God’s wives (3)

A tension is evident in Lamentations where the destitute and captive city is described, not as an abandoned child but as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), and at the end of the mourning for the destruction, desolation and death God is praised: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19) and the widowed city longs for restoration (5:21). In Lamentations the city is widowed, the nation is exiled, and the people groan. The characters are not individuals but rather they are all emblematic of the people as a whole: the daughters of Zion and the grieving widows are the nation itself. The writer only speaks in the first person at the crux of the book (chapter 3) in describing his personal misery, and turns immediately to speak of the “steadfast love of the LORD” (3:22) and his goodness. The goodness and mercy of the LORD are juxtaposed in a starkly contrasting manner with the misery and desolation that lies around. Even during their worse crisis the writer says “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3:26). Despite speaking in the first person it is still a national salvation for which he pleads patient waiting, and despite the nation forsaking God (it is always they who forsake God not God who forsakes them) they maintain a desire or passion for him.

It seems that the relationship which concerned the prophets, the writer of Lamentations and probably the writer of the Song of Songs was the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. There is no hint in any of these texts of a concern about the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of ‘personal salvation’ is foreign to most of the Hebrew biblical literature, with the notable exception of the book of Psalms. The Psalter contains a mix of songs which were probably written for liturgical use or for national celebratory occasions[1] as well as personal confessions, supplications and thanksgiving. Most Psalms seem to be connected in some way to the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Parts of the Psalter in the final form in which we have it show evidence of earlier compilations: it is composed of five ‘books’; several Psalms are grouped together and attributed to common authors or with common titles (such as the ‘Songs of Ascent’); and some Psalms naturally flow on to the next. Scholars however have long wrestled with the structure of the book, as the psalms which were evidently for corporate use in a worship setting are mingled together with personal confessions, or psalms written against an historical background involving an individual (such as David fleeing from Absalom in Psalm 3)[3]. It looks like a “collection of collections”.[4] There is a fair degree of ambiguity in some of the national psalms where it is difficult to determine if the subject is the Davidic King, or God. For example, Psalm 72 could be a prayer for Solomon, or equally in praise of a messianic king. Sigmund Mowinckel argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’  had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, but that the enthroned king who was being acclaimed was the LORD rather than the Davidic King.[5] Psalm 45 which is headed שיר ידידת a love song closely resembles the love-language of the Song of Songs and provides a link between Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is addressed to a king, contains some of the elements of a wasf, yet sounds a little like a national anthem (“Send him victorious!” 45:4). It suggests that the love-song may have been written for one purpose and acquired further significance as part of the national collection, and is at the nexus of where personal and individual meets national and corporate. The so-called ‘Pilgrim Psalms’ show signs of having been written for the corporate worship of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages, but they also contain elements which are personal and individualistic (such as “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’ in Psalm 122:1). Marc Brettler summarises the difficulties in attempting to find an orderly arrangement in the book when he writes: “perhaps Psalms is not really a book at all; it would seem to be a hodge-podge. We can no longer determine why each psalm is in its place”.[6] Perhaps the difficulty we have in making sense of the structure of the book is precisely because here he have the nexus in Hebrew literature between the nation and the individual, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate individual yearnings from corporate ones.

It is in the Psalms that we find most clearly the redemption of the individual as well as the nation. The writers of the prophetic books, Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms give us multiple divergent perspectives about the relationship between God and his chosen people, whether we think of his people corporately as Israel or as individuals. Song of Songs appears to be deliberately commenting on the Genesis creation story and reversing the perversion of desire between male and female which came through disobedience and sin. The prophets metaphorise the mutual desire between God and his people for intimacy as a troublesome marriage where the husband remains faithful while the woman has other lovers, and Song of Songs implies a lack of passion (on the woman’s part) as a reason for her unfaithfulness. Perhaps Ezekiel put some of the blame on God because he sometimes acted like a father and at other times like a lover or husband. Israel was confused and did not know how to relate to this father-husband-God. Perhaps Tennyson was right that “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved” but through the lover and marriage metaphors the biblical poetic books argue that “If love is lost it can be found again.”  Eventually, both in the prophets and in the Psalms, the people (and by implication the individual) learn that God’s passion for them should be reciprocated and then at last the union between the lovers will be consummated.

(Concluded)


[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. xvii

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 226

[3] John Goldingay however argues that the psalms with historical superscriptions were not written in those circumstances but that the headings were probably added for use in a lectionary to provide a Scripture with similar or related themes for parallel consideration with the psalm. John Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 28-29

[4] Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 226

[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, p106

[6]  Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 228

God’s wives (2)

Julia Kristeva has noted that the earliest texts of the Bible contain only two references to God’s love for humanity, and even these are somewhat obscure.[1] The theme of divine love, she argues, is fully developed in Deuteronomy and the prophets and metaphorically in the Song of Songs, and while there is no explicit mention of either God or Israel in the Song of Songs the fact that the book is found among the Qumran scrolls is evidence that it was studied from a religious standpoint before the destruction of the Second Temple. It was almost certainly understood as an allegory from earliest times by a nation which which saw itself as the Shulamite woman, chosen by a God who had an erotic passion for her.[2] But God as the husband of his people is “the most innovative metaphor of the biblical period”[3] and is not seen elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern literature. Kristeva noted that “No other nation, even if dedicated to sacred orgiastic worship, has imagined its relation to God as that of the loving woman to the Husband.”[4] But the idea is not presented in the biblical texts early as a fully developed concept, and there are hints that it developed over time.

Referring to the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman Phyllis Trible argues convincingly that in the order in which the story is told “the account moves to its climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman. She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination.”[5]  Tribble reads Songs of Songs as developing the equality theme of Genesis: “Like Genesis 2, Canticles affirms mutuality of the sexes. There is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex. The woman is independent, fully the equal of the man.”[6] There appear to be several deliberate intertextual links between Song of Songs and the creation myths in Genesis which provide an insight into the purpose of Song of Songs. For example, the word translated “desire” in Song 7:10 is תשוקה which occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible, here and twice in the creation story (Genesis 3:16; 4:7). Interestingly, Song of Songs reverses the meaning of this word to the way it is used in Genesis where it refers to the woman’s desire for the man: in Song of Songs it speaks of the man’s desire for the woman. This should immediately give us a clue that Song of Songs may be deliberately reversing the consequences of disobedience in the Genesis story with the recovery of equality between man and woman. Tribble calls Songs of Songs “a midrash on Genesis 2-3”[7] and the recurring references in Song of Songs to gardens, animals and fruits pleasing to the eye and taste are strong indications that the writer has drawn themes and motifs from Genesis and deliberately restored the equality between the man and woman which was disrupted by eating the forbidden fruit. While “desire” in the context of Genesis is the result of disobedience (Tribble calls it “perversion”: the Genesis account does not use the word “sin” until the second occurrence of תשוקה in 4:7 where it is in the context of Cain’s sin and it is the abstract “sin” that “desires” to have Cain) in Song of Songs desire is joyous, passionate and pure. There is a pericope in Song of Songs however where passion is conspicuously absent, and that is in the second night scene (5:2ff) where the woman ignores the call and knocking of her lover. Is this the crux of the book and is the writer telling us that passion, or the lack of it, is the key to understanding something greater?

The idea of the relationship between God and his people being like an Edenic partnership is also implied in Psalm 8:4-6 where the question “what is man that you are mindful of him?” is answered by juxtaposing two ideas drawn from the creation story: man is made only a little lower than the heavenly beings, or God (almost certainly drawing on the words “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” in Genesis 1:26a); and, mankind being given dominion (drawing on the words “And let them have dominion” which immediately follow in Genesis 1:26b). Humanity is not only in God’s image; it also has dominion and is crowned, enthroned with God in joint-rulership. This equality between the creator and the created is radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. In the Genesis story however, the equality ends abruptly and creation is marred. It is a continuing saga through the prophets where God takes Israel as his wife and partner, but she leaves him for other lovers and yet even after she “plays the whore” he has a passion for her and takes her back in an effort to restore the intended unity evident in the creation story. We have a few glimpses of an eventual harmony in the relationship: Psalm 8, drawing heavily on creation themes; the Song of Songs, where there is no sign of either lover dominating the other, but where, if only for a moment, the man disappears, forsaken, because of the woman’s loss of passion; and in Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. But even in these texts there is a tension between the way it should be, and was perhaps always intended to be, and the way it actually is. Psalm 8 with the near-equality at the crux has an inclusio which includes the words “O LORD, our Lord” where אדנינו Lord, although different to בעלי Baali has the meaning of someone who has authority over the other.

to be continued


[1] 2 Samuel 12:24-25 where Solomon is named by David Jedidiah or “beloved of the LORD”, and 1 Kings 10:9 where the Queen of Sheba observes that God loves Israel, or at least has “granted [Israel] his favour”.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p.99f

[3] I noted this phrase and placed it within quotation marks during a lecture by Dr Ari Lobel at the University of Sydney but did not note a source, so I expect that they are Dr Lobel’s own words and not a quotation.

[4] Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 97f

[5] Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation”, Journal of the American Academy of religion, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 1973) Oxford University Press, pp. 30-48, p. 36

[6] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 45

[7] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 47)

God’s wives (1)

Relationships can be difficult, even tumultuous, yet Alfred Lord Tennyson reputedly once said “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved.” According to several biblical writers the relationship between God and humanity is no less complicated than human relationships and in fact we might wonder if it is even possible to have an intimate connection between the human and the divine. If so, is it something that can be experienced on a personal or individual level, or only as a corporate abstraction? In the history of interpretation, both in Judaism and Christianity, it has been common to interpret the Song of Songs as a metaphor or allegory describing the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church. The New Testament letter to the Ephesians[1] encourages husbands and wives to submit to one another (5:21 ESV) and uses the relationship between Christ and the church as the model: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22); “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25); “husbands should love their wives … just as Christ does the church” (5:28f); and concludes with “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). Paul (or a later pseudonymous writer) was almost certainly influenced in this analogy by several prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible which described the relationship between God and Israel in terms of a marriage.

Possibly the earliest use of the husband metaphor for God is in Isaiah 5 where the prophet sings a love-song: “Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard” (v. 1) and describes his beloved as caring for the vineyard by clearing it of stones and planting it with choice vines. The song then shifts from the third person (about the beloved) to the first person (the beloved singing) and asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (v. 4). The song includes a warning for the ‘vineyard’: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured” and continues with a prediction that the wall will be broken down, the vineyard will be trampled on, and it will become waste and desolate (Vv. 5-6). The song finally returns to the third person and identifies the ‘vineyard’: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting” (v. 7). While this love song doesn’t explicitly speak of God as Israel’s husband, it used the same kind of language that we find in the Song of Songs[2] and has some of the characteristics of a wasf, [3]a near eastern poetic form in which a boy and girl describe how the other’s body affects them[4].

Perhaps the best example of a wasf outside the Song of Songs is Ezekiel 16:10-13 which includes elements similar to Song 5:10-16 with a difference being that Ezekiel’s wasf describes the woman’s clothing and jewellery in greater detail while Song of Songs focuses more on her physical features (perhaps because Ezekiel’s woman is a metaphorical one rather than a real person). Ezekiel used the marriage metaphor twice: in chapter 16 Jerusalem is described as a woman whom God marries, and in chapter 23 God takes two wives, Oholah (Israel) and Oholibah (Judah), both of whom turn out to be unfaithful. These two chapters have generated a great deal of controversy because of the graphic sexual metaphors which are used to describe the women. Some scholars take this language as evidence of “an abusive and misogynistic patriarchal society”[5] although it is possible that the writer is intentionally using vivid language to highlight some stark irregularities in the relationship between God and his people. There are some disturbing features about the metaphorical wives in the prophets. Judah is described as a whore who is wayward, incompetent and oppressive (Jeremiah 2:20-34). Hosea is told by God to take “a wife of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2) in an enacted parable about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Ezekiel’s prophecy against Israel’s “abominations” contains some imagery which is unique to this prophet and is graphically disturbing. It first describes the birth of an unwanted female child which is left to die in an open found (16:3-5) and which God pities and takes in as his own daughter, and because of God’s care the child grows and flourishes. The imagery thus far, although graphic, is not particularly disturbing although we may consider it to be an unusual way to describe God’s love for his people. However, it takes a dramatic turn when the child reaches puberty and is observed naked and the prophet attributes to God sexual desires toward her (vv. 7-8a). Here God is first father and then husband and this has the elements of an abusive relationship, or at least an unequal relationship. It is possible that the Song of Songs later addresses this issue by allegorising God and his people in an equal relationship where each desires the other. In Ezekiel’s metaphor God then makes vows and enters a covenant with the child, taking her as his wife. The wasf which follows describes God adorning his wife, but it takes another dramatic turn when the wife “played the whore” (v. 15). The disturbing element here (at least to a modern western mind) is not so much the wife’s unfaithfulness (serious though that would be, especially in an ancient culture) but the potentially exploitive and sexually abusive use of the child by God. Yet that concept must also have been shocking to Ezekiel’s audience – it seems intentionally designed to shock – or why would he have used it? What precisely are the biblical marriage metaphors telling us about the relationship between God and his people, or his creation in general?

… to be continued


[1] Ephesians is attributed to Paul but regarded by many scholars as a late first century text.

[2] Song of Songs includes a song about Solomon’s vineyard (8:11f) and also uses the vineyard metaphor in 1:6, 14; 2:15; 7:12

[3] Wasf is an Arabic word meaning “description”.

[4] G. Schwab “Wasf”, in Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), p. 835

[5] T.C. Parker “Marriage and Divorce” in Longman, Wisdom Poetry and Writings, p. 536

Which biblical manuscripts are ‘right’: Qumran, the Septuagint, or the Masoretic Text?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (7)

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (ESV)

Commentaries usually propose two possible sources for this quotation in the New Testament from the Hebrew Bible:  Psalm 97:7 and Deuteronomy 32:43. Psalm 97 looks to be the closest match for this phrase, especially once we realise that the Septuagint occasionally translates the Hebrew word elohim with the Greek word angelos (the Hebrew MT of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels), and it is generally thought that the writer of the NT book of Hebrews usually quotes from the Septuagint (but more about this shortly).

But why Deuteronomy 32:43? If we are reading the King James Version (or one of many others) there doesn’t appear to be any connection. This is how the KJV translates the verse:

Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.

The KJV follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Initially it looks like it has no connection to the quotation in Hebrews. However, several modern translations (such as the ESV below, with footnotes) include the additional words which I have underlined:

“Rejoice with him, O heavens;[a]
bow down to him, all gods,[b]
for he avenges the blood of his children[c]
and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him[d]
and cleanses[e] his people’s land.”[f]

Footnotes:

  1. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Rejoice his people, O nations
  2. Masoretic Text lacks bow down to him, all gods
  3. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text servants
  4. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text lacks He repays those who hate him
  5. Or atones for
  6. Septuagint, Vulgate; Hebrew his land his people

It is evident from the footnotes in the ESV that there are several differences between the Masoretic Text and other ancient translations such as the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and the Latin Vulgate. Just to complicate things further, Romans 15:10 may also be quoting this verse in Deuteronomy:

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

If Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 in Romans then he is following the Masoretic Text with Gentiles or nations,  where  the Septuagint has “rejoice O heavens“. There could be a clue here that the writer of Romans is not the same person as the writer of Hebrews, but having said that, one Qumran version (think ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) of this text reads “Praise, heavens, his people” (1QDtb) while another reads “Praise, nations …” (4QDtq) so we have two different Qumran-Hebrew texts of this verse and the Masoretic Text represents one Hebrew text while the Septuagint corresponds to another. Romans follows one version, while Hebrews appears to follow the other. The ancient Aramaic version known as Targum Onkelos has an Aramaic equivalent to the Masoretic Text with “Praise, Gentiles, his people”. The Samaritan Pentateuch has the same reading as the Masoretic Text.

Interestingly, in an article by George Howard published as early as 1968 he argued that Hebrews may very well have been following a Hebrew text which was different to the Masoretic text, rather than following the Greek Septuagint, and that Hebrews 1:6 is closer to Qumran Deuteronomy than to the Septuagint. He found that some quotes are actually closer to the Aramaic versions (Targum Onkelos and the Peshitta) than to either the Hebrew or Greek.

“It has been popular in the past to begin a commentary or an introduction to the Epistle by stating that the writer always uses the Septuagint version of the OT (sometimes in the form of Codex Vaticanus, but more often in the form of Codex Alexandrinus) and never shows acquaintance with the Hebrew). Since the discovery of the Qumran Literature and the impetus given by it to the study of the pre-Masoretic text, it is now probable that the text used by the author of Hebrews is, on occasion, closer to a Hebrew recension more ancient than the Masoretic Text.”[1]

But what about Psalm 97:7? If the writer of Hebrews is quoting from this psalm then we can forget the difficulties with Deuteronomy. There are some problems here too, although possibly not as much as with a Deuteronomy source. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the main difference between the two texts is that the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels). To many scholars this isn’t much of a difficulty because we know that the Septuagint translators sometimes used ἄγγελοι angels in place of אלהים gods. However, Hebrews has “angels of God” rather than simply angels and this suggests the writer was tranlating from Hebrew בני אלהים sons of God rather than simply “gods” [elohim]. Interestingly, 4QDtq from Qumran has “sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:43, so this may steer us back to a Deuteronomy source and away from Psalms.

It looks like a bit of a mess! At least two versions of one biblical text, with the New Testament writers quoting from both versions. How can they both be ‘right’? The problem is actually a modern one. Timothy Law, in an interview with  Peter Enns, has concluded rather well: ‘We know now that there were many other variant forms of the Hebrew scriptures circulating before the time of Jesus … the existence of multiple forms of scripture (Greek and Hebrew) in antiquity, both before, during, and after the time of Christ, did not bother early Christians. The search for an “original text” on which to ground one’s faith is a distinctively modern worry’ (his emphasis). It seems to me that the New Testament writers reflected current and earlier scribal practices where it was not necessary to copy or translate the exact form of words, but rather to faithfully transmit the ideas and the essential message.

