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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.

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