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. In The Ladder of Jacob, renowned biblical scholar James Kugel retraces the steps of ancient biblical interpreters as they struggled to reconcile the behavior of their ancestors with their own moral and religious values. Kugel reveals how they often fixed on some 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. Through careful analysis of these retellings, Kugel presents an artful, compelling account of the very beginnings of biblical midrash.

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