[1] George Howard, “Hebrews and the Old Testament Quotations”, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 10, Fasc. 2/3 (Apr. – Jul., 1968), pp. 208-216

How the Dead Sea Scrolls help with New Testament studies

 

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (6)

Pesher HabakkukSeveral scrolls found at Qumran (‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) are commentaries on earlier biblical texts and are called pesharim because of their characteristic use of the Hebrew word פשר pesher which translates as ‘this means’, or ‘the interpretation is’, or similar. These commentaries typically quote a biblical text and then add a commentary beginning with פשר pesher ‘this means …’. There are some characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which are replicated in some New Testament quotations. However, while pesharim tend to be sustained verse-by-verse commentaries (although individual pesher-style interpretations are found embedded in other works) the New Testament writers interpret only small selections from the prophetic writings; there are no sustained verse-by-verse commenatraies in the New Testament. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Joseph Fitzmyer argues that a pesher is a unique type of midrash and has no exact counterpart in the New Testament.[1] He concluded from his analysis, however, that “the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers is quite similar to that of their Jewish contemporaries, which is best illustrated by the Qumran literature.”[2]

Timothy Lim[3] has identified characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which enable us to recognise some of the quotations in the New Testament in that style. Identifying a specific fulfilment of prophetic oracles is one characteristic of a pesher. So when Matthew introduces a quotation with the formulaic “that it might be fulfilled” he is effectively interpreting the biblical text in much the same way as the writer of Pesher Habakkuk who could quote the prophet and then apply his words to a contemporary person or event. So when the author of Pesher Habakkuk wrote  פשרו על מורה הצדק  “this refers to the teacher of righteousness”[4] he was using a similar formula to Matthew’s “this is fulfilled [by Jesus]”.  While God instructed Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen, according to Pesher Habakkuk he hid from him how the prophecy would be fulfilled, but revealed it later to the Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab col vii lines1-5). In this way, argues Maurya Horgan, the pesharim function as companions to the biblical text, “unravelling section by section the mysteries that were believed to be contained in the biblical text”.[5] The initial mysteries revealed to the prophet and the interpretation through the Teacher of Righteousness were both revelations by God. The New Testament quotations function in the same way. The initial texts are reinterpreted according to new circumstances in ways that, by modern standards, might seem to be misquoting or using texts without any regard for their primary meaning and setting, yet finding meaning in the words themselves that would not have been understood in their first context. Not only did the interpretation give new meaning to the words, it claimed to be the true hidden meaning.


[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 298

[2] Ibid, p. 330

[3] Timothy H. Lim, Pesharim (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, p. 82

[4] For example, in 1QpHab column vii, line 4

[5] Maurya P Horgan, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books, (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979), p. 259

Does Matthew quote from the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (5)

Image

Francois-Joseph Navez, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” 1824

Jeremiah 31:15 is quoted in Matthew 2:17-18 using the introductory formula “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah …” The background to the quotation is the “massacre of the innocents” – Herod’s murder of children born around the time of Jesus’ birth in an attempt to eliminate a claimant to the title of “King of Israel”. Matthew presumably quotes Jeremiah 31:15 because the context of Jeremiah 31 is the grief experienced by Jewish mothers who watched their sons go off into battle or exile. [1]

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

If we compare the Hebrew and Greek texts of Jeremiah 31 with Matthew’s quotation we see that Matthew is closer to the Hebrew than to the Septuagint in a few ways and follows the order of words in the Hebrew more closely than the Septuagint. For example, Matthew’s ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς “much grieving” (or “loud lamentation” in the ESV) is possibly a smoother rendition of the Hebrew construct בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים “bitter weeping” than the Septuagint θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ “of lamentation, and of weeping, and wailing”. The Septuagint omits Jeremiah’s first use of the phrase “for her children”, which Matthew retains, although he omits the second use of the term which is present in the Septuagint (it is not unusual for the Septuagint to omit repetitive phrases, or to reorder them, but the fact that Matthew’s order is different to the Septuagint suggests that he was using a similar translation technique but not copying directly from the Septuagint). I would argue that Matthew was making his own independent translation from the Hebrew of Jeremiah rather than quoting from a Greek (‘Septuagint’) translation. Richard Longnecker has pointed out that in the Gospel of Matthew the evangelist’s own quotations of the Old Testament usually follow the Hebrew reading, whereas the citations by Jesus “are strongly Septuagintal”.[2] This raises the interesting question of why Matthew would make his own translation from the Hebrew at times while using the Septuagint Greek translation when quoting the words of Jesus, especially since it is hardly likely that Jesus himself taught in Greek.

The most likely explanation in my view is that Matthew was using several sources when writing his gospel. We can be confident that one of his sources was the Gospel of Mark as Matthew quotes verbatim almost all of Mark’s gospel (approximately 90% of Mark is in Matthew). Luke also used Mark extensively. There is also a considerable number of sayings of Jesus which are in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. This has led many scholars to accept the theory that Matthew and Luke used at least two sources to write their gospels: Mark, and another gospel, or, more likely, a collection of sayings. This hypothetical second source is usually called ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”) and many scholars believe that  Q was written in Greek. Jesus’ quotations from the Old Testament in Q appear to be from the Septuagint. If this theory is correct then it would explain why Matthew’s quotations of Jesus’ sayings follow the Septuagint (he was simply copying directly from his Q source) while his own quotations from the Hebrew Bible were his own translation. This argument presupposes that Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, which is the view of many New Testament scholars, although there are some who believe that Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew or Aramaic and his gospel was later translated into Greek. Either way, there is strong evidence that Matthew used at least two sources for his quotations from the Old Testament: when Jesus was quoting the Bible the quotations came to Matthew via a Greek source which drew on the Septuagint, and when Matthew was quoting Scripture directly he drew on his own knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Our text from Jeremiah 31 is in the second category and is quoted from the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint.

MT

LXX (Jer 38:15)

MATTHEW

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה

קֹול בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃

οὕτως εἶπεν κύριοςφωνὴ ἐν Ραμα ἠκούσθη θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ Ραχηλ ἀποκλαιομένη οὐκ ἤθελεν παύσασθαι ἐπὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς αὐτῆς ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν Τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου, λέγοντος,Φωνὴ ἐν ῥαμᾶ ἠκούσθη, θρῆνος καὶ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς, Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὑτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν

[1] Ramah was 10 kilometres north of Jerusalem on the road captives would have travelled as they were taken into exile. Rachel was said to have been buried in the vicinity of Ramah which was equidistant with Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

[2] Richard N. Longnecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 48

Misquoting the Old Testament (in the New)

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (4)

Jeremiah 18:2-3 cited in Matthew 27:9-10

ESV (OT Sources)

ESV (Matthew)

Jeremiah 18:2-3“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. Matthew 27:9-10Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
Zechariah 11:12-13Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter” – the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.
Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Matthew 27:9-10 is the most puzzling citation of Jeremiah in the New Testament. In fact, it is possibly one of the most puzzling citations of any Old Testament text. Matthew introduces this ‘quotation’ with the formulaic “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying …” The most remarkable thing about this is that nowhere in any of our manuscripts of Jeremiah do the quoted words appear. The wording which is most similar is Jeremiah 18:2-3 which refers to Jeremiah being directed to go to the potter’s house. Both texts refer to a potter but there the similarity ends. In fact, Matthew’s quotation parallels Zechariah 11:12-13 more closely than any text in Jeremiah. Zechariah refers to thirty pieces of silver as well as a potter, but not to a field. Elsewhere in Jeremiah (32:6-9) the prophet bought his cousin’s field in Anathoth, but there the price is seventeen shekels. Matthew’s ‘quotation’ appears to be a composite of Jeremiah 18:2-3 and Zechariah 11:12-13 with a possible allusion to Jeremiah 32:6-9 and it is difficult to see how it is a ‘fulfilment’ of any specific prophecy. Craig Blomberg has argued that “Rabbis would sometimes create a composite quotation of more than one Scripture but refer to only one of their sources by name, often the more obscure one (though sometimes also the more important one) to ensure that others would pick up the reference”.[1]

Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah preserves a clause found in the Masoretic Text but missing from the Septuagint: “the lordly price at which I was priced by them”. His concluding clause (“as the Lord directed me”) is not in either source text, but could be alluding to Jeremiah 13:15 “So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me”. Neither source text refers to a potter’s field, although this is a key item in the fulfilment of the prophecy to which he is referring. Later in the story about the potter in Jeremiah (19:2) the prophet is instructed to “buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate”. We may be tempted to see a connection between the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (known as Gehenna in the Gospels) and the traitor Judas Iscariot but Matthew makes no such connection, nor does Luke when writing about Iscariot’s fate in Acts 1:18-20.

What is Matthew doing here with a composite quotation which he attributes to Jeremiah and how can he say that Iscariot’s actions ‘fulfil’ Scripture when there is no such prophecy? Joseph Fitzmyer has noted that “the use of well-known introductory formulae to cite a passage which is not found in the Old Testament (or at least which is not found in any of the known texts or versions)” is a phenomenon found both in the NT and in the Qumran literature” (think “Dead Sea Scrolls”).[2] He put this in the category of “modernized texts” rather than as a literal fulfilment of prophecy.[3] This could also be a case of what he later describes as an “accommodated text”, that is, one which is “wrested from its original context or modified somehow to suit the new situation”[4].

Archer and Chirichigno put this text in the category of quotations which give the impression that unwarranted liberties were taken with the Old Testament text in the light of its context. It would probably be even better, in my view, to categorise the Matthew quotation as a composite allusion rather than a quotation.


[1] Craig Blomberg, [“Matthew” in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 95]. Unfortunately Blomberg doesn’t provide any sources for or examples of this Rabbinic practice. Archer and Chirichigno also claim that in combining elements from both Jeremiah and Zechariah Matthew is “simply conforming to contemporary literary custom when he cites the name of the more famous of the two” [Archer, Gleason L. and G. C. Chirichigno Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey (Chicago: Moody, 1983) p. 163]. but they don’t provide references for their claim either.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 304. Another example of this in the Gospels is Matthew 2:23 “he shall be called a Nazarene” while ‘As for that which it said, “Your own hand shall not avenge you”‘ (CD ix 8-9) is an example of a Qumran text quoting an unknown source.

[3] Ibid, p.315

[4] Ibid, p.316. Fitzmyer finds twelve examples of accommodation in Qumran texts.

The Septuagint and the New Testament

Septuagint manuscript from The Schoyen Collection (#2649) containing a portion of Leviticus from second century Egypt - one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of this part of the Bible.

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (1)

There is a popular misconception that the earliest Christians used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as their Scriptures, and that all the quotations from the ‘Old Testament’ in the New Testament are from this Greek translation, commonly known as “The Septuagint” [1] . In later posts I plan to look at some quotations which are more likely to be drawn directly from the Hebrew (then translated into Greek by the New Testament writer) or from some other source, but first I will deal with some of the quotations which are most likely from the Septuagint. My purpose is to give an overview of some of the difficulties we face when the New Testament quotation doesn’t match up with what we find in our own Bibles, and to provide some explanations for why this happens (and perhaps some solutions).

In this post I will look at just one quotation which illustrates the problems quite well. During the early church meeting commonly known as ‘the Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:1-35) James quotes from ‘the words of the prophets’ (vv15-18), specifically from Amos 9:11-12. This quotation is closer to the Septuagint (LXX) than to to the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) [2] , although there are actually eleven differences between the version in Acts and the LXX [3] .

The most significant differences are highlighted by the underlined words below:

Acts 15:15-18 (NRSV)

“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”

Amos 9:11-12 (NRSV)

On that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair itsbreaches,
and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,
says the Lord who does this.

The difference is actually quite important in the context of the Jerusalem Council because it was specifically the words “all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called” to which James was appealing in accepting Gentiles into the church. However, these words are not in the Hebrew text although they are in the Septauagint. How, when and why were they changed? There are several possibilities:

  1. The translator who translated the Hebrew into Greek (the LXX) made a mistake, or a couple of mistakes, in reading the Hebrew and therefore made a wrong translation which James then uses.
  2. The translator was using a different Hebrew text to the one which eventually became the Masoretic Text (scholars call this ‘original’ text used for the translation the Vorlage). If so, there must have been at least two different versions of the Hebrew of Amos at the time when the LXX was translated. That is possible, and we have good manuscript evidence to indicate there were different Hebrew texts circulating in the first century CE, but which text then would be most faithful to the earliest or ‘original’ text?
  3. The translator deliberately altered the words to give it a different meaning for theological reasons.

For Christians who believe in the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible any of these possibilities pose a problem: which text is ‘inspired’, the Hebrew Masoretic Text used for translating the Old Testament into English (which may include errors if we believe that the NT puts its stamp of approval on an alternative version), or the Greek Septuagint translation of a different Hebrew text (which is now lost), used by James and quoted in the New Testament? Either the MT is right, and the LXX and NT are wrong, or the LXX and NT are right and the MT is wrong. Do you see the problem?

So how could a translator or scribal copyist make a mistake in the first place? How does “that they may possess the remnant of Edom” become “all the Gentiles may seek [the LORD]”? Here is the Hebrew text of these words as they appear in the MT (without the vowel points, which were added later by the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries CE):

למען יירשו את־שארית אדום

The difference rests mainly on two words (highlighted above). The Hebrew word for ‘Edom’ is אדום and the ‘o’ sound is represented by the letter ו. Strictly speaking written Biblical Hebrew is consonantal, and most of the vowels were added much later by the Masoretes. However, the letter ו is one of the four letters known as ‘Matres lectionis’ which were also used to indicate vowels and during the Biblical period a word could be written with or without it. It is possible that in some manuscripts the word for ‘Edom’ was written אדם. Now this presents a problem, because this is the same word as ‘mankind’ and ‘Adam’. In most cases there is no problem because the context will determine which of the three words is meant (although this is precisely the kind of problem that caused the Masoretes to later add marks to indicate the vowels and to avoid the confusion). So now we have two possibilities for how ‘Edom’ became ‘mankind’ (or Gentiles): the manuscript from which the LXX translator was working had אדם without the vowel ו and he read it as ‘mankind/Gentiles’ rather than as Edom; or, a scribe copying a manuscript at some point read אדם=mankind as ‘Edom’ and added the ו vowel to avoid confusion (but making a mistake in the process), and it is from this copy containing the error that our MT has come down to us. Take your pick.

Paleo-HebrewThe second difference is slightly more complicated. The word translated ‘seek’ in the LXX (ἐκζητήσωσιν) translates ירש which means ‘possess’. This would be the only place where the LXX translates ירש as ‘seek’. Twenty nine times the LXX uses this Greek word for ‘seek’ to translate the Hebrew word דרשׁ which differs only by the first letter, and seventy three times it uses it to translate the word בקשׁ which has only one letter in common. Some scholars suggest that the translator misread דרשׁ (seek) as ירשׁ (possess) which is possible especially if the copy from which he was working was worn, faded or smudged. McLay says it is less likely that he misread it as בקשׁ as this would require him to confuse two consonants which don’t look very similar[4]. However, and this is where I think it becomes even more interesting, we need to know that the Hebrew system of writing began to change after the Babylonian exile from ‘Paleo-Hebrew’ to the ‘block’ or ‘square’ Aramaic or Assyrian style that is still in use today (with some further modifications). The earliest copies of the scroll containing Amos (‘the Scroll of the Twelve Prophets’) would most likely have been in Paleo-Hebrew, and in this script the words בקשׁ and ירשׁ are much more similar. The chart shows these words in the square script which is now used, the Paleo-Hebrew in which Amos was probably first written, and the early form of the square script which is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls Isaiah manuscript to show how it may have been written if the Aramaic script was already in use. While ר and  ק are not similar in the square script they could easily be mistaken in Paleo-Hebrew. Similarly ד י and ב could also be mistaken, especially if the text was faded, smudged or damaged. Many scholars understand that the LXX text arose from a different version of the Hebrew text through a misreading of this kind [5] .

Where does this leave us? We can see how an error may have crept in somewhere and this explains why we have two versions of the words of Amos in our Bibles. But which one is likely to be original? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this and scholars are divided on the question. Most scholars tend to prefer one version or the other depending on which one they feel best fits the context and until another ancient manuscript is discovered to shed more light on the subject we will have to be content with that.

________________________

[1] The ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible are popularly called “the Septuagint”, although several different translations have all in fact been designated as such. There is probably no one translation which has a better claim to the designation than the others, so some scholars tend these days to speak of them as “Septuagints” (plural) and specify the particular manuscript to which they are referring, or collectively as the Greek Jewish Scriptures. Often when commentaries refer to “the Septuagint” (or by its abbreviation LXX) they mean the text and translation by Brenton (1844). For a good overview of current Septuagint scholarship see R.Timothy McLay The Use of the Septuagint in New Testament Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[2] I. Howard Marshall, ‘Acts’ in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) 589

[3] Gert J. Steyn Septuagint Quotations in the Context of the Petrine and Pauline Speeches of the Acta Apostolorum (Kampen, Netherlands : Kok Pharos, 1995) 252-3

[4] McLay, 23

[5] Marshall, 590

David: a benchmark for kings

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David

In the books of Kings and Chronicles King David is a kind of benchmark for later kings whose reigns are judged as “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David”, OR he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done” (or words to that effect).

Here is an overview of how kings rated according to the David-benchmark:

The phrase הישר בעיני יהוה “he did what was pleasing in the eyes of the Lord” is used of the following kings:

1 Kings 15:11-12 Asa did what was pleasing to the LORD, as his father David had done. He expelled the male prostitutes from the land, and he removed all the idols that his ancestors had made.

