Archive for the ‘The Old Testament’ Category

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The  Choice 3 — Dan Jocobsen

July 16, 2014
The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

We continue with a final post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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An anthropologist may declare, as Edmund Leach does in Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, that the reason for the  choice  is  essentially  that  this  line  is  the  “purest”  in blood, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is Abraham’s half-sister, which  the  mother  of  Ishmael  is not;  but  from  our  point of view that merely puts the question back a stage further. We still have  to ask: Why this line?

The “purity” of  the line from Abraham  and his family matters,  after all, only because he has already been chosen. As for Jacob and Esau, who are not merely born of the same mother but are twins, the  one  is  preferred  above  the  other  when  they  are  still in the womb: “the elder shall serve the younger.” (A reversal of  the  primogenitive  order  is found  in many  biblical narratives;  the case of  David, which is mentioned  below, is one of the most striking of these.)

It cannot be said that the patriarchs are chosen for their special virtues; if anything, the case is exactly the other way around: whatever virtues are ascribed to them appear to spring from the fact that they have been specially favored or elected — and that they know it. 

Now, one might argue — as Thomas Mann does in Joseph and His Brothers, a series of ironic, avowedly fictional variations upon the legends of Genesis — that in this respect Yahweh’s actions are very much like those of life itself , which also “chooses” with apparent capriciousness those people whom it blesses (and curses) with gifts of any kind, and, which invariably lets them know that they have been so chosen. (In 1 Samuel 16, to take an example from much later in the story, David is described as a handsome youth, with particularly beautiful eyes; but the “Spirit of the Lord”  comes “mightily upon him” only after Samuel has anointed him as the king-to-be: in other words, once he knows that he has been chosen.)

Alternatively, it could simply be said that the biblical story, like any myth about the genesis of any people, has to begin somewhere, and with someone: why· not with Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees? Both these arguments are persuasive enough, and they are not incompatible with one another. 

But  they  are incompatible  with the claims that the Scriptures themselves make on Yahweh’s behalf: above all, with the design that is insistently imputed to him, from the beginning to the end of the biblical text. He is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision; no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices he makes. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of  morality.

“The Lord sees not as man sees.” In some of the biographical narratives, there is a hint that the favored of God might be those who are scorned or overlooked by others. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Even David falls into this category; no one thinks to send for him, the youngest son of Jesse, when Samuel comes to the house in search of Saul’s successor to the throne. A preference by Yahweh for the downtrodden is more than hinted at in the account of the liberation  of  the  entire people  from  their  bondage in Egypt; while in the codes of law and conduct that are promulgated in Yahweh’s name in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy,  the  weakest  members  of  society-the  poor,the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner or stranger­ — are spoken of with great moral generosity, even with tenderness, as being under his special guardianship. (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for  you  were  sojourners  in  the  land of Egypt.” Another form of reciprocity, that must be called.)

Eventually, in  a development already alluded to in discussing the fall of Jerusalem, the prophets who faced the catastrophes of national defeat and exile, and all the hardships of their own calling, were more and more to insist programmatically that God’s final election must fall upon the humiliated and the outcast. Yet in developing  out of  their  owntragic situation this systematization or moralization of the way in which Yahweh makes his choices, the prophets, inevitably enough invoked as precedent his (belated) recollection of  his promises  to the patriarchs during an earlier period  of  exile and servitude. And that brings us back, as they intended  it to, to the mystery  of  his initial  choice.

It is not surprising that later rabbinical commentators were also to attempt to rationalize the initial choice of Abraham and  (some of )  his descendants by inventing  a series of  what might  be  called  justificatory  legends about  it. It was said, for instance, that Yahweh  had offered the yoke of  his  Law  to  all  the  nations  of  the  earth  in turn;  only Israel had been willing to accept  it. It was also said that even  as a boy Abraham  had  distinguished  himself  by his contempt for idolatry, and by breaking the idols of his father. There is no warrant in the text itself  for these stories; in fact,  what  they  betray  is a  certain  unease  about  there being no warrant  for them. 

A  rather   more  sophisticated,   theological   justification for  the  apparent   arbitrariness — or   “scandal” — of   Yahweh’s  · choice of the people of Israel has been urged with particular insistence by some Christian interpreters: Paul, the ex-Jew, being the very first among them (Romans 9:10-11).  As I understand it, the argument goes that if we were to be given a reason for the choice, then the quality of grace it shows would inevitably be diminished or devalued; indeed, to seek for a reason is to attempt to do away with the very notion of God exercising his completely unconstrained will in the matter, which is the only true meaning the word “choice” should have. 

This is ingenious, and in some ways it actually seems to me closer to what we find in the text than are the rabbinical stories just cited; at least it confronts the fact that we are dealing with an act of unexplained and dangerous favoritism — and one that was at a profound level recognized as such by the biblical writers themselves.

 

The freedom which Yahweh enjoys is in any case constrained in one most important respect: the one thing he is  not free to  do  is  to refrain  from  choosing.  At  a  time when there are only four people on the entire earn — Adam, Eve, and their two sons — Yahweh is already engaged in the practice.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The conse­quences of this, supposedly God’s very first act of favoritism, are at once shown to be disastrous for both brothers. First it produces envy, then murder, then a man forever on the run. But does Yahweh learn from this experience? Not at all! 

Once he has begun in this way, he apparently cannot stop. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” he says, with more grimness than grace in Exodus 33:19-20, “and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (The passage is quoted in the Pauline Letter mentioned above.) Everything that follows can be understood as an illustration or elaboration of this ambiguous utterance.

Whole peoples are chosen and rejected; the land is chosen and later, in a  sense, rejected; so are particular groups and tribes within Israel itself; so are particular places within the land. The record of these events obviously reflects in each case some greater or lesser vicissitude in the history of the nation or in the history of the cult; but it also reveals just how “natural” to the  Israelites’ conceptions of God was the act of choosing and rejecting, in so many different contexts. 

This activity is strongly associated, especially in Leviticus, with that ritualistic preoccupation  with “holiness” and  “separation” with  “cleanness”  and  “uncleanness,”  in  terms of  which everything,  from the fish in the sea to the days of the calendar, was ultimately to be categorized. That preoccupation, I need hardly add, still looms large in rabbinic Judaism. “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast  and the unclean”  (Leviticus 20:24-25).

 What makes this God such an inveterate or compulsive chooser? What is it about the act of  choosing that reveals his very nature?  The answer I am going to suggest shows clearly that in the creation of  our fantasies,  and hence in the  development  of  our  moral  lives,  “weaknesses”  and “strengths” are as inextricably bound  up with one another as are “good” impulses and “bad.” Yahweh comes into being as a choosing  God because,  unlike  the gods· of  Egypt  or Assyria, say, or even those of Canaan, he is not autochthonous; that is, he is a God of a people whose primal historical memory appears to be one of enslavement and homelessness, of searching for a territory, of being without that which all other peoples apparently had. Like the people , he is a wanderer, a God looking for a land — therefore he has to “choose” the land from outside it, just as he had to originally to choose or form the people itself.

For  ask  now  of  the  days that  are past,  which  were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of . . . . Or has any god ever at­ tempted to go and take a nation for himself  from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and  by  war,  by  a  mighty  hand  and  an outstretched arm,  and  by  great  terrors,  according  to  all  that  the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
DEUTERONOMY 4:32, 34

In other words, if it had not been said of Yahweh that he had created heaven and earth, if he had not been given “extraterritorial” status from the very outset, he would not have been able to dispose of a land that was not “his ” and deal so effectively with the Egyptians, or choose as his own a nation which was still to become a nation.

Thus you shall say to  the  house  of  Jacob,  and  tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, be my own kingdom of priests and a holy   nation.
EXODUS 19:3-6

And if this was true for the Israelites when they began to keep the record of his deeds, during their time of national independence, it had to be no less true for the prophets when they contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of his Temple, and the renewed enslavement of his people.

Out of the people’s weakness had come his power, including his power to choose; the wider the scope of that power was seen to be, the greater was he glory of those upon whom his choice had fallen — and also the more exposed and vulnerable they felt their position to be. Yahweh had been free to choose Israel, or not, as he wished. Israel, it seemed had no choice but to be chosen.

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The  Choice 2 — Dan Jocobsen

July 15, 2014
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis  15:12-15

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram ‘Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis 15:12-15

We continue with a second post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (2001), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Where the biblical writers differ from the rest of us (as Spinoza himself  puts it in another context) is in their “unusually  vivid  imaginations.”  They revealed  their imaginative power,  I would  argue,  quite as much  in  the running account they give us of the relations between God and his chosen people as in the individual visions and tales which the larger narrative  contains.

Like every highly  developed work of the imagination, the biblical “story of the stories” has the effect of showing us just  how inextricably inter­twined,  in  the  depths  of  the psyche,  are  the  connections’ between our benevolent  and malevolent impulses, between childishness  and  maturity,  between  envy  and  generosity. As dramatists or storytellers  (though not as philosophers), the biblical  writers  knew  more about  themselves  and  the rest of us than Spinoza gave them credit for; they certainly knew more than he did about the perils as well as the advantages of the special relationship they claimed to have with their God.

Thus, while exulting over Yahweh’s choice, and rejoicing in the discomfiture of their enemies, who had been passed over and rejected, the composers of the biblical story could never lose sight of the terrifying possibility that  it might be their turn next to join the ranks of the rejected.  That was the danger to which they had exposed themselves imaginatively in evoking a God who exercised  choices of  such a fateful kind; that was the price they had  to pay for the favor he had bestowed upon them. 

