Gili Kugler, When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2019
Dr Gili Kugler is a lecturer at the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies in Sydney University. Her research focuses on the development of narratives, traditions and beliefs in the Hebrew Bible.
|Dr Gili Kugler|
Discussion and Interview
Dr Rachelle Gilmour, Bromby Senior Lecturer in Old Testament, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, Australia
|Dr Rachelle Gilmour|
Rachelle: I was delighted when I was asked to launch Dr Kugler’s monograph for two reasons: first, I’ve read many of her published articles in this area and have always been impressed by the breadth, the intelligence and the creativity of her research – so I held high expectations for her monograph; and secondly because of the topic of the book: divine threats of annihilation.
The introduction to this monograph presents some provocative and tantalizing concepts:
In the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, both in the Pentateuch and the words of the prophets, Israel are identified as a chosen people: whether it is through covenant, as a treasured possession out of all peoples; a priestly kingdom and a holy nation; or through Deuteronomic assertions of God’s love for the people of Israel. However, alongside this chosenness in another key theological idea – God may destroy his own people. As Kugler writes, “This is an expression of a central tenet in the monotheistic belief: the power that provides the foundations of life is at the same time, the source of its annihilation. Thus the source of the strength of Israel is at the same time the means of their extinction” (p. 2).
Moreover, this is not only a theological issue, it is a political one: it is related to the boundaries of national existence. “Questions of existence and annihilation were part of an ongoing exploration of self-definition and self-determination among ancient Israelites” (p. 3) in changing circumstances.
The raw materials for the investigation of divine annihilation of the chosen people are the desert traditions: the desert being a liminal space “where political and international matters play a less significant role, and the people’s encounter with their new and mighty God is on the agenda” (p. 3). The primary texts of these traditions of desert destruction are the golden calf incident of Exodus 32, and the report of the spies, met with God’s wrath in Numbers 14. In both stories, God threatens destruction, but Moses addresses God on behalf of the people. These stories of initiation in the desert, according to Kugler, describe “moments of distress and difficulty that could consolidate national identity, but at the same time could lead to irreversible situations that threaten the very existence of the people” (p. 3).
In the chapters that follow, the development and evolution of these traditions are traced throughout the Hebrew Bible. The journey of these traditions is meticulously described, but also filled with the suspense, twists and turns of any other good story telling.
So what does Dr Kugler’s study reveal? Well I don’t want to give it all away because I want you to read the book. But let me give you an overview, followed by a couple of highlights from the journey.
The appearance and reappearance of these traditions throughout Biblical literature is astounding, and Kugler skillfully demonstrates how they interconnect, reinterpret and address new political contexts for the people of Israel.
Let’s look at two examples more closely.
The story of the Golden calf. Now those of us familiar with the biblical tradition in Exodus 32, especially if we have encountered it in a faith context, will probably consider the divine threat of annihilation for prostration before a golden calf, and its accompanying orgiastic celebration, to be essential to the story, if not so. Notably, Kugler observes that this episode has no significant role in the broader account of the people’s wandering in the desert – it could easily be omitted from the end of Exodus, and there is no effect on the people’s fate or the destination of the journey and its route. Furthermore, through attention to the historical critical evidence in the chapter, duplications identified by medieval Jewish interpreter Ibn Ezra, and attention to text critical evidence, Kugler shows that the earliest tradition was about a legitimate and accepted ritual custom performed by Moses. Over time, this tradition was transformed to defame the northern kingdom’s custom of worship of a golden calf. Moses was given the role of rebuking and condemning the custom, and made advocate of the people. Moreover, a myth of near destruction was introduced, highlighting how terrible the worship of a golden calf was. This is theology on the move: indicative of the literary freedom of the scribes in the early stages of composition to transform traditions and respond to political crises, for example a rival northern kingdom. On the surface, this story might appear to be a condemnation of Israelites in the long distant past in the wilderness; but attention to its composition process suggests its real target is the northern kingdom; the worship of golden calves at Bethel and Dan traced in the narrative of the book of Kings to Jeroboam.
Another example comes from much later in the journey of the traditions: Ezekiel 20. The historical review there has numerous overlaps in concepts and vocabulary with Exodus 32 and Numbers 14. Ezekiel seems to know, and to be influenced by these two traditions. But here’s the interesting part: Ezekiel 20 does not explicitly mention the incidents of the golden calf or the spies. Instead, it is concerned with law violation, especially the sabbath and idolatry.
