Search This Blog

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hey Dad, What about us? -- Part 3

This post is the third in a series.  See here and here for previous posts.  In this post I would like to begin examining arguments traditionalists could make to explain Job's silence about his children.  In each case, one of the intended outcomes of the argument will be that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy can be maintained consistently.  I will argue that they all fail.

You noticed, of course, that I said traditionalists could make these arguments.  I am resorting to some hypothesizing because of the situation I mentioned in my last post:  hardly anyone appears to have noticed the problem.  I checked with a family member who happens to hold a Old Testament Studies about what explanations are out there for Job's silence about his children, and the family member admitted she wasn't aware of many attempts to explain it.  She did offer a few explanations, some of which were (I think) off the top of her head.

The first three explanations are based on a reasonable supposition about the relationship between the poetic section of the Book and any possible historical antecedent to it.  If there really was an historical figure named Job who experienced the tragedies described in the introduction, the poetic section of the book is meant to be an artistic representation of whatever real conversations took place between Job and his friends.  It is hardly likely they actually spoke word-for-word in poetic form, using a large number of words that appear rarely in the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  The writer distilled the historical events and reworked them to hang together and support the theme of the book.    Much could have been reworded, reorganized or just left out.

Explanation 1
The Book of Job is meant to appeal to a general readership.  Therefore, the book purposely avoids dwelling on the specific circumstances of Job's suffering in order to appeal to a broader audience.  This explanation appears to be plausible early in the book.  As one commentator in the Semeia monograph points out, Job's early speeches describe his sufferings in general and metaphoric terms, allowing any number of disasters to match the description of his distress.  The commentator supposes what many others have thought:  Job is cast as Everyman.    Detailed references to Job's children would ruin this rhetorical move.

But this explanation runs aground when we reach chapters 29-31.  There, Job repeatedly and at length locates himself decisively in the upper class of an ancient Near Eastern community.   He distances himself from the rest of his culture by his insistence that lower class people were in awe of his wisdom and status, and much of his distress is caused by his loss of status and respect in this community.   This speech destroys the image of Job as Everyman far better than mention of his many children.  The number of ancient Near Eastern families with large numbers of children was certainly greater than the number of ancient Near Eastern families as wealthy and of high a social status as Job's.

In fact, whatever the ancient author(s) intentions, Job is clearly not Everyman.
1.  He is highly pious.  God singles him out to the "Satan" for this distinguishing characteristic.
2.  He is fabulously wealthy, in ancient Near Eastern terms.
3.  He is a member of the ruling class.

Job's lament over his treatment at the hands of those formerly of lower class hints at one likely reaction of many of the peasants who first heard Job's story:  schadenfreude.  Even if many of them avoided the temptation to rejoice at his downfall, they would certainly think that he at least now knows better what their lives have been like all along.   It appears to me that the author(s) of this book did not intend to reach a lower-class audience.  The fact that the book is written and in very difficult Hebrew suggests that the author was targeting an upper class audience.  These readers could certainly identify more closely with Job and his friends and would not be offended by Job's comments about the lower class people by whom he has been humiliated.

Explanation 2
The Book of Job is dealing specifically with the question of God's justice in his dealings with Job.  The fate of Job's children is a secondary consideration.  Consequently, the book leaves them out of the discussion except as their deaths highlight the depths of Job's sufferings.  This explanation runs aground rather more quickly when one considers the implications of the deaths of one's children on one's own presumed uprightness in ancient Israelite society.  That punishment for one's sins could and would fall on one's descendants is a commonplace of Israelite thought.  It can be found especially in the Pentateuch, the former prophets, and the Psalms.  Similar opinions about the fate of one's descendants appear in the book of Job.  The implication of these sentiments is clear:  Job's children died at least partly because of Job's sins.  That puts the death of his children back in dead center of the debate over Job's own status as a man of integrity.   Now, every time that one of the friends brings up the fate of the descendants of a wicked person, Job fails to defend his children or even mention their deaths.  The easiest explanation for this is, as I said before, that in the original version of the poetic section of the book the catastrophe(s) that befell Job did not include the death of his children.   But here we are working from the traditionalist presumption that the book was composed as a unity.   Therefore, Job deliberately avoids talking about his children's deaths, even when the arguments of his friends either threaten to condemn him over their deaths or offer him an opportunity to defend himself and his children from their charges.   This pretty much rules out that the book is silent because the death of Job's children is irrelevant.