The constant presence of the possibility of such a rejection is one of the wonders of the entire tale. Sooner or later  it is bound  to  happen, the story implicitly tells us, to those who seek preferment or special terms from the world all men are compelled to live in. Which is not to say, the story also tells  us,  that they will ever desist from seeking such preferment, and trying their hardest to get away with it unscathed. The explicit moral is that the people of Israel fall into God’s disfavor only when they disobey him; the tacit  moral  is that the very notion  of  having  been  chosen  by  such  a God  will produce the retribution appropriate  to it. It  is, I suspect, because the former moral is urged upon us with such exhaustive vehemence that the latter has been virtually overlooked.

Anyway, if one returns to the opening question, and rephrases it to  ask why, in the estimation of the Israelites themselves, Yahweh had chosen them to be his special possession: among the nations, one sees that it calls for answers of two different kinds. Firstly, it can be answered in terms of the religious  and  historical  purposes  God is supposed to have had in mind in making such a choice. Secondly, one can try to explain why  this  particular  people  rather than some other was chosen to fulfill those special purposes. 

Now, while the Scriptures have a great  deal to say about the first kind of explanation — that is, about Yahweh’s intentions for his chosen — they tell us practically nothing, explicitly at least, about his reasons for making this choice “from all other people that are upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33: 15). This is not because the writers took Yahweh’s choice wholly for granted, or assumed that the reasons for it would be self-evident. Far from it. Indeed, the sense of being forever on trial, which is one of the consequences of the apparent arbitrariness of the claim to have been specially chosen, is a constant in Israelite and Jewish history.

The  formal  explanations  as  to  why  the  choice  fell  on the Israelites rather than on some other people always refer back to previous commitments by Yahweh — which are themselves then left entirely unexplained. In Exodus we are told that God intends to redeem the people from slavery in Egypt because he has “remembered” the covenant he made with the patriarchs;  in Deuteronomy  this is forcefully repeated several times.

In Deuteronomy also the Israelites are explicitly told that it was not because of their “righteousness” or “uprightness” that they were chosen by Yahweh, or because they were more powerful or many in number, in Exodus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a suggestion that is recalled in Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy the Israelites in the desert. Then he and Moses might begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about the favor that Yahweh haas done them. The effect however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence more unfathomable and more alarming than ever. 

This impression can only be strengthened when we turn to the promises in Genesis which are so insistently referred to as the ultimate source of all Yahweh’s commitments to the children of Israel.

[For  reasons  already  given, the argument  is not  really affected  by  the fact that some or even all of these promises may have been retrospectively written into earlier legends which were originally told without them are explicitly told that it was not because of their "righteous­ ness"  or  "uprightness"  that  they  were  chosen  by  Yahweh, or because they were powerful or many in number; in Exo­dus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a sugges­ tion which is elaborately recalled in Numbers 14 and Deu­ teronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy tlie Israelites  in  the  desert.  Then  he  and  Moses  might  begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about  the favor  that  Yahweh  has  done them. The  eff ect, however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence into earlier legends which  were originally without  them. To say of  something which appears in an otherwise  "early" text that it is a relatively late interpolation does not disqualify it from being treated, in my terms, as an integral  part  of the story. Exactly the opposite is true.  Such  "backing and  filling,"  of  which there is clearly a great deal, shows how keenly the writers and editors of the text felt the need to harmonize the tales they already had, from whatever sources they came, with any additional material they wished  to  incorporate  into  the story. In other words, they tried, at least intermittently, to view the text  as a whole, and wanted it to be viewed as a whole.

A particularly  obvious,  and in my opinion particularly  moving, example of the use made by the writers of the opportunities given to them for a retrospective enlargement and self-endorsement of the legends of the patriarchs is to be found in Genesis  15:12-15, which  "looks forward" vividly  to what is already known in terms of the myth, to have taken place:

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.]

Why does God declare to Abraham that he should go from his country and his kindred  and his father’s house to the land that would be shown to him where he would become “a great nation”? We are not told. Why, among Abraham’s sons, does God choose Isaac to be the one with whom he will establish an “everlasting covenant,” while proffering to Ishmael the consolation of fathering another, uncovenanted nation? We are not told. 

Why is Jacob preferred above his brother Esau; or to put the story in another way, why is Jacob allowed to cheat Esau out of his father’s blessing, so that the divine prophecy made to Rebecca (“two people born of you shall be divided the one shall be stronger than the other”) might be fulfilled in Jacob’s favor? Again, we are not told. Abraham and one particular line descending from him are chosen: that is all. 

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The  Choice 1 — Dan Jocobsen

July 14, 2014
Shasu is an Egyptian word for semitic-speaking pastoral cattle nomads who lived in the Levant from what was known, to human history, as the late 'Bronze Age' to the 'Early Iron Age' or 'Third Intermediate Period' of Egyptian history. These peoples of the Demiourgós were organized in clans, under tribal chieftaisn, and were described by those around them as lawless brigands, active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai. The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word shasu, meaning "those who move on foot", into the term for Bedouin-type wanderers. The term first originated in an ancient list of peoples in Transjordan. It is used in a list of enemies of Egypt inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by the Pharoah Amenhotep III. Copied later by either Pharaoh Seti I and Pharaoh Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S'rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm't, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh), and the Shasu of Pysps.

Shasu is an Egyptian word for semitic-speaking pastoral cattle nomads who lived in the Levant from what was known, to human history, as the late ‘Bronze Age’ to the ‘Early Iron Age’ or ‘Third Intermediate Period’ of Egyptian history.
These peoples of the Demiourgós were organized in clans, under tribal chieftaisn, and were described by those around them as lawless brigands, active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai.
The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word shasu, meaning “those who move on foot”, into the term for Bedouin-type wanderers.
The term first originated in an ancient list of peoples in Transjordan.
It is used in a list of enemies of Egypt inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by the Pharoah Amenhotep III.
Copied later by either Pharaoh Seti I and Pharaoh Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S’rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm’t, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh), and the Shasu of Pysps.

A chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories  where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Continuing  to work  backward,  as it were,  we  come to a question which is logically anterior to the issues raised by the  Israelites’  conquest  of  Canaan;  indeed,  it  is  anterior to almost  everything  in  the  Scriptures. Why  did Yahweh choose  the  children  of  Israel  to be  “his own  possession among the peoples”?

The short answer to this question is that he chose them because they wanted to believe that they had been chosen. . They invented him, one can say, so that they might be chosen. They wanted to be exalted above other nations­ — “high above . . . in praise and in fame and in honor”  (Deuteronomy 26:19) — and they ascribed precisely that ambition on their behalf to the most exalted being it was possible for them to conceive. From their belief in the intentions he nourished on their behalf , they derived a sense of inner strength and cohesion which they could not have got from any other source: a conviction of their own superiority over all the nations who had not been  chosen.

All that, in terms of the general argument, may seem obvious enough. Motives and sentiments of the kind just described emerge clearly from the famous hymn of praise to Yahweh in Exodus, which celebrates not only the destruction of the Egyptian army that had been pursuing the fleeing Israelites, but also the forthcoming destruction of their ene­mies-to-be in the land of Canaan.

Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
Thou  didst  stretch out thy right  hand,
the earth swallowed  them.
Thou hast led in thy steadfast love the people whom
thou  hast  redeemed,
thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode.
The peoples have heard, they tremble;
pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Phifistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the
greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone,
till thy people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom thou hast purchased.
Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on thy own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thy abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have estab­lished.
EXODUS 15:11-17

The claim to the territory made in that hymn has two aspects, one of them more encouraging to the Israelites than the other. On the one hand,  it says that their title to the land resides in the fact that it has been given  to them by a being supreme even “among the gods”; no one can have prior or more important rights to it than themselves, because no one has authority over God; certainly not the land’s original inhabitants and its neighbors, who are mentioned one by  one  merely  in  order  to  be  disposed  of.  (For  the time being,  at  least.)  

Furthermore,  God  is  expressly  said to have chosen the land  not  only for  the Israelites but  also for himself : it is his own mountain,  his  abode,  and  the place where he has established his sanctuary. 

On  the  other hand, the very fact that he is praised and thanked for giving the land to the people, and  that  praising  and  thanking  him for this reason is to be a central feature of his cult, [The words "cult" and "cultic" are used throughout in their  traditional sense: "in reference to external rites and ceremonies" (Shorter Oxford English Diction­ary). That is, the words relate specifically and directly to the  formal,  public modes of worship adopted by the community of believers.] once they have been brought in and his sanctuary has been established, serve as a constant reminder to them that their possession for a certain strip of territory is not and never has been something “natural,” or self-evident, or to be taken for granted. 

It is the result of a special intervention on their behalf by God into the processes of history; by its very nature such an intervention can  be undone or can  take  a  different  form on another occasion, should the need arise. One such occasion  when he intervened to the harm of the Israelites, has already been looked at. So have some of the consequences of the self-consciousness which the Israelites had about their relationship to the territory they inhabited. Others still wait to be examined.

In any event, we have moved almost imperceptibly from discussing the apparently unlimited power of an unlimited divinity to something much  more  modest  in  scope.  After all, what has  the  power  ascribed  to Yahweh  in  that  paean of praise from Exodus actually produced? What has he delivered? A measured answer is to be found in Spinoza’s A Theologico-Political  Treatise:

Next I inquired, why the Hebrews were called God’s chosen peo­ple, and discover[ed]  that it was only because  God has chosen them for a certain strip of territory, where they might live peaceably and at ease.I learnt that the Law revealed by God to Moses was merely the law of the independent Hebrew state.

Their choice and vocation consisted only in temporary happiness and the advantages of independent rule…In the law no other reward is offered for obedience other than the continual happiness of an independent commonwealth and other goods of this life.

Spinoza comes to this conclusion only after considering and recoiling form another possibility, the very notion of chosenness with which I opened this post.