Ezekiel 20 is composed in a new political and theological context: the time of exile. It seeks to explain the exile in terms of the sins in the wilderness. Indeed, exile is a compromise compared to the threat of complete annihilation in the wilderness: that would have been a harsher sentence. The exile of the present generation is tolerable compared to destruction. But exile is not the only political and theological ball to juggle for Ezekiel: the other is that in Ezekiel, punishment is not imposed on later generations. God punishes a generation only for their own sins. So how does Ezekiel solve this conundrum: the exile is blamed upon the wilderness generation; and yet there is no transgenerational punishment? The innovation is the concept of laws “which were not good”: God punishes Israel with offensive laws, so they inevitably sin; and the exile generation are punished for their own sin. Ezekiel has his theological cake and eats it too.
To further illuminate the book’s highlights, I have asked Gili a few questions.
Rachelle: In your work you connect the near destruction of Israel with the theology of chosenness. Why is this? What is it about being God’s chosen that invites destruction as the other side of the coin?
Gili: Chosenness comes with responsibility. The biblical theology pictures an omnipotent God who judges all human-beings and distinguishes some of them. Those he distinguishes live in a demand to prove that they deserve their position as God’s close possession, as part of an equation “one God, one nation”. In the imagery of the Hebrew Bible, they are expected to act as an obedient wife, committed to a jealous divine husband. The relationship with the woman is thus not merely for her own good, but rather to maintain God’s authority and reputation.
Within this theology, lack of commitment to God results in punishment, according to the stories in the desert – even destruction and death. The belief that one can be punished by God for their sins sets a religious and didactic framework for educating the community. But moreover, it provides explanations for actual occurrences that one experiences. A narrative about people who are at risk because of their deeds helps to explain calamities in people’s lives. The existence of calamities require explanation particularly for those who believe to be chosen and that God is not only omnipotent but also good. This is what we call theodicy; the attempt to justify God’s actions, namely, the things that occur in the world. As things are not considered arbitrary and God is viewed as an involved and powerful deity, then in many cases it is the people alone that are left to be blamed.
Rachelle: Stories of punishment for sin function as theodicy. What is then the function of stories of near destruction, or of fear of destruction in the Hebrew Bible? What is the role of God’s compassion in it?
Gili: The fear of destruction can be as early as the idea of chosenness, and may have emerged together with it. God is appreciated for not destroying the people of Israel, although he could have done so, as known from the stories of other nations and cities throughout history. The question of the Bible is then often opposite – why have the Israelites survived at all? Various authors answer it differently. According to Psalm 78, for example, it is thanks to God’s acknowledgment of the mortal nature of the people of Israel that they are still alive. The understanding that they are a collective of mortals, whose existence, even of the sinners among them, is temporary and transient, has saved them. Mortality is the weakness of people’s nature. But for the chosen people it is what saves them from a collective death. For this recognition, God is called compassionate. It is like winning a Nobel peace prize for not pressing the nuclear weapon button.
Rachelle: There is an intriguing motif throughout your work about the role of a mediator – primarily Moses, but also Phinehas. What is the significance of an advocate in these traditions?
Gili: According to the narrative in Deuteronomy 9 the Israelites are no different from the Canaanite nations who are destined to be annihilated. In this account Moses is the key reason for the people’s continuing existence.
But Moses’ role is not always present in the narrative of the people’s survival. It is plausible that his part was integrated into the stories later in the composition process, when the image of God as a potential destroyer has been restricted, and the role of Moses required more depth. At times, it was not just Moses, but rather the whole idea of human mediators, that was introduced into the people’s narrative. In Psalm 106, Phinehas joins Moses as a role model of an advocate for the people. Instead of mentioning Phinehas’ violent action known from Numbers 25, he is described in the Psalm as standing with a plea in front of God, and is used as a precedent for the psalmist’s own action.
The role of the advocate would disappear again from the traditions (all the way to the Passover Haggadah) when the authors wanted to stress ideas of the people’s fate and nature. In the national narratives recounted by the prophets, for example, Moses’ omission puts the projector back to God. As Ezekiel stresses in the words of God “but I acted for the sake of my name…”.
Rachelle: You show in your work that God’s threat of annihilation is used in some unexpected ways to explain the Babylonian exile. Would you argue then that the motif of near destruction has emerged with the threat of the exile?
Gili: In the book I outline a few texts that reflect the authors’ use of the stories from a perspective of exile, or with the awareness of a potential defeat. Despite this shared perspective, though, each text attests a different view towards the defeat/exile and thus picks on different elements of the narrative of destruction.
