Nicolas Wyatt on the garden of Eden

Adam and Eve - Lucas Cranach the Elder 1531

I had the opportunity yesterday to hear a lecture at the University of Sydney by visiting academic Emeritus Professor Nicolas Wyatt of the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Wyatt is especially known for his work on understanding the Bible in its ancient cultural context, especially the finds from the north Syrian city of Ugarit.  Among his many publications is an authoritative edition of the Ugaritic texts in English: Religious Texts from Ugarit (The Biblical Seminar 53, London: Continuum: second edition, 2002).  His subject yesterday was “In Search of Paradise”.

In this fascinating lecture he proposed that while the Garden of Eden tends to be studied in terms of the creation and fall of humanity, that is, primordially, or in terms of human post-mortem destiny, that is, eschatologically, there is a middle ground between these two poles. He argued that the maintenance of the original garden – before the fall – also symbolised royal power and the king’s role in the ritual management of the state. He offered evidence of these elements in the biblical Eden story (Genesis 2-3), in an attempt to set the tradition within its historical context, which he claimed was the destruction of the state in 597, 587-86 BC and its non-monarchical succeeding period under Persian rule. A third way of looking at the tradition – typologically – is a subsequent construction put upon this historical perception.

There were several interesting things in this lecture. Here are just a few things which I noted.

  1. English translations of Genesis 2:9 suggest that there were two trees in the middle of the garden “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Wyatt argued that these two phrases are joined by a explanatory vav and would be better translated as “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, that is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Adam was prohibited from eating from only one tree (v.17). Later, when Eve referred to this prohibition (2:3), she said ‘God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden”‘.  She did not say “one of the trees that is in the midst of the garden”, but “the tree”. This further suggests that there was only one tree in the middle of the garden, and that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were, in fact, the same tree.
  2. Wyatt provided a considerable amount of evidence for placing the garden of Eden in Jerusalem (for example, a river named Gihon was one of the four rivers that flowed out of Eden and 1 Kings 1:28–40 refers to the anointing of an Israelite king at the Gihon spring).
  3. He concluded that the man in his garden is a symbolic allusion to the king in his sanctuary and that the second account of creation in Genesis is an allegory of the ‘fall’ of the kingdom of Judah and the Babylonian captivity. Having recently read David Wolfers’ argument that the Book of Job is also a metaphor or allegory of the same event, I noted with interest Wyatt’s explanation of the “dust to dust” expression in Genesis 3:19 which is alluded to in Job 42:6, and similar terminology in 1 Kings 16:2-3 with reference to the king Jehu being “exalted … out of the dust” only to be  swept away [as dust].

Perhaps I will post more on this when I get hold of a copy of Wyatt’s soon-to-be-published paper.

To speak well of God (2)

Jonathan Stone makes a great point about Job 42:7 in an article on his blog here.

After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”

The underlined words translate the Hebrew כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכֹונָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיֹּֽוב

Jonathan writes:

“The key is found in the preposition about. God tells Eliphaz that he is angry with him and his friends because they have not spoken the truth about God, as did Job. If you take the time to actually read the book you will know that something seems wrong here. Job said a lot of things. A lot of what he said was specifically about God, but very little of it sounds like the truth about God. In contrast, read the speeches of Job’s friends. They exalt God. They speak of his justice. They talk about his infinite power. They proclaim his endless wisdom. They say a whole lot about God. And it all sounds like the truth. What is going on here?

“As it turns out the Hebrew preposition translated about is a common one, ‘el. It is used hundreds of times in the Hebrew bible, and it can be translated about. However, you will only find a couple of examples where it is translated that way. Every other time it is translated to. In other words, the better translation is this:

“After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth to me, as my servant Job has.”

“Interesting. One little pronoun. Yet, it changes our understanding of the entire book of Job. We do not think of the power of prepositions as English speakers. But there is a world of difference between speaking the truth about God and speaking the truth to God.”

Jonathan is correct. The Hebrew word אֵלַי could be translated as “to me”, rather than “about me” although I haven’t (yet) come across a translation that renders it “to me” in Job 42:7. It does make good sense in the context to translate it as “to me” so that it was the forthright, blunt, robust manner in which Job spoke to the Almighty which was being commended, rather than what he actually said. The Hebrew word אל (el) is primarily a preposition denoting ‘motion to or direction towards (whether physical or mental)’ while a similar word עַל  (al) would be more often used to convey the meaning ‘in regard to, concerning, or on account of’. I checked this with Professor Ian Young, chair of the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. His answer to me was that there is a very common interchange in the texts between el and al, and hence the translations might be taking it in that sense, and there are a couple of examples of al being interchanged for el in the prose frame of Job. I’ll do what I can to check this further.

Thanks Jonathan for bringing this to my attention.

The role of Elihu (2). Why is it so hard to see the difference between truth and error?

David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness) convincingly lists many quotations or allusions in the book of Job to Deuteronomy. He argues that the book is metaphorical (or perhaps allegorical) and that the key character is the nation of Israel which suffers the torments predicted by Moses in his curses for disobedience listed in Deuteronomy 28. Israel, as Job, argue that they are being unjustly punished. Job, or the writer of the book, is therefore a ‘heretic’ disagreeing with the theology of the Deuteronomistic Historian (hereafter DH).

I personally find this intriguing, for several reasons. Wolfers’ list of Deuteronomic quotations/allusions is convincing. The writer of the book of Job must have been familiar with Deuteronomy. But did he refer to it because he was influenced by it, or because he disagreed with it? I have already argued that the writer of Job has a different view about ‘fallen’ human nature to the writer of the Genesis account of the origins of sin (or at least to Augustinian interpretations of it). Is it possible that he disgreed with the theology of the DH? I suggested earlier that Job is very ‘theatrical’ and I think I touched on the possibility that it contains humour (although I now realise that I should have developed the ‘humour’ idea more, and should perhaps post more about it later). The use of humour in Job may even suggest that the writer is making a parody of the theology of the DH, with which he disagrees.