Every man’s true  happiness  and  blessedness  consist  solely  in the  enjoyment  of  what  is  good,  not  in  the  pride  that  he  alone is enjoying it, to  the exclusion of  others. He who  thinks himself the more blessed because  he  is  enjoying  benefits  which  others are not, or  because  he  is  more  blessed  or  more  fortunate  than his fellows, is  ignorant  of  true  happiness  and  blessedness  and the joy which he feels is  either  childish  or  envious  and malicious.   For   instance,   a   man’s   true   happiness   consists   only in wisdom, and the knowledge  of  the  truth,  not  at  all  in  the fact that he  is wiser than others,  or  that  others  lack  such knowledge.

When Scripture, therefore, in exhorting the Hebrews  to obey the law, says that the Lord has chosen them for Himself before other nations (Deuteronomy  10:15); that  He is near  them but not near others (Deuteronomy 4:7); that to them alone He has given just laws (Deuteronomy 4:8); and lastly, that He has marked them out before others (Deuteronomy 4:32); it speaks only according to the understanding  of its hearers, who…knew not true  blessedness.  For  in good  sooth they  would  have  been  no less blessed if God had called all men equally to salvation, nor would God have been less present to them for being equally present to others; their laws would  have  been  no  less  just  if they had been ordained for all, and they themselves would have been no less wise.

What Spinoza has done here is simply to exclude from serious consideration those passages in the biblical text which offend him. That is the effect  of  his  saying  that such passages were put there merely to appeal to “the under­ standing of its hearers.” The only evidence he can produce for this remark his own humane but unfalteringly rational estimation of where and how “true happiness and blessed­ness” are to be found.

The fact is, however, that the verses he cites from Deuteronomy speak of Israel’s special privileges before Yahweh with exactly the same degree of sincerity  and  fervor  as  they  do  of  everything  else  they  touch upon; and we can safely assume that those who composed them  were as liberally  endowed  with  the particular  kinds of childishness, enviousness, and malice which Spinoza deplores as their “hearers” were. Or as we are today.

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The Enduring Negative Proof – Hans Urs von Balthazar

March 25, 2014
Pietro lorenzetti, compianto (dettaglio) basilica inferiore di assisi  (1310-1329)

Pietro lorenzetti, compianto (dettaglio) basilica inferiore di assisi (1310-1329)

In the first section of this book, we took as our starting point the involvement of God. And we saw that in the world of the Bible, God, in moving out to meet us, stimulates in us the urge, deep-rooted in our being, to burst out beyond the bonds of earthly finitude toward him. In pagan religions, such longings after God have always something of a dreamlike quality and the images used to express them are clearly projections of the human imaginations.

But man knows the problems inherent in his use of imagination; and he is therefore in mystical and negative theology fully prepared to see these dream images as having only relative significance, to inquire into what lies beneath them and ultimately to get rid of them altogether. For neither fantasy nor concept can express the true object of man’s real longing. Nor can he know this of himself; for only God can reveal it to him.

In the world of the Bible, this is different. Here God is represented in the act of setting out in front of man on a journey into a future, unknown and yet assured. And man advances toward him, who himself is this unknown future. As God goes before man, as on the journey through the wilderness, he makes man live in a state of perpetual setting out toward that future which alone will bring him fulfillment.

For there is no longer any question of man’s psychosomatic unity being separated out into its constituent elements (as in pagan religions) by his agonizing longing for transcendence (here an immortal soul, there a discarded mortal body, neither of which is any longer “man”). It is a question rather of man being led by the God who goes before toward a genuinely human fulfillment — to a land “flowing with milk and honey”.

The prospect of this land he enters, however, fills him with disappointment. For new pictures of new lands and of this land transformed and altered are projected by the prophets for the future (most strongly by the Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah); and their vision is of an earthly Jerusalem, shining with the power and glory of God for all to see, which is to be the center of the world that will finally come.

Once more the fulfillment of his hopes eludes him, and the images of the promises to come fade away into nothingness; or, to put this better: the eschatological pathos, alive in Israel from the beginning, became more and more accentuated so that the visions of the prophets lapsed into being but symbols of their transcending dynamic for the future, as Israel’s real feeling for the eschatological emerged in late Jewish apocalyptic in its purest form.

Here man’s future, which hitherto had been thought of in terms of the horizontal prolongation of his history, is now seen clearly as breaking in from above into the old world, fallen and beyond redemption, which cannot transform itself from within, but needs recasting in her new and final shape by some power from on high.

In the Old Testament, then, a rift opens up more and more clearly that was at least latently present when God first made the promise, but which had widened to almost intolerable proportions by the time of late Judaism. One can see this in the writings of the Qumran community, which in the plans for the final battle at the end of the age, when the promised Kingdom of God will finally break in, depict a violent scene in which man’s final efforts toward this end (in the carefully drawn-up plan of battle, which in its attention to detail foreshadow the plans that Marxism designs for its campaigns) converge with the mighty acts of God, who intervenes in this very battle with his two Messiahs, and brings about the final victory.

Any idea, however, that the plans of men coincide exactly with the action prepared by God or rather that the divine involvement will draw all human striving into the sphere of its own operation belongs to the sphere of the Utopian and belongs to a dimension outside time (if one looks at this in the perspective of this-worldly history). For neither the place nor the time of God’s inbreaking can be calculated in advance.

The dialectical processes of the Old Covenant go yet further. On the one hand, it becomes continually more clear that the sorrows of our mortal condition are closely associated with a state of subservience to the law (which in this sense means being the servants of an omnipotent God who imposes this law on man). Already in the Book of Job we find that such a situation leads to a fundamental kind of rebellion. Job appeals to a higher court of justice superior to either him or the Lord God, basically for the removal of the heteronomy that expresses itself as much in that kind of suffering that ends in death as in the imposition of the law.

In Judaism, as late as the works of Kafka, this kind of rebellion against a heteronomous guilt pronounced against a man from without and against an incomprehensible Lord who conceals Himself recurs in many different forms. But is not perhaps this heteronomy [vocab: Subordination or subjection to the law of another; political subjection of a community or state; - opposed to autonomy] presented together with the irremovable difference between man who is finite and creaturely and the God who is infinite and the Creator?

The only alternative therefore (if we look at this from the perspectives of the Old Covenant) is to inquire behind the law (which after all, as St. Paul says, only came afterward; see Romans 5:20), and return to Abraham’s Utopian faith in the resurrection of the dead (see Romans 4:17-25), for this first driving force of the Old Covenant was already pregnant with the final result, it is at work in the background of all prophetic activity (see Ezekiel 37; Isaiah 26:19), and at the same time its final aim is the removal of the heteronomy we have been talking about, because God’s law is to be instilled into human hearts so that men may obey it freely (see Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel: 11:19), and man will relate to God, not as a servant to his master but as a friend to his friend or as a child to his parents (see John 15:15; 8:35).

Under the Old Covenant, however, such an outlook is altogether excessive; and when it is combined with those tendencies always latent in man to rebel against the Lord his God, the result in modern Judaism is man being represented as by origin an autonomous being who has given himself a heteronomous law (perhaps he had to do this, as Freud and the later Scheler suggest, in order to reach civilization), who, however, is able to see through the limitations he has imposed upon himself (cf. not only Freud but also Bergson and Simmel) and must loose his inhibitions (Marcuse) in order to reach the source of his inner drives and of his power.

In this kind of Judaism, where the law is criticized out of existence as being something that merely “came afterwards”, and in “negative thinking”, freedom has the last and perhaps most puzzling word (Horkheimer, Adorno) and there the hopes of man and his history thrust them out into the sphere of the merely Utopian (Ernst Bloch), completely overturning all existing situations for the sake of the absolutely new, which exists only then. (Ludwig Rubiner: “Dasein itself does not exist, that which subsists does not exist, we ourselves are the first to make everything” [Der Mensch in der Mitte, 1920, p. 142.1)

Alternatively one can, instead of pointing to the thinking without rules of primitive man (Levy-Bruhl), manipulate the law system from the standpoint of one’s own freedom (Wiener) or even equate law and nature as being primitively a structure without subject (Levi-Strauss).

Such is the dialectic of Judaism (as Hegel saw it), the contradiction in human nature becoming seething and virulent through the coming of God, a nature that has been created for a purpose, and now realizes that it has been set in motion toward that end, which by its own powers it could not attain.

The end toward which the whole world is orientated is that unity of divine and human freedom in Jesus Christ, which God alone can effect, for in Christ man finds his own self and is taken up whole and entire into God, in him the urge of Jewish messianic hopes is set at rest, provided that it is agreed to accept the synthesis as being God’s grace, and not the goal that Israel is able to reach by dint of its own messianic power.

For that driving force innate in the chosen people leads horizontally into the historical future, but it also leads to the transcendence of this horizontal line. Israel, however, cannot herself resolve this difference, for it is the hollow space in which the figure of the God-man is to be inscribed, who has fulfilled the destiny of all men, even to death and the hopelessness of hell, and transcends this destiny by his resurrection from the dead.

For this reason, Jewish ideology in its brisance [vocab: The shattering effect of the sudden release of energy in an explosion.] as in its dialectic remains the enduring negative proof for the necessity of the Christ event. Jewish thought presses for a change in the structure of the world and of society, because their present structures are so closely allied in principle with the laws of aggression and death. It is always, however, only the structures of this world and this society that Judaism feels must be changed, because the messianic promise is directed toward a temporal future. Should Judaism succeed in changing the structures from the roots upward and lifting the law imposed from above from its hinges, then by this it would in fact bring about a change of heart. The heteronomy of servitude would lie behind us; we would have passed into a realm of freedom, a world of the positively human (Marx).

It is impossible, however, to imagine such a step being taken; it belongs to the sphere of the Utopian, because it implies the removal of that which is to be changed. Judaism, above all religions, ought to have known how to wait in expectation for God to act.

