Monday, February 23, 2009

Job 1-11: God & Satan, Job & His Pals

So, the Book of Job. You know the story. It seems like it would be about six or seven chapters worth of narrative, right? But no. The Book of Job weighs in at a whopping FORTY-TWO chapters, the most we’ve seen since any book since, well, Genesis (which has fifty). The bulk of the story as you and I know it, moreover, happens in the first chapter and a half. Which means there is a lot of Job left unaccounted for. We better get started.

The Story as You and I Know It

So there's this guy named Job, and he is both very religious and very fortunate. He has seven adult sons and three adult daughters, all of whom get along well, and he's fabulously wealthy. His lifestock holdings are in four digits. Secure and happy in every particular, he nevertheless remembers always to make the ritual sacrifices -- not just for himself, but also some extra for his children, in case they forget.

Now one day God and Satan are talking and ---

WHOA!!! Wait a minute!?! What's this about "Satan"?!?

Here we are on page 374, and the Bible is suddenly giving us what is perhaps a new character, perhaps a radical shift in theology. All through the story of creation and the history of the Israelites, there was never any mention of this Satan character. Suddenly, in the middle of what is looking to be another folktale along the lines of Ruth or Esther, up he pops.

The footnote here in the NIV indicates that the word Satan means "accuser." According to a little minimal research I allowed myself on the subject, Jewish tradition regards Satan as a servant that God might use to do the dirty work, like a bouncer or a district attorney. Could be way off on that one. In the Christian tradition, Satan is of course "the devil," the incarnation of evil. Some Christians, in fact, veer way towards the old theology of Zoroastrianism, in which the world is contested between two dieties of more or less equal power, good and evil. Old-school conservative sects that emphasize Hell and the power of Satan are really 9/10 of the way there. Is there anything in the Bible to support this line of thinking?

Well, perhaps not yet. Let's resume the story in progress.

The Story in Progress

Right, so one day God and Satan are talking, and God brings up the subject of Job and how righteous he is. "Of course he's righteous," replies Satan (I paraphrase). "It's easy for him to be. You've given him an incredibly good life. Take that away from him and he's probably no more righteous than anyone else."

So God proposes to test this theory. Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger. (1:12) A few days later, four of Job's servants run up. Each is the only person to survive a catastrophe: his beasts and agricultural laborers have been stolen or killed, the fire of God has fallen from the sky to kill his sheep and shepherds, the camels have been stolen and their drivers put to the sword, and a mighty wind knocked over the house where all of his children had gathered for a meal, killing them all.
Chagall: Job at Prayer.
Now all of this, I think it's safe to say, would be hard for anyone to hear, but Job remains resolute in his religion. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away," he says. "May the name of the Lord be praised." (1:21)

God and Satan talk about this later. God thinks he's really made a point about how righteous Job is, but Satan says that sparing the man any physical distress made all the difference. OK, says God, do whatever you want to him. But don't kill him. So Satan afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. (2:7) Job continues to hold to his faith. His wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" He replied, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

The Long, Long Conversation

So, that's pretty much the story, right? But that's only a chapter and a half! So why is Job forty-two chapters long? Well, at least as far as I've read so far, it's because he is now going to discuss his situation with passers-by. At length. What happens from 2:11 through at least Chapter 11 is that three of Job's buddies come by and argue with him. They speak in a series of speeches that appear to be in verse form; indeed, Job 3 - 42 appears to be an epic theological poem. Personally, I find this rather heavy going. I have been impressed to date that the Bible, although not always a gripping read, has never been especially difficult to read. This poem of Job, though, tries my attention span.

I will summarize brutally, and to the best of my understanding. Job's buddies, anticipating John Calvin by a few millenia, are convinced that God would only punish the unjust. They chastise Job for not coming clean; if he only admitted his wrongdoing and performed some kind of atonement, they tell him, God would cease to punish him. Job counters that he is blameless, that he really has done nothing wrong. He resolutely resists cursing God, but he repeatedly calls on God for an explaination of why so much misfortune has befallen him.

Now these speaches are long and florid, as I say, and there is very little contextualizing, so it is hard to say what exactly we are supposed to make of them. Are we supposed to agree with Job, or with his buddies? I'm guessing the answer is neither. The buddies are, I think, supposed to be seen as in error when they claim that God will reward righteousness with favor. God, we are supposed to gather, will do whatever he wants -- up to and including ruining a man's life for the sake of a divine parlor bet -- and we are not to presume to guess whom he favors or considers righteous. Job, I think, is supposed to be seen as somewhat less wrong. He is right to accept whatever God throws at him. However, he persists in error by demanding an explanation. No explanations, the story seems to indicate, will be forthcoming, and Job would do even better to accept his fate and keep his yap shut.

