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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.

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