But instead of having the faith to wait for God, she took the management of the messianic kingdom into her own hands and either transformed the meaning of the law promulgated by God as the way to freedom, so that it became a “work” involving the taxing and burdensome labors of man’s own resources (whereas, in fact, it is only by love in its fullness, as St. Paul shows, that the law can truly be fulfilled), or else in the light of the prophecies of Utopia, she has totally excluded all God’s part from the law and, taking prophecy into her own hands, has made it into an enormous human achievement.

We can now begin to see the originality of Christianity in what it brings with it, what it demands and in what in itself alone promises.

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Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 5 – Robert Alter

February 14, 2014
Job 40:15–24 describes Behemoth, and then the sea-monster Leviathan, to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God, who alone has created these beings and who alone can capture them. Both beasts are chaos monsters destroyed by the deity at the time of creation, although such a conflict is not found in the creation account. Leviathan is identified figuratively with both the primeval sea (Job 3:8, Psalms 74:13) and in apocalyptic literature – describing the end-time – as that adversary, the Devil, from before creation who will finally be defeated. In the divine speeches in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan may both be seen as composite and mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans like Job could not hope to control. But both are reduced to the status of divine pets, with rings through their noses and Leviathan on a leash.

Job 40:15–24 describes Behemoth, and then the sea-monster Leviathan, to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God, who alone has created these beings and who alone can capture them. Both beasts are chaos monsters destroyed by the deity at the time of creation, although such a conflict is not found in the creation account. Leviathan is identified figuratively with both the primeval sea (Job 3:8, Psalms 74:13) and in apocalyptic literature – describing the end-time – as that adversary, the Devil, from before creation who will finally be defeated. In the divine speeches in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan may both be seen as composite and mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans like Job could not hope to control. But both are reduced to the status of divine pets, with rings through their noses and Leviathan on a leash.

Alter is working alone, the way a poet or novelist does, and the versions he produces carry the authority of imagination, of literature, rather than of religion. In his eyes, this is not a demotion but an elevation. Only if we approach the Bible as a work of literature, Alter believes, can we understand the full subtlety and intelligence of its stories. As he writes in his pioneering book The Art of Biblical Narrative: “As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with, show a surprising subtlety and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness. … The paradoxical truth may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.”
From Tabletmag.com

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Nature for the Job poet is not a Newtonian clock operating with automatic mechanism: The impulse to reproduce and nurture life depends upon God’s imbuing each of His creatures with the instinct or “wisdom” to carry it out properly. If the universal provider of life chooses in any case to withhold His understanding — as Job himself is said to lack wisdom and understanding — things can go awry.

In both structure and thematic assertion, Chapters 38-41 are a great diastolic movement, responding to the systolic movement of Chapter 3. The poetics of suffering in Chapter 3 seeks to contract the whole world to a point of extinction, and it generates a chain of images of enclosure and restriction. The poetics of providential vision in the speech from the storm conjures up horizon after expanding horizon, each populated with a new form of life.

Thus, in the second segment of the zoological panorama (38:5-12, though in fact cued by (38:4), we see a parade of animals moving outward into the wild, far beyond the yokes and reins of man: first the young of the mountain goats and gazelles, heading out into the open, then the onager and the wild ox that will never be led into a furrow.

In Chapter 3, only in the grave did prisoners “hear not the taskmaster’s voice” (3:18), and only there was “the slave free of his master” (3:19). But this, God’s rejoinder implies, is a civilization-bound, hobbled perception of reality, for nature abounds in images of freedom: “Who set the wild ass free, / and the unager’s reins who loosed, // whose home I made in the steppes, / his dwelling-place flats of salt? // He scoffs at the bustling city, / the driver’s shouts he does not hear” (39:5-7).

The way in which these various antitheses between Chapter 3 and chapters 38-39 are elaborately pointed may suggest why some of the subsequent major movements in Job’s poetic argument are not also alluded to here. In part, the reason might have been a problem of technical feasibility: it is manageable enough to reverse the key-terms and images and themes of one rich poem at the beginning in another poem at the end, but it might have become unwieldy to introduce into the conclusion allusions to a whole series of intervening poems.

More substantively, however, God chooses for His response to Job the arena of creation, not the court of justice, the latter being the most insistent recurrent metaphor in Job’s argument after Chapter 3. And it is, moreover, a creation that barely reflects the presence of man, a creation where human concepts of justice have no purchase.

We are accustomed to think of the radicalism of the challenge to God in the Book of Job, but it should be recognized that, against the norms of biblical literature, God’s response is no less radical than the challenge. Elsewhere in the Bible, man is the crown of creation, little lower than the angels, expressly fashioned to rule over nature. Perhaps that is why there is so little descriptive nature poetry in the Bible: the natural world is of scant interest in itself; it engages a poet’s imagination only insofar as it reflects man’s place in the scheme of things or serves his purposes.

But in the uniquely vivid descriptive poetry of Job 38-41, the natural world is valuable for itself, and man, far from standing at its center, is present only by implication, peripherally and impotently, in this welter of fathomless forces and untamable beasts.

The most elaborately described as well as the most arresting member of the bestiary in the first discourse is the war-horse. Few readers of the poem would want to give up these splendid lines, though some have wondered what this evocation of the snorting stallion has to do with Job’s predicament. Indeed, some have suspected that the vignette of the war-horse, like the clearly related portraits of the hippopotamus and the crocodile in the next two chapters, is really a sort of descriptive set piece that the poet brought in because he knew he could do it so well.

It seems to me on the contrary that all three beasts are intrinsically connected with the vision of creation that is God’s response to Job’s questioning. The stallion enters the poem through a verbal clue: if the foolish ostrich only had wisdom, we are told, it would soar into the sky and “scoff at the horse and its rider” (39:18).

This moves us directly into a consideration of the horse, which occupies the penultimate position in the first bestiary, before the concluding image of the hawk that will bring us back in an envelope structure to the initial picture of wild creatures caring for their young:

Do you give might to the horse,
do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make his roar like locusts –
his splendid snort is terror.
He churns up the valley exulting,
in power goes out to the clash of arms.
He scoffs at fear and is undaunted,
turns not back from the sword.
Over him rattles the quiver,
the blade, the javelin, and the spear.
With clamor and clatter he swallows the ground,
and ignores the trumpets sound.
At the trumpet he says, “Aha, “
and from afar he scents the fray,
the thunder of captains, the shouts.
(39:19-25)

The passage is a rich interweave of heightening maneuvers and narrative developments between versets and between lines, as the warhorse itself is the vivid climactic image of the story the poet has to tell about the animal kingdom — before, that is, Behemoth and Leviathan, who, as we shall see, are a climax beyond the climax.

In other words, we perceive the stallion narratively, first snorting and pawing the ground, then dashing into the thick of battle; and we see, for example, his whole body aquiver in a first verset, then a startling focus in the second verset on his nostrils snorting terror. The stallion is a concrete embodiment of contradictions held in high tension, in keeping with the whole vision of nature that has preceded. Though fiercer than the onager and the wild ox, he allows his great power to be subjected to the uses of man; yet, as he is described, he gives the virtual impression of joining in battle of his own free will, for his own pleasure.

It would be naive to conclude from these lines that the poet was interested in promoting martial virtues, but the evoked scene of mayhem does convey a sense that a terrible beauty is born and an awesome energy made manifest in the heat of war. These qualities are continuous with the ravening lion that began the bestiary and with the meteorological poetry before it in which lightning leapt from the cloud and the LORD stored up cosmic weapons in the treasure-houses of snow and hail.

To be sure, the whole zoological section of the poem is meant to tell Job that God’s tender mercies are over all His creatures, but tonally and imagistically this revelation comes in a great storm rather than in a still, small voice, for the providence portrayed is over a world that defies comfortable moral categorizings. The most crucial respect in which such defiance makes itself felt is in the immense, imponderable play of power that is seen to inform creation. The world is a constant cycle of life renewing and nurturing life, but it is also a constant clash of warring forces.

This is neither an easy nor a direct answer to the question of why the good man should suffer, but the imposing vision of a harmonious order to which violence is nevertheless intrinsic and where destruction is part of creation is meant to confront Job with the limits of his moral imagination, a moral imagination far more honest but only somewhat less conventional than that of the Friends.

The strange and wonderful description of the hippopotamus and the crocodile, which after the introductory verses of challenge (40:7-14) takes up all of the second discourse, then makes those limits even more sharply evident by elaborating these two climactically focused images of the poem’s vision of nature.

There has been a certain amount of quite unnecessary confusion among commentators as to whether the subject of the second discourse is in fact zoology or mythology. Many have argued that the two beasts in question are nothing more than the hippopotamus and the crocodile. Others, like Marvin Pope in his philologically painstaking though somewhat sketchy treatment of Job,4 have claimed that both are mythological monsters.

“Leviathan” in fact appears in Chapter 3 as a mythological entity, and the word is clearly cognate with the Ugaritic Lotan, a kind of sea dragon. The argument for mythology is shakier for Behemoth because there is no extra-biblical evidence of the term as a mythological designation, and all the other occurrences within the Bible would seem to be as a generic term for perfectly naturalistic grass-eating beasts of the field, including an earlier use of the term in Job itself (12:7).

The either/or rigidity of the debate over Behemoth and Leviathan quickly dissolves if we note that these two culminating images of the speech from the storm reflect the distinctive poetic logic for the development of meanings that we have been observing on both small scale and large in biblical poetry. The movement from literal to figurative, from verisimilar to hyperbolic, from general assertion to focused concrete image, is precisely the movement that carries us from the catalogue of beasts to Behemoth and Leviathan.