The research led me to the conclusion that the review found in Nehemiah 9 was created one hundred years earlier than the timeframe in which it is put, i.e., in the time of the threats of the Babylonian kings. Another text, Psalm 106, reflects the time already in exile. Ezekiel 20 anticipates the return of the Judeans to the land, while meanwhile rebuking them for feeling too comfortable there. All three texts are aware of the clash with or the threats of the empire, and they all try to convey a message and to call for an action. Nevertheless, they employ the narrative of the past significantly differently, with totally different approach to the idea of near destruction. The collective memory of the time is flexible according to the authors’ political and pedagogical needs.
Rachelle: So does the threat of destruction emerge with the threat of exile?
Gili: Not completely. Psalm 78 proves that the myth of potential destruction could be prior to the historical threat of the exile. I would say that plenty other existential dangers could prompt a myth of near destruction, including, as I mentioned, the very belief of being chosen and exclusive. Such a belief could easily stimulate a psychological complex that entails fear of death.
Rachelle: Your research has without doubt contributed significantly to academic knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and its composition. However, I want to ask you a question as a teacher of Biblical Studies for many years now at the University of Sydney. Why is it important that students and others who consider the Bible important for national identity, for cultural foundation and/or for faith, engage with these diachronic aspects of the Hebrew Bible? Why shouldn’t we just read the HB in the final form that we have it now?
Gili: Various political and religious assertions today claim to know the truth of the Bible and to be able to draw actual implications from it. An attempt to understand the text in the context it was created reveals the complex development and the human nature of the text. Endeavoring to understand how and why the text was created makes us more humble in claiming ownership on the truth.
Together with dealing with the Bible as a source of cultural and religious inspiration, this methodology is important for the sake of humanity, the pursuit of the human thought. The Hebrew Bible gives a vivid and authentic glimpse to human society. By delving into questions of writing and authorship we inquire the development of ideas, the clinging to beliefs, and the ways people deal with difficulties and distress in life. This sort of investigation belongs to the history of religion, philosophy and literature. It puts things in perspective and shows that ideas accepted in specific manners today were not always like that, and are probably still going through changes. Sometimes the changes are random, and sometimes they can be tracked back and explained according to our knowledge and understanding. My book has God in the title, but it’s actually about humans.
Rachelle: In your study of the threat of annihilation in the Bible, in what ways can the motif of near destruction be ethically or theologically crippling? And conversely, in what ways is it constructive?
Gili: The destruction motif is a didactic tool. It is used for pedagogic needs and for preaching and reproaching, as well as for effecting people’s behaviour through fear and by threating them. The results of it is not only discipline, but also causing guilt-feelings and self-hatred that are not constructive for either the collective or individuals. This also cannot be separated from violence inflicted on others.
Nevertheless, I hold appreciation of this tradition because it reflects people’s capability to look inwards rather than always looking for others to blame. I think we can praise the capability of the ancients to connect one’s fate and well-being with their relationship with God/the world, and to not remain in the victim position. As such, they manage to portray a complex story about their origins: presenting themselves as favorites while not taking it for granted.
Rachelle: To conclude my introduction to this very fine book, let me outline two reasons why I believe this is an important piece of research:
This is a wonderful demonstration of the evolving movement of theology – ideas we so often assume are static, instead are constantly adapted or revised for new situations. Divine threats begin as a part of the portrayal of God as a furious mythological deity, long before the exile (for example Psalm 78), and the collective experience of destruction. This was a general threat of destruction that always accompanied the people’s lives. But the danger of the furious mythological deity has been limited as the theology and traditions were on the move. The possibility of God’s compassion was introduced, and the accountability of people’s lives for invoking God’s wrath. With national experience, the threat is no longer always accompanying the people, but becomes attached to specific moments in the past.
Kugler demonstrates something of the “why” for such an extraordinary yet central theological belief: divine threat of destruction. I’ll illustrate this point using a quote from the conclusion to the book where Kugler so eloquently draws together the threads of this ever evolving theology: She argues that the harsh stories people recount appear to be art of the mechanism for surviving and coping in times of crisis. She quotes from the Zionist thinker Simon Rawidowicz, “A nation is going and dying”:
“Sometimes it seems to me as if the sense of the coming end is an essential protection, a feeling that turns into a notion and becomes one of the basic ideas that serves as a shield for the people. It is an encouragement of their ability to defeat the annihilation that accompanied them from the beginning, in their periods of wanderings and kingdoms, which did not fill their hearts with much of a sense of security. Israel indeed kept meditating on their potential annihilation, imagining their coming end. But these reflections and imaginings were their tools to overcome their destruction, to withstand every crisis and extinction, when those [fates]have indeed lurked for them. And thus, the people of destruction turned to be the people of beginning, and their end altered to an endless end..” (Rabinowitz 1948; cited in Kugler p.183)