Titles of Psalms (Postscript 2)

The use of על in Psalm titles

This post is a more ‘technical’ note and readers without a working knowledge of biblical Hebrew may choose to gloss over it.

As על occurs in several psalm titles it needs to be considered in further detail.[1] Herbert May argues that על is a rubric which should be given a relatively uniform interpretation referring to “the title of the ancient melodies to which the psalm was sung, indicated by the first words or word of the ancient hymn from which they were taken”. He further argues in relation to the occurrence of על in the Psalm titles that “It is not impossible that as a result of outside influences on the temple cult, especially on the music – for it is with the music that this rubric [על] is probably to be associated – changes in the temple cult made this rubric obsolete, so that its significance was forgotten, although it was still inscribed in the superscriptions.”[2] Others have also argued that the same may be true of other terms in the Psalm titles whose meanings have been lost. Thirtle, on the other hand, objects to על being interpreted as relating to a tune, arguing that it means on, concerning, or related to but cannot mean set to. A similar term, אֶל, also occurs in some psalm titles: for example, the Psalm 79 postscript (Ps 80:1) has אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת which here could mean to or possibly in connection with. It should be noted that the interchange of על and אל is a well known phenomenon in biblical texts.[3] However, Thirtle argues that they should be distinguished in the Psalm titles and given different meanings, so he may not have been aware of this phenomenon or he was overly optimistic about the MT’s preservation of linguistic details. [4] In the אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת psalms (56, 57, 58, 74 [postscripts]) the particle עַל gives way to אַל although here, according to several translations, it is used as a negative particle, namely do not destroy.[5] All occurrences of על or אל are in Books I to III, mostly in the Davidic and Elohistic collections. According to Thirtle’s thesis they all occur in postscripts to the preceding psalm, with the exception of על־דברי־כוש בן־ימיני concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite. This is found in the superscript of Psalm 7 and appears to be a historical title.[6] The difficulty here is that this would be the only use of על in the Psalm titles as an historical referent. Childs argues that the preposition rather indicates that Psalm 7 “is to be sung ‘according to the words of Cush’ … and belongs to a liturgical setting.” If he is right then this is actually not an historical title.[7] It would still, however, be the only occurrence of the על rubric in a superscript rather than a postscript.


[1] See Table below

[2] May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” 71-72.

[3] Ian Young, et al., Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), Vol 1, 40.

[4] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 126.

[5] It should be noted that in these superscriptions the MT has אַל (rather than אֶל).

[6] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), drawing on Talmudic sources (BT Mo’ed Qatan 16b and Midrash Tehillim), regards the term “Cush” to be a reference to Saul and the historical context to be David’s cutting of Saul’s garment in 1 Samuel 24:6. Mayer I. Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms 1-89 (Books I-III): With English Translation, Introduction and Notes (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 69, 71.

[7] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

Table: The אל/על rubric

Title אל Psalm (postscript except where indicated) Collection
אל־הנחילות אל 4 Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַשְּׁמִינִית 5, 11 Book I Davidic
עַל־דִּבְרֵי־כוּשׁ בֶּן־יְמִינִֽי

(Possibly an historical title: “Concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite”)

7 (superscript) Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַגִּתִּית 7



Book I Davidic

Book III Asaph

Book III Elohistic

עַל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים 44


Book II Korahite/Elohistic

Book II Davidic

עַֽל־עֲלָמֹות 45 Book II Korahite/Elohistic
עַֽל־מָחֲלַת 52 Book II Davidic
עַל־יֹונַת אֵלֶם רְחֹקִים 55 Book II Davidic
אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת אל 56, 57, 58


Book II Davidic

Book II Asaph

עַל־שׁוּשַׁן עֵדוּת 59 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־נְגִינַת 60 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־יְדוּתוּן 38



Book I Davidic

Book II Davidic

Book III Asaph

אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת אל 79 Book III Asaph
עַל־מָחֲלַת לְעַנֹּות 87 Book III Elohistic

Titles of Psalms (Postscript 1)

Collections of Psalms within the Psalter

It would be clear to any reader that the book of Psalms contains several groupings with common authorship or style, or similar themes. Many translations provide headings for the five major groups as Book 1, Book 2, etc. Within these five books there appears to be other collections such as ‘Songs of Ascent’. It is possible that some or all of these groups of psalms existed independently at some stage and were brought into the book of Psalms in the process of bringing together a larger collection.

The following table may be helpful for understanding the various “collections” within the final form of the “Book of Psalms”. The “Davidic collection” refers to psalms with the title le-David which is discussed elsewhere.

