Did a Change in Humans’ Sense of Self Lead to a Change in Biblical Religion?

 Drawing on research in psychology and neuroscience, the Bible scholar James Kugel argues in his book The Great Shift that between the writing of the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible and the writing of the latest, ancient Israelites (and many of their contemporaries) began to think differently about selfhood. Kugel argues that this change precipitated the “shift” of his book’s title, in which people ceased to perceive themselves as able to hear God’s voice. (Interview by Alan Brill.)

Some elements of [selfhood] seem to be universal. . . . But then there are other things that make people’s sense of self in one society radically different from their sense of self in another. . . . [In writing this book], what interested me is how some of these differences are expressed in biblical texts. Perhaps the most striking thing in early biblical narratives is the relative lack of reference to a person’s insides, the thoughts and emotions that people experience. Everything important happens out there or comes in from out there.

So, for example, when God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, Abraham sets out the next morning to do it. What was Abraham thinking, and what was Isaac, the intended victim, thinking? Apparently, these inside things are not important: it’s the outside that counts, the fact that Abraham is willing to carry out this commandment. It’s not that Abraham doesn’t think. It’s just that, at this relatively early stage of things, everything important still happens outside, so what Abraham thought is just not important. . . .

[At the same time], throughout the biblical period, ancient Israelites did believe that their minds were open to penetration from the outside, by God or by demonic spirits. For example, God inserts His words into the prophet Balaam’s mouth, making him say the exact opposite of what he wants to say. This should not be a minor item for biblical scholars: here is an operating assumption in the biblical sense of self that is very different from our own conception of the human mind, its fundamental permeability. . . .

Little by little, however, things did change. It’s as if the center of gravity was slowly migrating from outside to inside. People [in the Bible] now interrogate their own souls while lying on their beds late at night; in fact, they come to be “in search of God”—something people weren’t in earlier times. They pray to God not because they need something, but simply to “establish contact.” . . .

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More about: Ancient Israel, Hebrew Bible, Prophecy, Religion & Holidays

Palestinian Leaders Fight Economic Growth

Jan. 15 2019

This month, a new shopping mall opened in northeastern Jerusalem, easily accessible to most of the city’s Arab residents. Rami Levy, the supermarket magnate who owns the mall, already employs some 2,000 Israeli Arabs and Palestinians at his other stores, and the mall will no doubt bring more jobs to Arab Jerusalemites. But the leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are railing against it, and one newspaper calls its opening “an economic catastrophe [nakba].” Bassam Tawil writes:

For [the PA president] Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah officials . . . the image of Palestinians and Jews working in harmony is loathsome. . . . Instead of welcoming the inauguration of the shopping mall for providing job opportunities to dozens of Palestinians and lower prices [to consumers], Fatah officials are taking about an Israeli plan to “undermine” the Palestinian economy. . . . The hundreds of Palestinians who flooded the new mall on its first day, however, seem to disagree with the grim picture painted by [these officials]. . . .

The campaign of incitement against Levy’s shopping mall began several months ago, as it was being built, and has continued until today. Now that the campaign has failed to prevent the opening of the mall, Fatah and its followers have turned to outright threats and violence. The threats are being directed toward Palestinian shoppers and Palestinian merchants who rented space in the new mall. On the day the mall was opened, Palestinians threw a number of firebombs at the compound, [which] could have injured or killed Palestinians. The [bomb-throwers], who are believed to be affiliated with Fatah, would rather see their own people dead than having fun or buying attractively-priced products at an Israeli mall.

By spearheading this campaign of incitement and intimidation, Abbas’s Fatah is again showing its true colors. How is it possible to imagine that Abbas or any of his Fatah lieutenants would ever make peace with Israel when they cannot even tolerate the idea of Palestinians and Jews working together for a simple common good? If a Palestinian who buys Israeli milk is a traitor in the eyes of Fatah, it is not difficult to imagine the fate of any Palestinian who would dare to discuss compromise with Israel.

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More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian economy