The war-horse, who is the most striking item in the general catalogue and the one also given the most attention quantitatively (seven lines), is a way station in the rising line of semantic intensity that terminates in Behemoth and Leviathan.

The stallion is a familiar creature but already uncanny in the beauty of power he represents. From this point, the poet moves on to two exotic animals whose habitat is the banks of the Nile — that is, far  removed from the actual experience of the Israelite audience and even farther from that of the fictional auditor Job, whose homeland is presumably somewhere to the east of Israel.

The listener, that is, may have actually glimpsed a war-horse or a lion or mountain goat, but the hippopotamus and crocodile are beyond his geographical reach and cultural ken, and he would most likely have heard of them through travelers’ yarns and the fabulation of folklore. The hippopotamus is given ten lines of vivid description that place him on the border between the natural and the supernatural.

Not a single detail is mythological, but everything is rendered with hyperbolic intensity, concluding in the strong assertion that no hook can hold him (in fact, the Egyptians used hooked poles to hunt the hippopotamus). The evocation of the crocodile is then accorded thirty-three lines, and it involves a marvelous fusion of precise observation, hyperbole, and mythological heightening of the real reptile, and thus becomes a beautifully appropriate climax to the whole poem.

To put this question in historical perspective, the very distinction we as moderns make between mythology and zoology would not have been so clear-cut for the ancient imagination. The Job poet and his audience, after all, lived in an era before zoos, and exotic beasts like the ones described in Chapters 40-41 were not part of an easily accessible and observable reality. The borderlines, then, between fabled report, immemorial myth, and natural history would tend to blur, and the poet creatively exploits this blur in his climactic evocation of the two amphibious beasts that are at once part of the natural world and beyond it.

What is stressed in the description of the hippopotamus is the paradoxical union of pacific nature — he is a herbivore, seen peacefully resting in the shade of lotuses on the riverbank — and terrific power against which no human sword could prevail. (Thus, whether hippopotami could actually be captured is not important, for the needs to drive home the point that this awesome beast is both literally and figuratively beyond man’s grasp.) And with strategic effectiveness, the notion of muscular power — bones like bronze, limbs like iron rods — is combined with a striking emphasis on sexual potency, thus extending the images of generation and birth of the first discourse:

Look, pray: the power in his loins,
the virile strength in his belly’s muscles.
He makes his tail stand like a cedar,
his balls’ sinews twine together.
(40:16-17)

Biblical poetry in general, certainly when measured by the standard of Greek epic verse, is not very visual, or rather is visual only in momentary flashes and sudden climactic developments. But the definition of the crocodile is exceptionally striking in its sustained force, in keeping with its role as the culmination of this long, impressive demonstration of God’s searching vision contrasted to man blind view.

I shall translate the last twenty-two lines of the poem which follow the initial assertion that Leviathan, like Behemoth, is impervious to every hook and snare and every scheme of being subjected to domestication. The line numbers reflect verse numbers in the Hebrew text of Chapter 41, beginning with verse 5:

5 Who can uncover his outer garb,
come into his double mail?
6 Who can pry open the doors of his face?
All around his teeth is terror.
7 His back is rows of shields
closed with the tightest seal.
8 Each touches against the next,
no breath can come between them.
9 Each sticks fast to the next,
locked together, they will not part.
10 His sneezes shoot out light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of dawn.
11 Firebrands leap from his mouth,
sparks of fire fly into the air.
12 From his nostrils smoke comes out,
like a boiling vat on brushwood.
13 His breath kindles coals,
and flame comes out of his mouth.
14 Strength abides in his neck,
and before him power dances.
15 The folds of his flesh cling together,
hard-cast, he will not totter.
16 His heart is cast hard as stone,
cast hard as a nether millstone.
17 When he rears up, the gods are frightened,
when he crashes down, they cringe.
18 Who overtakes him with sword, it will not avail,
nor spear nor dart nor lance.
19 Iron he deems as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.
20 No arrow can make him flee,
slingstones for him turn to straw.
21 Missiles* are deemed as straw,
and he mocks the javelin’s clatter.
22 Beneath him, jagged shards,
he draws a harrow over the mud.
23 He makes the deep boil like a pot,
turns sea to an ointment pan.
24 Behind him glistens a wake,
he makes the deep seem hoary.
25 He has no match on earth,
made as he is without fear.
26 All that is lofty he can see.
He is king over all proud beasts.

The power of the crocodile is suggested both through a heightening of the descriptive terms and through a certain narrative movement. First we get the real beast’s awesome teeth and impenetrable armor of scales, then a mythologizing depiction of him breathing; smoke and fire and sneezing sparks of light.

This representation, moreover, of the fire-breathing beast is strangely reminiscent of the description of the God of battles in 2 Samuel 22 and elsewhere in biblical poetry.’ At the same time, the series of challenging interrogatives that has controlled the rhetoric of the divine discourse from the beginning of Chapter 38 glides into declaratives, starting in verse 7, as the poem moves toward closure.’

As elsewhere, the poet works with an exquisite sense of the descriptive needs at hand and of the structural continuities of the poem and the book. The peculiar emphasis on fire and light in the representation of the crocodile takes us back to the cosmic imagery of light in God’s first discourse, to the lightning leaping from the cloud, and beyond that to Job’s initial poem. In fact, the remarkable and celebrated phrase “eyelids of the dawn, which Job in Chapter 3 wanted never to be seen again, recurs here to characterize the light flashing from the crocodile’s eyes.

This makes us draw a pointed connection and at the same time shows how the poet’s figurative language dares to situate rare beauty in the midst of power and terror and strangeness. The implicit narrative development of the description takes us from a vision of the head, armor plate, and body of the beast (verses 13-24), to a picture of him rearing up and crashing down, brushing off all assailants, and then churning out of our field of vision, leaving behind a foaming wake that, like his mouth and eyes, shines (verses 25-32).

The language of sea (yam) and deep (tehom, metzulah) rather than of river water predominates in this final segment, that is in part because of the associations of the mythic Lotan with those terms and that habitat, but also because this vocabulary carries us back to the cosmogonic beginning of God’s speech (see in particular 38:16).

Job’s merely human vision could not penetrate the secrets of the deep, and now at time end we have before our mind’s eye the magnificent, ungraspable beast who lives in the deep, who is master of all creatures of land and sea, who from his own, quite unimaginable perspective “sees” all that is lofty. Leviathan is nature mythologized, for that is the poet’s way of conveying the truly uncanny, the truly inscrutable, in nature; but he remains part of nature, for if he did not it would make little sense for the poem to conclude, “he is king over all proud beasts.””

By now, I would hope it has become, clear what on earth descriptions of a hippopotamus and a crocodile are doing at the end of the Book of Job. Obviously, there can be no direct answer to Job’s question as to why, having been a decent and God-fearing man, he should have lost all his sons and daughters, his wealth, and his health. Job’s poetry was an instrument for probing, against the stream of the Friends’ platitudes, the depths of his own understandable sense of outrage over what befell him.

God’s poetry enables Job to glimpse beyond his human plight an immense world of power and beauty and awesome warring forces. This world is permeated with God’s ordering concern, but as the vividness of the verse makes clear, it presents to the human eye a welter of contradictions, dizzying variety, energies and entities that man cannot take in. Job surely does not have the sort of answer he expected, but he has a strong answer of another kind.

Now at the end he will no longer presume to want to judge the Creator, having been brought through God’s tremendous poetry to realize that creation can perhaps be sensed but not encompassed by the mind — like that final image of the crocodile-Leviathan already whipping away from our field of vision, leaving behind only a shining wake for us to see.

If Job in his first response to the deity (40:2, 4-5) merely confessed that he could not hope to contend with God and would henceforth hold his peace, in his second response (42:2-6), after the conclusion of the second divine speech, he humbly admits that he has been presumptuous, has in fact “obscured counsel” about things he did not understand. Referring more specifically to the impact of God’s visionary poem, he announces that he has been vouchsafed a gift of sight — the glimpse of an ungraspable creation surging with the power of its Creator:

By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eyes have seen You.

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Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 4 – Robert Alter

February 13, 2014
Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job's lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God's lines affirming light.

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light.

See Intro in first post.

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This general turning of Job’s first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks. Job’s initial poem, we recall, began by setting out the binary opposition between day and night, light and darkness, and then proceeded through an intensifying series of wishes that the light be swallowed up by darkness.

The opening verset of God’s speech summons Job as someone who “darkens counsel,” and the emphatic and repeated play with images of light and darkness in the subsequent lines makes it clear that this initial characterization of Job is a direct critique of his first speech and all that follows from it. (The allusion here to the poem in Chapter 3 is reinforced by the term God uses at the beginning of the second line in addressing Job, giver, “man,” which also occurs at the beginning of Job’s first poem — “the night that said, A man has been conceived.”

It is as though God were implying: you called yourself man, giver, now gird up your loins like a man and see if you can face the truth. Job, the Voice from the Whirl wind suggests, has gotten things entirely skewed in regard to the basic ontological constituents of light and darkness. The two in fact exist in a delicate and powerful dialectic beyond the ken of man, and the balance between them is part of the unfathomable beauty of creation. This point is intimated in many of the first thirty-seven lines of the poem and made explicit in verses 19-20:

Where is the way light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
That you might take it to its home,
and understand the paths to its house?

Job in Chapter 3 prayed for cloud and darkness to envelop the day he was born. Cloud and deep mist reappear here in a startlingly new context, as the matinal  [vocab: relating to or taking place in the morning.] blanket over the primordial seas, as the swaddling bands of creation (verse 9). Job wanted “death’s shadow (tzalmdvet) to cover his existence; here that term appears as part of large cosmic picture not to be perceived with mere human eyes: Have the gates of death been laid bare to you, / and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen? (verse 17).

