Thursday, April 30, 2009

Job 17: New kids, or "like Tophet of old"

Well, friends, I’m still on Job in my class, so I’m still on Job in my blog. And to a certain extent, I’m sorry to be such a downer: Job’s tough stuff, psychologically, theologically, emotionally. Reading it is a draining experience. But it is such an intricately crafted literary structure that just about every horrific nook and cranny bears up under scrutiny, yielding fascinating new interpretations of the rest of the text.

Today, I return—as promised—to the topic of “new kids.” Now, you should know that very (or perhaps hastily) orthodox readers of the book of Job suggest that its conclusion rights any perceived wrongs God might do to our benighted hero. Though, in the prose introduction, God allows the Adversary to take all Job’s stuff and kill all his children, in the conclusion, God “rewards” Job for his steadfastness (or, as I argue elsewhere, for his speech) by returning him double his possessions and replacing his sons and daughters.

As if to calm outraged readers, the text adds, “In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters” (42:15). Well, God … if they’re pretty kids, then maybe it’s okay. (This is Shaddai as the negligent roommate who breaks your microwave but promises to bring back his parents’ microwave next time he goes home—and this one will have a button just for popping popcorn!)

But many will not be calmed. It’s a touchy topic, because there are no such things as “replacement kids,” even in a culture that did not prize the parent-child relationship so intimately as we do. And perhaps God’s killing of the first ten is not a sin that can be papered over. (Carl Jung, in his Response to Job, argues that God’s sin is so great that it eventually necessitates the sacrifice of Jesus as atonement.)

Job itself actually has very little to say about the children’s death, though we might. It is so unspeakable a loss that the authors nearly cannot address it. But only nearly. At least one brief allusion shows that the authors know the stakes of the diabolical bet made in heaven.

In the seventeenth chapter, Job bewails his pitiable reputation. He suggests that his suffering is so great that he has become a “byword of the peoples” (17:6a). His hurt is so acute, he imagines, as to have become aphoristic. I wonder if he imagines crazy sitcom husbands stubbing their toes on loose boards and crying out, “I’m in pain like Job!” (Well, probably not sitcom husbands, but you get my meaning.)

In the NRSV Bible, he continues, “and I am one before whom the people spit” (17:6b). Yuck, I know. However, this is the smoothing out of a mysterious and troublesome Hebrew idiom. The new JPS translation preserves some of the specific weirdness of this verse: “He made me a byword among people; I have become like Tophet of old.” Tophet? We can perhaps sympathize with the NRSV translators for giving us a less accurate but more comprehensible rendering.

However, in doing so, they lose a crucial detail. (And I’ll stick with the JPS for a bit now.) Our editors explain “Tophet” by returning us to Jeremiah 7:31, where God rebukes his people Israel for co-opting a disgusting local practice: “They have built the shrines of Tophet(h) in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire—which never came to my mind.” Tophet is a region right outside Jerusalem where paganized Israelites—during some very dark days—fall into the local practice of child sacrifice. Yes, I said it: child sacrifice. (And I did say “Holy shit”—using my outside voice—in the coffee shop this morning when I tracked down the reference.) Apparently, it isn’t unheard of in the Bible for local tribes to sacrifice children to the region’s gods, and further, the Israelites sometimes do too—though Judah’s good King Josiah does his best to outlaw the practice. Obviously, there’s more to be said on this topic, but I don’t want to distract from my reading of Job.

Now, why is it that Job would not want to become a byword “like Tophet of old”? Four possibilities spring to mind, the last of which seems most tantalizing today:

1) It is possible that we don’t have the cultural tools to understand this reference. Job did not say, “I’ll be known as a child-sacrificer,” and there’s every chance that “Tophet of old” had another meaning that we no longer get.

2) Perhaps Job just doesn’t want to be associated with really terrible things. Said differently, if Job said, “They’re going to avoid me like the plague,” we wouldn’t think he actually expected to develop and pass along communicable diseases. (Trying to avoid too-topical humor, I’ll avoid the obvious swine flu joke here.)

3) Maybe he’s trying to maintain his innocence in response to scathing criticism by his “friends”: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar speak pages in an effort to suggest that Job’s terrible punishment is deserved … by extension, we must imagine a terrible sin indeed to have earned such chastisement. Is Job trying to think of the greatest sin he can imagine and deny it? Okay.