“Elohistic” psalms are those which use the title “elohim” but not the name of God (Psalms which use the divine name are often called “Yahwistic” psalms). It is possible that these psalms were written using the elohim title and never contained the divine name. It is also possible that at some stage an editor decided to replace the divine name with elohim. There is evidence in the Psalter that an ancient editor replaced the divine name in some Psalms with elohim, especially in the group of psalms 42-83. In at least one case both versions (the older “Yahwistic” psalm as well as the edited elohistic one) were kept in the final form of the Psalter. Psalms 14 and 53 are very similar, with the major difference being that Psalm 53 uses elohim while Psalm 14 uses the divine name. Psalm 82 also shows some evidence of having being altered at some stage to remove the divine name. The Elohistic psalms may have been written or compiled for the use of a group within Israel which preferred elohim over the divine name and these collections were later absorbed into the book of Psalms. This editing may have occurred in the period in which Israel began to avoid pronunciation of the divine name. (There are some hints in the book of Daniel that it was also written against a similar background as it shows a preference for adonai over the divine name.)

Structure of the Psalter

Books (Postexilic division) Collections Psalms Stage of redaction[1]




Davidic collection 3-41 Exilic


Elohistic collection 42-83 Exilic
Korahite collection (part of Elohistic collection) 42-49 Later preexilic
Davidic collection 51-72 Exilic


Asaph collection 78-83 Later preexilic
Elohistic collection 84-89 Exilic


YHVH Enthronement 96-99 Later preexilic


Davidic collection 108-110 Exilic
Hallelujah psalms

(Only in Books IV and V)

111-118 Later preexilic
Songs of Ascent 120-134 Exilic
Davidic collection 138-145 Exilic
FRAME Five-fold Doxology 146-150 Post-exilic

[1] According to Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 29.

Titles of Psalms (6)


There are several implications in Thirtle’s thesis for the study of the development of the Psalter. Thirtle agrees with many scholars that the original use of several terms in the Psalms titles had been lost before the time of the LXX translation “as is evident from the disordered state in which they are presented even at that age”, and argues that it then follows that these titles must be very old: if the liturgical terms attached to the psalms are archaic, then it is likely that the psalms themselves were also ancient.[1] He concludes from this that almost the whole of the Psalter is very old.[2] However, almost all the Psalms assigned to “the chief musician” and containing musical notations or the על rubric are contained in the first three books, mostly in the Davidic, Elohistic and Asaph collections, and while Gerstenberger asserts that these psalms were redacted in the exilic or late preexilic periods,[3] a case could also be made for at least some of them being written in the monarchic period. We cannot conclude from this, as Thirtle does, that this is evidence for almost the entire Psalter being from the earlier period. It is arguable that the majority of historical titles are from the exilic or post-exilic periods, and the LXX and Qumran provide evidence of a growing later tendency to attribute psalms to David or to at least make connections to Davidic events or themes. The evidence from Qumran in fact, suggests that Books I to III were stabilised by the beginning of the Qumran period and that Books IV and V remained fluid into the first century CE. The almost complete absence of the rubrics למנצח ,עלמות ,על־ששנים ,שגיון, and על in these later books may support Thirtle’s claim that the key to their understanding was lost early, or it could suggest that they were regarded as archaisms and no longer relevant in the period when the Psalter was completed and stabilised.

David Carr refers to the difficulty of dating biblical psalms, specifically the royal psalms, and urges caution in identifying early monarchic materials in the psalms.[4] While proceeding cautiously he follows by noting that, even if some of the psalms originated in the early monarchic period, “they also have undergone centuries of oral-written tradition before being incorporated into the later Hebrew Bible”.[5]

Some aspects of Thirtle’s work are tenuous, such as his identification of גתית gittith (Pss 8, 81, 84) as pertaining to Tabernacles and ששנים shoshannim (Pss 45, 69) to Passover, and that the psalms with these terms in their titles were to be sung on these occasions. However, he argues convincingly that the rubrics למנצח and על indicate that these psalms were intended for cultic purposes, and should be placed as postscripts to the preceding psalms. The evidence from the LXX and Qumran is that the meaning and cultic purposes of these psalm titles were lost early, and that later editors were inclined to add historical headings in a midrashic style. An analysis of the various collections within the Psalter, paying special attention to the placement of these titles, could provide further opportunities for rewarding insights into the editing and development of the Psalter.


[1] See Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 151-159.

[2] Thirtle makes an exception for the possibility of Psalm 137 being post-exilic.

[3] Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 27-30.

[4] Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: a New Reconstruction, 386.

[5] Ibid., 402.