I'm only a quarter of the way in, so this interpretation remains open to drastic revision. Plus, as I said, I don't feel like I'm "getting" Job as well as I have the more straightforward material. So take my thoughts, here as always, with a grain of salt. I will say, though, that this section of Job contains a passage I have long known, and which is one of my favorite things to grumble to myself when I'm having a crappy day:

hardship does not spring from the soil,
nor does trouble sprout from the ground.
Yet man is born to trouble
as surely as sparks fly upward.

NEXT: Job and his friends chat some more!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Book of Esther

One of Several Treatments of Esther by Rembrandt

After Ezra and Nehemiah, the twin chronicles of the Jews’ return to Judea from Babylonian exile, comes Esther, a story about events during the captivity. I say “story,” because it feels more like a tale than the various forms of historical account that we have read in the Bible up to this point. Certainly, it has the narrative arc of a fairy tale, and many of the usual tropes: a beautiful queen, treachery punished, and happiness ever after. I’ll give you the condensed version.

How Esther Became Queen

It all starts with a big party. Xerxes the Great throws a half-year extravaganza to show off the magnitude and splendor of his empire, which stretches from Ethiopia to India. After this proto-World’s Fair, there’s a seven-day afterparty for everybody who lives in the capital, complete with an open bar. The text goes into particular detail about the open bar. Then, as ever, a fine thing.

At the end of the party, the king calls for his queen to appear before the nobles, so he can show off how beautiful she is. She says no. This causes much consternation, and the nobles are afraid that when word gets out that the king’s wife disobey him, wives everywhere will stop obeying their husbands. It’ll be chaos! CHAOS!!!

So, it’s decided that the queen will lose her standing, and Xerxes will pick a new queen from among the most beautiful virgins in all the empire. Esther, a lovely Jewish orphan girl who was raised by her uncle Mordecai, enters the contest. Since this is the Book of Esther, not the Book of Mary Lou, you will not be surprised that after much rigmarole she is selected to be the next queen of the Persian Empire.

Enter the Villain

Now that he’s a royal hanger-on, Mordecai takes to loitering about in the palace courtyard. One day he overhears two guards making a conspiracy to assassinate Xerxes. He tells Esther, who tells the king, who escapes the plot and executes the conspirators. Things are going well for the Queen and her uncle.

The trouble starts when Xerxes promotes a guy named Haman to be his second-in-command. Everybody is supposed to bow down to Haman, but because Mordecai is Jewish (and so only supposed to bow down to God, I think the reasoning is here) he won’t. Whenever Haman comes through the courtyard, there’s everybody bowing down except Mordecai. It stands out. It rankles Haman, who develops such a loathing for Mordecai that he tricks Xerxes into letting him proclaim a pogrom against all of the Jews in the reign. A day is chosen by lot when all of the Jews will be rounded up, plundered, and killed, and Haman sends out a proclamation to this effect throughout the empire.

This naturally causes considerable consternation in the Jewish community, and Mordecai implores Esther to try to use her influence on Xerxes. It turns out, though, that this is very tricky. No one, not even the Queen, is allowed to approach Xerxes without him calling for them. If you enter his presence without being asked, you will be put to death – unless he decides on the spot that it’s OK, in which case he will point a special golden scepter at you. You touch the tip of the scepter, and everything’s OK. Freudians, start your engines!

The Villain’s Comeuppance!

Esther works up the nerve to disturb Xerxes, and luckily he is so fond of her that he points his special scepter at her and, after she has touched it, promises to give her whatever she wants. She says that she will prepare a banquet for Xerxes and Haman the following evening, and make her request then.

At the banquet, Esther reveals Haman’s plans and pleads for her life and the lives of all the other Jews in the Empire. Xerxes, who is only just now learning about the pogroms, is livid that he has been tricked, and goes out in the garden to cool off. Haman stays behind to try to beg Esther for mercy, but when Xerxes comes back inside it looks to him like Haman is putting the moves on her. Haman’s goose is pretty much cooked at this point, and shortly afterwards he can be seen dangling from the same high gallows that he had been recently hoping to hang Mordecai from.

So Xerxes calls off the pogroms, the Jews are saved, Esther is happy, and Mordecai is promoted to be Xerxes’ new chief of staff. And this is where we would fade out in the modern after-school special version of the tale.

More Comeuppance!

