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The Ladder of Jacob:
Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children
James L. Kugel

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2007

Paperback | 2009 | $24.95 | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691141237
280 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 1 line illus.
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Rife with incest, adultery, rape, and murder, the biblical story of Jacob and his children must have troubled ancient readers. By any standard, this was a family with problems. Jacob's oldest son Reuben is said to have slept with his father's concubine Bilhah. The next two sons, Simeon and Levi, tricked the men of a nearby city into undergoing circumcision, and then murdered all of them as revenge for the rape of their sister. Judah, the fourth son, had sexual relations with his own daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, jealous of their younger sibling Joseph, the brothers conspired to kill him; they later relented and merely sold him into slavery. These stories presented a particular challenge for ancient biblical interpreters. After all, Jacob's sons were the founders of the nation of Israel and ought to have been models of virtue.

In The Ladder of Jacob, renowned biblical scholar James Kugel retraces the steps of ancient biblical interpreters as they struggled with such problems. Kugel reveals how they often fixed on a little detail in the Bible's wording to "deduce" something not openly stated in the narrative. They concluded that Simeon and Levi were justified in killing all the men in a town to avenge the rape of their sister, and that Judah, who slept with his daughter-in-law, was the unfortunate victim of alcoholism.

These are among the earliest examples of ancient biblical interpretation (midrash). They are found in retellings of biblical stories that appeared in the closing centuries BCE--in the Book of Jubilees, the Aramaic Levi Document, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other noncanonical works. Through careful analysis of these retellings, Kugel is able to reconstruct how ancient interpreters worked. The Ladder of Jacob is an artful, compelling account of the very beginnings of biblical interpretation.


"The Ladder of Jacob is one of the most readable and attractive introductions to the general style of traditional Jewish reasoning from Scripture. It captures the strange combination of playfulness with deadly seriousness that characterizes this exegetical tradition, and which makes studying it so enjoyable. The methods it works with are profoundly interesting to the historian of ideas, who will be aware of parallels in other scriptural religions."--John Baron, Times Literary Supplement

"James L. Kugel demonstrates that . . . ancient sources described the biblical narratives in terms of various motifs that brought fresh meanings to the stories and their place in Israel's religious history. . . . Kugel helpfully guides us through the marvelous world of ancient biblical interpretation."--Publishers Weekly

"In his elegant new book, . . . James L. Kugel takes on . . . perplexing . . . questions with great erudition and admirable lucidity. . . . Whether unravelling some philological tangle or reconciling divergent readings, he has the enviable knack of capturing his reader's attention and keeping it firmly tethered. . . . Whether discussing Reuben's sin with Bilhah or the priesthood of Levi or Judah and Tamar, Mr. Kugel moves easily from moral dilemmas to textual enigmas; his book thus serves as a guide to interpretation as well."--Eric Ormsby, New York Sun

"Biblical scholar Kugel offers an in-depth study of some of the more difficult stories of Jacob and Jacob's family. . . . [A]ny biblical researcher can profit from understanding the questions raised by these text, and analyzing the answers they provide. A valuable resource."--Library Journal

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Chapter One: Jacob and the Bible's Ancient Interpreters 1
Chapter Two: The Ladder of Jacob 9
Chapter Three: The Rape of Dinah, and Simeon and Levi's Revenge 36
Chapter Four: Reuben's Sin with Bilhah 81
Chapter Five: How Levi Came to Be a Priest 115
Chapter Six: Judah and the Trial of Tamar 169
Chapter Seven: A Prayer about Jacob and Israel from the Dead Sea Scrolls 186
Notes 223
Subject Index 263
Hebrew Bible Index 271
Index of Motifs Studied 276

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