Titles of Psalms (5)

Initial Reception of Thirtle’s thesis

When J.H.A. Hart reviewed Thirtle’s book soon after it appeared in 1904 he commended it as “a forcible and convincing presentation of a new point of view” noting that “the clue which the writer has discovered is obvious once it is discovered and explained”.[1] Thirtle’s view, he concluded, “deserves serious consideration”.[2] By 1915 The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia included the key points of Thirtle’s theory in its article on the Book of Psalms.[3]

Citations in Commentaries

E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) followed Thirtle’s structuring of the psalm titles in The Companion Bible, a work which he edited and for which he wrote most of the notes and appendices.[4] He claimed that “The Companion Bible is the first edition of the Bible in which the Psalms are thus correctly presented in harmony with the two Psalm-models, Isa. 38.9-20, and Hab. 3.”[5] He acknowledged that the “key” to the proper structuring of the psalms was “discovered by Dr. J.W. Thirtle” and “admirably set forth” by him in his two works[6] having “been lost for so many centuries”.[7]

In his Music in Ancient Israel[8] Alfred Sendrey referred extensively[9] to Thirtle’s arrangement of psalm titles. He noted that “after closely investigating the textual relationship between the psalms and the terms contained in the headings, [Thirtle] has made the important discovery that some of these terms apply not to the following, but to the preceding psalm”.[10] Though Sendrey considers this arrangement clarifies the meaning of most of the musical instructions, he expressed his surprise that “none of the innumerable biblical scholars ever sensed even the remotest possibility of the headings belonging as subscriptions to the preceding psalm”.[11]

Indeed, given the positive reception by some commentators to Thirtle’s thesis it is surprising that others have ignored it completely. Gerald Wilson, for example, has written extensively on the Psalms, including a commentary on Psalms in the NIV Application Commentary series[12] as well as articles dealing with the editorial shaping of the Psalter.[13] One reviewer of his commentary on the Psalms observed: “Unfortunately, in his discussion of psalm titles (75-81) the author makes no mention of the work of James Thirtle … Thirtle’s theory deserves discussion in any serious commentary on Psalms”.[14] Bruce Waltke thinks that Wilson missed the opportunity to gain even more rewarding insights into the editing of the Psalter by ignoring the superscript-prayer-postscript phenomenon.[15] Mitchell Dahood,[16] in an otherwise extensive commentary, tends to gloss over the psalm titles with comments such as “the historical significance of these superscriptions is still a matter of dispute”,[17] while ignoring completely the musical notations.

On the other hand, Dale Brueggemann,[18] Bruce Waltke,[19] Alfred Sendrey[20] and Derek Kidner (although somewhat cautiously),[21] have all referred positively to Thirtle’s postscript idea, with the most thorough validation of Thirtle’s thesis being Waltke’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature titled “Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both”. Commentaries tend to support Thirtle’s thesis positively, or ignore it completely. There does not appear to have been any thorough review which has dismissed the thesis as unsound.

To be continued …


[1] J.H.A. Hart, “Review: The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained by James William Thirtle,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 16, no. 3 (1904): 594.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book Of,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (eds. Orr, et al.; Chicago: Howard-Severance Company, 1915) [cited 3 July 2014]. Available from http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/psalms-book-of.html.

[4] The Companion Bible was originally intended as a six volume work. Only four volumes, covering the Old Testament, were published in Bullinger’s lifetime (from 1909) with the New Testament being completed by colleagues from Bullinger’s notes in 1922. It has continued in print to the present as a single volume.

[5] Ethelbert William Bullinger, The Companion Bible: The Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Critical, Explanatory, and Suggestive Notes and with 198 Appendixes (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, 1969, fp 1909).

[6] The second work being Old Testament Problems.

[7] Bullinger, Companion Bible, Appendix 64.

[8] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969).

[9] There are twenty one references to Thirtle listed in the index.

[10] Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel, 114.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

[13] Including G. H. Wilson, “The Qumran Psalms Scroll (11QPsa) and the Canonical Psalter: Comparison of Editorial Shaping.,”   59, no. 3 (1997); Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Society of Biblical Literature, 1985); Gerald H. Wilson, “Evidence of Editorial Divisions in the Hebrew Psalter,” Vetus Testamentum 34, no. 3 (1984).

[14] William Barrick, “Book Review: Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary By Gerald H. Wilson Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2002),” Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (2003).

[15] Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” 585.

[16] Mitchell Dahood , Psalms, Translation and Notes. 3 vols., (The Anchor Bible 16. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, vol. 1, 1965, vol. 2, 1968, vol. 3, 1970).

[17] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I: 1-50 Introduction, Translation and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1965), 16.

[18] Dale A. Brueggeman, “Psalms: Titles,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (ed. Enns; Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 615.

[19] Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both.”

[20] Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[21] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973).