In the rough and tumble world of the Old Testament, though, there is an important additional aspect to this particular happy ending. The letter that Xerxes sends out doesn’t cancel the pogrom, because the King’s word once proclaimed – or forged, apparently – can not be rescinded. Instead, Xerxes grants all Jews in the empire permission to defend themselves against the pogroms, and

To destroy, kill and annihilate any formed force of any nationality of province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies. (8:11)

With the imperial administration now clearly rooting for the Jews, many converts begin discovering the attractions of Judaism.

The big day comes, and the Jews kill 500 people in the capital, including Hamam’s ten sons. Xerxes, in celebration, asks Esther if she has any additional wishes, and she says yes please: Can we string up the corpses of Hamam’s sons, and can the slaughter continue tomorrow, too? Spunky girl, the queen, and Xerxes indulgently grants her wishes. Three hundred anti-Semites are dispatched in the capital the next day; the two-day body count in the provinces is 75,000. Much feasting and celebration ensues. The end.

Historical Note

The modern Jewish celebration of Purim, I read here in the Wiki, is a commemoration of these events. It is traditionally viewed, reasonably enough, as a celebration of national self-preservation, and a reading of the Book of Esther is a key part of the Purim service.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Book of Nehemiah

The Book of Nehemiah has a lot in common with the Book of Ezra. Like Ezra, it is a first-person account of the return of the “Jews” – Nehemiah, too, uses the new word – from Babylon to Jerusalem. It recounts some of the same events, and indeed contains some of the same lists of how many of which people went where, and when. The same lists, that is, with only enough deviation to disturb the mood of a strict literalist. How many descendents of Arah returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, for instance? Ezra (2:5) says 775; Nehemiah (7:10) says 652. Can’t be both!

Nehemiah, the man, starts off as a cupbearer to (one of the) King Artixerxes(es) in Babylon. One day, noticing that his servant looks glum, the king asks him, well, why the long face? Nehemiah says that he is sad because his ancestral city lies in ruins. Artixerxes asks what Nehemiah would like him to do about it. Nehemiah says send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it. (2:5)

Counter to what you might expect, Artixerxes says “sure thing!” He throws in a substantial allocation of timber from the royal forests, and letters to the local governors, who can not be expected to be enthused about this project. One assumes that ol’ Arti might have had some ulterior motives having to do with regional geopolitics, but who knows? Maybe he just really liked pleasing his servants. Or maybe, as the text implies, he was being manipulated by God in all this.

Class Relations in Early Second Temple Jerusalem: The Rough Guide

The first half of the text is largely an account of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, recounted in great detail. Ezra appears prominently in the second half of the text, as the priest who leads a great religious revival in the rebuilt city. Again, the accounts of events in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah line up pretty well. Here, as in Ezra, what is presented as the glorious rebirth of the Israelite kingdom leaves a distinct impression of a ruling elite, back from Babylon, imposing a strict and unwelcome authority on an underclass of locals whose grandparents escaped the captivity.

When the walls are first completed, for instance, there is a big rally in the city. Ezra reads from the Laws of Moses, and a posse of Levites either clarify or interpret – it’s not clear – the text to the assembled people. Then you get this interesting passage:

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (8:9-12)

Well, maybe. But when a large group of people is weeping and agitated when laws are being read to them, it’s a reasonable inference that these laws are being forced upon them, and they are mourning their humiliation and loss of freedom. Somehow the offer of snacks and drinks seems fairly cynical in this light, and the sudden “celebration with great joy” perhaps an overstatement? But who knows. I wasn’t there.

Nor was I there when all of the people decided to join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses. (10:29) It’s interesting and revealing that the people of Judah suddenly have “nobles” – they never did before – and even more interesting that they would unanimously adopt the rigorous laws of Moses, with its strict limitations on personal and economic freedom and its steep taxation of crops and flocks for the benefit of the priesthood.

Nehemiah, like Ezra, wants to take some credit for the ethnic cleansing of Judah. In the final chapter of his book, the narrative takes the form of a prayer, in which he reminds God of various virtuous acts he has carried out. These include a very strict reimposition of the Sabbath, expulsion from Israel of all who were of foreign descent, and the physical punishment or exile of those whose close relatives married outsiders.

Remember me with favor, O my God, the Book ends, and one has to wonder. On the one hand, this is a man who clearly made critical contributions to the ability of one of history’s most influential small cultures to endure. And, doubtless it is sheer anachronism to judge his more draconian measures against the human rights ideals of the current day. But at the same time, I don’t think that every citizen of Judah felt that the governorship of Nehemiah was an occasion to “celebrate with great joy.” And I feel some measure of sorrow for the losses of those nameless Israelites, all those centuries ago.