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Archive for the 'Job' Category

Yahweh’s (Inexplicable?) Response to Job

3rd March 2011

One of the most marvelous passages of Scripture in the Tanak is found at the end of the book of Job where Yahweh (surprisingly) responds to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1-42:6).  I’ve tended to understand Yahweh’s reply to Job as a series of unanswerable questions that put Job and his so-called friends in their place, so to speak. If Job doesn’t understand the workings of the world in which he finds himself, then how does he expect to understand the workings of God’s moral universe?  The questions are to humble Job and underscore human finititude. The questions should elicit epistemic humility in Job (and the reader). In my mind, they highlight that the theme of the book of Job is less about “suffering” or “theodicy” than it is about “Who is truly wise?”  That is, who understands the question of suffering?

The other day my theology colleague brought to my attention a short section on “Job and Inexplicability” in an essay by philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The essay is from the recently published volume edited by John Milbank, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos, 2010; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). In this section, Žižek understands God’s response to Job also highlights that God doesn’t even understand his own creation. He notes:

The rationalist points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. But this is the point that God’s reply explicitly opposes — if I may put it so — to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as people are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything.

….

Again, to startle humans, God becomes, for an instant, a blasphemer. One might almost say that God becomes, for an instant, an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things… The Maker of all things is astonished at the things he has himself made. Again, here the point is not that God knows the deeper meaning, but it is as if God himself is overwhelmed at the excess of his creation (pp. 177-78).

While Žižek’s notion is provocative, I’m not sure that it is borne out by the text itself.  I agree with the first paragraph above;  the world we find ourselves in is ultimately inexplicable from our vantage point. I am not so sure I agree with the second paragraph, that God himself also doesn’t “know the deeper meaning.” The force of the rhetorical questions is that while Job (and all humans) may not know, Yahweh does. While I believe this is implied throughout the entire passage, it is explicit in a number of places:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding” (Job 38:4)

“Have you penetrated the vaults of snow, Seen the vaults of hail, Which I have put aside for a time of adversity, For a day of war and battle?” (Job 38:22-23)

“Who sets the wild ass free? Who loosens the bonds of the onager, Whose home I have made the wilderness, The salt land his dwelling-place? He scoffs at the tumult of the city, Does not hear the shouts of the driver. He roams the hills for his pasture; He searches for any green thing” (Job 39:5-8).

That God knows and understands is even more clear in his second response to Job, IMHO. So while Žižek’s comments are intriguing, they are only partially correct. What do you think?


Posted in Job, Old Testament, The Book of Job, Theodicy, Theology | 8 Comments »

Satan in the book of Job? Nope!

16th February 2011

One of my pet peeves is when Bible translations seem to base their translations on tradition or theology rather than the biblical text. One glaring example of this is found in the prologue to the book of Job where virtually all English translations render “the satan” (‏השׂטן) as capital-s “Satan” (Job 1:6, 7 [2x], 8, 9, 12; 2:1, 2 [2x], 3, 4, 6, 7).  Despite some major problems with this translation, you will find it in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB, among others.
No Satan

In the Hebrew text the term “satan” (‏שׂטן) has a definite article attached to it (i.e., it is “the satan”), and thus is not a personal name.  The actual word means “adversary” and is used to refer to human adversaries as well as celestial ones. For example, in 1Kings 11:14 it is used to refer to a human opponent: “Then Yahweh raised up a satan against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (see also 1Sam 29:4, 2Sam 19:22; 1Kgs 5:4, 11:23, 25; Ps 109:6). Now, in the book of Job, “the satan” is clearly a celestial adversary. He is, after all, portrayed as one of the “sons of elohim” (‏בני האלהים) in Yahweh’s heavenly court (Job 1:6; the notion of a divine assembly is found throughout the HB: 1Kgs 22:19-22; Psa 82; Isa 6:1-8; 14:13; Gen 1:26).  This does not, however, mean that this figure is the chief demon, aka the Devil, found in later Jewish and Christian theological traditions. You would search in vain in the Hebrew Bible to find a fully developed angelology or demonology.