Or maybe, just maybe, he’s opening the door—if ever so slightly—to the possibility that in this case, child sacrifice didn’t just “come to the Lord’s mind” … but that the divine acted on such a dastardly thought. Indeed, one may very easily read the opening chapters of Job as God killing Job’s kids to test his righteousness. Whew.

Now, technically Job never learns of the black wager in heaven that precipitates his suffering, and God does his best to sweep it under the rug with lots of sheep and shiny new tykes. And that might be for the best. Because Job doesn’t want to be likened to “Tophet of old,” where children are killed for God. Such a thought is so terrifying as to be unthinkable.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Job 13: Will you plead God's cause?

There are so many delicious details in Job that it's hard to pick one and turn it into a blog-sized posting. There's the full-time feasting schedule undertaken by Job's children--seven sons, seven feasts per week (1: 4). Repeat ad infinitum, or ad nauseam. There's the Adversary's diabolical, untranslatable reply to God following Job's first punishments: "Skin for skin" (2:4). (What?) There is God's diversionary speech from the whirlwind in chapters 38-42: "Pay no attention to your scabrous sores and dead children. Check out my Leviathan! Isn't he huge?"

Suffice it to say, if you haven't gotten to Job--the Bible's most daring book--read it. And then read it again. And then read it again. And don't merely rely upon the very brief precis that I'll provide, well, right now:

Job is a very righteous man from Uz. Where? (We probably don't know where Uz is, but it might be another name for Edom, a land immediately adjacent to Israel.) In the heavenly court, God points out Job's righteousness to a curious member of his entourage, ha-satan, the Adversary (frequently misunderstood as the Devil). For more on why this "Adversary" isn't a leather-winged, fire-breathing god of Hell, see, um ... anyone who's ever written any serious Biblical scholarship on the book of Job. Take my word for it: the story's so much more interesting if the Adversary is not the incarnation of evil, but a guy with a really good question.

That question is as follows: could Job be righteous only because God protects him--or "hedges" him in, as the translation suggests? Said differently, isn't Job good to God because God has been good to him? And do we want devotional behavior that's little more than a quid pro quo? God allows the challenge and lets the Adversary visit increasingly horrific trials upon Job to test his spiritual mettle: first Job loses his stuff, then his servants are killed, then his children are destroyed (murdered, if you aren't so faint of heart). Impressively--or is it stupidly?--Job falls down on his knees and "worships" God even in the wake of this sequence of disasters.

As if all this isn't enough, God then allows the Adversary to infect Job with a disease that makes his skin erupt in pussy boils. (That the text suggests that a bad case of eczema is a culminating punishment--after the disastrous loss of ten children--is one of its dark ironies.) Job's reply is still maddeningly respectful: "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" (2:10) The implied correct response to this question is, of course, yes. But many a reader has by this point been given pause.

What follows is about three dozen chapters of poetic discourse between Job and three "friends" (2:11) on the nature and cause of Job's suffering. (The fourth friend is Elihu, but most suggest his argument is an unhelpful rehashing of what precedes it, so I'll ignore it here.) For the detailed in's and out's of the discourse, one must read the text. And as I write above, the in's and out's are worth the effort: many suggest that we have no greater example of ancient Hebrew poetry than Job, and much of the beauty survives translation. However, the discussion essentially boils down to the following: Job's friends argue that his suffering is deserved--the result of some sin, known or unknown. (Of course, none of the speakers know that his suffering is, ironically, the result of his righteousness--Another of the text's stark ironies.) Job allows for such a possibility, but indirectly defends himself by asking only that he be shown his sin: "Make me know my transgression and my sin" (13:23). A reasonable request, it seems.

Which sneaks in the back door to Job 13, the ostensible focus of this entry. After surviving three servings of excoriation from his self-righteous "friends" (and with friends like these ...), Job gives a stirring reply. (And here I switch from the NRSV translation--my usual default--to the Jewish Publication Society's beautiful rendering.)

Will you speak unjustly on God's behalf?
Will you speak deceitfully for Him?
Will you be partial toward Him?
Will you plead God's cause?
Will it go well when He examines you?
Will you fool Him as one fools men?
He will surely reprove you ... (13:7-10)

And indeed God does reprove them! Though it is Job who issues some wallpaper-peeling challenges to God (again, read the text!), it is the three blowhards--who ostensibly defend divine justice--who receive God's final condemnation: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends," God seethes in 42:7 (NRSV again), "for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." This message seems clear: you may question God as severely as you like (whether or not your questions are answered). Just don't presume to speak for him.