Explanation 3
The Book of Job largely passes over the death of Job's children because the book is making an argument from the greater to the lesser.  If God can strike Job with disaster, he can strike anyone.  Or, put another way, if someone as upright and blessed as Job can suffer a disaster, it can happen to anyone.  I think this explanation is a plausible answer to the issue raised above about the possible negative reactions of lower class people to the character of Job.   A similar argument was used in various speeches in regard to someone's liability to punishment.  The argument went like this:  if the beings in the divine court are considered unclean in the presence of God, how much more a mere human.  See Job 4:18-21; 9:13-15 for examples of the argument.  

This explanation partly depends on the exalted status of the pater familias in ancient Near Eastern society.  Job's wife, children, servants, and possessions are all under his authority and care.  As a local ruler, he also has authority over and responsibility for the members of his community.   On the one hand, a strike against his household, family, or community is a strike against him.  On the other, a strike against him threatens his family, household, and community.

Community or family solidarity  was apparently a fundamental part of Yahweh's view of justice according to ancient Israelites.  According to the  books of Kings and Chronicles, Yahweh was quite happy to bring disaster on the entire Israelite nation due to the misbehavior of its rulers.  According to the story of Achan in the book of Joshua, Yahweh brought death to several Israelite warriors because of Achan's misbehavior, about which they knew nothing and had nothing to do.  There are plenty of cases in the Psalms and even in the book of Job of presumably pious individuals believing and/or wishing that the children of an evil person would suffer for his sins.

Wanting punishments to fall on the children of a bad person makes for good evolutionary logic.  The premature deaths of one's descendants eliminates one's genes from the gene pool and it makes good evolutionary sense to wipe out genes that appear to threaten the survival of one's own children.  Odds are, some of our deep-seated emotions that lead to revenge killings of family members of our enemies are the results of evolutionary selection pressures in our remote ancestors.   If you want to derive criteria for justice from the evolutionary process, you are welcome to do so -- from a prison cell in an institution for the criminally insane.

Modern societies reject the use of community or family solidarity in deciding questions of justice because in most cases using this criterion leads to injustices.  Children of criminals are a classic example.  1.  Children don't get to choose their parents.   It is not right to assume they are part of a criminal conspiracy.  2.  Children generally don't participate in their parents' crimes.  They may benefit from them, but often they don't even know that their parents are providing for them illegally and if they did they would disapprove.  3.  Children do not necessarily inherit their parents' criminality.  I could go on and on.  But why argue the general case?  Reader, most likely you already find the idea of punishing a criminal's children for his/her crimes revolting.  The only people who will regularly rise to defend it are apologists who want to demonstrate that the God of the Bible was justified for the various examples of summary execution the Hebrew Bible says he commanded or performed.  These people are already so committed to their position that nothing I can say in a short blog post will persuade them otherwise.

So, what crimes were Job's children guilty of?  According to some (see here, as a conjecture,  here, and this wonderful guy, who I hope stays far away from children while he takes these attitudes) they must have been guilty of something, because Bildad accuses them of wrongdoing and Job says nothing to defend them.  But this is by far a minority report, and for good reason.  For one thing, there is nothing elsewhere in the book to lend support to Bildad's supposition.  Job's sacrifices on behalf of his children are no evidence that they were engaged in gross sins.  See here for a somewhat overstated reading of Job 1 that makes this point well.  Check the standard commentaries for elaboration. 

But if Job's children (and servants) were not guilty of crimes, then their deaths ruin the community solidarity argument.  Job, the pater familias because of whom all these others died, is recompensed for his losses.  But none of the others are.  Job's servants and sons and daughters are replaced.  But for the original children and servants the loss is total and uncompensated,  and therefore the idea that the silence over Job's children is explained by Job's role as the pater familias is ridiculous.  Instead, on this explanation the reader of the book of Job ought to be jumping mad that his original children and servants are left dead and gone at the end of the book.