Titles of Psalms (4)

Septuagint (LXX) and Qumran superscriptions

There are several instances where the LXX deviates significantly from the Masoretic Text in the titles and these should be noted. Five Psalms are attributed to David in the LXX but not in the MT (27, 71, 97, 143, 144), perhaps going some way to repairing the deficiency of the twenty four “orphan psalms”.[1] Several Psalms in English translations have the title “Of David” translating the Hebrew prefix (the letter ל lamed) as “of” or “by”. The attribution לדוד (le-David) is much discussed in the literature and is beyond the scope of this post, except to note Nahum Sarna’s useful observation:

If le-David indeed originally indicated authorship, then it is of interest that the form is unique to the psalms’ literature (cf. Hab. 3:1) for the ascription of no other biblical book to a historic personality ever involves the use of the lamed formula (cf. Song, Proverbs). Yet the Psalter is internally consistent in its employment of the same construction with other names such as the Korahites (Ps. 42, et al.), Asaph (Ps. 50, et al.), Solomon (Ps. 72), Heman (Ps. 88), Ethan (Ps. 89), and Moses (Ps 90).[2]

He asserts that “in Psalm 72 lamed must mean ‘about’ or ‘dedicated to’, and in Psalm 102 le-‘ani can only mean, ‘for [recitation by] the afflicted man’.”[3] If commentators expect to see consistency by the redactors of the Psalter in their use of lamed (not that this should be necessary) then לדוד could just as readily mean about David, or of a Davidic style or genre, as denoting authorship. The question is certainly not settled, and Childs asserts that, “whatever the expression לדוד may once have meant, the claim of authorship now seems most probable. This point is confirmed by the final clause in those titles which specify a particular historical incident in David’s life as providing the occasion for composition.”[4]

Adrian Curtis argues that the superscriptions provide evidence of the beginnings of a process of ongoing interpretation of the psalms, and that the presence of more such titles in the psalms from Qumran and in the Septuagint show that this process continued after the formation of the Psalter as a single collection.[5] Childs argues from the Hebrew version of Psalm 151 from Qumran (11QPsa) and the further expansion of titles in the Syriac Apocryphal Psalms, in the Targum and in the Peshitta, that this process continued for some time.[6] The difference in historical titles in the various sources (MT, Qumran, the Syriac and LXX) “suggests that titles were not fixed and that there was some fluidity”.[7]

Gerstenberger argues that most superscriptions betray later theological and liturgical interests, without heeding the original intentions of the psalm. For him, technical musical terms such as למנצח “to the choirmaster” or what he regards as obscure references to tunes (understanding על as being an indicator of a tune) would have been of interest only to the ritual expert or the leader of community worship. The frequent indications of authorship (David, Korah, Asaph, Solomon, and Moses), and the linkage with incidents in the life of David, made the psalms authoritative and edifying so that the people might expect that their prayers and songs in both private and communal worship would have the same powerful and beneficent effects as of old.[8] Norman Whybray finds confirmation in the historical headings that the editors intended the readers or worshippers to find encouragement and models for their own behavior in the life of David.[9] There is a hint here that these “historical” psalms may have been intended for personal use by the pious rather than for cultic purposes.

References in the titles to historical events provide some of the most convincing evidence that titles may not have been part of the original work but were added by later editors in a style similar to rabbinic midrash.[10] In the MT all the historical titles are in Books I and II (with one exception in Book V). The LXX has a further fourteen historical titles, mostly in Book V.

The evidence from Qumran

Psalms scroll from Qumran. Tehillim 11QPs

Thirty nine Psalms manuscripts have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls. The largest extant, and best preserved, Psalms scroll found at Qumran is 11QPsa . It contains forty nine (or fifty) compositions, or parts thereof, including thirty nine psalms found in Books IV and V of the Masoretic Psalter, and ten (or eleven) additional compositions including four which were previously unknown. It “diverges radically from the Masoretic Psalter, both in arrangement and by the inclusion of additional compositions.”[11] Differences in the order of psalms are also evident in seven manuscripts from cave 4 and a second Psalms scroll from cave 11.[12] Flint summarises the evidence and the opinions of several scholars and concludes that Psalms 1 to 89 (Books I to III) show a high degree of stabilisation during the Qumran period with no major deviation in content from the MT, and with only minor deviations with respect to the ordering of the psalms.[13] However, he finds abundant evidence of major deviations from the MT in Psalms 90 to 150 (Books IV and V), both in content and ordering. This supports the proposal that the compilers of 11QPsa may have regarded this collection as a “work in progress” and Flint concludes that the Book of Psalms was probably finalised in two stages: the first part (Psalms 1-89) was stabilised before the beginning of the Qumran period (which he puts at about 150 BCE); the second part (Psalms 90-150) remained fluid into the first century CE.[14]

This is important to note for an investigation of the superscripts and postscripts, as Thirtle’s theory relies on the ordering of the Masoretic Psalter. Interestingly, almost all the psalms containing the למנצח to the chief musician rubric in the superscript (or postscript, according to Thirtle), and therefore important for Thirtle’s thesis, are in Psalms 1 to 89 (fifty two psalms, with only three in Book V[15]). Thirtle argued that the “key” to the interpretation of the musical and liturgical notes in the superscripts was “lost early”. The concentration of these terms in Psalms 1 to 89 while almost completely absent in the remainder of the Psalter, together with the evidence from Qumran, supports his thesis and suggests that the understanding of these terms was lost before the compilation or stabilisation of Books IV and V.

