Review of James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).  Pp. xiii + 278.  Cloth, US$24.95.  ISBN 0-691-12122-2.


The stories in the book of Genesis have long fascinated readers, non-religious and religious alike.  However, as James L. Kugel notes in the introduction to these erudite studies, the purpose of Genesis in the Torah has not always been clear (p. 1).  That is, Kugel argues, the laws and instructions in the remaining books of the Torah seem to validate their inclusion, but Genesis contains almost exclusively narrative material.  Kugel presses the question even further and asks why stories about Jacob would have been included, given that he and his family exhibit, shall we say, less than upright behavior.  To answer these questions, Kugel engages various strands of biblical interpretations in the Second Temple Period to discern the way(s) in which Bible readers engaged, exegeted, and enjoyed various texts dealing with Jacob. 

Kugel first adumbrates his method and approach on pp. 3-7.[1]  He first discusses the four main assumptions of ancient Bible interpreters, viz., (1) the Torah is a relevant book; (2) the Bible speaks cryptically; (3) the Bible is a coherent, perfect book; and (4) the Bible is from God.  Based on these presuppositions, ancient readers examined specific biblical verses or even words to discern their practical meaning or connection to other scriptural texts.  As such, Kugel claims, “ancient biblical interpretation traveled in little packets called exegetical motifs,” which he defines as “an explanation of the meaning of a biblical verse, especially a potentially problematic one, or even of a phrase or a word within that verse” (p. 5).  Exegetical motifs resulting from interpretations of stories focusing on Jacob and his family are the focus of this book.  These motifs can exist as variants; rivals; narrative expansions; or midrashic doublets, and a single text can even contain more than one exegetical motif that explains or interprets a specific textual problem, a phenomenon Kugel terms “overkill.”

After his introductory chapter (pp. 1-8), Kugel examines select exegetical motifs surrounding the episode of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28 in Chapter Two (pp. 9-35), including a brief pseudepigraphal writing titled the Ladder of Jacob.  Chapter Three (pp. 36-80) focuses on the puzzling aspects of Genesis 34, in which we find the rape of Dinah and the revenge plotted by her brothers Simeon and Levi.  A single verse, viz., Genesis 35:22, is the focus on Chapter Four (pp. 81-114).  This verse contains the tantalizingly brief mention of Reuben lying with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine.  Chapter Five (pp. 115-68) examines ancient answers to the question of why the Levites had been selected as the singular priestly tribe, answers which focus on the life and actions of the tribe’s eponymous ancestor.  In Chapter Six (pp. 169-85), Kugel discusses how scriptural readers of the Second Temple Period viewed the encounter between Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.  Finally, Chapter Seven (pp. 186-221) interprets a notoriously difficult text from Qumran (4Q369) as a prayer dealing with Jacob/Israel, and is followed by a brief conclusion to the entire book (pp. 218-21).  Generally speaking, this book is aimed at an intermediate audience due to its sophisticated treatment of texts and well-documented endnotes (pp. 223-62).  Given that audience, though, this book should enjoy a wide readership.

Space constraints do not permit me to provide a detailed summary of Kugel’s masterful survey of the numerous texts he engages.  Instead, I will only mention the argument of his first chapter.  Here, Kugel analyzes Gen 28:10-22, Jacob’s dream of a ladder ascending to the heavens.  Ancient readers of this passage agreed that Jacob here experienced some sort of message from God, but why a ladder?  Why angels?  These messengers then posited several explanations, such as the answer found in Gen. Rab. 68:12 that the angels going up and down were guarding Jacob, and it was simply time for a shift-change.  Other readers argued that the angels were coming and going to catch a glimpse of the righteous Jacob as a sort of angelic visitation, or pilgrimage.  Still others argued that Jacob’s dream was a symbolic foreshadowing of his people’s future.  That is, much like the king’s dream in Daniel 2, Jacob sees symbolic rungs on the ladder that represent future kingdoms that will oppress his descendents.  Kugel then examines “a short biblical pseudepigraphon called the Ladder of Jacob” which combines two of the exegetical motifs he discusses (p. 24). In so doing, and in the conclusion to this chapter, Kugel notes that by observing the chronological and thematic developments in scriptural interpretations, we are more likely to understand both the nature of ancient Bible reading as well as later texts that render potentially confusing readings.  That is, if we can establish the history of exegetical motifs, the history of the way(s) in which a given text has been interpreted, then we will be in a better position to assess how later texts engage the same target text(s).

In spite of this brief summary, I am tempted to say that no synopsis can do justice to the intertextual connections Kugel draws in tracing the history of these exegetical motifs.  Like Michel Foucault’s archaeological method, in which the analyst seeks to examine the “archive,” i.e., “the mass of things spoken in a culture, presented, valorized, re-used, repeated and transformed,” Kugel’s examination of various exegetical motifs allows us to chart the very development of biblical meanings, many of which ordinary believers may take for granted.[2]  In other words, by demonstrating the way(s) in which ancient interpreters thought about and interpreted scripture, Kugel is able to illustrate not only the continuing value of Torah to religious readers, but also the ability of those interpreters to shape its meaning in various texts and contexts over time.[3]

Having said this, I noticed two main critical issues in the books that, if addressed, would increase its usefulness.  The most apparent of these is Kugel’s lack of comment on the issues raised by the numerous female characters he discuses, including Dinah, Bilhah, and especially Tamar.  Granted, he is surveying ancient male readers, but given the vast amount of feminist criticism on these characters, it would have behooved Kugel to at least acknowledge feminist concerns.  If nothing else, the work of feminist scholars could place the attention paid to these characters by the exegetes examined by Kugel in their patriarchal and ideological context.  Another potential issue is the lack of any socio-historical context for the interpretations he surveys.  Since in his conclusion he specifically states, “What is particularly striking about the motifs examined here, beyond their creative reworking of biblical material, is the extent to which they may be seen to have built on one another,” it would seem to aid his claim if he could establish some sort of geographic proximity or socio-cultural overlap between the readers he examines.  Even with these concerns, I can certainly recommend Kugel’s book as yet another masterpiece of the history of interpretation.  It should serve as a guide for others attempting to do so, as well as a wonderful sourcebook for those working on Genesis.

Dan Clanton
Englewood, CO


[1] Much of this approach is discussed in more detail in Kugel’s other works, most notably his The Bible As It Was (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 1-36.  See also his important “Nine Theses,” in In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (2nd ed.; Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 1994), 247-70.

[2] “The Birth of a World,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984 (ed. Sylvère Lotringer; trans. L. Hochroth and J. Johnston; New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), 66.  See also Lois McNay, Foucault: A Critical Introduction (New York: Continuum, 1994), 66: “The archive of a given period is composed of the totality of discursive formations or ensemble of statements which constitute a field of knowledge.”

[3] Kugel’s most recent book is a comparison between traditional Jewish and modern historical-critical biblical interpretation, and I recommend it for its breadth, as well as its provocative thesis.  See How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007).