The examination of other explanations will have to wait for another post.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Hey Dad, What about us? -- Part 2

This post is second in a series on the Book of Job.  See here for the first post.  As I discussed in that post, there is an odd silence in the book's many discourses over the death of Job's children, servants, and livestock.  This silence is a problem no matter how one assesses the book, but it is especially problematic for traditionalists of various sorts, including orthodox Jews and Christians who hold to a traditional, "high" view of Scripture.

It is also a problem largely overlooked by people who have written on the book.  After an admittedly sparse investigation, I was unable to find a single commentator who addressed the issue at any length.  My survey included the relevant chapters in introductions to the Hebrew Bible by B. W. Anderson,  Brevard Childs, Hill and Walton, Bush, Hubbard, and LaSor, and Carol Newsom's article in the New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.  In addition, I checked the introductory sections of the commentaries of Gerald Janzen (Job, Interpretation) and John Hartley (The Book of Job, New International Commentary on the Old Testament) and the essays in Semeia 7:  Studies in the Book of Job

How did this (IMHO amazing) silence come about?  One huge factor is the weight of the text itself.  The introduction of the Book of Job frames the deaths of Job's children, servants, and livestock purely in terms of how it impacts Job.   To put it starkly, apart from their role in lending poignancy to the predicament in which Job is placed, Job's children don't matter  to the narrator of the introduction and conclusion of the book.  Their characters, feelings, hopes, human potential are all passed over in silence.   What counts is how they make the audience feel about what happened to Job.  The rest of the book does just about nothing to adjust the framing narrator's devaluation of Job's children.   In short, then, the narrative world of the book prejudices the reader to ignore Job's children in favor of Job himself.  We should not be surprised to find the majority of the book's readers doing precisely what the book's structure encourages them to do.

The devaluation of characters is part and parcel of telling a story, but it doesn't make for good ethics in the real world.  Trouble is, the point of the book of Job as a part of sacred literature is, presumably, to educate us about how to make correct moral judgments in the real world.  This narrative devaluation can have bad consequences if not accounted for and corrected.  Ok, so who has been doing the accounting and correction?  Nobody? 

The more commentators I found overlooking this problem the more uncomfortable I got.  Is there something fundamentally wrong about my thinking?  At least some traditionalist readers of this blog are likely to be ready with an answer to this question.  But you had better consider the case of "windbag" (Elihu) in the Book of Job before you fill the comment section with rants.  Elihu's speech is one of the longest monologues in the book (Compare Job's speech in 26-31 and Yahweh's speech in 38-41).  Scholars disagree about how much Elihu contributes to the arguments in the book, but the way he introduces his speech drops plenty of hints about what we should think of it.  He essentially calls himself a windbag and admits that he can't control his anger over the failure of Job's friends to answer Job's challenges.  IMHO his original contributions to the dispute are minimal and certainly don't justify 6 chapters of verbiage.  That the book's conclusion ignores his speeches is another sign that the guy is full of hot air.  Whoever wrote the Elihu section set up this character for a fall.  If critics are right that this section of the book was inserted by a pious scribe who was convinced he could defend God's justice better than the existing form of the book, then the scribe did this to himself.   Take warning, traditionalist! don't be such an idiot as to rant in the comment section before you've thought carefully through this whole post.

"Are you so stupid," the ranting traditionalist might say, "that you completely forgot about God?  He's the creator!  He can do anything he wants to Job's children, servants, and livestock.  You have nothing worthwhile to say about the Book of Job, as your post thoroughly demonstrates.  Job was a righteous man, but you -- you are just a a God-forsaken, liberal, modernist unbeliever."  I'll admit to being a God-forsaken, liberal, modernist "unbeliever,"  but if raising the questions I've raised makes me one, then I guess I'm in good company, because Job raises the same questions about God's treatment of him.  Job may not doubt that God can do whatever he wants with us, but he sure doubts whether it's right for God to whatever he wants with us.  He just happens to leave out God's treatment of his kids.  I don't want to skip over that part.  Otherwise, we're asking the same questions. 

As I pointed out in the first post in this series, there may be better answers to my questions than the ignorant rant I tried to forestall above.  In fact, I intend to examine a whole raft of them in subsequent posts. 