To be continued …


[1] A Talmudic term for psalms without a superscription (Av. Zar. 24b)

[2] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 669.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

[5] Adrian H.W. Curtis, “”A Psalm of David, when …”: Reflections on Some Psalm Titles in the Hebrew Bible,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines (eds. Aitken, et al.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 59.

[6] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 143.

[7] Curtis, “Reflections on Some Psalm Titles,” 55.

[8] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 1, With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry (ed. Rolf P. Knierim; Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1988), 30.

[9] Roger Norman Whybray, Reading the Psalms as a book (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 21.

[10] See Elieser Slomovic, “Toward an Understanding of the Formation of Historical Titles in the Book of Psalms,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 91, no. 3 (1979); Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis.”

[11] Peter W. Flint, The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 39-40.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 141. The manuscripts for Psalms 1-89 are much more fragmentary than for Psalms 90-150, so caution must be exercised in drawing conclusions about these sections of the Psalter.

[14] Ibid., 146.

[15] In the MT appearing as superscripts to Psalms 109, 139 and 140.

Titles of Psalms (3)

Musical Notations and Instruments

It is common for some translators to comment (typically as footnotes or marginal notes) regarding many of the terms in the psalm titles that “the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear” and that the terms are probably musical notations of some kind. Thirtle, not content to leave matters as “unclear” or too difficult, distinguishes the terms in the superscripts from those in the postscripts. He claims on the one hand that the superscripts contain information about authorship and sometimes historical background, as well as using literary terms which describe the type of psalm. On the other hand, the postscripts contain musical terms, including references to instruments, and certain liturgical terms. The most important term for his thesis, primarily because it occurs in Habakkuk which provides a “key” to its correct placement in the Psalms, is למנצח “for the leader” or “for the Chief Musician” or “to the choir master” which occurs in fifty five Psalms. It is rendered in LXX by εἰς τὸ τέλος  for the end, or regarding completion, apparently reading the Hebrew as a niphal participle לנצחת enduring or for eternity.[1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), referring to the verbal root נצח meaning “leading” and citing Ezra 3:8, understands the term to refer to the Levites who lead the instrumental music in the Temple.[2]

The title מזמור mizmor, from the root זמר , is attached to fifty seven Psalms (predominantly in Book I but spread across all five books) and seems to be connected with playing instruments.[3] The Septuagint translates it ψαλμὸς psalmos which is derived from psallein which means to pluck and presumably refers to stringed instruments which were plucked. Montagu suggests that these psalms may therefore have been performed with musical accompaniment and that the psalms titled שיר a song were sung. That may further suggest that the fourteen psalms which have both words (“A Psalm, a Song” in some translations, or better, “A song with musical accompaniment”) were sung with musical accompaniment. This then raises the question as to how those described as מזמור mizmor (“with musical accompaniment”) only were to be performed, as the words must have been heard somehow, if not sung. “Unfortunately, no such correlations wholly work and the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that we really do not know what these words imply”.[4] Psalm 81:2 uses the phrase שאו־זמרה using another word also derived from the root זמר together with a word meaning “to lift up” (cf. Psalm 24:7, 9) and the directive probably means “lift up the zimrah. This suggests that the zimrah was a particular instrument, or class of instruments. Accompaniment by musical instruments is also indicated in seven psalms as well as Habbakuk 3:19 which use the term בנגינות which probably means “with stringed instruments”.[5]

According to Rabbinical interpretation a number of other terms in psalm titles also refer to musical instruments: “Menahem [b. Jacob Ibn Saruq] explained that all of the terms nehiloth, alamoth (Ps. 46:1), gittith (Ps. 8:1; 81:1; 84:1), and Jeduthan (Ps. 39:1; 62:1; 77:1) are names of musical instruments and that the melody for the psalm was made appropriate to the music characteristic of the particular instrument named in the title of the particular psalm.”[6] Against this, Thirtle argues that עלמות, which literally means young women,[7] refers to a female choir (while שמינית refers to a male choir[8]), and ידיתון refers to the choir originally under the control of the Levite thus named.[9] Sendrey concurs and lists several biblical texts where female singers are mentioned.[10] Thirtle understands נחילות inheritances to refer to a commemoration of the taking possession of the promised land under Joshua,[11] a view also taken by the aggadic Midrash Tehillim which interpreted נחילות as “inheritance”, although Rashi disputes this meaning “as the subject matter of the psalm does not refer to inheritance”.[12] However, if this is read as a postscript to Psalm 4 not only is this objection removed, there are, in fact, several expressions in that psalm which might allude to the occupation of the land (Psalm 4: 8, for example, refers to dwelling in safety, a strong Deuteronomic theme). The LXX also adopted this meaning with its translation ὑπὲρ τῆς κληρονομούσης over her that inherits.

To be continued …


[1] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 673.

[2] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 60.

[3] Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible, 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 668.

[6] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

[7] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, 835.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 110.

