality to cartoons: in cartoons everything is flat-shaded, and although there may be a sun, there are rarely shadows. The characters never die, despite the physical excesses they go through. And the Righteous Mouse always outwits the Wicked Cat.
This stark way of seeing reveals a way at looking at life from a different perspective from our normal, smooth-shaded view; it is the perspective of the soul. The soul was seen as being what is inside of us. Some places in the Bible it was seen as our true nature, but in other places the soul is God’s. He may use it to examine us, as in Prov 20:27, and He may visit it at night (Ps 17:3). In the rabbinical tradition the soul returned to Heaven every night, where God would find out what we had done, and return the weary soul we gave him back to us refreshed. Many ancient cultures thought that the soul traveled night: we have dreams of different places, and we are unconscious and sort of dead, so clearly our animating force must have left us. (Kugel gives an interesting thought question for us moderns who think that the soul does not travel: what would need to be different about our experience to convince the ancients that they were wrong?)
In his conclusion, Kugel starts off by noting that the dead inhabited a similar sort of world as God, and just like God, they sometimes crossed over into this world. In Deut 18, Moses tells the Israelites not to talk with the dead, not because it was impossible and a waste of time, but because after that prohibition, Moses declares that the prophet replaces talking with the dead as a means of inquiring about the future. In fact, the view seems to be that talking to the dead could be efficacious, which is why we see King Saul do it, after he tried all the acceptable ways and God refused to answer. Judging from that story, it seems that women were the ones who contacted the dead, that the dead had some sort of bodies and clothes, they do not necessarily like being contacted, and they seem to inhabit the same sort of realm as God. When Samuel appears, Saul bows down to Samuel just like people reacted when they realized that God was talking to him, and the word the witch of Endor uses was that she saw elohim (“gods”) coming up from the ground. The dead seem to have bodies and clothes—Samuel was wearing robes—and indeed, many ancient cultures buried items with the dead and offered food to the dead. One of the requirements of the tithe in Deuteronomy is declaring that you have offered none of it to the dead, and eating sacrifices to the dead was part of the worship of Baal of Peor. It seems that because the dead inhabited the same sort of spirit world that God did, they were privy to the future. This explains why the patriarchs prophesied at the blessing at the end of their lives. They were already partly in the spirit world, and so somewhat privy to the future as well.
This brings us back to the idea of starkness, and the cartoon look at the world. From a distance, which is the wisdom-perspective, our lives are short (as the Bible frequently reminds us) and we scurry around like cartoon characters. This is why cartoon characters, and ancient “cartoons” like Aesop’s fables, are animals—to observe ourselves at a distance, where the details blend together and you can only see one distinguishing characteristic. Psalm 90 blends both the sun world and the cartoon world. It looks down and sees that life is fleeting, but has sympathy for us. It says that we eventually accumulate enough sins that God removes us. But instead of pleading with God for mercy, it, like Ps 39, asks God to show us the distant view to give us perspective on our lives. There is no solution for the brevity, but as Ecclesiastes suggests, we can pray that God allows us to enjoy it. Each of us gets a blank canvas on which to paint our lives. The subject of the painting is not important, but rather the quality of the painting. This painting is, metaphorically, really the only thing that we can take with us into eternity, and it is this painting that is which, seen from the distance, has the quality of starkness: righteous or wicked.
Now in later times, evidenced particularly in the texts from a few hundred years before Christ, God became more universal. Presumably this was because while Israel was in Babylon, if God was Lord of the world, clearly He was Lord of the people of the many cultures in Babylon. Naturally, this would him rather more distant. In fact, if God is everywhere, in some sense he is so diffuse as to be nowhere in specific. So in the later texts, God does not break into the world, but instead people have to leave the world the encounter him in Heaven. Angels fill in the gap that God used to fill, hence the proliferation of angels of a specific nature (e.g. the angels in the book of Daniel). Kugel suggests that both perspectives of God are part of us blind people feeling out the elephant. The views are not incompatible, but they are different, and we have adopted the later view. But the earlier view of God as not far away and apt to show up to people unbidden from time to time is still there.
The God of Old is an interesting elucidation of the ancient view of the spiritual world, compared to the more modern view of God as distant, everywhere but nowhere, and our duty always to love him but in loving constantly we do not love, now, specifically. His cogent explanation also resolves a number of questions in the back of my mind, like why the patriarchs knew the future in the blessing-prophesy they gave to their children at the end of their life. He also gives a perspective on the Bible’s starkness that avoids the fundamentalist either-or dualism: the dualistic-seeming starkness comes from the perspective of the soul, where our actions and character are seen in sharper contrast than in the day, and thus our actions are either righteous or wicked. It is a way of seeing with a different sort of clarity, that increases the contrast to reveal the starkness.
Interestingly, this perspective has survived into modern times. Fantasy like A Wizard of Earthsea or Miyazaki’s movies like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away” inhabit a world where the spirit world overlaps with the sun-world. Similarly Charismatics / Pentecostals have a similar view, where the Holy Spirit is not far away, and is even willing to break in. You also get lots of Charismatic / Pentecostal stories of people encountering God rather unexpectedly. In fact, it felt like Kugel believed in the cold, modern world, possibility to the point of not really believing in a tangible God, but that he wished for the God of Old, and that he wanted what the Charismatics have.