But let's be simpler still. The moral of Job is "Question God." Such questions are, in the book's parlance, "right speech." And Job does not ask benign questions like why is the sky blue? Is a duckbilled platypus a platypus or a duck? Why was the radical reconstruction neither radical nor a reconstruction? Why does McDonald's give you six chicken nuggets when Wendy's only gives you five? Why do goats mate in the springtime? (Okay, it actually does ask the last question, but I'll leave that for later.)

The questions Job poses are much starker: What is the purpose of evil? Why do I suffer when I try so hard to be good? Why can't God understand my pain? Is it possible that I could be more just than God? Why can't God be more like me? Can I take God to court if I feel if he has treated me poorly?

Weighty matters. And for some of the devout, blasphemies. But not for the book of Job. For Job, these are the questions we should ask--and these are the questions God rewards Job for asking. Even if that reward is new kids. (New kids? We'll save that for later, too.)
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Friday, April 24, 2009

Proverbs 5: On "loose women"

I've never been all that excited to teach Proverbs. It always comes up in the syllabus during the semester doldrums, either in early November or mid-April, by which point my students and I have become so wary of the Bible's "wisdom" that reading the book seems near folly. But this time was better than most, at least in part because I was finally able to snag a bit of the book's weirdness--scriptural oddity always being a sure hook for grabbing my attention.

I was pulled into Proverbs this time around because of the sometimes arbitrary wisdom it dispenses. Just look at the gem our author puts in the lead-off spot: "My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. / If they say, 'Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent ... We shall find all kinds of costly things; / we shall fill our houses with booty ...' my child, do not walk in their way" (1:10-15). A footnote in Adele Berlin's "Jewish Study Bible" gives a hilarious summary: Don't join a gang. That's right. Though Proverbs's repeated thesis suggests that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (1:7 and elsewhere), the book's first chapter argues that knowledge begins elsewhere: with not signing up with the Crips. Which, on the other hand, actually seems pretty sound advice.

But enough of ancient Hebrew gang warfare. Let's get to the prostitutes--another of our author's prominent concerns. In the fifth chapter of the book, we get serious about whores: "The lips of a loose woman drip honey, / and her speech is smoother than oil; / but in the end she is bitter as wormwood ... Keep your way far from her, / and do not go near the door of her house; / or you will give your honor to others ... and at the end of your life you will groan" (5:3-11). Well, you'll probably groan earlier than that if you visit, but that's probably missing the author's point. Because he's likely right. Prostitutes are dangerous not only for what they might steal--honor--but what they might leave behind--a nasty V.D.

However, chapter 5 is just one of many places when our author waxes frightful on the perils of rapacious female sexuality. In fact, so often does he engage in this and similar critiques that we might imagine an ancient Israel just overrun with brothels. Which also makes me wonder if our sex-obsessed author was actually a regular customer. His naive query later on in the chapter--"Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman?" (20)--seems less like the steadfast challenge of a devoted husband than the coy utterance a philanderer who's had his fill.

But perhaps more surprising about the author's rough treatment of wanton women is that description's startling contrast with his personification of Wisdom: "Wisdom cries out in the street; / in the squares she raises her voice. / At the busiest corner she cries out; / at the entrance of the city she speaks" (1:20-21). Yes that's right. Wisdom is a "she" here. A woman herself. Of course, the feminine gendering of Wisdom is not unique to Proverbs in ancient writings. In the figure of Sophia, Jewish (and Hellenistic) literature boasts a long tradition of figuring Wisdom as female.

In Proverbs, though, such a characterization is surprising, in part because the rough juxtaposition of the femininity of Wisdom and the dangers of "loose women" seems to reveal the insecurities of a male author who can idealize Women just fine--but doesn't know how to deal with the genuine article. I've met more than a few men in my time who can treat women well just so long as they stay on a pedestal. As soon as the girls sit down on a bench to take a load off, however, the men either turn off or light in. I'm not saying I can't identify. But I wouldn't call such a disparity "wise."
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Psalm 51: Acceptable Sacrifices, Acceptable Starts

I admit that it might seem a little odd to start a Bible blog midway through the text—kind of like trying to pick up halfway through a David Lynch film. But I'll admit that my choice to do so is fortuitous, because I think that the Bible has a lot more in common with a Lynch movie than you might first expect.

You see, I believe that Lynch’s movies—or at least every one that’s not “The Straight Story”—aren’t about telling tales in the way we’re used to hearing them. No eye-catching opening … no well-planned rise in the dramatic action, followed by a carefully orchestrated climax and denouement and end credits. No morality tale where we all grow a little bit or get our comeuppance or learn something valuable in the end.