[9] 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 16:1; 25:1

[10] 2 Samuel 19:36; 2 Chronicles 35:25; Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67, and Ecclesiastes 2:8. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 172.

[12] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

Titles of Psalms (2)

Thirtle identified in the stand-alone psalm of Habakkuk a pattern for interpreting the structure of psalms elsewhere. The prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38 is remarkably similar, leading Brevard Childs to comment:

The most striking feature of Isa. xxxviii. 9 is the similarity of form between the superscription and those of the Psalms. The similarity reaches to the technical Psalm classification, the designation of the author, and the specification in the infinitival form of a setting which referred to a historical event known elsewhere in the Old Testament.[1]

This similarity further validates Thirtle’s thesis.

Habakkuk 3:1-19


תְּפִלָּה לַחֲבַקּוּק הַנָּבִיא עַל שִׁגְיֹנֹֽות׃

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth.


לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינֹותָֽי

To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.

Isaiah 38:9-20


מִכְתָּב לְחִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶֽלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה בַּחֲלֹתֹו וַיְחִי מֵחָלְיֹֽו׃

The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness


יְהוָה לְהֹושִׁיעֵנִי וּנְגִנֹותַי נְנַגֵּן כָּל־יְמֵי חַיֵּינוּ עַל־בֵּית יְהוָֽה׃

The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.

If Thirtle is correct then the merging of the postscripts with the superscripts of the following psalm must have happened early, before the translation of the psalms into Greek and before the production of the manuscripts from which the Qumran Psalms scrolls were copied, as both the earliest accessible Septuagint manuscripts and the Qumran scrolls include the postscripts and the superscripts on the same line without any distinguishing separation marks. However, the Isaiah and Habakkuk texts indicate that the arrangement of psalms into superscript, psalm and postscript was still understood in the late monarchic period.

There is some evidence in the Greek translation of the Psalms that the translators had difficulty in determining where one psalm ended and the next began.[2] For example, the LXX adds the word αλληλουια alleluia (functionally equivalent to הללו יה hallelujah) to the beginning of nine psalms: 105, 107, 114-119 and 135. In all but Psalms 115 and 118 the hallelujah belongs in the MT to the preceding psalm. In the MT הללו יה hallelujah occurs at the end of Psalms 104, 105, and 115 but appears at the beginning of the subsequent psalms in the LXX. Psalms 9 and 10 in the MT have been combined in the LXX and numbered as 9. Psalms 114 and 115 in the MT have been combined in the LXX and numbered as 113. Psalm 116 has been divided in the LXX and numbered as 114 and 115. Psalm 147 in the MT has been divided in the LXX into 146 and 147. Wilson argues that this was deliberate and that “the LXX rectified the ‘nakedness’ of Psalm 114 in the MT and Targum by shifting the הללו יה postscript of Psalm 113 to the beginning of Psalm 114, by combining Psalms 114 and 115, and by shifting the postscripts of Psalms 115, 116, 117 to the beginnings of Psalms 116, 117, and 118”.[3] It could equally be the case that there was uncertainty as to where some psalms ended and others began, and that the translators did not know whether הללו יה concluded or introduced a psalm (or both, in the case of Ps 113 in the MT). [4] There may have been some confusion about where one psalm ended and the next began, although it is also possible that the translators had access to a variant Hebrew Vorlage which reflected a different tradition of the arrangement of these Psalm headings.[5]

Psalm 48 concludes with the strange phrase הוא ינהגנו על־מות he will lead us unto death and Kidner notes that if the final words על־מות are joined, as in some Hebrew manuscripts, they can be vocalised as עֹלָמוֹת evermore, which he regards as an intact postscript.[6] The LXX apparently followed this reading with its εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας to the ages (commonly translated as for ever). Herbert May argues that the על מות at the end of Psalm 48 may be an allusion to a melody, and “really belongs to the superscription of Ps. 49:1, as most commentators agree”.[7] However, there is also the possibility that these words have been corrupted and should be read as על־עלמות as in Psalm 46:1 (which Thirtle understands to be a postscript to Psalm 45). Oesterley notes a similarity to Psalm 9:1 and the possibility of a corruption and suggests that עלמות לבן should read על־עלמות as in Psalm 46.[8] If he is correct than the expression על־עלמות occurs three times in the Psalms: as a postscript to Psalm 48 and a superscript to Psalms 9 and 46. Perhaps all three should be read as postscripts, following Thirtle’s thesis, and the MT of Psalm 48 provides evidence of an original postscript. If so, it would be an example of an intact postscript retained in Psalms.