In the one explicitly moral point of theodicy made by the Voice from the Whirlwind (verses 12-15), the diurnal rhythm of light succeeding darkness is taken as both emblem and instrument of God’s ferreting out of evildoers — an idea not present to the “Ecclesiastean” vision of Chapter 3, where evil and oppression are merely part of the anguished and futile cyclical movement of life.

It is not surprising that this particular passage should be terse and a little cryptic, for whatever God means to suggest about bringing; wrongdoing to light, He is not invoking the simple moral calculus used so unquestioningly by the Friends. Job in the ascending spirals of his pain-driven rhetoric sought to summon all forms of darkness to eclipse forever the sun and moon and stars. In response God asks him whether he has any notion of what it means in amplitude and moral power to be able to muster the dawn (verse 12) and set the constellations in their regular motion (verses 31-33).

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light. Job, one recalls, tried to conjure up an eternal starless night:

Let its twilight stars go dark,
let it hope for light in vain,
and let it not see the eyelids of the dawn

(3:9).

God, near the beginning of His first discourse, evokes the moment when creation was completed in an image that has become justly famous in its own right but that is also, it should be observed, a counter image to 3:9:

When the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy

(verse 7).

That is, instead of a night with no twilight stars, with no glimmer of dawn, the morning stars of creation exult. The emphasis in this line on song and shouts of joy also takes us back to the poem of Chapter 3, which began with a triumphant cry on the night of conception — a cry Job wanted to wish away — and proceeded to a prayer that no joyous exclamation come into that night (3:7).

Finally, the vestigially mythological “sons of God” — with the semantic breadth in Hebrew of “son,” this implies not biological filiation but something like “celestial company” – takes this back beyond Chapter 3 to the frame-story. There, of course, it was the Adversary who was the prominent and sinister member of “the sons of God.”

The discordant note he represented has been expunged here in this heavenly chorus of creation. What I am pointing to is not one of those contradictions of sources on which biblical scholarship has too often thrived but a culminating moment in which the vision of the poet transcends the limited terms of the folktale he has chosen to use.

There is a second set of key images in the first movement of God’s speech that harks back to Job’s initial poem, namely, the imagery of physical generation and birth. Since this imagery, unlike light and darkness, which are literal substances of creation, is imposed metaphorically by the poet as a way of shaping the material, it provides even clearer evidence of how the poem in Chapter 38 was purposefully articulated as a grand reversal of the poem in Chapter 3.

Job’s first speech begins with birth and conception and circles back on the belly or womb where he would like to be enclosed, where he imagines the fate of the dead fetus as the happiest of human lots. Against those doors of the belly (3:10) that Job wanted shut on him forever, the Voice from the Whirlwind invokes a cosmic womb and cosmic doors to a very different purpose:

Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb

(verse 8).

This figuration of setting limits to the primal sea as closing doors on a gushing womb produces a high tension of meaning absent from Job’s unequivocal death wish. The doors are closed and bolted (verse 10) so that the flood will not engulf the earth, but nevertheless the waves surge, the womb of all things pulsates, something is born — a sense made clear in the incipiently narrative development of the womb image into the next line (verse 9), where in a metaphor unique in biblical poetry the primordial mists over the surface of the deep are called swaddling bands.

One might note that in the anticipations of this passage in Job’s speech there are allusions to the Canaanite cosmogonic myth of a triumph by force over an archaic sea monster, while in God’s own words that martial story is set aside, or at the very least left in the distant background, so that the cosmogony can be rendered ins in terms of procreation.

What we are invited to imagine in this fashion is creation not as the laying low of a foe but as the damming up and channeling of powers nevertheless allowed to remain active. (The only clear allusion in the poem to God’s doing battle, verse 23, is projected forward in time to an indefinite, perhaps vaguely apocalyptic future.) The poet uses a rather unexpected verb, “to hedge in,” in order to characterize this activity of holding back the womb of the sea, and that is a double allusion, to God’s protective “hedging round” of Job mentioned in the frame-story and to Job’s bitter complaint toward the end of his first poem of having been “hedged in” by God.

The verb, in its various conjugations, is nowhere else in the Bible used for the closing of doors but generally suggests a shading or sheltering act, as with a wing or canopy. One usage that might throw some light on our line from Job is this verse in Psalms (139:13):

“For You created my innermost parts,
wove me [or hedged me around] in my mother’s womb.”

The Creator, that is, at the end of Job, is actively blocking off, bolting in, the surge of the sea, but the word carries after it a long train of associations having to do with protection and nurture, so that the negative sense of the verb in Chapter 3 is in a way combined with the positive sense which the frame-story uses it. What results is a virtual oxymoron, expressing a paradoxical feeling that God’s creation involves a necessary holding in check of violent forces and a sustaining of those same forces because they are also forces of life.

One sees in a single compact phrase how the terms of God’s poetry — which is to say, ultimately, His imagination of the world — transcend the terms of Job’s poetry and that of the Friends. When the poem moves on — as I have suggested, in an implicitly narrative movement — from cosmogony to meteorology, birth imagery once more introduced.

First Job is challenged sarcastically, “You know, for you were then born” (verse 21), which, in addition to the ultimate allusion to the beginning of the poem in Chapter 3, sounds ,quite like Eliphaz’s words to Job in Chapter 15. The crucial difference is that instead of being a rhetorical ploy in a petty contest of supposed longevity, this address is set against a background of cosmic uterine pulsations and leads into a thick cluster of birth images a few lines down (verses 28-29), so that we quickly grasp the ontological contrast between Job, a man born of woman in time, and the principle of generation infinitely larger than man that informs nature.

The two lines below that articulate this principle richly develop the implications of the birth imagery in a characteristically biblical fashion:

Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
From whose belly did the ice come forth,
To the frost of the heavens who gave birth?

In each of these two lines we are carried forward from agent (fat her) or agency (belly) to the active process of procreation (begot, gave birth — in the Hebrew, two different conjugations of the same verb). Between the first line and the second, what amounts to a biological focusing of the birth image is carried out as we go from the father, the inseminator who is the proximate cause of birth, to the mother, in whose body the actual birth is enacted.

The interlinear parallelism of this couplet also plays brilliantly with the two opposed states of water, first liquid and falling or condensing, then frozen. In the first line, the haunted inapplicability of the birth imagery is a result of multiplicity: How could one imagine anyone fathering the countless millions of raindrops or dewdrops?

In the second line, the incongruity — which is to say, the chasm between man’s small world and God’s vast world — is a more shocking one (still another intensifying development) as the poet’s language forces us to imagine the unimaginable, great chunk of ice coming out of the womb. Figurative language is used here to show the limits of figuration itself, which, in the argumentative thrust of the poem, means the limits of the human imagination. The immediately following line (verse 30) is a focusing development this ice imagery: “Water congeals like stone, / and the face of the deep locks hard.”

The tension of opposites that is at the heart of God’s vision of the world is strongly felt here: fluid and stone-harp solid, white-frozen surface and watery depths. Having reached this point, the poet lays aside birth imagery, and after three lines devoted to the stars concludes the whole meteorological segment with a focusing development of the phenomena of natural precipitation we just observed in verses 28-30, which themselves capped a whole sequence on snow and rain that began with verse.

There remains of course, an implicit connection between fructification or birth and rain, as anyone living in the Near Eastern climate and topography would be readily aware, and as verse 27 reminds us quite naturalistically and verse 28 by a sort of riddling paradox (no one is the father of the rain, but the rain is the father of life). In any case, the concluding four lines of our segment — putting aside verse 36, whose meaning is uncertain — offer an image of downpour on parched land that is, at least by implication, a final turn of the screw in the poetic rejoinder to Chapter 3.

In Job’s initial poem the only water anywhere in evidence is the saltwater of tears (3:24), and clouds are mentioned only as a means to cover up the light. It is surely appropriate that God should now challenge Job to make lightning leap from the thickness of the cloud and that in His cosmic realm, as against Job’s rhetorical realm, the meaning of clouds is not darkness but a source of water to renew the earth with life.

The rest of God’s speech — the second half of the first discourse and virtually all of the second discourse — is then devoted to a poetic panorama of the animal life that covers the earth. The sequence of beasts, like the movement of the poem through space via metonymic links, is loosely associative but also instructive: lion, raven, mountain goat and gazelle, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk and eagle. The first two and the last two creatures in the sequence are beasts of prey whose native fierceness in effect frames the wildness of the whole catalogue.

The sequence begins, that is, with an image of the lion couching in ambush for its prey (38:39-40), determined to sate its keen appetite; and the sequence closes with this striking evocation of the eagle seeking food for its brood: “From there [the mountain crag] he seeks out food, / from afar his eyes look down. // His chicks lap up blood; / where the slain are, there he is” (39:29-30).

This concluding poem in Job is probably one of the most unsentimental poetic treatments of the animal world in the Western literary tradition and, at least at first thought, a little surprising coming from the mouth of God. But the violence and, even more, the peculiar beauty of violence are precisely the point of God’s visionary rejoinder to Job. The animal realm is a non-moral realm, but the sharp paradoxes it embodies make us see the inadequacy of any merely human moral calculus — not only that of the Friends, learned by rote, but even Job’s, spoken out of the integrity of suffering.

In the animal kingdom, the tender care for one’s young may well mean their gulping the blood of freshly slain creatures. It is a daily rite of sustaining life that defies all moralizing anthropomorphic interpretation. And yet, the series of rhetorical questions to Job suggests, God’s providence looks after each of these strange, fierce, inaccessible creatures. There is an underlying continuity between this representation of the animal world and the picture of inanimate nature in 38:2-38, with its sense of terrific power abiding in the natural world, fructification and destruction as alternative aspects of the same, imponderable forces.