1 Kings 22:43-44 [Jehoshaphat] He followed closely the course of his father Asa and did not deviate from it, doing what was pleasing to the LORD. However, the shrines did not cease to function; the people still sacrificed and offered at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 20:32-33 [Jehoshaphat] He followed the course of his father Asa and did not deviate from it, doing what was pleasing to the LORD. However, the shrines did not cease; the people still did not direct their heart toward the God of their fathers.

2 Kings 12:3 All his days Jehoash did what was pleasing to the LORD, as the priest Jehoiada instructed him.

2 Chronicles 24:2 All the days of the priest Jehoiada, Jehoash did what was pleasing to the LORD.

2 Kings 14:3-4  [Amaziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, but not like his ancestor David; he did just as his father Joash had done.  However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 25:2 [Amaziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, but not with a whole heart.

2 Kings 15:3-4 [Azariah/Uzziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done. However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 26:4 [Uzziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD just as his father Amaziah had done.

2 Kings 15:34-35 [Jotham] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father Uzziah had done.  However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 27:2 [Jotham] He did what was pleasing to the LORD just as his father Uzziah had done, but he did not enter the Temple of the LORD; however, the people still acted corruptly.

2 Kings 18:3-4 [Hezekiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father David had done. He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post.

2 Chronicles 29:2 [Hezekiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father David had done.

Sirach 48:22 For Hezekiah did what was pleasing to the Lord, and he kept firmly to the ways of his ancestor David, as he was commanded by the prophet Isaiah, who was great and trustworthy in his visions.

2 Kings 22:2 [Josiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD and he followed all the ways of his ancestor David; he did not deviate to the right or to the left.

2 Chronicles 34:2 [Josiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, following the ways of his father David without deviating to the right or to the left.

While several kings are commended for doing what was right or pleasing to the LORD, only Hezekiah and Josiah receive the further commendation ככל אשר־עשה דוד אביו they did “according to all that [their] father David did”. On the other hand, some kings are singled out for not following David:

1 Kings 11:4-6, 31-33 [Solomon] He was not as wholeheartedly devoted to the LORD his God as his father David had been. Solomon followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Phoenicians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did what was displeasing to the LORD and did not remain loyal to the LORD like his father David …  I am about to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hands … For they have forsaken Me; they have worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Phoenicians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites; they have not walked in My ways, or done what is pleasing to Me, or kept My laws and rules, as his father David did.

1 Kings 15:3 [Abijam] He continued in all the sins that his father before him had committed; he was not wholehearted with the LORD his God, like his father David.

2 Kings 14:3-4  [Amaziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, but not like his ancestor David; he did just as his father Joash had done.  However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Kings 16:2-4 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was pleasing to the LORD his God, as his ancestor David had done, but followed the ways of the kings of Israel. He even consigned his son to the fire, in the abhorrent fashion of the nations which the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites. He sacrificed and made offerings at the shrines, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.

2 Chronicles 28:1-4 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was pleasing to the LORD as his father David had done, but followed the ways of the kings of Israel; he even made molten images for the Baals. He made offerings in the Valley of Ben-hinnom and burned his sons in fire, in the abhorrent fashion of the nations which the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites. He sacrificed and made offerings at the shrines, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.

There appears to be a consistent theme here which determines whether or not a king was commended for being like David, and that is how they dealt with shrines and the worship of other gods. So a king could be commended for doing what was right in the sight of the LORD, yet if they tolerated shrines and sacrifices to other gods they missed out on the added commendation of being like David. This may very well provide a clue for why David was chosen and Saul was ultimately rejected, for while Saul was initially chosen by God, was the LORD’s anointed, had a heart for God, sacrificed regularly and ‘religiously’ and was in many ways a good king, and while his son Jonathan was potentially a good successor, the dynasty of Saul was rejected in favour of David’s. Subsequent kings were judged on whether or not they rid the land of shrines (possibly even including shrines to YHVH in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem) and their tolerance of worship of other gods.

While David was guilty of very serious breaches of the commandments (adultery and murder) according to 1 Kings 15:5 he did “what was pleasing to the LORD and never turned throughout his life from all that He had commanded him, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite”. Whatever David did that was right it was able to “cover a multitude of sins” (to use the words of one New Testament writer in a different context) and to enable God to overlook some very serious wrongs. Were subsequent kings judged by a similar standard? Is it possible that in the final summation of their reigns they were judged solely on the twin criteria of how well they preserved the Jerusalem Temple as the place of central worship, and whether or not they rid the land of other shrines?

David, and God’s heart (2)

In a previous post about 1 Samuel 13:14 I suggested that the Hebrew כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” rather than “after his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart [or, will]” meaning simply that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God rather than being a comment about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.

Acts 13:22 records a speech by Paul  where he cites this text in 1 Samuel: ‘When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, “I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.”‘ (Εὗρον Δαβὶδ τὸν τοῦ Ἰεσσαί ἄνδρα κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν μου ὃς ποιήσει πάντα τὰ θελήματά μου). It has been suggested to me that Paul’s citation raises several interesting issues, the most obvious being that Paul is not actually quoting Scripture, or at least no Scripture that we know. These words do not appear anywhere either in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. They seem to be a conflation (or mix) of three different biblical texts:

  • Psalm 88:20 “I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him” (Septuagint: Εὗρον Δαυιδ τον δουλον μου εν ελαιω αγιω μου εχρισα αυτον. The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is Εὗρον Δαβὶδ)
  • 1 Samuel 13:14 “The LORD sought a man according to his own heart” (Septuagint: και ζητησει κυριος εαυτω ανθρωπον κατα την καρδιαν αυτου. The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is ἄνδρα κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν μου)
  • Isaiah 44:28 “[The LORD] says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose‘”. (Septuagint: ο λεγων κυρω φρονειν και παντα τα θεληματα μου ποιησει.  The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is  ὃς ποιήσει πάντα τὰ θελήματά μου)

The words in blue are those loosely quoted by Paul. The first two texts are about David, and the third is about Cyrus, a Persian king. Paul does not quote any of the texts precisely but appears to loosely select words from all three and then blend them together to create a sentence which does not appear anywhere else in the Bible as we have it.

So is Paul misquoting Scripture? It is highly unlikely that Paul had ready access to written copies of the Scriptures while travelling. We don’t know what scrolls the synagogue in Antioch may have had or what access Paul had to them, but we can be certain that Paul did not have the three different scrolls containing 1 Samuel, Psalms and Isaiah in front of him and he wasn’t able to turn up the pages of a Bible like we can. He was undoubtedly quoting from memory so it is not unexpected that his quotations were imprecise.

It would not be unreasonable, or unusual, in a homily to combine two or more different texts on the same subject. In fact, Hillel’s fourth rule of interpretation is known as בנין כתובים משנ אב ‘constructing a leading rule from two passages’. There are several examples of this rule being followed in New Testament texts. For example, Paul argued elsewhere by quoting two texts from the Pentateuch that Christian ministers should be supported financially: ‘For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” … Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:9,13-14 quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 and Deuteronomy 18:1-8). New Testament citations of the Hebrew Bible often follow exegetical methods which are similar to the rabbinic use of Scripture. However, in Acts 13:22 Paul seems to go beyond the rabbinic ‘rules’ for interpreting Scripture by adding a third text about Cyrus and applying it to David. The New Testament writers use Scripture in a similar way elsewhere. For example, Matthew quotes a text about Israel coming out of Egypt and applies it to the family of Jesus who were refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1 ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’). This raises some interesting questions about quotations of the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament which are worth further exploration.

Was David “a man after God’s own heart”?

I’ve frequently heard it said that, according to the Bible, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” and that despite his serious moral failures (adultery and murder among them) his heart was, after all was said and done, “in the right place” and this somehow compensated for his major faults. But is it actually true? Does the Bible really say that David was “a man after God’s own heart”?

The text that is quoted in support of this claim is Samuel’s words to King Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14 “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” The story goes on to tell us how David was the man who was chosen to replace Saul as King of Israel, so it’s perfectly natural to read this as meaning David was “a man after [God’s] own heart”.

But the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English:

בִּקֵּשׁ יְהוָה לֹו אִישׁ כִּלְבָבֹו

The word כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to) and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.[1]

In Hebrew the “heart” is what we would call the “mind” – the seat of thought and intelligence. In other words “according to your heart” means “according to your mind, or will” and “according to God’s own heart” means God has sought out someone in accordance with his mind, or someone chosen by his own free choice.

Interestingly, a similar expression occurs in the Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar where the king refers to himself as “I his eldest son, the chosen of his heart” (column 5, lines 21, 22).

So the point of 1 Samuel 13:14 is that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God, by his own free choice, and it says nothing about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.

________________________

[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.

Who laid the earth’s foundation? Quoting Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews opens with a series of quotations from the Hebrew Bible in support of the proposition that the Son of God is superior to the angels. The series ends with a quotation from Psalm 102, which appears to suggest that the world was created by the Son:

10 “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.” (ESV)

However, Hebrews appears to give this Psalm a different meaning to that which it had in its original context. This is not unusual of course. The New Testament writers often took texts from the Hebrew Bible and reinterpreted them in new contexts. We need to be cautious about taking the ‘new’ meaning attached to the words by the New Testament writers and reading it back into the earlier text, as though that was the intended meaning of the original author.

With that caveat I would like to look at the way Hebrews quotes Psalm 102. Understanding the Chiasm in Hebrews 1  might help to understand the purpose in quoting Psalm 102. I think the structure of the argument provides a clue as to what the writer meant. He quotes seven texts from the Hebrew Bible (mostly Psalms) about the superiority of the Son to the angels, and presents them in a chiastic structure (chiasm is common throughout Hebrews). The chiasm follows the pattern A, B, C, D, C1, B1, A1:

A. To which of the angels did God ever say “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”. Psalm 2:7

B. “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” 2 Sam 7:14

C. “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Psalm 97:7 (“worship him, all you אלהים elohim” [or possibly Deut 32:43 LXX and DSS])

D. “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” Psalm 104:4

C1. “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Psalm 45:6

B1. “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will roll them up like a robe;

like a garment they will be changed.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.” Psalm 102:25-27

A1. To which of the angels did God ever say “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”. Psalm 110:1

The first clue to this being chiastic is in the recurrence of the words “to which of the angels did God ever say” in introducing the first and last of the seven texts, forming an inclusio. D is the central or climactic text and is consequently the only one to receive a commentary at the end (v. 14).

The other thing we should notice is that these quotations are mostly from Messianic Psalms. Psalm 2 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”) is actually about the enthronement of the King/Messiah in Zion, not his birth. It is followed by a reference to the promise to David about the Messiah-King who will sit on his throne (“I will be his father and he will be my son.”) Psalm 45 is also about the King-Messiah (“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever …) as is Psalm 110 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”). Psalm 97 is also arguably Messianic (e.g. the reference to the “lord [אדון adon a term referring to a human leader as distinct from אדוני adonai which is a term reserved for God] of all the earth” [v.4] whom the angels are called to worship).

There is a clear pattern here in the use of Messianic texts about the King enthroned in his glory. The exception is the central text about the angels (“He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire” OR “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants”). As the commentary in verse 14 shows, this text is placed in the centre of the chiasm to highlight the inferiority of the angels to the Son and their subordinate position.

So where does Psalm 102 fit in with this structure? It is another Messianic Psalm (e.g. Ps 102:16 says “For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory”; verse 18 says “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD”; the Psalm up to verse 22 is speaking of the restoration of Zion and the Messianic Age) and in my view the mention of the heavens and earth has to be metaphorical within that context. That is consistent with the metaphorical use of these terms in similar texts (especially in Isaiah).

In Heb 2:5 he goes on to say that he has been speaking (in chapter 1) about the age to come.  I think the quote from Psalm 102 is best understood in that context as a reference to the Lord Messiah King in the age to come.

You believe in one God? Good, so do the other gods.

I recently read an interesting article by Dale Martin in the Journal of Biblical Literature which asked the question “When Did Angels Become Demons?” (JBL 129, no. 4 [2010]: 657-677). Martin analysed six different words in the Hebrew Bible which were translated into δαίμων  or δαιμόνιον in the Greek translations (and then into ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ in English). Martin argues that “Ancient Jews used δαιμόνιον to translate five or six different Hebrew words.  In the ancient Near Eastern context, those words referred to different kinds of beings … What they have in common, nonetheless, is that they all were thought of as gods – in fact, as the gods other people falsely worship: the gods of the nations” (662). He analysed other relevant material including 1 Enoch, Jubilees and the Qumran documents and made the point that in these materials “we find no equation of fallen angels with Greek daimons” (670).

Martin commented on Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 (105 in the Hebrew Bible) where the Hebrew שדים shedim (from the same root as shaddai) is translated “demons” in many English versions. The writer noted that ‘in the ancient Near Eastern context, the word sedim is related to the Assyrian sidu, which referred to the great bull statues in front of the Assyrian palaces, sometimes depicted with wings. According to some modern commentators, the word שד originally meant simply “lord” and served as a divine title like “Baal” or “Adonai”. It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding people, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods.’

As an aside, on the connection between shedim and shaddai it’s possible then that when God said to Moses “I was known in the past as אל שדי El Shaddai, but now …” (Exodus 6:3) he was in fact putting an end to the common use of a term for him which could easily be confused with Canaanite gods, and was substituting this for a distinctive name (the tetragrammaton). Poetical books like Job and Psalms (where shaddai occurs again) tend to use archaic language (in the same way that in English archaic terms might be used in poetry but not in conversation), so it’s really not surprising that the writers might employ an archaic name for God like El Shaddai, for no other reason than that it’s “old” and therefore sounds “nice” in poetry. For similar reasons some people tend to use the King James Version because they like the niceness of the archaic language, rather than for its accuracy.

So, coming back to the shedim as ‘demons’, the Greek words occur fairly frequently in the synoptic Gospels and a handful of times in the Fourth Gospel, but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament. There is a small cluster of occurences in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 where Paul argues “that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (ESV). The context is a Paul’s answer to a question about “food offered to idols” and it seems pretty clear that he is using δαιμόνιον in the same way the Septuagint translators did as the equivalent of שדים shedim, that is, as a reference to a pagan god.

This brings me to a really interesting use of the word in James 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (ESV. The NIV has “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”) James quotes the shema – the creed of Israel and the foundation of Jewish monotheism – “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But his next statement is puzzling: “it is good that you believe that, but the demons also believe, and shudder”. Christian commentators sometimes interpret James as meaning that the demoniacs, or demon-possessed, also believe but this doesn’t work for the simple reason that there is a perfectly good word for “demon-possessed” in Greek (δαιμονίζομαι) and Mark and Matthew both use it.

But what if James is using “demon” in the same way that Paul and the Septuagint translators did? His meaning would then be “You believe that there is one God. Good! But even the pagan gods believe that!” In other words James is playing a clever trick with the shema and saying that even the gods of the nations believe the creed of Israel, that there is one god, and therefore doctrinal distinctives are not enough to make believers stand out from the crowd. He introduced this line by saying ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ For James it is not what one believes (faith) that matters but what one does (works) that makes them distinctive.

But doesn’t this make James contradict himself? “You believe that there is one God – even the pagan gods believe that.” Exactly! James is using humour, an ironic twist, to make his point. Much of this letter seems to be commentary or reworking of Jesus’ sermon on the mount so it’s not surprising that James used the same kind of humour which was also typical of many of Jesus’ sayings and stories. However, it would be odd if this was the only use of humour in the book. Indeed, I think we find confirmation of it in a smattering of other places in the letter of James where we find a kind of humorous irony. For example:

  • “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (1:23-24)
  • ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’ (2:15-16)

I might be wrong, but I think it’s worth further exploration.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Canon of Scripture

In today’s Bible History Daily from the Biblical Archaeological Society there is an interesting review of a lecture by Sidnie White Crawford about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The article refers to the roughly 515 manuscripts found at Qumran and Masada and says: “Only one quarter of the religious texts found at Qumran are included in the current Hebrew Bible. Ancient Jews did not see the Bible as a single book; they viewed it as a collection, and the choice to preserve a wider range of religious literature suggests that the Qumran community considered a larger number of books to be sacred.”

The writers of the New Testament also cite or allude to several other books which are not included in our Bible, including: Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (or Wisdom of Ben Sira), 1 Enoch, 1 – 4 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and Bel and the Dragon. Lee McDonald (The Biblical Canon, Peabody, Mass., Henrickson, 2007) has a 13 page appendix of “New Testament Citations of and Allusions to Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings” which lists approximately 550 citations/allusions to this literature. McDonald has sourced and adapted his list from two places which he acknowledged: Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.; ed. B. Aland, K. Aland, J. Karavidopoulos, C.M. Martini, and B.M. Metzger; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 800-806; and C.A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, Appendix Two, 342-409, (Peabody, Mass, Hendrickson: 2005).

4 Ezra 14:44-48 refers to 94 sacred books. “So during the forty days, ninety-four books were written. And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, ‘Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.’ And I did so.”

The 24 books refers to the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, which has only 24 (not 27) books when 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles are counted as three books, not six, as they are in the Jewish canon. That means that in the first century (when 4 Ezra was written) there were another 70 books which the writer(s) regarded as even more valuable.

Boccaccini, Daniel and 1 Enoch

Following on from some discussion with Dustin Smith on an earlier post about angels and princes in Daniel 10, I thought I’d post some ideas by Gabriele Boccaccini which are consistent with my conclusions.

In Roots of Rabbinic Judaism [1] Boccaccini argues for the emergence of three quite distinct Judaisms in post-exilic Judea:  (1) Sapiential Judaism (as evidenced in such works as Proverbs, Job, Jonah, and Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes); (2) Zadokite Judaism, detected in texts including  Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles); and (3) Enochic Judaism (priestly opposition to the Zadokites, embodied in such works as the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch).