Commenting on Thirtle’s suggestion that the musical directions were originally attached as postscripts to the preceding psalms, Jeremy Montagu raises the issue that “there is no certainty that the psalm which precedes any title now has always done so – the order of the Psalter has almost certainly changed over time”.[9] This valid point highlights the view that Thirtle appears to have given little if any consideration to the likely development of the Psalter over a long period of time. While the connection between the titles of certain psalms with material in the preceding psalm is persuasive, in other cases Thirtle’s attempts to find a connection seem somewhat strained. So, in the case of Psalm 9 the title עלמות לבן is interpreted as עַל מוּת לַבֵין concerning the death of the champion and certain phraseology in the preceding psalm is interpreted in the light of this rendering to refer to the death of Goliath. He appeals to the similarity with אִישׁ־הַבֵּנַיִם in 1 Samuel 17:4, 23 and the Targum of Psalm 9 which has על מיתותא דגברא רי נפק מביני משריתא “concerning the death of the man/warrior who went out between the armies”.[10] However, the connections between Psalm 8 and the death of Goliath are strained and unconvincing. It is possible, if the title of Psalm 9 did indeed refer to the death of the champion Goliath, that it was attached as a postscript to another psalm which has been displaced, as Montagu’s caution might suggest.

Psalm 22 (21 in LXX) has the Hebrew title על־אילת השחר on (or concerning) the doe (or hind) of the dawn but in the LXX is ὑπὲρ τῆς ἀντιλήμψεως τῆς ἑωθινῆς  Over the support at dawn. Thirtle suggests this may have been an attempt by the translators to relate the title to the words of verse 20 (19). [11] “But you, O Lord, do not put my help far away! Attend to my support!” The Hebrew is enigmatic and this has led to several possible explanations. Thirtle regards this as a postscript to Psalm 21 which he considers to be a kind of “national anthem” for Davidic Israel.[12] Other scholars agree that Psalm 21 belongs in the class of “Royal Psalms” with echoes of Judah’s most ancient royal traditions.[13] Thirtle therefore reads “hind of the dawn” as a kind of term of endearment for the king, a description of him in royal beauty. This, however, is hardly more convincing than any other explanation of this difficult phrase. Again this could very well be another case of a postscript which was originally attached to another psalm which once stood immediately before Psalm 22 but was displaced in the process of compiling and editing the various collections which eventually became the Psalter.

To be continued …


[1] Brevard S Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 16, no. 2 (1971): 142.

[2] It should be noted that the earliest extant complete manuscripts of Greek translations of the Psalms are the uncial codexes, Vaticanus (c. 325-350 CE) and Sinaiticus (c. 330-360 CE). Uncial manuscripts were written in scriptio continua with very few divisions between words. Although scrolls and fragments in Greek of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomony and the Twelve Prophets have been found at Qumran, no Greek portions of Psalms have been discovered.

[3] Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, 180.

[4] Nahum M. Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (ed. Skolnik: Macmillan Reference, 2003), 665.

[5] Peter Flint has provided considerable evidence which suggests that, “while the Vorlage of the Septuagint Psalter is not evident in any single Psalms manuscript, several shared variants and passages show that the translator’s Hebrew text contained many readings found in specific scrolls but not in the Masoretic Text.” See Peter W. Flint, The Psalters at Qumran and the Book of Psalms (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertations Publishing., 1993), 199-207.

[6] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 181 n.1.

[7] Herbert Gordon May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58, no. 1 (1941): 77.

[8] W.O.E. Oesterley, The Psalms: Translated with Text-Critical and Exegetical Notes (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), 13.

[9] Jeremy Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 73.

[10] Edward M. Cook, The Psalms Targum: An English Translation (2001 [cited 12 July 2014); available from http://targum.info/pss/ps1.htm.

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 17.

[12] Ibid., 86.

[13] For example, David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: a New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 389.

Titles of Psalms (1)

I must apologise for not posting anything for so long, and I won’t bore you with excuses, but I will make every effort to post more regularly in future. My current research is focussed on unusual linguistic features in The Twelve Prophets in general and Jonah in particular, so I will definitely be posting about that in future. In the meantime I will post some thoughts about the titles of the Psalms.

In 1904 James Thirtle, a relatively little known biblical scholar, wrote The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained.[1] Thirtle argues that the meaning of many of the titles of the psalms, especially those using musical terms, had been lost relatively early, but that the stand alone psalm in Habakkuk 3 was an example of a structure to be applied to many of the other psalms and provided a key to the meaning of the titles.

J.W. Thirtle’s Thesis

Thirtle argues that the meanings of several terms which appear in the titles to many psalms in the Masoretic Text[2] of the Hebrew Bible were lost even before their translation into Greek in the Septuagint.[3] There were two main reasons for this: first, in many cases what we now understand as the “titles” were originally postscripts to the previous psalm which merged with the superscript of the following psalm, so that their original connection with the previous psalm was lost. Second, the term למנצח to the leader, or chief musician[4] was a rubric designating the psalm’s assignment for liturgical use in the first Temple, and associated terms therefore often served a liturgical purpose, providing directions to the chief musician concerning the occasion for its use, the type of choir, and so on. Thirtle came to these conclusions primarily by comparing the psalms in the collection with the stand alone psalm in Habakkuk which has a superscript תפלה לחבקוק הנביא על שגינות “A Prayer of the prophet Habakkuk in the mode of Shigionoth” and concludes with a postscript למנצח בנגינותי “for the leader; with instrumental music” (NJPS[5]).