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Hey Dad, what about us? -- Part 1

In this new series of posts I would like to discuss a problem in the Book of Job.  According to the book's preface, Job loses all of his children in a sudden catastrophe.  About a week later he and his friends engage in a lengthy and heated debate ending in a direct confrontation between Job and God during which almost nothing is said about his children and even less about their recent deaths.  This lacuna in the discussion is highly odd for two reasons:
  1. If the book is supposed to reflect an historical event, it is unusual for a newly bereaved parent to say little or nothing about his dead children, especially when he is engaged in lengthy conversations that provide socially-acceptable, relevant opportunities to talk about them.
  2. Given OT teachings about the significance of the death of one's children, it is odd that neither Job, his friends, or God spend much time dealing with the implications of the fact that Job's entire progeny was wiped out in one fell swoop.
 The impetus for this  series came from reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal.  At one point he reflects on how evolution may have shaped the way human parents grieve for dead children.  The upshot is that due to the evolutionary costs of having one's descendants die, genetic traits that encourage human beings to protect and defend their children are likely to thrive.  In humans this behavior is encouraged via parental emotions.  Consequently, one would expect that parents feel great pain when a child dies and be motivated to try to prevent losing any more children.  He cites numerous studies that support these suppositions.     This made good sense to me and explained a lot of particular behaviors I had noticed among grieving families of my acquaintance.   Sometime after reading this book I began reading the Book of Job again and was struck by how out of sync it was with what Wright had argued for.   That got me looking more closely.

Before I dig into the details of this interesting situation, please note that this is not a scholarly paper.  I don't have regular access to a library of Biblical studies and am not a specialist in Biblical literature.  I am willing to bet just about everything said here can be found in someone else's work; I just don't have the time and resources to dig it up.

Another preliminary is that this series is intended to further a larger purpose of this blog.  This blogger believes that traditional Christianity is built on a foundation of sand.  Any reasonably well-educated and open-minded person will recognize that this is the case after examining all the relevant issues and adjust his/her personal belief system accordingly.   Unfortunately, there are large numbers of traditional Christians who are not well-educated and/or not open-minded.   I was once one of these, and so this blog is among other things a  bit of personal therapy.   I am in the process of thinking my way out of a lot of idiotic beliefs.  Hopefully, this blog can help some other traditionalists think their way out as well.  So, my comments have an intentional slant against traditional views of the Bible.

Now for the "facts" of the case.  I will be basing my arguments from here on out on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.  The verse references will correspond to those in English Bibles except where noted otherwise.  Between the book's preface and its conclusion (Job 1-2; 42:10-16) Job's children are mentioned a grand total of 3 times:  Job 8:4; 19:17; 29:5, although every one of these references is disputed for one reason or another.   A quick review of each of these passages is in order.

Job 8:4 appears at the beginning of a speech by Bildad the Shuhite in which he exhorts Job to seek God because he rewards the righteous.  I will avoid attempting to wade deeply into Hebrew grammar and simply present the traditional reading of this verse:  If (since) Job's sons sinned against God, God killed them for their wickedness.  Many commentators who adopt this reading point out that it would cut the heart of a grieving father.  Yet, Job says nothing about it in his response to Bildad in chapters 9-10 or later on in the book.  A few have argued that Job agrees with Bildad's judgment of his children in 9:2.  This is frankly ridiculous, for the following reasons:
1.  There is no good evidence elsewhere in the book that Job's children were engaged in wicked behavior.  Job's sacrifices on their behalf are prophylactic and indicate his great piety, not their wickedness.
2.  If this were in fact the case, it would seriously undercut one major premiss of the book: that Job's sufferings are not a just punishment for personal sins.

Some critical scholars argue that this verse is an interpolation into the original poem by a later commentator. 

Job 19:17 

Not all translations understand this verse to refer to Job's sons.  Some take it as a reference to his brothers.  The Hebrew phrase can be translated woodenly as "the sons of my body" or "the sons of my womb."  Since men do not have wombs, Job's mother is read into the verse, as in "the sons of my mother's womb" -- brothers.  See also 3:10 "the doors of my womb," i.e., my mother's womb, where the context makes this translation highly probable.    But Micah 6:7 has a similar expression that clearly refers to the body of the speaker, not his mother.   Of course, there is another motive for reading Job's mother into the text, because the verse seems to imply that the "sons" are still alive to find him "loathsome."   If the "sons" are Job's natural sons, the verse contradicts the standard interpretation of the introduction (see the next paragraph for an alternative interpretation of the introduction).   So, this passage may be referring to Job's children as alive, although I think that is doubtful.