In the post-exilic period the so-called Zadokite priesthood, descendants of Zadok the chief priest in the time of King David, took control of the rebuilt temple, established the priesthood as the dominant political force instead of a restored Davidic monarchy, and ruled Judea until shortly before the Maccabean revolt. Enochic Judaism is named after the Book of Enoch, which is really a composite work of five books written, according to a consensus of scholarly opinion, between 300 and 100 BCE, and reflects the theology of a group of disenfranchised priests. Sapiential Judaism was a kind of secular morality, in which the accumulated wisdom of several generations provided an alternative to the covenantal theology of the Zadokite priesthood. Their literature includes works such as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom and Sirach.

Broadly speaking Boccaccini theorises that the Sadducees were descended from the Zadokites, the Essenes and Christianity from the Enochic tradition, and Rabbinic Judaism as we know it from a synthesis of Zadokite and Enochic theology through the Pharisees.

Boccoccini argues that the book of Daniel reveals the emergence of a “third way” between Enochic and Zadokite Judaism and understands that Daniel “opposed the Enochic doctrine of the superhuman origin of evil and strenuously defended the tenets of Zadokite Judaism: the covenant (based on the Mosaic Torah) and the legitimacy of the Second Temple.”[2] There is no place in covenantal theology for a superhuman cause of sin and evil. Instead there is a temple sacrificial system which offers a framework for personal responsibility and accountability for sin, and even in the context of a vision in which some of the “host of heaven” are thrown to the ground (8:10), which sounds Enochic, Daniel is more concerned about the end of the evening and morning temple sacrifices and the desecration of the temple (8:11-14). In his prayer in chapter 9, possibly the climax of a structural chiasm, Daniel focused on Israel’s transgression of the lawof Moses (11-13), the holy city Jerusalem which is called by God’s name (16, 18, 19), the temple (17), and exile and restoration (13-15, 17); all Deuteronomic themes, and central to Zadokite theology. Enochic Judaism did not accept these covenantal theological premises or that history degenerates because of human sin and, based on the Book of the Watchers and the dream vision of 1 Enoch 83-84[3], believed that “the crisis was something deeper than the consequence of human sin”, that the degeneration of history was caused by angelic sin and that the earth is the victim of chaotic forces.[4] Reading Daniel against a background of Enochic theology one could read the conflict between Michael and the princes of Persia and Greece as a continuation of this celestial battle (as J.J. Collins does). However, Boccaccini’s reading of the clash between two (or three including Sapiential Judaism) theological worldviews makes better sense of Daniel 10 in my view.

This is not to discount the contribution of 1 Enoch to our understanding of Daniel. On the contrary, Enoch helps us to understand the divergent theological viewpoints of the time and, whether or not we agree with Boccaccini’s view that there was an alternative Enochic stream within Judaism in that period, to fully understand Daniel we need to understand the Zeitgeist of second century BCE Judea and hence the available literature.


[1] Boccaccini, G., Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.) 2002

[2] Boccaccini, 2002, 206

[3] Especially 84:4 “The angels of your heavens are now committing sin (upon the earth) and your wrath shall rest upon the flesh of the people until (the arrival of) the great day of judgment”.

[4] Boccaccini, 2002, 165, 167

The Lamb of God

The book of Revelation refers to the ‘lamb’ about 30 times.  The use of the lamb as a Messianic term is rare in the New Testament outside Revelation.  Paul referred to “Christ, our Passover” (while “lamb” is not stated it may be implied as he “has been sacrificed”).[1] Peter also used lamb imagery: “you were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect”.[2]  Acts quotes from Isaiah:  “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”[3] The Fourth Gospel has John the Baptist saying of Jesus: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[4] In Christian tradition the lamb is a frequent image for the expiatory work of Christ, drawing on these New Testament references. However, Geza Vermes  has pointed out that the title Lamb of God in John 1 does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He argued that in Galilean Aramaic the word טליא talya literally means “lamb” but had the common meaning of “male child”.[5] Vermes argues that in John it is a term of endearment where “Lamb of God” could have been a colloquial way of saying “Son of God”.[6] טליא can also mean “servant”, so there may be an allusion here to the servant of God in Isaiah 53 who was also a lamb. While Revelation does make use of a “slain lamb” imagery[7] it appears that  “the Lamb” is primarily used as a messianic title, rather than being a metaphorical reference to an atonement victim. For example, chapters 19 and 21 refer to the Lamb’s marriage and to his bride, with no hint of a sacrificial lamb analogy.

What are the origins of this prominent image in Revelation? The three New Testament references outside Revelation to Jesus as a “lamb” (excluding John 1 where it is possibly a term of endearment) suggest a sacrificial meaning although the writers are clearly not drawing on atonement imagery in the Hebrew Bible.[8] The emphasis in these texts is rather of an innocent victim. The Psalms of Solomon also used the lamb image with reference to the innocence of devout people:“God was proven right in his condemnation of the nations of the earth, and the devout of God are like innocent lambs among them” (8:23). From where did the author of Revelation get his lamb imagery, as it is not a popular New Testament term? Was he, like the writer of Acts, drawing his imagery from Isaiah 53? There is a possibility that the imagery came from pseudepigraphal sources, specifically the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and 1 Enoch

The Testament of Joseph has language very similar to Revelation:

“And I saw that a virgin was born from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb. At his left there was something like a lion[9], and all the wild animals rushed against him, but the lamb conquered them, and destroyed them, trampling them underfoot” (19:8). “You, therefore, my children, keep the Lord’s commandments; honour Levi and Judah, because from their seed will arise the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, and will save all the nations, as well as Israel” (19:11).

Charles[10] and Kee[11] argue for a second century BCE dating for the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs[12] and O’Neill argues that “lamb of God” was “a Jewish term before it became Christian”.[13] The honouring of Levi and Judah is a reference to the dyarchic messianic hope which is common in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, but this rules out these texts as Christian interpolations. The Testament of Benjamin also contains the lamb of God motif, however its provenance is less certain (the Armenian text of the Testament does not have the “lamb of God” reference, so this may be a Christian interpolation, although O’Neill argues for the possibility that “the Armenian represents a text earlier than a Christian interpolator had got to work”[14]):

“Through you will be fulfilled the heavenly prophecy concerning the Lamb of God, the Saviour of the world, because the unspotted one will be betrayed by lawless men, and the sinless one will die for impious men by the blood of the covenant for the salvation of the gentiles and of Israel and the destruction of Beliar and his servants” (3:8).

In the dream visions of 1 Enoch there is an extended metaphor known as the “animal apocalypse” (chapters 83-90), which is a depiction of history in which the key biblical characters are depicted as animals. Israel is depicted as sheep and the rulers of the seventy nations as shepherds. The “turning point of history comes when small lambs are born and horns grow upon them … The lamb with the big horn is clearly Judas Maccabee”.[15] In an ensuing battle the sheep are given a sword to kill the wild animals (representing the nations). 1 Enoch 90:8 describes how one of the lambs was killed and Collins takes this as a reference to the murder of the high priest Onias III.[16] While the book of Revelation (and possibly the Fourth Gospel) appears to be drawing its lion and lamb imagery directly from the apocalyptic testaments of Joseph and Benjamin, the use of similar imagery in the Animal Apocalypse to refer to both a militaristic leader (Judas Maccabee) and a slain priest (Onias III) may also have provided inspiration for the use of the lamb image in Revelation for a messiah who is both an innocent victim and a conqueror

The roots of this imagery in Revelation are therefore likely to be in the apocalyptic books of 1 Enoch and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.


[1] 1 Corinthians 5:7

[2] 1 Peter 1:18-19

[3] Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7 Strictly speaking, the reference here is to a  sheep/lamb being led to its shearers or for slaughter, but not necessarily being led to the altar as a sacrificial victim. The metaphor (“like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer“) were both in reference to the sheep/lamb being “silent“, “so he did not open his mouth”. We should not push the metaphor beyond what the writer clearly intended. The sheep/lamb was “before the shearer”, not “before the priest”. The metaphor here is about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.

[4] John 1:29-35

[5] The feminine טליתא talitha, literally “ewe lamb” and figuratively “girl” is found in Mark 5:41.

[6] Vermes, G., The Changing Faces of Jesus, (London: Penguin) 2002, 16

[7] For example Revelation 13:8 has the “… Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world”

[8] Both 1 Corinthians 5:7 and 1 Peter 1:18-19 allude to the Passover lamb.  1 Corinthians refers explicitly to “Christ our Passover, an allusion to freedom from Egyptian slavery which Passover celebrates (and in the context of the 1 Peter reference it is probably freedom from “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers”). The Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement or for the forgiveness of sins. The “slain lamb” metaphor could not be a reference to the Day of Atonement when Israel’s sins were forgiven and blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place, because it was a goat that was slain on the Day of Atonement, not a lamb. For the daily sin offerings bulls and goats were most frequently sacrificed. Hence Hebrews makes the point that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:14). If a lamb was offered it had to be a female lamb (e.g. Lev 4:32; 5:6). Lambs were also offered as burnt offerings, but when they were offered they were distinguished from sin offerings (e.g. Lev 12:6 “a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering”; Num 6:14 when a Nazirite completed his vow he was to bring “a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe [female] lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering …”). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were not for atonement or forgiveness of sins.

[9]O’Neill translates this “and he was at (her) left hand like a lion” (O’Neill, J.C., “The Lamb of God in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 1979 1: 2, 5).

[10] Charles, R.H., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 1913, 289-291

[11]Kee, H.C., “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A New Translation and Introduction” in Charlesworth, J.H. (ed) The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson) 1983, 775-780, 775-780

[12] For a review of the evidence for the dating and reliability of the Testament of Twelve Patriarchs, and an alternative view, see “A Difficult Case: The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”, Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 20 February, 1997. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/otp/abstracts/testoftwelve/ Accessed 27 October, 2012

[13] O’Neill, 1979, 2

[14] O’Neill, 1979, 8

[15]Collins, J.J.  (ed), “The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity”, in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism; v. 1.  (New York: Continuum) 2000, 140

[16] Collins, J.J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Second edition, 1998), 69

Angels and Princes in Daniel 10

In the prologue to the final vision of the book of Daniel (chapters 10-12) Daniel saw “a man clothed in linen”. The “man” in Daniel’s vision is sometimes assumed to be Gabriel (based on Gabriel’s appearance in chapters 8 and 9) but the man is not actually named here. “If Daniel knew it was the Gabriel he had seen earlier, surely he would have named him here” and “we would expect the description to be in chapter 8 when he first appeared to Daniel”.[1] Some elements of Daniel’s encounter with this “man” are puzzling. The man said “the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia”. Who is this “Prince of Persia”? Later there is a reference to the “prince of Greece” (v. 20) and “Michael, your prince” (v. 21) and “Michael the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). The suggestion is often made that these three “princes” are patron-angels. Michael certainly has that role here (“who has charge of your people”) and he is also referred to as one of the seven archangels in 1 Enoch 20:1-8. What we have here in Daniel 10 then may be a conflict between the visionary man and the patron angel of Persia, with the patron angels of Greece and Israel also becoming involved. There are two other texts which may suggest celestial beings may represent or rule nations:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders [Or territories] of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. [Compare Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Israel]. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 ESV).

“Over every nation he set a ruler. But Israel is the portion of God.” (Sirach 17:14-15)

Neither of these texts specifically refer to patron-angels but the “sons of God” in the DSS and LXX readings of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are understood to be angels. The reference in Sirach is to a “ruler” set over each nation, and could only be understood as a reference to angels if the Deuteronomy text is read as a deliberate intertextual link (which is possible considering both texts refer to Israel as the Lord’s/God’s portion).

1 Enoch 10 also has a conflict between angels, with the angel Raphael binding the angel Azazel, the angel Gabriel destroying the children of the Watchers, and the angel Michael  binding the angel Semjaza and his associates. Revelation 12 has a war in heaven with Michael and his angels fighting against Satan. Revelation is almost certainly alluding to 1 Enoch. Do we have a similar celestial conflict here in Daniel 10?

The Hebrew word translated as “prince” throughout Daniel 10 is שַׂר sar a word often translated as “leader” or “commander”. The Hebrew term שַׂר used more than four hundred times in the Old Testament, carries the following meanings: captain, leader (Num.21:18; 1Sam.22:2); vassal, noble, official under a king who functions (a) as a ruler or counsellor (Gen.12:15; 1Kings20:14–17), (b) the sovereign or magistrate of a region (2Chron.32:31), or (c) the ruler of a city (Judg.9:30; Neh.7:2); commander (Gen.21:22,32); head of a group of people, that is, an official  (Neh.4:10; Ps.68:27 [28,Heb.]; Dan.1:7–11,18); one who carries a certain religious responsibility (Ezra 8:24,29; Isa.43:28);or a person in an elevated position (Ps.45:16[17,Heb.]; Isa.23:8). The common denominator in these diverse uses is the concept of “one who commands.”[2]

The Septuagint translates this with a word carrying a similar meaning. “The LXX diverges more markedly from the MT at the references in 10.13, and 20 to ‘the prince of Persia’ … and ‘the prince of Greece’ … [T]he terminology of the LXX translation differs in that these princes of Greece and Persia are seen as … ‘leaders/commanders’ … its referent is almost inevitably to political or military leadership. In Daniel it translates שַׂר in the list of officials in 3.2. It translates שַׂר three other times in the LXX (1 Kgs 29.3-4; 1 Chron. 11.6; 2 Chron. 32.21), and each time the context is secular.”[3] “The choice of vocabulary in the LXX suggests that the Greek translator regarded the Princes of Persia and Greece as human figures, and so interpreted an ambiguous Vorlage in a particular direction.”[4]

It is interesting that “nothing is made of the battle among the princes in the message that follows in chapter 11”.[5] Their appearance in the prologue to the vision is almost incidental. Several scholars, including William Shea, hold that the “prince of Persia” was one of the political authorities in Persia who opposed the reconstruction of the Jewish temple. Shea writes, “If one looks for an earthly human prince of Persia in the 3rd year of Cyrus, there is one specific candidate for that historical position: Cambyses, the son and crown princeof Cyrus… This is the one interpretation which takes cognizance of both (a) the potentiality for interpreting the word ‘prince’ as a human being, and (b) the actual political situation that obtained in the 3rd year of Cyrus. In my opinion, therefore, Calvin was correct in this identification.”[6]

There is a strong case, in my opinion, for Shea’s view that these “princes” are human political or military leaders. The “prince of Persia” would most likely be Cambyses who was a co-regent with Cyrus, making sense of the plural “kings of Persia” (v.13). Daniel 10:1 calls Cyrus the “king of Persia” while Cyrus was apparently known as “King of Babylon” and appears not to have used the title “king of Persia” for himself.[7] The recurrence of the expression in verse 13 in the plural “kings of Persia” is a significant detail and probably refers to the co-regency of Cyrus and Cambyses. While Cambyses is here referred to as “prince of Persia” both Cambyses and Cyrus are designated “kings of Persia”, consistent with the crown prince being a co-regent.

Cambyses’ opposition to national cultic temples is well documented by Shea, and it is significant that the Jerusalem Temple was not rebuilt during his reign. Daniel’s “mourning” occurred during the same twenty one days time-frame that the visionary man “struggled” with the prince of Persia, and may very well have been due to Daniel’s knowledge of some local political event (perhaps a delegation from opponents to the temple rebuilding in Jerusalem). It is possible then that the matter which concerned Daniel was the same matter that occupied the angel.

If this interpretation is correct then Daniel 10 has nothing to do with celestial battles between the patron angels of nations, and has no relevance for understanding the wars in heaven in 1 Enoch 10 and Revelation 12.


[1] Gowan, D.E., Daniel, (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001, 143

[2] Stevens, D. E., “Daniel 10 and the Notion of Territorial Spirits,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157: 628 (2000): 410-431, 413, citing Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Leiden: Brill) 1995, 1350-53

[3] Meadowcroft, T. J., Aramaic Daniel and Greek Daniel: A Literary Comparison, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press) 1995, 253

[4] Meadowcroft, 254

[5] Gowan, 2001, 144

[6] Shea, W. H., “Wrestling with the Prince of Persia: A Study on Daniel 10,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 21 (1983), 249. The reference to Calvin is to John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Daniel (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 2:252

[7] Collins, J.J., Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 1993, 372

Jonah – parody of a prophet (6)

The Prophet Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Conclusion

The cluster of unusual features which I’ve mentioned in previous posts suggests that what we have is a clever story which is not meant to be taken literally or even too seriously. The message of the Book of Jonah may be a serious one, but the intended message is not the folk-tale itself but the underlying point the writer is making in his comical portrayal of the prophet. It is almost certain that the story contains humour, irony, satire and parody. But would it be reasonable to categorise the whole book as satire or parody?

Some scholars lean toward a classification of the book of Jonah as satire [1]. Marcus identifies the characteristics of satire and states that ‘a text may be identified as a satire if it has a target which is the object of attack, either directly or indirectly, and has a preponderance of the essential attributes of satire’, including a mixture of unbelievable elements, ironies, ridicule, parody, and rhetorical features. [2] He argues that these elements must not simply be present in the text, but must dominate it and constitute the essence of the work. In the book of Jonah the prophet is made to appear ridiculous insofar as he acts in ways which are contrary to those expected of a prophet. For example, Jonah is told to rise up and preach but flees in disobedience to the commandment of God to go to Nineveh, beginning a series of descents [3]; during the storm Jonah sleeps while the pagan sailors acknowledge the God of Israel; and he is upset over the repentance of the Ninevites which spares the city from destruction, but grieves for the demise of a plant. Nogalski concludes from this behaviour that ‘The portrayal of Jonah deliberately inverts the typical expected obedience of a prophet.’ [4] Feinberg emphasises the hyperbolic quality of satire and notes that satire is a ‘playfully critical distortion of the familiar’ [5] Frye argues that there are two essentials to satire: first, that the wit and humour are founded on fantasy or on a sense of the grotesque or absurd; and second, that there is an object of the attack [6]. I have demonstrated in earlier posts how Jonah meets these criteria.