Thirtle deduced from this arrangement that other psalms with similar phraseology should be set out similarly: namely, musical notations such as “for the leader” and “with instrumental music” should be placed as a postscript to the preceding psalm, while notes which appear to relate to authorship, descriptions of the type of psalm (prayer, miktam, maschil, etc.), and those of a literary or historical nature should remain in the superscript. He further deduced from the psalm of Habakkuk that “in the mode of Shigionoth”,[6] being included in the superscript rather than with the musical notations at the end, served some special literary or liturgical function rather than indicating a musical type.[7]

By dividing some of the titles into a postscript which should be attached to the end of the preceding psalm, and a superscript, Thirtle removes the difficulty in the title of Psalm 88 which, as it stands in the MT and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. He argues that the phrase “A song, a psalm of Korahites”, should be placed at the end of Psalm 87 which is explicitly described in its superscription as “Of the Korahites; a psalm; a song”, leaving the title “a maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” in place as the title of Psalm 88.[8] He cited Franz Delitzsch who commented that there are here “alongside of one another two different statements” as to the origin of one psalm, and asked “which notice is the more trustworthy?”[9] This explanation creates the difficulty that Psalm 87 would then be the only psalm to have an almost identical description in both its superscript and postscript, although this would be less of a difficulty than Psalm 88 being attributed to two different authors, and it frees Psalm 88 from its awkward association with the Korahites as it differs from the other Korahite psalms in content.[10]

In a similar way, Thirtle’s thesis makes sense of the title of Psalm 56 (על־יונת אלם רחקים which NJPS leaves untranslated with the note “meaning of Heb. uncertain” but which other translations render as “A Dove on Distant Oaks” [NIV] or “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths” [ESV]). This title seems to bear no obvious relationship to the psalm which follows, but is preceded by Psalm 55 which includes the lines “Oh that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and find rest; surely I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness” (Ps 55:6-7). Several commentators[11] have observed the similarity between the words of Psalm 55 and the title of Psalm 56 “but it seems never to have occurred to them to go behind appearances and thoroughly to examine the entire system of psalm inscriptions”.[12]

To be continued …


[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained (London: Henry Frowde, 1904). Dr Thirtle (1854-1934) also wrote Old Testament Problems: Critical Studies in the Psalms and Isaiah (London: Henry Frowde, 1907). He was the editor of The Christian between 1887 and 1934 and was a close friend of several better known scholars, including E.W. Bullinger and Joseph Rotherham, the author of The Empasized Bible (he delivered the eulogy at Rotherham’s funeral in 1910). In The Christian in 1904 he advertised for sale the library of Charles Spurgeon, suggesting that he may also have been close to the well-known preacher. However, relatively little is known about Thirtle himself.

[2] Hereafter MT.

[3] Hereafter LXX.

[4] The meaning of this term will be further considered in a later post.

[5] Bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[6] The term על in the mode of, or for will be discussed in a later post.

[7] The Habakkuk psalm superscript is similar to Psalm 7:1 which has the words שגיון לדוד “Shiggaion of David”.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 13-14.

[9] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Psalms (trans. Bolton; Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), vol iii, 24..

[10] Bruce K. Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 4 (1991): 592.

[11] Including Delitzsch, Psalms, vol ii, 166.

[12] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 15.

Husband or master?

In an earlier post I argued that the relationship between God and his people is described in several places in the Hebrew Bible as being like a partnership and that this equality between the creator and the created was radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. I quoted 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. Suzanne McCarthy has posted an article today along similar lines and with some interesting comments about the use of these terms in modern Israel.

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.

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.

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.

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

Jewish scrolls discovered in Afghanistan

This is interesting! The Jerusalem Post has reported that the scholarly world is abuzz over the discovery of ancient Jewish scrolls in a cave in Afghanistan’s Samangan province. The article says “If the scrolls are authenticated, they may be the most significant historical finding in the Jewish world since that of the Cairo Geniza in the 19th century”. I expect the JP journalist knows about the Dead Sea Scrolls!

It appears that the scrolls were part of a Synagogue geniza – a burial site for sacred Jewish texts – and date from around 1,000 years ago and are in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and ancient Persian.The area in which the scrolls were discovered is on the Silk Road, a trade route that connected eastern Asia with the Middle East and Europe, and that Jewish merchants often traveled. The JP article quoted sources as saying the scrolls had first been moved to Pakistan’s Peshawar province, and from there been sold to antiquities dealers in Geneva, London, Dubai and Jerusalem.

Hopefully this is not another fraud. I will watch with interest.

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.