That continuity is reinforced by the carryover of images of procreation from the cosmogonic and meteorological sections of the poem to the zoological section. In the two former instances, as we just saw, the language of parturition and progeny was first metaphoric and then both metaphoric and heavily ironic; among the animals, it becomes quite literal. The raven at the beginning of this section (38:41) and the eagle at the end are seen striving to fulfill the needs of their young.

Immediately after the raven, the birth process and early growth of the mountain goat and gazelle are given detailed attention:

Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time,
do you mark the calving of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to term
and know their birthing time?
They crouch, burst forth with their babes,
their young they push out to the world.
Their offspring batten, grow big in the wild,
they go out and do not return.
(39:1-4)

The emphasis on time here in conjunction with the evocation of birth brings us back in still another strong antithesis to Job’s wish in Chapter 3 that he could wipe out his birth. There, one recalls, he cursed the night of his conception by saying, “Let it not enter the number of months” (3:6).

Here, in God’s poem, that same phrase (with the minor morphological shift in the Hebrew of “number” from noun to verb) recurs as an instance of how time becomes a medium fruition under the watchful gaze of the divine maker of natural order. Reproduction and nurturing are the very essence of a constantly self-renewing creation as the poet imagines it.

But even the universal principle of generation is not free from uncanny contradiction, as the strange case of the ostrich (39:13-18) suggests. That peculiar bird, at least according to the ornithological lore on which the poet drew, abandons her eggs in the dirt, unmindful of the danger that they may be trampled underfoot by wild beasts,

For God made her forgetful of wisdom,
and he did not allot her insight
(39:17).

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Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 3 – Robert Alter

February 12, 2014
Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God's laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job's sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job's spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake's own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God’s laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job’s sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job’s spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake’s own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

See Intro in first post.

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How are the resources of poetry marshaled in the divine speech to give us an intimation of that omniscient perspective? Some preliminary remarks on the progression of the concluding poem may help indicate where it means to take us. The structure of the poem is expansive and associative (quite unlike the tight organization of Chapter 28), but it also reflects the sequential and focusing strategies of development that are generally characteristic of biblical poetry.

After the two brief opening lines in which God challenges Job (38:2-3), the poem leads us through the following movements: cosmogony (38:4-21), meteorology (38:22-38), zoology (38:39-39:30). This sequence is implicitly narrative: first God creates the world, then He sets in motion upon it an intricate interplay of snow and rain and lightning and winds, and in this setting He looks after the baffling variety of wild creatures that live on the earth.

God’s first discourse is followed at the beginning of Chapter 40 by a brief exchange between a reprimanding deity and a humbled Job) (40:1-5), and then the beginning of the second discourse, which again challenges Job to gird up his loins and see if he can really contend with God (40:6-13). (Scholarship has generally detected a scram-fling or duplication of texts in these thirteen verses, but I find that the various conjectural attempts to reassemble the text create more problems than they solve, while the lines as we have them do not substantially affect the larger structure of the poem.)

In the second discourse, we continue with the zoological interests that take up the last half of the first discourse. In accordance, however, with the impulse of heightening and focusing that informs so much of biblical poetry, the second discourse is not a rapid poetic catalogue of animals, like the last half of the first discourse, but instead an elaborate depiction of just two exotic beasts, the hippopotamus and the crocodile, who are rendered, moreover, in the heightened and hyperbolic terms of mythology as Behemoth and Leviathan.

These are the broad structural lines of the concluding poem, but in order to understand how it works so remarkably as a “revelation,” in both the ordinary and the theological sense of the term, it is important to see in detail how its language and imagery flow directly out of the poetic argument that has preceded. I shall quote in full the first two movements of cosmogony and meteorology, then refer without full citation to the naturalistic zoology before attending to the mythopoeic zoology at the end. Since the verse divisions here correspond precisely to the line division, I shall use the conventional verse numbers, starting with verse 2 of Chapter 38, where the poem proper begins.

2 Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?
3 Gird your loins like a man,
that I may ask, and you can inform me.
4 Where were you when I founded earth?
Tell, if you know understanding.
5 Who fixed its measures, do you know,
or who stretched a line upon it?
6 In what were its sockets sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb,
9 when I made cloud its clothing,
and thick mist its swaddling bands?
10 I made breakers upon it My limit,
and set a bolt with double doors.
11 And I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
here halt the surge of your waves. “
12 Have you ever commanded the morning,
appointed the dawn to its place,
13 to seize the earth’s corner,
that the wicked be shaken from it?
14 It turns like sealing clay,
takes color like a garment,
15 and their light is withdrawn from the wicked,
and the upraised arm is broken.
16 Have you come into the springs of the sea,
in the bottommost deep walked about?
17 Have the gates of death been laid bare to you,
and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen?
18 Did you take in the breadth of the earth?
Tell, if you know it all.
19 Where is the way that light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
20 that you might take it to its home
and understand the paths to its house?
21 You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
22 Have you come into the storehouse of snow,
the storehouse of hail have you seen,
23 which I keep for a time of strife,
for a day of battle and war?
24 By what way does the west wind2 fan out,
the east wind whip over the earth?
25 Who split a channel for the torrent,
and a way for the thunderstorm,
26 to rain on a land without man,
 wilderness bare of humankind,
27 to sate the desolate dunes
and make the grass sprout there?
28 Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
29 From whose belly did the ice come forth,
to the frost of the heavens who gave birth?
30 Water congeals like stone,
and the face of the deep locks hard.
31 Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades,
or loose Orions reins?
32 Can you bring constellations out in their season,
lead the Great Bear and her cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens,
can you fix their rule on earth?
34 Can you lift your voice to the cloud,
that the water-spate cover you?
35 Can you send lightning-bolts on their way,
and they will say to you, `Here we are!”
36 Who placed in the hidden parts wisdom,
or who gave the mind understanding?
37 Who counted the skies in wisdom,
and the jars of the heavens who tilted,
38 when the dust melts to a mass,
and the clods cling fast together?

At the very beginning of the poetic argument, we entered the world) of Job’s inner torment through the great death-wish poem that takes up all of Chapter 3. These first thirty-seven lines of God’s response to Job constitute a brilliantly pointed reversal, in structure, image, and theme, of that initial poem of Job’s. Perhaps the best way to sense the special weight of the disputation over theodicy is to observe that it is cast in the form of a clash between two modes of poetry, one kind spoken by man and, however memorable, appropriate to the limitations of his creaturely condition, the other the kind of verse a poet of genius could persuasively imagine God speaking.

The poem of Chapter’ 3, as we had occasion to see in detail, advanced through a process of focusing in and in — or, to shift metaphors, a relentless drilling inward toward the unbearable core of Job’s suffering, which he imagined could be blotted out by extinction alone. The external world — dawn and sunlight and starry night — exists in these lines only to be canceled.

Job’s first poem is a powerful, evocative, authentic expression of mans essential, virtually ineluctable egotism: the anguished speaker has seen, so he feels, all too much, and he wants now to see nothing at all, to be enveloped in the blackness of the womb/tomb, enclosed by dark doors that will remain shut forever. In direct contrast to all this withdrawal inward and turning out of lights, God’s poem is a demonstration of the energizing power of panoramic vision. Instead of the death wish, it affirms from line to line the splendor and vastness of life, beginning with a cluster of arresting images of the world’s creation and going on to God’s sustaining of the world in the forces of nature and in the variety of the animal kingdom.

Instead of a constant focusing inward to ward darkness, this poem progresses through a grand sweeping movement that carries us over the length and breadth of the created world, from sea to sky to the unimaginable recesses where snow and winds are stored, to the lonely wastes and craggy heights where only the grass or the wildest of animals lives.

In Job’s initial poem, various elements of the larger world were introduced only as reflectors or rhetorical tokens of his suffering. When the world is seen here through God’s eyes, each item is evoked for its own sake, each existing thing living its own intrinsic and often strange beauty. In Chapter 3, Job wanted to reduce time to nothing and contract space to the small, dark compass of the locked womb. God’s poem by contrast moves through eons from creation to the inanimate forces of nature to the teeming life on earth and, spatially, in a series of metonymic [vocab: A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty")] links, from the uninhabited wasteland (verse 26) to the mountain habitat of the lion and the gazelle (the end of Chapter 38 and the beginning of Chapter 39) and the steppes where the wild ass roams.

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Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 2 – Robert Alter

February 11, 2014
Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825.  William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".

Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825. William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.

See Intro in previous post.

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In Job’s complaint there are two extended anticipations of the Voice from the Whirlwind, 9:5-10 and 12:7-25. For the sake of economy I shall cite only the first, and shorter, of these two passages, with reference to the second. Job, in the midst of objecting that God is an impossible legal adversary because He is so overpowering, shifts his imagery upward from the arena of law to the cosmos:

Who uproots mountains and they know not,
overturns them in His wrath.
He makes earth shake in its setting,
and its pillars shudder.
He bids the sun not to rise,
and the stars He seals up tight.
He stretches the heavens alone,
and tramples the crests of the sea.
He makes the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the south wind’s chambers.
He performs great things without limit,

and wonders without number.

Job’s cosmic poetry, unlike that of the Friends, has a certain energy of vision, as though it proceeded from some immediate perception of the great things it reports. Most of the images he uses will reappear, more grandly, in God’s first discourse in Chapter 38.

There, too, God is the sole sovereign of the sun and the stars, the master of the very constellations and of the chambers of the wind mentioned here. There is, nevertheless, a decisive difference in emphasis between the two chapters, which leads me to infer that this and other passages in the poetic argument are in one respect patiently teaching us how to read God’s speech when it finally comes.

The Creator in Chapter 38 is distinguished by His ability to impose order. The Creator in Job’s poem is singled out first of all for His terrific, and perhaps arbitrary, power — tearing up mountains in His wrath, eclipsing the sun, and blotting out the stars. (The speaker, we should remember, is the same Job who had prayed for every glimmer of light to be swallowed by darkness.)