For the book of Jonah to function as parody it would need to mimic the style of another writer or genre, in a humorous or satirical way. Hamel has suggested that due to the similarities with the Jason and the Argonauts Greek legend that an element of mockery of the Greeks is part of the Jonah story and reflects Jewish resistance to, and fascination with, Hellenistic culture.[7] He argues that:

Phonetically as well as mythopoetically, it appears that the author of the book of Jonah is playing with a variant or variants of Jason’s adventures as told in Greek and other languages, selecting some of its motifs or sounds and refashioning them for altogether different purposes, all the while with a view to entertain. The author has manipulated a myth, which had become alien and reelaborated parts of it in order to reflect on and reinforce his own cultural values. [8]

The similarities with the Jason legend, while impressive, are probably insufficient to conclude that the book of Jonah is mimicking the genre of Greek epic literature. Nor do the Greeks appear to be the primary target. The suggestion that the book of Jonah is a parody relies on the existence of the other Biblical prophetic books and the prophets which it mimics.

We also need to determine what purpose satire or parody would achieve in this context, and identify the target of the parody. There are several possible targets. Jonah is portrayed as weak, hypocritical, and a kind of anti-hero. Possibly, as Marcus notes, beneath these satires ‘there lies the unspoken wish of what the proper behavior [of a prophet] should be’[9]. Perhaps then the book is an anti-prophetic satire aimed at prophets in general; but what role would such a parody play as part of The Book of the Twelve? Alternatively, the narrator may be targeting his Jewish readers and their exclusivist attitudes [10], perhaps as a polemic against the exclusivism of Ezra and Nehemiah[11]. Allen prefers the view that the book of Jonah may have been authored by the wisdom teachers ‘who challenged self-righteous Israel with the devastating book of Job’ and similarly perhaps ‘produced the little book of Jonah as another shock for a self-centred community’[12]. Another possibility is that the book of Jonah parodies the prophet in an effort to raise questions about the rival claims of justice and mercy and Israel’s relationship to God.

The prophet seems to be trapped in a dilemma which goes to the core of Israel’s basic tenets of faith. Jonah is caught between two extreme ideas: God’s justice and anger in response to Israel’s failures; and, God’s infinite patience and compassion. This dilemma is one of the themes of Jonah’s literary context as part of The Book of the Twelve. Commenting on this dilemma Watts writes: ‘The Twelve struggles with whether God has changed. Joel 2:12-14 and Jonah 4:2 cite Exodus 34:6 (see also Deut 7:9). This is the basic dogma being tested.’[13] It is noteworthy that Nahum also quotes Exodus 34:6 and is the only other book in The Twelve to mention Nineveh. Nahum’s quotation emphasises the justice and severity of God; Jonah emphasises his mercy and compassion. Both Books allude in significantly different ways to the self-revelation of God’s attributes in Exodus 34:  Jonah extracts from the Exodus text those characteristics of God which best fit his theme of a merciful and relenting God: ‘you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (4:2); by contrast, Nahum draws different characteristics of God from the Exodus text: ‘a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty’ (1:2-3). The way the two Books deal with this Exodus text highlights what appears to be a deliberate contrast in the collection of The Twelve. ‘Nahum and Jonah are like two sides of a coin when read together … like two parts of a broken pot that are only whole when they are brought together … Together they explore the nature of God’s mercy and vengeance, and how they relate to each other.’[14]

In my view, the book of Jonah is possibly one of the best examples of humour and comic in the Hebrew Bible, containing a cluster of elements including irony, satire, surrealism, and parody. While parodying Hellenistic legends, or at least drawing on this genre for inspiration, the primary target of the book is either the hypocrisy of some prophets, or, more likely, the self-centred and exclusivist theology of the post-exilic period.


[1] Including Holbert [Holbert, J.,  “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!”: Satire in the Book of Jonah, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81] and Marcus [Marcus, D., “From Balaam to Jonah – Anti-prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible” Brown Judaic Studies 301  (Atlanta: Scholars Press) 1995].

[2] Marcus (1995) 9

[3] Jonah first ‘went down (ירד) to Joppa’ (1:3), then we find he ‘had gone down (ירד) into the hold of the vessel’ (1:5), and eventually he ‘sank (ירד) to the base of the mountains’ (2:6).

[4] Nogalski, J., Redactional Processes in the Book of the Twelve (New York: Walter de Gruyter) 1993, 263

[5] L. Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames: Iowa State University Press) 1967, cited in Holbert (1981) 61

[6] N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1967, 224, cited in Holbert (1981) 60

[7] Hamel (1995) 10

[8] Hamel (1995) 7

[9] Marcus (1995 ) 170

[10] Redditt, P., Introduction to the Prophets (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans) 2008, 262 ‘The narrator satirizes his hero to expose the moral failure of his readers, who themselves held exclusivist sentiments’.

[11] Simundsen [Simundson, D. J., Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2005 pp253-262, 260] and Allen (1976) 188 both mention the anti-Ezra/Nehemiah interpretation but say it has fallen into disfavour.

[12] Allen (1976) 191

[13] Watts J. D. W., “A Frame for the Book of the Twelve: Hosea 1-3 and Malachi” in James D. Nogalski and Marvin A. Sweeney (eds) Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature) 2000 pp 209-218) 214

[14] Young, I., The Alan Crown lecture: “What Use is Nahum?” 17 May 2011, Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney (not published).

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (5)

Jonah – the most successful prophet

There is a comic element to our prophet: he has an inflated perception of his own abilities as a prophet. Jonah fled to Tarshish because he ‘knew’ that that the LORD would ‘repent’ or ‘relent’ of his intention to destroy Nineveh if the people of the city turned from their evil. In effect, Jonah was convinced that his prophetic message would result in sufficient numbers of people repenting that God would change his mind, even though no other prophet in Israel’s history had been so successful. Perhaps that is why he ventured only one day’s journey into a city three days journey in breadth[1]:  he was so confident of his prophetic skills that even a half-hearted effort would be enough to get a result. Then the king repents, and commands a massive reformation, even though he hears only a second-hand account of Jonah’s message. Jonah’s five words of preaching, delivered half-heartedly and reaching their destination indirectly, are the catalyst for a national conversion on a previously unheard of scale; even the cattle repent. In five words Jonah did what Isaiah and Jeremiah never did. This is Biblical comedy at its best.

What was it in Jonah’s five-word prophecy that prompted such a response? There was no ‘thus says the LORD; no call for repentance; no offer of hope; and no reason is given for their impending destruction. This was described by one writer as ‘the most startlingly effective human communication in the whole Bible. [2] Jonah’s five words led to what is virtually a model repentance by everyone in Nineveh without exception. Even the cattle fast and put on sackcloth, in what is possibly the most surreal line in the book.[3] The unrealistic description of animals repenting, integrated into the unrealistic account of the Ninevites’ repentance, further alerts us to the presence of humour or parody in the story. A further reference to the animals in Nineveh at the end of the book (‘And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ 4:11) makes best sense if it is understood as a jocular allusion to the earlier ‘repentance’ of the cattle. If the (sinful) cattle of Nineveh can ‘repent’ then why shouldn’t God take pity on them? In what may be another interesting word play the ship in which Jonah was fleeing from the LORD ‘thought it was going to founder’ (the literal rendering of the Hebrew[4]  חשבה להשבר). It seems that repenting animals and thinking ships are part of the plot to ridicule the prophet.


[1] We are meant to take note of the juxtaposition:

‘Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city,

three days’ journey in breadth.

Jonah began to go into the city,

going a day’s journey.’ (3:3-4)

[2] Moberly, R. W. L. “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 156-168,  156

[3]Miles, who reads the Jonah story as a parody, understands by this that ‘the Ninevites, dressing their animals in sackcloth and forcing them to fast, have been foolish in their repentance.’ [Miles, J.A., “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody” in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan. 1975), pp 168-181 (University of Pennsylvania Press) 180]. There could also be a double entendre with an implication that the Ninevites had engaged in bestiality and the animals were therefore involved in the Ninevites’ sin and needed to repent.

[4] Shemesh, Y., “And many Beasts (Jonah 4:11): The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah” in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Vol. 10 Article 6 2012, 14n. Another scholar who has noted the personification of the ship is Holbert  who puns on the ‘thinking ship’. (Holbert, J.,  “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!”: Satire in the Book of Jonah, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81, 65)


Jonah – parody of a prophet? (4)

Jonah and Jason

I mentioned earlier that word play is common in the Book of Jonah, and gave an example from the opening verses where Jonah is commissioned to “rise” and go to Nineveh, but instead he “rises” and goes to Tarshish. A series of descents then commence: Jonah first ‘went down (ירד) to Joppa’ (1:3), then we find he ‘had gone down (ירד) into the hold of the vessel’ (1:5), and eventually he ‘sank (ירד) to the base of the mountains’ (2:6).

There appears to be further word play on Jonah’s name, which means ‘dove’. There is an irony here as the prophet turns out to be ‘flighty’. Gildas Hamel has also pointed out the similarities between Ionas, the Greek form of the Hebrew name יונה Yonah, and Iason the Greek form of Jason[1], and suggested, due to the preponderance of similarities between the Jonah story and the Jason myth, that the author of Jonah plays with one of the variants of the story of Jason.[2]  The Jason motif occurs in the Mediterranean region from as early as the eighth century BCE and was widespread in literature by the fifth century BCE. Hamel lists several parallel motifs in both stories: ‘the names of the heroes, the presence of a dove, the idea of ‘fleeing’ like the wind and causing a storm, the attitude of the sailors, the presence of a sea-monster or dragon threatening the hero or swallowing him, and the form and meaning of the difficult word kikayon.’[3]. The Hebrew word kikayon קיקיון is a famous hapax legomenon in Jonah 4:6ff referring to a fast-growing plant, which later tradition identifies with a type of gourd or ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. This word sounds very much like the kukeon or kukaon in the Jason legend, a brew made of medicinal and dangerous plants, prepared by Medea. The similarity in names could be the result of the plant species in the Jonah story being one of the principal pharmacological plants used in the brew in the Jason story, or a deliberate allusion by the author of Jonah to the Jason story. Jonah goes to sleep under his קיקיון; Medea uses the kukeon  brew to put the serpent or dragon to sleep.   Jonah’s plant also purges him of his anger, in a possible play on the emetic effects of the ricinus plant. If so, it also creates an interesting parallel with the fish ‘vomiting’ Jonah. In one version of the Jason story the hero is vomited out of the mouth of a sea monster.[4]

‘The creator of Jonah appears to be playing in a very conscious manner with some of the elements and motifs of the Greek story, inverting some, laminating others, or fusing them with Hebrew themes on the basis of linguistic or structural similarities’.[5]


[1] Hamel. G., “Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean Context” in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought  44. 3 (Summer 1995): 341. Hamel argues that metathesis was common in ancient Greek tradition. The name Iason (Jason) itself was also a metathesis of his own father’s name, Aison.  He further notes other word similarities between the two stories:  ‘Nineveh and Yavan sound similar, as do Yonah the “dove,” Yoniyah the ship, and Ionia the region. Phonetically as well as mythopoetically, it appears that the author of the book of Jonah is playing with a variant or variants of Jason’s adventures as told in Greek and other languages, selecting some of its motifs or sounds and refashioning them for altogether different purposes, all the while with a view to entertain.’ (7)

[2] Hamel (1995) 1.

[3] Hamel (1995) 3

[4] Hamel (1995) 5

[5] Hamel (1995) 6

Paleo-Hebrew inscription of Jonah and the fish

Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary has just announced a rather startling observation regarding an inscription on an ossuary discovered in Jerusalem that appears to be a stick figure of a man and a fish. Charlesworth argues that the stick figure contains four letters in paleo-Hebrew that spell out the name YONAH (Jonah) —Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh.

If Prof. Charlesworth is right, then the ossuary depicts Jonah being vomited out of the mouth of the fish. “Most likely,” says Charlesworth, “we may comprehend the inscription as reading ‘Jonah.’ And I have no doubt it is a fish.”

James Tabor has posted photographs on his blog, which highlight the possible Hebrew characters.

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (3)

There are several features which help us to identify humour in Biblical texts. One of these features alone may not be sufficient to enable us to positively identify humour, but when they appear in clusters we can be confident that something is going on and the text should not be read as straight narrative or taken too seriously. The Book of Jonah, in my view, contains such clusters and I’d like to explore some of these identifying features.

Wordplays are common enough in Biblical Hebrew, but in Jonah they seem to be making some deliberate contrasts between what we might expect of a typical prophet and what we actually find in the prophet Jonah. We come across the first of many wordplays in the opening lines:

1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise (קוּם qum), go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evilhas come up before me.” But Jonah rose (וַיָּקָם same root – qum) to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Then there is something not right about our key character. Right from the start we see that something is wrong: prophets are meant to be the servants of God. The Deuteronomic history refers to “my servants the prophets” and in 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah is specifically mentioned as “his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet”. We frequently find prophets raising objections to their calling, from Moses on (“I cannot speak”; “I am too young”, etc), but Jonah does more than object – he hears the imperative to “rise” and rises to go in the opposite direction!

Prophets are the LORD’s spokespeople. That’s what prophets do: they speak. The Hebrew word for “prophet” is נָבִיא navi from a root (נָבָא nava) which literally means “to cause to bubble up, hence to pour forth words abundantly”. But Jonah does precious little speaking. In fact, there are only five words (in Hebrew) of prophecy (עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת׃): “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In this story the prophet has to be pressed into speaking! When God speaks to him he says nothing. When the storms begins he says nothing. When the sailors cry out to their gods Jonah says nothing. When the captain of the ship tells Jonah he should cry out to his god Jonah is again silent. Then the sailors cast lots to determine on whose account this misfortune has happened and when the lot falls to Jonah they demand of him to tell them who he is and why this misfortune has come. At last Jonah speaks! He is a reluctant prophet indeed, hardly one whose words bubble up and pour out in abundance.

There is an interesting chiasmus in the words of the prophet throughout the book. The prophet speaks seven times:

A. I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. (1:9)

B. Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you. (1:12)

C. Jonah prayed to the LORD … you brought up my life from the pit … When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord … (2:2ff)

D. Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (3:4)

C. And he prayed to the LORD … please take my life from me …  (4:2-3)

B. It is better for me to die than to live. (4:8)

A. Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die. (4:9)

The central climax is the five-words prophecy. On either side of it Jonah prays, although the two prayers are remarkably different: the first is a psalm of thansgiving for his life which has been spared, and the second is a complaint, asking that God would take his life. The second and second-last sayings relate to Jonah dying: the first time he says his death would enable the sailors to live and his death would be better for them; and the second time he complains that he would rather die because the Ninevites now live, and his death would be better for him! The first and last statements also stand in stark contrast. In the first he fears God; in the last he is angry with God. The first words of this prophet are fine, but his final words are the antithesis of what we would expect from a man of God.

The third feature in this cluster is surrealism. Several things don’t ring true, most notably the stories of the fish and the gourd, but also the description of the breadth of Nineveh as “three days journey” (Nineveh was, in fact, only 5kms in diameter). Then there is the dramatic and unrealistic response to Jonah’s preaching and the conversion of the Ninevites. What was it in Jonah’s five-words prophecy that prompted such a response? There was no “thus says the LORD”; no call for repentence; no offer of hope; and no reason is given for their impending destruction. This was described by one writer as “the most startlingly effective human communication in the whole Bible” [1].  Jonah’s five words led to what is  virtually a model repentance by everyone in Nineveh without exception. Even the cattle fast and put on sackcloth!

This cluster of unusual features suggests to me that what we have is a clever story which is not meant to be taken literally or even too seriously. The message of the Book of Jonah is a serious one, but the intended message is not the folk-tale itself but the underlying point the writer is making in his comical portrayal of the prophet. More about that to come.

[1] R. W. L. Moberly “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 156-168, p. 156

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (2)

The prophet Jonah being thrown into the sea, from the catacomb of Priscilla.

The prayer, or psalm, of Jonah in chapter 2 contains some hints that the writer was attempting to clearly identify Jonah as a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel.

In verse 4 Jonah prayed “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Later, in verse 7, he said “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” This second reference to “your holy temple” makes it clear that Jonah was thinking of heaven rather than the temple in Jerusalem. He goes on to pray “But with the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you” (וַאֲנִי בְּקֹול תֹּודָה אֶזְבְּחָה־לָּךְ). The text uses the verb for slaughtering animal sacrifices (זָבַח), but it seems to me to be ambiguous about whether  the  “voice of thanksgiving” accompanies the sacrifice or is a substitute for it. If it is a substitute then this is a direct rejection of animal sacrifice, and therefore the temple cult, with a substitution of ‘thanksgiving’ as an acceptable sacrifice. We might expect to find such comments on the lips of a northern prophet, or from the pen of a writer who wanted to make his character sound like a northerner.

Having said that, I should also point out that Hosea, a contemporary of Jonah’s in the southern kingdom of Judah, said that God desires “steadfast love and not sacrifice (זֶבַח), the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Amos, another contemporary southern prophet also spoke sarcastically of “a [sacrifice of] thanksgiving of that which is leavened” (וְקַטֵּר מֵֽחָמֵץ תֹּודָה Amos 4:5 – this text does not include the word זֶבַח = sacrifice) in a prophecy addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel.

There are two issues here:

  1. Is there a common theme here in Jonah, Hosea and Amos which reflects changing attitudes to the temple sacrifices? To answer this we should also look at the influences which shaped the post-exilic compilation of “The Book of The Twelve”.
  2. Is the writer of the Book of Jonah intentionally portraying Jonah as a northern prophet who has rejected the temple cult? The association of Jonah with Jereboam II in 2 Kings 14 is interesting and relevant. Is Jonah being portrayed positively or negatively?