Job 29:5

Job laments the loss of God's favor, one evidence of which was the times he was surrounded by his children. Although the word used for "children" here could refer to servants, most translators prefer "children" in light of the introduction, where the same word is used both of Job's servants and his children.  Or at least that's the way most people understand the introduction.   Some people take the use of the word in the introduction to indicate that only Job's servants died.  The fate of the children is passed over in silence intentionally.  Also cited in this regard is the part of the conclusion in which Job gets double everything except children.  Possibly this is because his first set of children survived the catastrophes?  I found the clearest explanation of this view in The Hermeneutics of the 'Happy' Ending in Job 42:7-17 by Kenneth Numfor Ngwa.

It certainly is more poignant to understand the word as a reference to Job's children.  That doesn't mean Job is lamenting their deaths.  As the context makes clear, Job is lamenting loss of his social status.  That his children are no longer standing around him could be caused by many things, including the problem mentioned in 19:17:  Job has become repulsive to his own immediate family.  Of course, on the supposition that the introduction of the book is secondary, one could argue that the appearance of the word for "children" in the introduction is a forward reference to 29:5 used to tie the two pieces more closely together.  The reference in 29:5, then, may not refer to Job's children but to his servants.  That last argument is mine, not Ngwa's.

Morris Jastrow (The book of Job: its origin, growth and interpretation)
thinks this verse is an interpolation as well. 

So, out of three direct references to Job's children, one appears to imply that they are dead, one might imply that they are still alive and the third can be read either way.   These facts lend credence to the view that the poetic core of the book of Job had an existence independent of the current prologue and epilogue.  In the original debate section, Job's children were not dead.  The later editor who added the prologue and epilogue may have added a verse or two to the debates to move them closer to the issues raised in the prologue, but overall he failed to make the debates consistent with the prologue.  The book is internally inconsistent and therefore counts as evidence against the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. 

This view of the book's composition history has come under fire for a number of reasons.  Of course, inerrantists by and large resist it because it undercuts inerrancy.  But there are many critical scholars who find it more problematic than an alternative.  Gerald Janzen, for instance, points out in his Interpretation commentary that the poetic section hangs in the air without the prologue.  He also argues that all the supposed inconsistencies that led scholars to posit an originally independent existence for the prologue and epilogue can be explained better by treating the book as a unified composition.  Other scholars such as Robert Alter argue that the prologue and epilogue preceded the poetic section.  They represent an originally-independent folk tale that the author of the poetic section adopted in order to provide a context/foil.  These scholars are not inerrantists, and they don't necessarily agree with one another about the composition history of the book (eg., whether the speeches of Elihu were added after the rest of the book was completed).   It is important to remember this, because even though their view of the book does not lessen the problem of the silence about Job's children, it does allow them explanations that are not open to inerrantists.

Inerrantist readers, as long as they intend to remain true to their core belief in the Bible, are going to insist that the book is a true compositional unity, or at least has an internally-consistent message.  Most inerrantists take it as a requirement of their faith that Job was a real individual and the catastrophes described in the book really happened.   Furthermore, most inerrantists regard it as a nonnegotiable not only that Job was a righteous man, but that the way he handles himself in the book -- with some qualifications -- is a model for the righteous sufferer.  This set of views closes the door on many possible explanations for the silence about Job's children.  I hope to take a look at the explanations remaining to inerrantists, because their view of the book makes them uniquely vulnerable to a set of moral criticisms of the book.  If Job is truly a righteous man, why does he not speak for those under his care, whose voices were silenced through no apparent fault of their own?  Why does he let God off the hook for the deaths of his children and servants?  Why does he allow his friends to rail about the fate of the subordinates of an evil man and not point out that his subordinates were subjected to that same fate for no good reason?    Why does God himself not recompense the children and servants for their deaths as he recompenses Job for his suffering?  Why does the book as a whole completely ignore this issue?  

In the end, answers to these questions open to inerrantists fail to clear their reading of the book.   On an inerrantist reading of the book, its author and his hero wickedly fail to act on behalf of those more vulnerable than themselves.

In subsequent posts I will develop this argument in some detail.