Before, getting too anxious about the idea that Scripture may contain conflicting views, or that one book of the Bible may be offering an alternative view to another book of the Bible, I should outline what I see as the main differences between Job and the DH.

The DH believed in a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and suffering. Moses spelled it out in Deuteronomy: “But if you will not obey … then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deut 28:15). On the other hand, Moses offered blessings as the reward for obedience. Isn’t this precisely what the Adversary argued in the prologue? “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and … blessed the work of his hands?” (Job 1:9f). This is also the argument advanced by Job’s three friends and Elihu: Job’s sufferings must be the result of sin, and that if he repents he will prosper again.This is also one of the themes of Proverbs: the righteous prosper and the wicked come to nought. It is a theme which is elaborated through the Deuteronomistic histories (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), culminating in Israel and Judah’s captivity because of disobedience.

It seems to me to be a fairly consistent theme of the DH and the Wisdom literature that God blesses the upright and punishes evildoers. Job’s three friends agree with this; so too does the Adversary. However, the Adversary argues that this policy is foolish, as the LORD can never know who is truly serving him without the motivation of a reward or a threat or punishment. In fact, he might be arguing that no one ever serves God without an incentive.

The writer of Job is at least ‘testing’ this theology. Is it possible to be upright, blameless or righteous without an incentive? The only way to test this is to reverse the situation. Make a righteous person suffer for no cause. Remove all the blessings, for no good reason. Job undergoes the ‘test’ and maintains his innocence while denouncing the injustice. In doing so he challenges the Deuteronomistic view that obedience and prosperity, disobedience and suffering, are cause-and-effect. So the writer of Job not only ‘tests’ the theology of the DH, it seems to me that he disagrees with it.

Perhaps this is why commentators find it so difficult to determine if Elihu is speaking for the LORD or for the Adversary. Much of what he said is consistent with other scriptures. And it’s not only Elihu: we find ‘truths’ in what was said by the three friends as well. Much of what they said reflected the wisdom of the book of Proverbs as well as some of the Psalms and other scriptures, at least on superficial readings of them. What we encounter in Job is an argument that this philosophy, or theology, doesn’t match with reality. The righteous do suffer.

I suggest that Elihu represents the relative ‘newcomer’ in the wisdom schools – Israelite wisdom, or the theology of the DH – but that much of this ‘new’ school of thought is actually the same as other ancient Near Eastern philosophy, and has probably been influenced by it. Elihu argues the position which the DH attributes to the LORD, but whose wisdom the Adversary is challenging. The Adversary (ha-satan), as I have previously said, is not an evil or malevolent being: his role is to oppose, to challenge, and to test, and here he is challenging the theology of the DH that the LORD puts a hedge around those who obey and punishes the disobedient.

If Wolfers is correct then this is not just an academic argument. He is writing for a nation that has gone into exile and questioning the justice of their fate; a nation that is turning to its religious leaders for answers. On the one hand they are being told (by the DH school) that their suffering is the result of sin (but whose sin? Kings seems to place the blame for the captivity on the shoulders of Manasseh), while on the other hand the  writer of Job challenges the idea that their suffering is the result of sin and promises a restoration of their fortunes.

The role of Elihu (1)

My apologies for the long pause since my last post. I was distracted (best excuse I could come up with). However, I took the opportunity to do some rethinking about Job, particularly Elihu’s role, so I now have even more questions about the book than I did before. I really want to get on and explore some other subjects on this blog, but I somehow feel like I need to resolve some things about Job before I do and not leave too many threads hanging loose. The ‘loose threads’ actually tie in with other subjects I’ve been thinking about, so I will attempt to connect them in  coming posts.

Elihu’s role in the Book of Job has been debated over the centuries and opinions vary widely. Some scholars see Elihu’s role as an advocate for the position taken by The Adversary in the prologue, while others see him as a spokesman for the LORD, and his speech as a kind of prelude to the LORD’s own speech.

There are several interesting things about him.

  1. Of all the characters in the book it seems that he is the only one with a Hebrew name.
  2. He doesn’t get a mention in the prologue and then appears suddenly. Once he has finished speaking he disappears without any further mention of him.
  3. Job’s three friends are condemned by the LORD, but Elihu is neither condemned nor commended.
  4. Job intercedes for his three friends so that they obtain forgiveness, but not for Elihu. Did he not need it, or did he miss out on it because he disappeared? Or was Elihu added to the book by a hand later than that of the prologue and epilogue?
  5. Elihu’s speech takes a prominent position in the book, between Job’s ‘oath of innocence’ and the appearance of the LORD. Why was it given such prominence?

Moses ben-Maimon (aka Maimonides 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed, understood the speeches of Job’s three friends to represent the major philosophical views of the time while Elihu presented a new paradigm. Elihu represents an ‘Israelite’ perspective, against the traditional wisdom of the ancient Near East of which the three friends are archetypes. The fact that many of Elihu’s arguments, and actual words, mirror those of the three friends is probably suggesting that while Elihu’s ‘new paradigm’ is more recent, contemporary, and therefore ‘younger’, from the writer’s perspective it was still influenced by, and therefore a reflection of, the traditional thinking. Elihu’s arrogance was in arguing that he was presenting something new while he was actually mirroring old thinking.

What I find really remarkable is that scholars and commentators often see Elihu as a spokesman for either the Adversary, or the LORD. Is it that hard to see the difference between the two? Perhaps it is.