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (1)

I have an interest in Biblical humour which began by exploring Jesus’ frequent use of humour. I went on to look at whether Jesus use of humour  was typical or atypical of teachers of his time, and I am now investigating whether this first century Jewish humour of Jesus had its roots in the Hebrew Bible. Because my mind is open to the idea that the Bible contains humour I may see humour where it wasn’t intended. My comments in earlier posts about humour in the Book of Job led one friendly critic to say “well, it must be black humour then!” I suggested in a post on Job that the Book may in fact be a parody of Deuteronomistic theology, bearing in mind that parody is a form of humour.

This leads me to look at the unusual prophet Jonah, and I’d like to explore the possibility that this little Book may be a parody of a prophet.

It is reasonable to assume that the prophet in the Book of Jonah is the same “Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet” who is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23-27 as prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) in Israel. His message there was one of comfort and hope for Israel “for the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel”.  Jeroboam II is said to have “restored the border of Israel … according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah.” Nothing is said in this text about Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, nor is there any mention in the Book of Jonah of his message concerning Jeroboam’s military campaigns. The Deuteronomistic History specifically named Nineveh as the home city of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (705-681 BCE) who came against Judah during the reign of Hezekiah: “Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh” (2 Kings 19:36). The Assyrian Empire destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Significantly however, during the reign of Jeroboam II Nineveh was relatively weak and posed no immediate threat to Israel. The message of the Book of Jonah, in that setting, is anachronistic.

Rolf Rendtorff has observed that “Jonah does not portray Nineveh as a real political power. Nineveh is not seen primarily as a danger for Israel but as the prime example of a Gentile city that is sinful thus deserving divine judgment.”[1]

… to be continued

[1] Rendtorff, R., “How to Read the Book of the Twelve as a Theological Unity” in Nogalski, J., and Sweeney, M., (eds) Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature) 2000, 75-87, p83.

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.

Satan in the New Testament (3): The Devil and his angels

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  (Matthew 25:41 ESV )

This verse could mean:

(a) “… the eternal fire which has been prepared to receive the devil and his angels”; or

(b) “… the eternal fire which has been prepared for use by the devil and his angels”

H.A Kelly  comments on this verse: “This means either that Devil and his angels are destined to be punished for their own bad deeds, or that they are to be the punishers of the bad deeds of human”. He says the idea of Satan being in charge of eschatological punishment is deducible from a passage in Enoch 53:2-5 where the angels of plague are preparing the chains of Satan “for the Kings and Potentates of this earth in order that they may be destroyed thereby”.

There is a similar statement by Jesus elsewhere in the same Gospel that angels are involved in the work of judgment [2]. In the parable of the ‘tares’ (Matt 13:39-49) the angels have a role not described elsewhere: “The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. … The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers … So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous .” We should note of course that in this story they are “his angels” i.e. the Son of Man’s. A striking similarity is the fact that in this parable the angels cast the tares into “a furnace of fire”.

The expression “the devil and his angels” implies that these angels are in submission to the devil. It is clear from other Scriptures that the devil is in submission to God, and needs God’s permission in order to test the faithful. If the devil exercises the function of God’s Tester, a kind of heavenly Prosecutor, then the angels in submission to him could be described as both “his angels” and as the Son of Man’s angels. Could Matthew 25:41 then mean that the devil and the angels under his control are given the job of disposing of those rejected at the Judgment?

 

[1] Kelly, H.A., Satan: A Biography (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 92

[2] Matthew records several of Jesus’ sayings about the Son of man coming with the angels (16:27; 24:31; 25:31).

I know that my Redeemer lives

Job 19:25-26 are some of the best known words from the Book of Job, having been popularised by Handel’s Messiah

25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  (ESV)

It is usual for Christians to read this as prophetic words by Job, referring to his future resurrection, to interpret “redeemer” as a reference to the Messiah, Jesus, and to see this as Job’s vindication at last in the Final Judgment.

The Hebrew word translated “redeemer” is גאל go’el and is used most frequently in Isaiah (24 times) with reference to the God of Israel. So it appears on the surface that Job is expressing his confidence in God and his assurance of eternal salvation. The word is translated in various ways, including “my Avenger” (Leslie Wilson), and “my vindicator” (JPS and Marvin Pope). Some scholars see the words “engraved in rock” in the previous two verses to be a permanent and continuing vindication of Job, and hence his go’el. Some see The Vindicator as a sort of counterpart to The Prosecutor (ha-satan) who accused Job in the Prologue, Job’s Defence Counsel.  If so, his identity is unknown.

It is possible that there are two forensic terms here: גאל go’el and אחרון akharon (translated “at the last” in the ESV). Both terms appear in parallel in Isaiah 44:6 and Marvin Pope notes the Talmudic and Mishnaic usage of the related term אחראי in the sense of ‘guarantor’ [1].  אחרון acharon literally means “the last (one)” and in a forensic sense refers to a guarantor, the last resort for payment. Many commentators, however, read this as an eschatalogical reference to “the last days” (although “days” is unstated) and hence interpret this as an after-death resurrection experience. It could just as easily mean “at the end” or “at last”(in the sense of “eventually”).

Robert Sutherland [2] also understands the Hebrew word קום qum (“he will stand” ESV) as ‘a legal term meaning “to stand up in court” as an “advocate”.’ If he is correct then this reinforces the forensic nature of the text. In fact, as Norman Habel has rightly pointed out, the whole of the Book of Job is “a legal metaphor”. The idea of a lawsuit against God was first mooted in Job’s second speech in the second cycle, and here he continues the theme by expressing his desire that a Vindicator or Advocate will eventually stand up to argue his case. This fits with his previous longing for an advocate (Job 9:33; 16:19). Sutherland argues that this Advocate is none other than God himself and sees no difficulty in God being the Judge, the Advocate and the Defendant all at once. “Job’s complaint has become an appeal to God, through God and against God” [3]. I personally don’t find Sutherland’s argument here convincing. To me this text reads more naturally as Job saying “I am confident that eventually someone will stand up and speak in my defence and vindicate me [my Vindicator and Guarantor], and that I will have my day in court.” Interestingly, Job’s vindication happens, unexpectedly, at the end of the book, but without the appearance of an Advocate.

I personally don’t see any evidence here that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death, especially as he later refers to the terrors and finality of death (23:14-17; 26:6; 30:23). The Hebrew Bible has very little to say about the afterlife and Psalm 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:27-28; Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 are probably the only texts which refer with any certainty to an afterlife. In the context, it would be odd if Job was here putting his hope in vindication in an afterlife. As P.S. Johnston has rightly pointed out [4]:

‘Job still continues his legal argument after chapter 19: he wants to find God, present his case, be acquitted, be tested and emerge like gold (Job 23:3-10). His defiant summation still longs for fair judgment and a divine hearing (Job 31:6, 35). What Job “knows” in Job 19:25 affects neither this subsequent argumentation nor the closing chapters of the book …’

Some commentators argue that the words “after my skin has been thus destroyed” necessitate a reference to resurrection. It could equally be a reference to his extreme suffering and physical deterioration [5]. And while scholars differ as to whether מבשרי mib’sari means “in my flesh” or “without my flesh” the context seems to demand, as Gerald Wilson puts it, “that Job would be expressing in these verses his heartfelt desire that even though he has come so close to death and has almost no hope left, that even now – in this life – God might appear and provide vindication.” [6]

I do not see this text as eschatalogical or messianic. My reading of these verses therefore would along these lines:

“I am confident that eventually someone will stand up and speak in my defence and vindicate me, and that I will have my day in court. But I want to face God myself while I am still alive, and not be defended by an unknown advocate after I am dead.”

Job got his wish: the LORD soon speaks from the whirlwind, and Job is vindicated.

[1] Pope, M., Job: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary,  Anchor Bible Vol. 15, 3rd edition, (New York: Doubleday and Co. 1974), 146

[2] Sutherland, R., Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job 2004, p57

[3] Sutherland, 2004, p58

[4] Johnston, P., “Afterlife” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 6

[5] See Wilson, G., Job New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 209

[6] Ibid

To speak well of God (1)

At the end of the Book of Job the LORD (twice) says to Job’s three friends:

לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב

“You have not spoken the truth about me as did my servant Job” (42:7-8 JPS), or, as some translations put it, “you have not spoken well of me”.

In a comment here Jen asked a very good question: “Does Job speak well of God in his confessions (40:3-5 and 42:2-6), or is it of his speeches in general that God tells the friends that Job was correct in his presentation of God?”

The comment addressed to the friends “You have not spoken the truth about me” could only refer to their speeches during the dialogue with Job, so I would be inclined to think that the words “as did my servant Job” referred to Job’s speeches during the same dialogue, and not to his final brief response to the LORD. I agree with Norman Habel [1] when he says “The blunt and forthright accusations of Job from the depths of his agony are closer to the truth than the conventional unquestioning pronouncements of the friends … Job’s answers correspond with reality. They are devoid of dissembling and flattery”.

This reminded me of something I’d read in Eugene Peterson’s Introduction to Psalms [2]:

‘Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose that there must be an “insider” language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayer. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lves out in the open before God …

‘In English translation, the Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. As literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in moments of anger and praise and lament, these translations miss something. Gramatically, they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translations is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couch in cultured language.’

Peterson went on to encourage ‘raw honesty and detailed thoroughness in our praying’ and I am convinced that this is how the Book of Job encourages us to approach God. Not with carefully worked out theological ‘truths’, but with raw honesty, articulating our despair, anger, disappointment and frustration. To speak well of God is to challenge him when his world appears to be unfair and his ways unjust.

David Wolfers [3] came to this conclusion about how Job spoke the truth concerning God:

‘Job has penetrated to the truth about the moral conduct of the world, that the quality of an individual’s life is unrelated to his moral deserts; that disaster is a random occurrence as likely to befall the righteous as the wicked; that God does reject the innocent and reward the wicked as individuals as aften as He does the reverse. What Eliphaz and his friends have maintained, from 4:7 … to 20:29 … is sentimental rubbish, at odds with all experience of life.’

As a slight digression, Habel [4] makes this interesting observation about Job’s priestly role in acting as mediator for his friends:

‘Job is reinstated as mediator even before his family and possessions are restored. He is again to act as a patriarchal intercessor like Abraham (Gen 18:23ff.). Job had previously looked for a friend who would support him against God if necessary (6:14), an arbiter who would handle his case with God (9:33), an advocate who would defend his suit with God (16:19-20), and a redeemer to vindicate him after his death (19:25). But Job stood alone and achieved his own meeting with God. Now the one who sought a mediator becomes the mediator.’

So it seems to me that to ‘speak the truth concerning God’ is less about correct theology (the approach taken by the friends) and more about being honest, blunt if necessary, and being based in reality.

[1] Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985), 583

[2] Peterson, E., Psalms (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1994), 3f

[3] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 462

[4] Habel, 584

Digression: Satan in the New Testament (1)

I mentioned earlier that I would like to explore some of the ways the New Testament and other early Christian literature refer to ‘Satan’, and the extent to which the ideas and beliefs of the first Christians about this were influenced by the Book of Job and other Jewish literature.

There is some interesting terminology in the Christian Scriptures which suggests that early Christian belief about Satan was influenced by the Adversary’s role in Job, and this may add light on how Second Temple Judaism understood the role of the Adversary. Paul (a Pharisee and disciple of Rabban Gamaliel I) wrote to the church in the Greek city of Corinth and gave instructions about a Christian who had married his father’s former wife (which in Greek law and society was neither illegal nor regarded as immoral, although contrary to Jewish and Christian sensitivities). He wrote:  “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”.[1] In another letter attributed to Paul (but more likely written by one or more of his disciples) the writer refers to two opponents “whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”.[2] Contrary to the popular notion that from earliest times Christians believed that Satan is an evil, malevolent, ‘fallen’ angel, these references reveal that Paul understood Satan to be responsible for teaching people “not to blaspheme” and for ensuring their ultimate salvation. In one case this was to be done by inflicting physical ailments, and this understanding is supported in another letter where Paul says “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited”.[3]

William Ramsay argued that “delivering to the judgement of the gods” was a commonly known invocation in Greek and Roman society against enemies and criminals whose offences and crimes were not subject to punishment by a judge. “In these invocations the god was asked or tacitly expected to punish the wrongdoer by bodily disease.  … any bodily affliction which came on the accursed person was regarded, alike by the invoker and by the sufferer, as the messenger or weapon of the god.” [4] It is likely that Paul was ‘Christianising’ or ‘Judaising’ this concept by substituting “Satan” for “the gods” and by “delivering” or “handing over” someone to Satan he was leaving their judgment in the hands of the Adversary as the agent of God.

I am indebted to Deb Hurn of Vose Seminary for steering me in the direction of Ramsay’s commentary and pointing out that ‘delivering to Satan’ is equivalent to surrendering (through prayer) an intractable and problematic person to Jesus’ personal rebuke and instruction, by whatever form that may take. There is a similar example in the Hebrew Bible in  2 Samuel 24:14 (JPS) where David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.”


[1] 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

[2] 1 Timothy 1:19-20

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[4] Ramsay, W., Historical Commentary on First Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1996 fp 1900-1), 46f

Job – humanity at its best

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:22 ESV)

Job is described in the prologue to the book as a perfect man, blameless, upright, sinless, pious, and possibly the wisest of the wise [1]. The Hebrew word translated “blameless” (or “perfect” in KJV) is תם and means whole, complete, lacking in nothing, fully integrated. In other words, he represented humanity at its best. Even if the story was based on an actual historical character the language used to describe him suggests that we are looking at a parable about humankind. In testing Job the Adversary is also putting God on trial. If Job, the best of the best, fails the test then all of humankind fails with him.

There are echoes here of the Garden of Eden: one “representative” human couple being put to the test, with consequences for humanity; the test administered by a snake in one story and by the Adversary in the other [2]. However, it’s the Genesis story which has received the most attention by theologians and which has had the greatest impact on Christian dogma about sin, suffering and human nature (although less so in Jewish dogma). No doubt this has been the result of the huge impact which Augustine had on the formation on Christian dogma. Augustine argued that suffering is not caused by God; rather, the exercise of free will by humans has led to sin and suffering in the world as just punishment for Adam’s disobedience. Augustine’s view was that all of humanity was seminally present in the loins of Adam, so all of humanity is punished. The sin of Adam (or, in some Protestant theologies, the consequences of his sin) is inherited by all human beings so that humanity is utterly depraved in nature. Augustine’s view differed in this from Irenaeus who earlier argued that evil comes from God in order to allow humans to develop morally and spiritually.

But both viewpoints are challenged by the Book of Job where:

  1. God is directly responsible for Job’s suffering
  2. Job suffered “for no reason” and as he was “whole, perfect, fully integrated” no moral or spiritual development was necessary
  3. Job is not presented as in any way depraved or sinful – on the contrary, he is upheld as blameless and sinless
  4. Suffering is not a punishment or consequence for sin.

So while Augustinian theodicy, and all theologies based on it (both Catholic and Protestant) argue from a particular reading of Genesis these views are rendered null and void by Job. If the authority of both books (Genesis and Job) is accepted, then Genesis has been misunderstood and needs to be reinterpreted.

Continue reading

Did Job abhor himself?

Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6 KJV)

This statement by Job comes at a highly significant moment in the book, as the conclusion of Job’s final brief response to the LORD. The King James Version, and others, give the impression that Job is confessing his faults, although without naming them, and repenting. It appears that Job is recognising that there was some hidden sin or character fault and in a truly repentant fashion he loathes himself for it. However, there are significant problems with this translation, or interpretation.

First, there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text for “myself” in this verse and the verb has no object. There is no textual or grammatical justification for interpreting the verb reflexively. By doing so the King James translators are interpreting rather than translating.

The verb translated “abhor myself” in the KJV is מאס and comes from a root meaning “to reject”. It’s the same word that is used in 1 Samuel 16:1 when God said “I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel” and in the few places where the KJV translates it as “abhor”, “abhored”, “abhorreth” or “abhorrest” it is clear from the context that “reject” or “rejected” is what is meant (e.g. to “abhor” God’s judgments and statutes in Lev 26:15, 43 has the sense of rejecting them). The Jewish Publication Society version has “I recant”, the NASB has “retract”, which are better but still do not provide an object. What was it Job was rejecting, recanting, or repudiating?

Samuel Balentine, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in his Job (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2006), writes: “Textual ambiguities also make it clear . . . that whatever Job’s last words may mean, they convey anything but a simple confession of sin.” He argues that “God’s disclosure invites a transformation in Job’s understanding about what it means to be ‘dust and ashes.'” This understanding is supported by the translation of Stephen Mitchell who translates this difficult verse this way: “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (The Book of Job Harper Perennial, 1992). This translation, incidentally, supports my translation of the final verb נחם as “I am comforted” rather than “I repent” (in a previous post).

However one translates this verse there are significant theological implications.

The first problem with this interpretation is that on several occasions the Book makes the point that Job was “blameless”. The narrator in the prologue introduces Job as a “man [who] was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1), and the LORD twice gives his own assessment of Job as a “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (18; 2:3). Job consistently maintains his own innocence to the end.

Those translators who have Job abhoring myself and repenting generally come from a theological position which regards the human race as “fallen”, depraved and inevitably sinful. Even the most upright person is guilty of some sin and in need of redemption. Consequently Job’s self-abhorence was a sign of true repentance and a necessary step to being put back into a right relationship with God. It is understandable how a translator with this bias would see this verse as a confession of hidden sin. However, there is a huge problem with this. To argue that Job was guilty of some hidden sin or character fault would be to take the position of the Adversary and Job’s three friends, and the LORD’s own comment on the position of the friends was that they did not speak well of God. It would make the Adversary and the three friends right and both Job and the LORD wrong!

