Recensions et comptes rendus

Leon R. Kass, Founding God’s Nation. Reading Exodus. New Haven CT-London, Yale University Press, 2021, 15,5 × 23,5 cm, xix-726 p., ISBN 978-0-300-25303-0

  • Chi Ai Nguyen

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  • Chi Ai Nguyen
    Assumption University, Worcester MA

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Couverture de Démons d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, Volume 76, numéro 1, janvier–avril 2024, p. 1-163, Science et Esprit

In 2003, Leon Kass published a book on Genesis (The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis) in which he focused on the life of one family, that of Abraham. Eighteen years later, he continues his exploration of the theme, this time by paying attention to the life of an entire nation. How was Israel formed as that nation with its own identity, laws, and purpose? Taking the book of Exodus, with its coherent plan and order, as a unity, Kass approaches the text as a naïve reader, as if he does not know what happens next, examining it line by line (sometimes, this ambitious task seems impossible, see for example p. 452-453). Being convinced that every word matters, Kass pays attention to “repetition of words or phrases, puns and echoes of previous uses of the same term, and shifts from prose into poetry and back again” (p. 8) in order to see how the meaning of the story emerges through different literary links. He is also attentive to juxtapositions, lacunae, absences, and silences in the text. By doing so, he does not want to learn about the text, but think with the text. For Kass, “the text has been written not merely to inform the reader about the narrated events. It has been written mainly to form him – to educate him – not only by means of its explicit content and dramatic enactments but also and especially by the ways in which it manages to draw him into its orbit. The book aims not just to teach about, but to be lived with.” (p. 10, emphasis in original) Following this approach, the readers become an integral participant of the story, invited to translate its values into their current way of life. What Kass calls a philosophical reading consists in finding the wisdom from the Bible for today’s readers. Far from being simply “the normative text for the birth of the Jewish people,” Exodus offers to readers of all time important material with which to reflect on subjects of universal interest: “the best beginnings for founding a people,” “the qualifications for leadership,” “the virtues of civic life,” “the bond of civil society,” “the source of law,” “the forms of law,” “the reach of law,” “the purposes of law,” “the forms of governance,” “the sources of trouble and the causes of rebellion,” “and the relation to the divine.” (p. 6) The book, substantial not only in length (over seven hundred pages), but also in depth, is composed of three parts. In part one (Out of Egypt: Slavery and Deliverance. Exodus 1-15), Kass shows that Pharaoh saw the Israelites as a people before they saw it themselves. “A people, in the new Pharaoh’s view, are a group of numerous ‘others’ who are a threat in case of war, capable of tipping the balance in favor of one’s enemies.” (p. 27) In order to avoid that potential danger, Pharaoh oppressed them and reduced them to cruel slavery. Paradoxically, however, the misery caused by servitude was the starting point of the foundation of Israel as a people. Indeed, when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, he heard them and led them out of Egypt to make of them his people. Notice that the children of Israel became a nation before having a land, an economy and a government. And the Lord asked them to remember the event of their liberation, thus of their foundation, an event that had not yet taken place. By retelling this event, they were to make sure that the Lord be known not only …