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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We here at "Eat the Bible" love your comments--please share.