However, if we interpret this verse as Mitchell, Balentine, Janzen and others have done and understand Job to be saying that he now has a new understanding of what it means to be “dust and ashes”, then we are faced with some important theological implications:

  1. It is possible for a human being to be blameless, and free of sin. In the epilogue Job was called to offer sacrifices for his three friends, but not for himself: he had no personal need of a sacrifice for sin.
  2. A blameless, innocent person may still suffer. There is therefore no relationship between sin and suffering. Suffering is not a punishment for sin.
  3. There is no suggestion in the Book of Job that Job’s experiences were necessary for character development, and it would be a nonsense to argue that his ordeals made him “more blameless” or upright. The only reason provided in the Book for Job’s ordeals was to “prove” that Job was upright and would maintain his integrity in the face of trials. One implication of this is that humanity is not “fallen” in the sense that human nature is inherently depraved or sinful.

In my next post I want to discuss the implications for Augustinian theology about the “fall”, human nature and sin.

What happened to Job’s children?

In an earlier post I wrote:

A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his sons as though they are still alive: “I am loathsome to my children” (19:17 JPS). While some translations interpret this as “the children of my own mother” (ESV) or “my brothers” (NIV), the Hebrew (לבני בתני) literally reads “sons of my belly” and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. Elsewhere in Job בתני is ambiguous, being used in reference to a man’s belly as well as a womb. Moreover, as it is in the first person (my belly/womb) then it is more likely to be a reference to his own children who came “from his loins” rather than his mother’s womb. In the prologue it doesn’t say Job’s children died, only that a messenger said his children had died (1:18-19), and if the literal meaning of לבני בתני is correct then it suggests that Job’s children were still alive later in the story.

In support of my assertion that Job referred to his livingchildren in 19:17 here is a comment by David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 135f):

Job 19:17 ‘unmistakeably refers to the children as still living … The phrase פרי בטנך, the fruit of your body, occurs repeatedly in Deuteronomy, addressed to the community of Israel, with the force of the sense of “womb” attenuated as here to refer simply to the power of generation, without regard to gender e.g Deut 28:11”.

Wolfer refers to several other references in the speeches to Job’s “descendants” and allusions to his living children. Some translations attempt to resolve this apparent ‘contradiction’ by translating לבני בתני as “my brothers”, or similar, although the  expression “the sons of my womb/belly”,  is never used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to brothers. Trying to resolve a difficulty by mistranslating simply won’t do. Job has already referred to his brothers in verse 13, as well as his wife, servants and other relatives, and goes on to speak of the reactions of friends and young children. The most natural reading would be that Job is listing  all those with whom he has regular contact, including his children. To speak a second time of his brothers would be unnatural.

So what happened to his children? The best explanation, in my opinion, is that the poetry parts of Job were composed seperately to the narrative prose in the ‘frame’ story. The poetry was written first and the prose was added later to give the debate a ‘setting’. It is not an historical record. This means that there are some conflicts between the poetry and the prose, but this was certainly of no concern to the writer (otherwise he could easily have corrected it) or to his audience. Consistency is probably more important to the modern reader than it was to an ancient one, and this may very well be because of our preconceived theological notions about what ‘inspiration’ means or demands of the text.

Did Job repent?

Did Job repent or not, and if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him?

After two speeches by the Almighty we read Job’s final (uncharacteristically brief) words in 42:1-6.

Job says “I know that you can do everything” (42:2) and then repeats two of the LORD’s own challenges to him in, although in a slightly altered format, and responds to each challenge by confessing that he did indeed speak without understanding.

The LORD’s challenge: “Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?” (42:3, cp. 38:2)

Job’s response: “Indeed, I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me, which I did not know” (42:3)

The LORD’s challenge:  “I will ask, and you will inform me” (42:4, cp. 38:2; 40:7)

Job’s response: “I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes” (42:5)

This seems to be the answer to the whole book, viz. God has to be experienced through a personal encounter to be understood (“seeing”) rather than just through a theoretical/theological approach (“hearing”). But Job then job adds something odd:

“Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:6 JPS). In some translations Job “repents” (e.g. ESV, KJV). The Hebrew reads:

עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵֽפֶר

The KJV is almost certainly wrong when it has Job repenting “in dust and ashes” seeing as he has been sitting in dust and ashes since his torments began (2:8), but they get this from the Hebrew word על  which often means “on”  (but more about this to follow). This might be be an allusion to Genesis 3:19 “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (where the Hebrew word for “dust” is the same as in Job עפר) but is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 18:27 where an identical phrase occurs when Abraham says “I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (עפר ואפר)”. Job is putting himself in the same position as Abraham in daring to challenge the Almighty.

So does Job “repent” or “relent” (I’ll come back to his “recanting” or “abhoring” himself in a later post)? The Book begins by saying he was upright and blameless, and throughout the ensuing debate and legal arguments no sin has been proven. But as Philippe Guillaume rightly points out: “anyone insisting that Job repented because he was guilty ends up in the precarious position of Job’s friends, whom YHWH declares guilty (42:7-8).”  [1]  Job does not specify what he “repents” of, and in the translations that have him repenting we are left wondering about that. The Hebrew verb is from the root נחם which is used 7 times in Job. Here it is in the niphal stem but in every other place it is in the piel stem and has the sense of “to comfort”.

  1. Job’s three friends “met together to go and console and comfort him” (2:11)
  2. “… my bed will comfort me” (7:13)
  3. “You are all mischievous comforters” (16:2)
  4. “Why do you offer me empty consolations?” (21:34)
  5. “… like one who consoles mourners” (29:25)
  6. “All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and … they consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).

What’s the difference between the niphal and piel stems? The piel stem denotes an intensive or causative action (i.e to comfort or console another). The niphal form is passive and means to have regrets, to be sorry, or to comfort or console oneself. According to Gesenius, when the niphal is followed by על (as it is here) it is reflexive and means to comfort oneself or to be comforted, not “on” but “on account of” something. In other words, Job is saying “I am comforted on account of the fact that I am but dust and ashes”. Gerald Janzen translates this last verse: “Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes”.[2] Seeing the Book of Job has so many wonderful wordplays I believe there is another one here: Job was unable to be comforted by his “mischievous comforters” with their “empty consolations”, but finally he finds comfort from the LORD’s rebuke.

So in the end Job finds comfort from the LORD’s assertions that he is sovereign and in control.


[1] Guillaume, P., “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job” in Journal of Biblical Literature; Fall 2008; 127, 3

[2] Job, IBC (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 251

Structure and meaning, in a nutshell

Putting my previous post in a nutshell, this is my current preferred theory on how the Book of Job came about.

1. The poetic material which comprises the speeches in Job may have existed independently in some form, perhaps as a debate or discussion on the reasons for suffering. If so, it was probably in an ancient Semitic language (from north Arabia?) which was related to biblical Hebrew but now lost (until an archaeologist is allowed into the deserts of north Arabia – currently off-limits by the Saudi Government to archaeologists – and uncovers some parchments, tablets or inscriptions in this ancient language).

2. Someone later saw the potential for this material to be more widely circulated (or exposed to a new audience) in a different form and edited and organised this material. This editor added an introduction (the prologue) and conclusion (the epilogue) in prose, and also added some other material (including the Hymn to Wisdom [ch. 28] and possibly the speech by Elihu [ch. 32-37]) to create a dramatic story-line which could be presented as a ‘play’ (possibly the first recorded play, or the oldest surviving play).

3. The frame-story is there to create a dramatic backdrop. It may, or may not, have been based on real historical characters but that’s not important. The important stuff is in the various arguments that follow in the debate.

4. The purpose of the poetic debate is to present the three most popular views about the cause and reason for suffering (in the speeches by Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar), and then to demolish them (in the speeches by Job).

5. But now we are left without an explanation for suffering. Job doesn’t have one, and he has demolished his friends’ theories. He is innocent, yet he suffers. He is guiltless, yet he is being punished. This is unjust. There is no connection between sin and suffering. Job demands justice.

6. Because God is sovereign and in control, then he must be the cause of Job’s suffering (which is exactly what the prologue tells us, although the wager in heaven is unknown to Job). Job demands to be heard. He wants his day in court. The book is full of legal metaphors and terminology. This is a courtroom drama. It began with the first scenes in the court of heaven and the heavenly Prosecutor challenging the LORD’s policy of rewarding Job’s piety with prosperity. It has now shifted to earth but the trial continues.

7. God is on now on trial (or on trial again if the opening scenes were about the Prosecutor challenging God). He has inflicted terrible suffering on Job, apparently for no good reason. This is unjust and Job demands an answer. He summons God to appear in court. (The suspense builds!)

8. At this point the writer drops in a long speech by Elihu which goes unanswered and is completely ignored. This has led many scholars to conclude that this speech is a later addition, although the reasons why it would have been inserted are unclear. In my view the writer included this speech deliberately for good reasons, but I’d rather come back to that in a separate post. Interestingly, and probably significantly, he is the only character in the story with a Hebrew name. Is the writer suggesting that just as Job’s three friends presented the best explanations that current philosophy could provide for the causes of suffering, so too the explanations by the Hebrew/Jewish ‘newcomer’ were equally inadequate?

9. The LORD responds. He asserts his authority and his right as creator to do with his creation whatever he pleases. Yes, he does inflict suffering. Yes, he does have a reason for it. No, he doesn’t have to provide his reasons. And no, it is not a punishment for sins.

10. Job accepts this. God pays restitution and Job is rewarded (again).

Ok, there are some loose ends which you may want to discuss. I want to come back to point 9 and discuss its theological implications. In my next post I want to take up my earlier questions: did Job repent, and, if so, of what? What did God mean when he said Job “spoke well” of him?

The structure of the Book of Job, and why it matters

I used to wonder why almost all commentaries on biblical books began with an analysis of the structure of the book, and not finding this particularly interesting I would immediately skip to the next chapter. Now I find myself actually getting excited when I discover a structural chiasm or a pattern which provides a clue to some riddle in the text (yes, I know what you’re thinking: if I find that exciting I need to get out more!)

In a previous post I raised a few questions which I said I would explore later. One of them was:

If God is culpable for Job’s suffering, and pays restitution, then what is this saying about the cause of human suffering?

Before attempting to answer that I think we need to determine what are the ‘big’ questions that the Book is asking and exploring, and to do that I would like to tease out the idea that Job is a ‘play’ – perhaps more specifically a courtroom drama – and how it may have come about. Hence, we need to analyse its structure.

I noted earlier that the Book of Job is largely poetry. The speeches of Job, his three friends, and the LORD, are all in poetry. This alone should tell us that the Book of Job is not historical narrative. Even if it was based on real historical characters and events, the sole fact that it is in poetry should immediately tell us that this is a dramatisation. Real people don’t conduct conversations in poetry! Shakespeare’s characters spoke in poetry, but we wouldn’t for a moment suggest that poetry was the common speech of everyday folk, not even in Elizabethan England. Some Hebrew scholars have detected varying degrees in the quality of the poetry in the speeches. Job’s speeches are a higher quality (in terms of the poetry alone, let alone the arguments) than that of his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. The most refined poetry is found in the speeches by the LORD. A skillful poet was at work in the composition of these speeches. The poetical speeches are ‘framed’ by a Prologue and Epilogue which are in narrative prose.

The prose of the frame-story is straightforward Hebrew, easy to translate. The poetry, on the other hand, is a minefield of difficulties for the translator. The technical term for a word which occurs in only place in the Bible is  hapax legomenon (the plural is hapax legomena). There are more hapax legomena in Job than in any other book of the Bible, making it enormously difficult for the translator who has no other usages with which to compare a difficult word. Take a look at the footnotes of most translations and you will see “The Hebrew is uncertain” (or words to that effect) occuring on page after page. Scholars have proposed several theories for this, but the one which (currently) seems most convincing to me is that the speeches were originally written in another Semitic language (now lost) and then incorporated at a later date into the form in which we now have it. We are told that Job was from the land of Uz, Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah and Zophar from Naamah (probably all in Arabia). The majority of hapax legomena are probably words which were carried over from the original Semitic language (the native language of Job and his friends perhaps) and incorporated into the book because the audience at the time were familiar enough with them, although their meaning is now lost to us.

This suggests that the writer of the Book of Job as we have it drew his material from another source, or sources, and then added material of his own. This is speculative, of course, but it’s possible that he based his story on real historical characters (although even if they were mythical ones it wouldn’t change the main point of the book), and used some of the native language of his characters in his re-telling of the story. It’s also possible that the poetical speeches already existed in some form, in this other language, and that our writer framed a story around them.

There are further clues of some ‘editing’ or ‘compiling’. We find that there are three cycles of speeches, with each of Job’s friends presenting an argument (in the order of Eliphaz, then Bildad, then Zophar) with Job responding to each. However, in the third cycle there is no speech by Zophar. Is it missing? Furthermore,  in Job 27 (which initially looks like Job’s response to Bildad’s third speech) there are eleven verses which don’t sound like Job at all (13-23). They actually sound like Zophar! Several  scholars attribute this section to Zophar as the opening words are almost identical to the closing words of his second speech (20:29). Has this material somehow become dispaced? I personally think these scholars may be right, otherwise Job is contradicting himself in this section and the structure of the book is disrupted. (Of course, there are other theories to explain this and I’d love to discuss them. I appreciate that the idea that some parts of the Bible are ‘mixed up’, or that there are scribal ‘errors’, or that some books of the Bible were edited or compiled from earlier sources, will sound foreign to many Jewish and Christian readers. I’m more than happy to discuss it.)

With this in mind, if we go back to Chapter 24 it appears to be Job’s answer to Zophar’s ‘third’ speech in 27:13-23, but obviously out of place. Some scholars think the third cycle of speeches is so disrupted and confused that there may have been a scribal mix-up at some stage and things became out of order, and that chapter 24 should follow 27:13-23 as Job’s response. [1]  Other scholars think that the whole debate “broke down” in the third cycle and the disjointed speeches are intentionally designed that way to show this breakdown. If so, that would be a clever way for the playwright to dramatise the breakdown. I have come across at least one commentator who thinks 27:13-23 belongs to Bildad [2], so the answer to what is happening in this part of the book is not easy.

Immediately following this block of displaced or confusing speeches is a chapter commonly called a Hymn to Wisdom (chapter 28). The placement of this ‘hymn’ here is very odd. Its style is very different to the preceeding and following speeches by Job. It doesn’t appear to follow Job’s argument at all, nor does it deal with any of the matters raised by his friends. To me it appears to even contradict Job, but I could be wrong about that. Some scholars suggest Job is here quoting a known ‘wisdom hymn’ as part of his speech. Perhaps. But to me it doesn’t fit neatly. It looks like it has been ‘dropped in’ there. If so, why? Interestingly, the Hymn to Wisdom resonates with other biblical wisdom literature. The line “the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom” (28:28) is out of place in a book that does not otherwise deal with wisdom (despite being categorised as a ‘wisdom book’ Job is more about justice and innocence, and not wisdom) but fits perfectly with Proverbs (where “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” is a central theme) and Ecclesiastes (and also with the non-canonical Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus).

My current theory about the Hymn to Wisdom is that is comes from another source; not from the speeches of Job and his friends, but either from the editor who put the Book of Job together, or from another of his sources. If Habel’s reordering of the third cycle of speeches is correct, then chapter 24 should follow what is rightly Bildad’s speech in 27:13-23 and then we have a pause, an interlude, an ‘intermission’ in the play. The writer inserts his Hymn to Wisdom at this important climax to give his audience something important to ponder, something that hasn’t been raised already (possibly something from his own ‘wisdom school’). Then the play resumes in chapter 29 with Job’s summary defence.

But enough structural analysis for now. I will try to relate this to the overall message and themes of the book in my next post.


[1]  For example: Habel, Norman C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985)

[2] Hartley, John E., The book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). I’m actually going from memory here, so I hope it serves me correctly.

Digression: Can angels do evil?

He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels (Psalm 78:49 KJV)

“Evil angels” is an accurate translation of מלאכי רעים. “Messengers of evil” is probably even better. Whoever they are, the important thing to note is that God sent them so they acted as his agents. Is that what is happening in the Book of Job? Is ha-satan, the Adversary or the Prosecutor, the agent (and angel) of God sent to inflict suffering/calamities/evil?

When we are first introduced to ha-satan in the Book of Job he comes before God together with “the Sons of God” (a term which Job later uses to describe angels). There is nothing in this story to suggest he is unwelcome there. It appears that he’s one of the angels. Satan is given God’s permission to test Job, and the things he afflicts on Job are later said to be God’s doing. In other words, what Satan did he did as God’s agent. The Adversary in Job is almost certainly an angel but not necessarily a ‘fallen’ one. He is called a ‘Son of God’ (and Job says elsewhere that the Sons of God were present at creation), forms part of the council of heaven and acts with God’s permission. At the end of the book Job has to offer sacrifices for his three friends and they are condemned for their judgment of him – but not Satan. He doesn’t get a mention at the end and isn’t condemned.

It’s also possible that the Satan of Zechariah 3 may be an angel. The Satan that caused David to take a census (1 Chron 21:1) is called “the LORD” in the parallel account in 2 Samuel 24:1, so the Chronicler’s satan may be an angel as well (and angels as the agents of God are called God or the LORD elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible).

In the Hebrew Bible God’s sovereignty was such that He was responsible for everything: good and evil.

  • I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 KJV)
  • For thus saith the LORD; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them. (Jer 32:42 KJV, or “As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them” NIV).
  • Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good: and all the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine, until there be an end of them. (Jer 44:27 KJV)
  • Though they are driven into exile by their enemies, there I will command the sword to slay them. I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” (Amos 9:4 KJV)
  • Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lam 3:38 NIV)

In the Hebrew Bible God is the cause of disease, destruction, and death.  But it seems that he does these things “at arms length” and operates through his agents/angels. The Hebrew Bible also recognized the existence of a ‘spirit realm’ and although some spirits did ‘evil’, they were sent by God to do his work. Thus King Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you” (1 Sam. 16:15). In some texts angels are regarded as ‘imperfect’ (such as Job 4:18 where Eliphaz says “God places no trust in his servants”, and “he charges his angels with error [KJV has ‘folly’]”). Psalm 82:7 even suggests that some angels (אלהים) will be destroyed because of their ‘partiality’ and goes on to say that because of this they “will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler” (v. 7). This suggests that they may be able to act independently, but perhaps that’s a subject for later discussion.

