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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