Yes, Lynch’s films all have beginnings and ends and character development (if you call waiting for Laura Dern’s face to go all crazy-clowny in “Inland Empire” “character development”), but watching his movies isn’t like watching “Citizen Kane.” Or even “The Usual Suspects.” Lynch, so far as I can tell, doesn’t want us to try to put the pieces together, just as Picasso doesn’t want us to “fix” his “Weeping Woman” so it looks like the “Mona Lisa.” So sure am I of this conviction that a couple years back, I spent a half an hour in a graduate film seminar vainly trying to convince my classmates that they were dumb for treating “Mulhollond Drive” like a puzzle to be reassembled. Needless to say, I didn’t get invited to their next wine and cheese party.

My empty social calendar notwithstanding, I feel the same way about the Bible. Granted, the Bible has a fantastic beginning—with all the booming and lighting and blowing into nostrils. (Actually, two beginnings, but we’ll save that for another post.) And Revelation brings the whole show to a rip-roaring conclusion. But to try to make all the rest of the book tell one “straight” story is to completely miss the multifaceted, disjointed, arbitrary wonder of this greatest of texts, religious or otherwise.

Indeed, as I always tell my students—I teach the Bible at the university level, for those of you who care—it’s a foolish fiction to even think of the Bible as one book. Its title comes from the Greek ta biblia—“the little books”: a much more precise description of this cobbled collection of dozens of scriptures composed by perhaps thousands of authors, editors, redactors, and translators. Said differently, the post-modern menagerie that is the Bible makes Lynch look like Henry James (if you’ll allow me to mix media for a moment).

So I start my yet-untitled Bible blog as near to smack-dab in the middle of the text as possible—actually, in the Psalms, the book you’re most likely to hit if you just let the thing fall open where it may. To Psalm 51, to be exact—perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole blasted doorstop. For Christians, this psalm is recited on Ash Wednesday, that cheeriest of “holidays,” devoted to having us remember that we are dust. For the rabbis, this psalm is spoken (sung?) by David shortly after his bedding of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah come to light. Neither setting makes complete sense to me, but I understand the motivation behind both.

That the psalm remains one of my favorite Biblical texts still comes as a bit of a surprise to me, given my general aversion to the type of Judeo-Christian-ish self-flagellation it seems to espouse. For Augustine, the psalm is an early proof text for establishing original sin—the largely worthless Christian doctrine that suggests that we all spring from our mothers’ wombs innately imperfect.

But to read Psalm 51—as beautiful an exercise in confession as has been written—as evidence of our genetic fallen-ness is to miss out on the pathos it tries to convey. When the author croaks, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” in verse 5, he is not making an anthropological argument about some inborn penchant for error. He is expressing the pain caused by making a mistake so bad that it feels stuck in our very bones—a sin so great we want either to erase it from human memory or fast forward to some future moment when we hope to have lived it out. But this isn’t the part that I like best.

The kicker comes in verse 17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit …” Historically speaking, this verse takes part in a conversation on the evolving content of Jewish religious belief and practice during the Babylonian exile and, later, the Diaspora. In the golden age of Israelite history, Solomon’s temple (or a near-replica of it) stood in Jerusalem—enduring as the physical and spiritual center of Jewish practice. However, many read Psalm 51 as an exilic or post-exilic piece—a work written after the destruction of the Temple (again, more on that later) and during the Jewish people’s captivity. How, Jewish writers asked, can we be devout when we have no temple? How can we offer sacrifices to our God when we have no altar on which to carry out the sacrifice? For some—and perhaps for the author of the 51st psalm—the Jews would begin to understand sacrifice figuratively. If they could not sacrifice bulls or doves to YHWH, they could yield up their “broken spirit,” their souls, shattered in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy.

However, I read this verse more personally. To suggest that God accepts “broken spirits” is a comforting thought for half-believers like myself. To me, this verse allows for the possibility that God takes our confusion, our uncertainty, our mystification, our fractured mental capacity—cracked from observing a world that often seems to reject the idea of divine presence. Our brokenness. I read that brokenness as partaking in the mind-numbing frustration that sometimes comes from reading this book that—if we can believe it—stands as God’s only lasting message to us.

I hope this space will serve as a venue where I can put some of that brokenness on display while at the same time arguing that “brokenness” might be the organizing principle behind the Bible.
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