In the New Testament we find Jesus at the Last Supper saying “”Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). This is somewhat similar to the Job frame-story. In the Job account we have Satan appearing among the “Sons of God” and God granting permission to him to test Job. In Luke we find Satan asking God (or perhaps Jesus) for permission to test the Twelve, and the implication is that his request had been granted. This suggests that Satan still had access to heaven, as he did in the Job story, and that his task was to test the faithful. Interestingly, in the Fourth Gospel there is a record of Jesus’ prayer later on that same night of the Last Supper. In it he prayed for his disciples and said: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Is “the evil one” in the Fourth Gospel the same as “Satan” in Luke?

There are other hints in the New Testament that the first Jewish Christians had an understanding of Satan which was similar or identical to the one I have proposed here as the role of ha-satan in the Hebrew Bible: the Prosecutor in the heavenly court. Jesus once referred to a woman with a serious disease as “this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years” (Luke 13:16). Paul wrote of a certain man that the church should “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5) and of Hymenaeus and Alexander that “I have handed [them] over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). Satan in these latter texts does the sinners a service in that he teaches them not to blaspheme and saves their spirit on the day of the Lord. It seems his role is to “do evil, so that good may come”. Then Paul mentioned his “thorn in the flesh” saying it was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor 12:7) to lead him to a greater appreciation of God’s grace. These texts all suggest that to the early Jewish Christians Satan was an angel who did evil, but so that good would ultimately come.

But what about the texts that suggest Satan is a “fallen angel”?  To explore that would be to digress, although I’m already digressing (somewhat necessarily) from Job. As much as I’d love to digress from this digression and explore the role of the devil, or satan, in the New Testament and Christian literature I will return in my next posts to the Book of Job. Perhaps I’ll come back later to look at the idea of Satan as a fallen angel.

The heavenly Prosecutor

The figure of ha-satan (השטן) appears in the introduction to the book of Job as a participant in the Divine Council. Rather than being an inherently or intrinsically evil being, ha-satan’s role appears to be that of a Prosecutor. The discussion of Job’s righteousness is initiated by God and ha-satan responds by challenging the LORD’s policy of rewarding righteousness with prosperity. The LORD does not discount the legitimacy of the challenge and responds by authorising ha-satan to put Job’s righteousness to the test. Thereafter the Book of Job attributes the cause of Job’s sufferings as much to God as to ha-satan.

I said in my previous post that the Adversary/Prosecutor is in fact challenging God’s policies rather than human behaviour; he isn’t acting maliciously against Job. He is the LORD’s adversary, not Job’s. I would like to explore that idea a little further.

I wrote about some ‘unrealistic’ elements in the Prologue. There is a further unrealistic element in the dialogues between the Adversary and the LORD.  God responded to the Adversary’s report at their second meeting by saying: “you have incited me against [Job] to destroy him for no good reason” (2:3 JPS). Having admitted to being deceived or tricked by the Adversary (which I believe is the meaning behind “incited”), God then gives his permission for the Adversary to conduct a further trial; practically setting himself up to be tricked again and for the adversary to destroy Job a second time for no good reason.  This is more theatre: the reader or listener is drawn further into the plot and the suspense builds as they wait to see if the Almighty can be tricked again!

After his two appearances in the heavenly court the Adversary disappears from the scene. Nowhere is he blamed for Job’s misfortune. On the contrary, Job blamed the LORD for all his miseries: “Your hands shaped and fashioned me, then destroyed every part of me” (11:8 JPS); “The hand of God has struck me!” (19:21 JPS). Even at the end the reader is reminded of “all the misfortune that the LORD had brought upon [Job]” (42:11 JPS).

“The ambivalence … concerning whose hand it is that strikes Job shows that the Satan acts as an agent of [the LORD]”.[1]

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no mention of the Adversary in the epilogue and, while Job acts in a priestly role in offering sacrifices for his three friends who did not speak well of God (42:8), no mention is made of the part the Adversary played. On the contrary, if in fact in the epilogue Job “repents” (42:6 ESV) or recants and relents (JPS), this would suggest that the Adversary was right in his presumption about Job and that he did indeed in some way curse God. The Hebrew of 42:1-6 is uncertain and somewhat ambiguous. While Job confessed his ignorance he “nowhere repents, repudiates his words, or shows any remorse”.[2] The epilogue does, however, imply that the LORD was ‘guilty’ in bringing misfortune on Job. The number of Job’s animals were doubled (and possibly also his sons [3]), and this emphasis on economics and doubling at the end of the epilogue is reminiscent of the Mosaic laws of restitution.

The doubling of Job’s possessions and sons implies legal compensation was paid for the damages incurred.

However, divine culpability is not an easy theological point to swallow [4] and we encounter several unexpected ‘twists’ in the story right at the end. As the prologue was theatrical so too these ‘twists’ in the epilogue are dramatic devises, leaving the audience with a bundle of new questions to answer: did Job repent or not, and if so, why; if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him (42:7); and why did the LORD pay compensation? To the end Job is unaware of the wager made in heaven between the LORD and his Adversary: only the audience has this knowledge, but it comes with a price of even more puzzles to resolve.

In my next posts I’d like to explore some questions that arise from this:

  1. Are there any other biblical examples of divine beings acting in a similar way to the Prosecutor in Job? Can divine beings do ‘evil’ things?
  2. If God is culpable for Job’s suffering, and pays restitution, then what is this saying about the cause of human suffering?
  3. Did Job repent or not, and if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him?

Then, I’d like to explore the historical basis for the Job ‘play’ and how it may have come about.


[1] Page, S.H.T., “Satan: God’s Servant” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Sep 2007; 50, 3, 452

[2] Guillaume, P., “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job” in Journal of Biblical Literature; Fall 2008; 127, 3, 494

[3] Job 42:13 says Job was given seven (שבענה) sons and Philippe Guillaume (2008, 492) argues that this is the dual form (i.e. fourteen), quoting Dhorme’s Commentary on the Book of Job, HALOT and Alfred Guillaume’s Studies in the Book of Job.  In 1:2 Job had שבעה (seven) sons, so the later dual form suggests his sons were doubled (in the same way as his herds).

[4] Guillaume, 2008, 497

Satan in the Book of Job

The Book of Job is largely poetry (I’ll return to this in a later post). The speeches of Job, his three friends, and the LORD, are all in poetry. These speeches – the bulk of the book – are ‘framed’ by a Prologue and Epilogue which are in narrative prose.

The Prologue to Job (part of the frame story) has several ‘scenes’, alternating between a divine council (probably in heaven, although this is not explicitly stated) and corresponding events on earth. In the first scene the sons of God (translated as “the divine beings” in the JPS Tanakh) present themselves before the LORD and “the Adversary came along with them” (Job 1:6 JPS). Translators differ about how to translate השטן. The JPS Tanakh translates this as “the Adversary” while most English translations transliterate as “Satan”. The JPS Tanakh is preferred for three reasons: (a) it is a translation rather than a transliteration; (b) it captures the definite article which is present in the Hebrew but omitted in translations which transliterate as Satan (the Satan would be better); and (c) the capitalised transliteration, Satan, suggests that this is a proper noun, the adversary’s name, while the JPS capitalised translation, the Adversary, makes it clear that השטן is a title, rather than a name. “In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character.”[1] Some commentators and translators, while similar to the JPS Tanakh in translating rather than transliterating, prefer the Prosecutor[2]. Hereafter I will follow the JPS Tanakh and use the translation “the Adversary” (unless quoting).

After introducing the main character and describing his piety the frame story describes an assembly of the בני האלהים “sons of God”. The JPS Tanakh interprets this as “divine beings” while the New International Version (NIV) interprets as “angels”. Later, the sons of God are mentioned in the poetic section of Job, in a creation account.[3] While it is a rare term in the Hebrew Bible, both the JPS Tanakh and the NIV have undoubtedly interpreted correctly and a heavenly ‘angelic’ council is intended. There are similar Biblical descriptions of the heavenly court elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and it has been suggested that the use of common phrases for “characteristics of the ‘heavenly council’ in the Mesopotamian, Ugaritic and ancient Israelite texts” categorise these as “type scenes”[4]. Psalm 82:1 refers to a “divine assembly” where אלהים (“God”) stands בקרב אלהים “among the divine beings” (JPS). Psalm 89:6-8 (5-8 in most English translations) has a variety of terms for the heavenly assembly which parallel the Ugaritic texts[5]: קהל קדשים “assembly of holy beings”; בני אלים “divine beings”; and סוד־קדשים “council of holy beings” (JPS). In Daniel 7:9-10 the prophet has a vision of “the Ancient of Days” surrounded by “thousands upon thousands” and “myriads upon myriads” who attend him and sit in court. The Biblical description of the heavenly court which parallels the Job frame-story most closely is in 1 Kings 22:19 where the prophet Micaiah “saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven [כל־צבא השמים] standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (ESV). In this account the LORD enquires of his council “who will entice Ahab?” In Micaiah’s story ‘a spirit (lit. the spirit הרוח) came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him”.’ The similarity with the Job frame-story is striking as in both stories a divine being deals with a human as a consequence of a dialogue in the heavenly council (perhaps suggesting that the writer of the Book of Job was familiar with the views of the Deuteronomistic Historian, and may even have been responding to them.[6]) “It is easy to recognize, in their modus operandi, the virtual identity of “the Spirit” of this passage [1 Kings 22] and the Satan of the Book of Job. But in Kings, the Spirit is an extension of God’s own personality” and perversely invokes qualities “which could not with propriety be attributed directly to God.”[7]

“Whether the Satan [in the Job frame-story] is a regular member of the council or an unexpected visitor is left ambiguous”.[8] While some scholars regard the Adversary as an intruder, it is clear that he had access to the heavenly throne and likely that he was counted among the members of the divine council.[9] In Job the Adversary’s role is not malicious or evil. Rather, he “seems to hold the office of a prosecutor intent on establishing justice”[10] and Habel argues that, in fact, the whole of the Book of Job is a legal metaphor.[11] Pagels observes that “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants.”[12] In Job he is “subject to God’s control and was used by God to accomplish his purposes” and there is “a pronounced emphasis on his subordination” to God.[13] Habel even suggests that as God himself raises the subject of Job’s piety ha-satan may be verbalising the LORD’s “own latent misapprehensions”[14], an idea which is shared by Wilson who understands ha-satan to be “the alter ego” of the LORD.[15] The Adversary in Job does not play the role of a ‘tempter’. In the dialogues between the LORD and the Adversary in the two scenes set in the heavenly council, it is the LORD who initiates the dialogue and asks the Adversary what he thinks about Job. This raises the question about Job’s motivation in serving God. If God rewards worship with prosperity then perhaps Job is worshipping God in order to be prosperous. In other words, God’s policy of rewarding faithfulness is flawed. The Adversary is in fact challenging God’s policies rather than human behaviour[16]; he isn’t acting maliciously against Job. He is the LORD’s adversary, not Job’s. “If God is testing Job, one could just as easily argue that hassatan is testing God”.[17]

If I’m reading this correctly and what we have in the Prologue is drama and not history, then it is possible that rather than being an actual divine being the Adversary was a dramatic character who articulated the LORD’s own doubts about Job’s piety.


[1] Pagels, E., The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1996), 39.

Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985) p.89 also notes that ha-satan “is not the personal name Satan but a role specification meaning “the accuser/adversary/doubter”.”

[2] For example, Good, E.M., “The Problem of Evil in the Book of Job”, in: L.G. Perdue and W.C. Gilpin (eds), The Voice From the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992): 50-69, 52

[3] In Genesis 6:2, 4 when the text refers to the ‘sons of God’ the Hebrew is בני האלהים  with the definite article prefixed to אלהים. However, in the creation account in Job 38:7 we find  בני אלהים  without the definite article. In the frame story (Job 1:6; 2:1) the Hebrew text has the definite article as in Gen 6. A similar term בני אלים occurs in Psalm 29:1 and 89:6 where אלים is probably a poetic equivalent to אלהים. In personal correspondence with University of Sydney Assoc. Professor Ian Young, Dr Young suggests that ‘the definite article is quite a late comer to the Semitic languages, not being attested before 1000BCE.  Thus it is one of the features that can be left out in poetic, “archaic” style.  My suggestion is therefore that they are just two versions of the same thing.  Compare the difference between ELOHIM and HAELOHIM in Gen 5:21-24.  Ancient readers thought this significant, HAELOHIM=the angels; ELOHIM=God.’

[4] Kee, M.S., “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Vol 31.3, 2007. pp. 259-273, 259

[5] Heiser, M.S., “Divine Council” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 113

[6] Kelly, H.A., Satan: A Biography (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21

[7] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 202

[8] Habel, 1985, 89

[9] Walton, J.H., “Satan” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 715

[10] Habel, 1985, 89

[11] Habel, 1985, 54

[12] Pagels 1996, 39

[13] Page, S.H.T., “Satan: God’s Servant” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Sep 2007; 50, 3, 449

[14] Hable, 1985, 89

[15] Wilson, L.S., The Book of Job: Judaism in the 2nd Century BCE: An Intertextual Reading (Maryland: University Press of America, 2006), 62

[16] Walton, 2008, 716

[17] Wray T.J. and G. Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 64

Job as ‘theatre’

The Book of Job lends itself to dramatic presentation. There have been several performances of it in churches and theatres and even, I believe, as a Broadway stageshow. It’s easy to adapt to the stage; so easy that one could suspect it was actually written for the stage! In fact, Yehuda Sommo, a 16th century Italian Jewish theatrical producer, noticed the dramatic style of the Book of Job and argued in his Dialogues on the Art of the Stage that Job was the first dramatic text in recorded history. He even asserted that this Biblical theatrical form was appropriated by the Greek playwrights. If he is right, then theatre began with the Bible rather than the Greeks! [1]

It is actually an old idea, going back at least to Christian bishop Theodore the Interpreter (c. 350 – 428), who argued that the Book of Job was a drama on the pattern of Greek tragedy (although, if Sommo is right, Greek tragedy was actually based on the pattern of Job!)

Some of the theatrical elements in the prologue of Job are quite striking in my opinion, and suggest that rather than being an historical account, the prologue is a dramatic backdrop designed to ‘set the stage’ for the debate which follows. For example, the announcements to Job that he has lost his herds and his children come through four messengers and there is a striking pattern to their announcements. The first messenger tells Job that the Sabeans stole his oxen and donkeys and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, “and I alone have escaped to tell you“. Then “while he was yet speaking, there came another” messenger and said “fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then “while he was yet speaking, there came another” who announced a raiding band of Chaldeans had stolen his camels and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, “and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then (wait for it …) “while he was yet speaking, there came another“! The formula by now is predictable. We aren’t meant to take this as serious history – this is drama! The fourth and final messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed and (by now we all know what is coming) “I alone have escaped to tell you“!

The repetition of the words  “while he was yet speaking, there came another” and  “I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:15, 16, 17,19) is unrealistic, but it is suspenseful and theatrical.

There’s more. A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his sons as though they are still alive: “I am loathsome to my children” (19:17 JPS). While some translations interpret this as “the children of my own mother” (ESV) or “my brothers” (NIV), the Hebrew (לבני בתני) literally reads “sons of my belly”[2] and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. In the prologue it doesn’t say Job’s children died, only that a messenger said his children had died (1:18-19), and if the literal meaning of לבני בתני is correct then it suggests that Job’s children were still alive later in the story. This further supports a dramatic rather than historical reading of the prologue.

In Job’s first speech in chapter 3 he lamented his life and cursed the day he was born. Strangely, Job accepted the deaths of his children rather philosophically (“the LORD has given and the LORD has taken away” [1:21]), but when he is afflicted with an illness he says it would have been better not to have been born. Again, there is something unrealistic about this. Given the choice of personal suffering or losing one’s children the usual human reaction would be to choose suffering rather than see one’s children die. This suggests that Job’s response may have been hyperbolic or satirical – jolly good theatre –  and this may be providing another clue about how to interpret the rest of the book.

In my next post(s) I want to look at the role of Satan in the prologue. I think there is even more evidence here that we might be reading one of the oldest plays in history!


[1] Yoni Oppenheim, The Origins of Jewish Performance: From Prohibition to Precedent.

[2] Elsewhere in Job בתני is ambiguous, being used in reference to a man’s belly as well as a womb. Moreover, as it is in the first person (my belly/womb) then it is more likely to be a reference to his own children who came “from his loins” rather than his mother’s womb.

The Book of Job

I remember attending a long series of Bible classes in my teens about the Book of Job – every second Wednesday for over two years – and I recall my sense of disappointment at the end of it when I realised I still had no idea what it was about! It probably wasn’t the fault of the lecturer. I’m sure it was perfectly clear to him. It just wasn’t clear to me. Somehow I don’t think I was alone. People often tell me that Job is one of their favourite Biblical books, but they are perplexed as to what it’s about. I think a lot of people recognise that it contains some beautiful poetry: indeed, in the Hebrew some of the poetry in Job is arguably amongst the most sublime in the Bible, and a sense of this carries through the translation into English. And many of the sentiments expressed by Job (as well as the theological arguments of his friends) ring true with folks wrestling with the problem of human suffering and trying to find meaning in it.

Having recently taken another look at the Book of Job I now have some more ideas and may be a little closer to understanding what it’s writer was trying to convey. So I’d like to toss around some ideas over the next few posts.