Kugel cites several studies showing that even now, many healthy people hear voices—as much as 15 percent of the general population. He also cites a recent cross-cultural study in which researchers interviewed voice hearers in the United States, Ghana, and India. The researchers recorded “striking differences” in how the different groups of people felt about the voices they hear: In Ghana and India, many participants “insisted that their predominant or even only experience of the voice was positive. … Not one American did so.”
“These results,” Kugel concludes, “would suggest that a society’s ‘givens’ have a lot to do with how voice hearing is interpreted”—cultural conditioning impacts whether a phenomenon like prophecy will be celebrated or pathologized. Our conversation about that phenomenon, which follows below, has been edited for clarity and length.
Sigal Samuel: The central claim of your book, to me at least, is that people in biblical times had a very different “sense of self” than we do in the modern West. Can you explain what you mean by that?
James Kugel: Anthropologists who have studied cultures that are very different from ours—in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and elsewhere—have come to focus increasingly on this elusive item. A people’s “sense of self” is the idea that they carry around in their heads about who “I myself” am and how I fit into the larger world. What it consists of turns out to vary greatly from one society to another and from period to period.
For the most part we tend to assume that biblical figures have the same sense of self as we do. So when the Bible says that God appeared to Abraham outside his tent or called to Moses out of a burning bush, we have to dismiss such things as some sort of figurative language, or else we just shrug them off: Such things happened “back then” but they don’t anymore.
But if we go back far enough in biblical history, ancient Israelites seem to have conceived of themselves in terms very different from our own. Getting inside their minds, seeing things the way they saw them, is the key to understanding what the Bible is trying to get across.
Samuel: You write that we envision our minds as self-enclosed entities, which outside forces don’t penetrate at will, but that ancient Israelites operated with a model of a “semipermeable mind.” What evidence in the biblical text suggests that?
Kugel: I made up this term to try to get at the reality that ancient Israelites experienced, or at least found utterly plausible. The human mind could be penetrated by outside forces. Not only by God—who is sometimes depicted as going inside people, “probing their kidneys and heart” to find out what they’re really thinking—but by various sorts of “spirits.” Some of them were benign, but others were wicked spirits dispatched by Satan to take over. They were like bacteria; you couldn’t see them, but once they got inside of you they would take charge, making you think and do things against your will. So the Bible and other texts from the same period contain prayers specifically designed to ward off these evil spirits. That’s part of what I meant by semipermeable. You couldn’t stop God from entering your mind, but sometimes you could head off a wicked angel.