In the book of Job, this figure fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. As such, a fitting translation would be “the Adversary” or the like. This, by the way, is what the NJPS translation has, and as such wins my coveted “Translation with Integrity Award”! (As an aside, the NJPS is a truly beautiful Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible that has the novelist Chaim Potok as its literary editor.)

The problem with rendering the Hebrew text with “Satan” is that the typical reader will read into the text all the theological and cultural meaning that it has come to signify in later times. But that is not what it means in the book of Job.   Even more problematic is that such a translation will likely obfuscate the legal metaphor that holds the book together (in this regard see Habel’s superb commentary; Buy from Amazon.caBuy from Amazon.com).

So that is my pet peeve for today (or at least one of my many!).

Also of interest may be my previous post along the same lines: The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job


Posted in Hermeneutics, Job, The Book of Job | 11 Comments »

Job as the “Poster Boy” for Retribution Theology

13th February 2011

“Once upon a time there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” is the way I would translate the opening of the biblical book of Job. “There was a man…” (‏אישׁ היה) is a parabolic beginning to the story about someone called “Job” (iyyov; ‏איוב‎). The name is of unclear etymology (although definitely not an Israelite name) and the place is similarly obscure (could be an area south of Israel around Edom [Jer 25:20; Lam 4:21] or perhaps associated with the Arameans [Gen 10:23; 22:21]).

The opening description serves to conjure up notions of antiquity and mystery about this ancient sage. Interestingly, Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3 mention Job alongside two other ancient heroes: Danel (‏דנאל‎) and Noah. These references are to ancient non-Israelite heroes whose righteousness was legendary (note that the reference to “Daniel” is not to the biblical Daniel (‏דניאל‎); he would have been a child at the time of Ezekiel. Rather, the reference is to Danel, a legendary hero who we learn about from Ugaritic myths. E.g., the Aqhat Legend [CTA 17, COS 1.103] talks of a hero called Dani’ilu/Danel [dnil] who is childless, and because of his own righteousness is given a son, Aqhat, by the gods).

No matter how one takes the opening of the book, what is highlighted from the very beginning is Job’s integrity. He is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1b). This hyperbolic fourfold description underscores Job’s superlative righteousness:

  • “blameless” (‏תם‎). Used particularly in wisdom lit. as integrity or perfection
  • “upright” (‏ישר‎). Lit. “straight”, often modifies “way”; used fig. for correct human conduct
  • “fears Elohim” and
  • “turns from evil” (see Prov 3:7, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear Yahweh, and turn away from evil”)

This fourfold description is suggestive as four is frequently used in the Bible to indicate completeness (cf. the fourfold destruction of all that Job has later in the chapter).  Job’s superlative righteousness is also indicated by the fact that God has clearly blessed him:

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east (Job 1:2-3).

The numbers symbolic significance, suggesting completeness and perfection:

  • Seven sons and three girls (= ten)
  • Seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels (= ten thousand)
  • Five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys (= one thousand)

The opening ends with the note that Job is “the greatest of all the people of the east.” And in biblical parlance, the east was know for its sages — and he’s the best there was!

Job Poster

The point of this introduction is to present the biblical character of Job from the very beginning as the ancient Near Eastern sage par excellence. He is the best there was and perhaps best there ever will be. He is even better than Noah who is only provided a threefold description by the biblical narrator (Gen 6:9). if anyone should be blessed and allowed to prosper, it is Job. And as such, Job is the perfect set-up for the story of Job. He is the ideal test case. He is, as I like to call him, the “Poster boy for Retribution Theology” (see my poster image above). If God blesses (in this lifetime) those who are faithful to him (as many ancient Israelites believed — and way too many people still continue to believe today), and if suffering is the result of God’s judgment on sin, then Job should be blessed. And when evil comes upon Job, it must have been because he did something wrong (as Job’s friends suggest). It is this notion of retribution theology that the book of Job dismantles.


Posted in Job, Wisdom | 6 Comments »