If both the present text and Chapter 38 allude indirectly to the Canaanite creation myth, in which the weather god conquers the primordial sea beast Yamm, what is stressed in Chapter 38 is God’s setting limits to the breakers of the of the sea, His bolting doors against the chaotic rush of the flood, while Job here gives us instead God the mighty combatant, treading on the back of the conquered sea. To be sure, there is also an element of celebration of the Creator in Job’s words, at least in the last two lines of the passage quoted, but his general perception of the master of the universe is is from the viewpoint of someone who has been devastated by His mastery.

This sense is made perfectly clear in the lines that introduce our passage (9:12-13), and the point is even more emphatic in the lines that follow it:

Look, He seizes — who can resist Him ?
Who can tell Him `What do You do?’
God will not relent His fury.
Beneath Him Rahab’s minions stoop

(9:12-13).

The analogous passage in Chapter 12 stresses still more boldly the arbitrary way in which God exercises His power.

Here, too, God, as in the revelation from the storm at the end, is imagined as the supreme, master of nature — a truth that, according to Job, we can learn from the very birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field (behemoth, a term that in a different acceptation will designate one of the featured attractions of the grand zoological show in the speech from the storm), And like the LORD Who will reveal Himself in the end to Job, God; here is imagined above all as the absolute sovereign of light and darkness: lays bare depths from darkness, / and brings out to light death’s shadow (12:22).

But this divine monarch as Job conceives Him show a singular inclination to capricious behavior, befuddling counselor, and judges, unmanning kings, humiliating nobles, using His prerogative over light and darkness to draw the leaders of nations into trackless wastes: they grope in darkness without light, / He makes them wander like drunken men (12:25). Job’s vision of God’s power over the world has an authority lacking in the parallel speeches of the Friends, but he sees it as power willfully misused, and that perception will require an answer by the Voice from the Whirlwind.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two extended anticipations of the concluding poem that show the greatest degree of consonance with it occur in the interpolated passages, the Elihu speech and the Hymn it Wisdom. This may seem less puzzling if we remember that in the ancient Near East a “book” remained for a long time a relatively open structure, so that later writers might seek to amplify or highlight the meaning of the original text by introducing materials that reinforced or extended certain of the original emphases.

In the case of Elihu, the immediate proximity to God’s speech is the most likely explanation of the high degree of consonance with it. That is, Elihu is an irascible presumptuous blowhard (images of inflation and evacuation cluster at the beginning of his discourse), and as such he is hardly someone to be in any way identified as God’s “spokesman.”

But as he approaches the end of his long harangue — as the poem ‘draws close, in other words, to the eruption of the Voice from the Whirlwind — he begins to weave into his abuse of Job images of God as the mighty sovereign of a vast creation beyond the ken of man. First he conjures up a vision of God Whose years are without number mustering the clouds and causing the rains to fall (36:26-33). Then, at the very end of his speech, in a clear structural bridge to the divine discourse that directly follows, Elihu asks Job whether he can really grasp God’s wondrous management of the natural world, invoking it as evidence of the moral perfection of the Divinity that man cannot fathom:

Hearken to this, O Job,
stand and take in the wonders of God.
Do you know when God directs them,
when His thunderhead’s lightning shines?
Do you know of the spread of cloud,
the wonders of the Perfect in Knowledge
When your garments feel warm
as the earth is becalmed from the south?
Will you pound out the skies with Him,
which are strong as a metal mirror?
Let us know what to say to Him!
We can lay out no case in our darkness.
Will it be told Him if I speak,
will a man say if he is devoured?
And now, they have not seen the light,
bright though it be in the skies,
as a wind passes, making them clear.
From the north gold comes;
over God — awesome glory.
Shaddai, whom we find not, is lofty in power,
in judgment and great justice — He will not oppress.
Therefore men do fear Him.
He does not regard the wise of heart.
(37:14-24)

Elihu’s cosmic poetry does not quite soar like that of the Voice from the Whirlwind (and this passage also involves several textual difficulties), and the second-rank poet responsible for his speeches never entirely escapes his weakness for boilerplate language. Even so, here the end it is something more than the rehearsal of formulas we saw in Eliphaz and Zophar.

The various items of his panorama of creation-the power over rain and thunder and the dazzling deployment of sunlight — will in a moment recur, more grandly, in God’s speech, and above all, the final emphasis on man’s inability to see the solar brilliance of the all-powerful God points toward the extraordinary exercise: of divine sight in which we are privileged to share through the poetry of God’s concluding speech.

The Hymn to Wisdom, Chapter 28, is in certain obvious ways cut from different cloth from the rest of the Book of Job. Lexically and stylistically, it sounds more like Proverbs than Job. Its celebration of divine Wisdom does not at all participate in the vehement argument on theodicy into which it is introduced. Structurally, the hymn is divided into three strophes of approximately equal length with the boundaries between them marked by a refrain; such explicit symmetry of form is servable elsewhere in the poetry of Job.

The imagery of precious that dominates the middle strophe has very few parallels else-in the book. But all these disparities may have troubled the audience a good deal less than they trouble us, with our notions of literary unity based on the reading of unitary texts produced by single who generally could be fully responsible for them from first draft to corrected page proofs. Whatever editor or ancient literary gremlin decided to insert this poem just after the completion of the rounds of debate with the Friends and before Job’s final Confession of Innocence (Chapters 29-31) chose the new material with a firm sense of could help tune up the proper attentiveness for God’s concluding speech.

That tuning up is a matter not just of emphasizing the vast scope of God’s Wisdom against man’s limited understanding but also of poetically defining a place where we can begin to imagine the unfathomable workings of the Creator. A whole world of sprawling expanses and inaccessible depths and heights is evoked in the poem — “A path that the vulture knows not, / nor the eye of the falcon beholds” (28:7), :unguessed realms of hidden recesses that only God can see or bring to light if He chooses.

The thematic stress on sight intimated at the end Elihu speeches is prominent here and made powerfully explicit in the concluding strophe. At the same time, specific details of the cosmic imagery that will begin the divine discourse are strategically anticipated (or, to think in the order of the editorial process rather than in the sequential order of the book, are strategically echoed):

And wisdom, from where does it come,
and where is the place of insight?
It is hidden from the eye of all living,
from the fowl of the heavens, concealed.
Perdition and Death have said,
“With our ears we heard its rumor.”
God grasps its way,
and He knows its place.

For He looks to the ends of the earth,
beneath all the heavens He sees,
to gauge the heft of the wind,
and to weigh water with a measure,
when He fixed a limit for rain,
and a way to the thunderhead,
Then He saw and recounted it,
set it firm and probed it, too.
And He said to man:
Look, fear of the Master, that is Wisdom,
and the shunning of evil is insight.
(Job 28:20-28)

The aphoristic concluding line is distinctly unlike the Voice from the Whirlwind not merely stylistically but also in the neatness of its sense of resolution. (Its formulaic pairing, however, of “wisdom” and “insight” is quite like the one God invokes in His initial challenge to Job.) In any case, the discrepancy in tone and attitude of the last line was no doubt far less important to whoever was responsible for the text of Job as we have it than the consonance of the hymn’s vision of God with the Voice from the Whirlwind — that is, a vision of God as the master of sight, searching out the unknowable ends of the earth.

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Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 1 – Robert Alter

February 10, 2014
William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils 1825. The biblical ‘Book of Job’ addresses the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a loving, all-powerful God exists. It has been described as ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’.In ‘Job’, God and Satan discuss the limits of human faith and endurance. God lets Satan force Job to undergo extreme trials and tribulations, including the destruction of his family. Despite this, as God predicted, Job’s faith remains unshaken and he is rewarded by God with the restoration of his health, wealth and family.

William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils 1825. The biblical ‘Book of Job’ addresses the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a loving, all-powerful God exists. It has been described as ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’.In ‘Job’, God and Satan discuss the limits of human faith and endurance. God lets Satan force Job to undergo extreme trials and tribulations, including the destruction of his family. Despite this, as God predicted, Job’s faith remains unshaken and he is rewarded by God with the restoration of his health, wealth and family.

Three decades ago, renowned literary expert Robert Alter radically expanded the horizons of, Biblical scholarship by recasting the Bible not only as a human creation. But also as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In The Art of Biblical Poetry, his companion to the seminal The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter takes his analysis beyond narrative craft to investigate the distinctive working of Hebrew poetry in the Bible. Learned and lucid, sometimes polemical but always with grace, here he writes about the Book of Job. Enjoy the superb translations.

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THE POWER OF Job’s unflinching argument, in the biblical book that bears his name, has rarely failed to move readers, but the structure of the book has been a perennial puzzle. It begins, as we all recall, with a seemingly naive tale: Job is an impeccably God-fearing man, happy in his children and in his abundant possessions. Unbenownst to him, in the celestial assembly the Adversary — despite the traditional translations, not yet a mythological Satan — challenges God to test the disinterestedness of Job’s piety by afflicting him. When Job, in rapid succession, has been bereft of all his various flocks and servants and then of all his children, and is stricken from head to foot with itching sores, he refuses his wife’s urging that he curse God and die but instead sits down in the dust in mournful resignation.

At this point, the prose of the frame-story switches into altogether remarkable poetry. The poetic Job begins by wishing he had never been born. Then, in three long rounds of debate, he confronts the three friends who have come with all the assurance of conventional wisdom to inform him that his suffering is certain evidence of his having done evil. Job consistently refuses to compromise the honesty of his own life, and in refuting the friends’ charges he repeatedly inveighs against God’s crushing unfairness.

Eventually, God answers Job out of a whirlwind, mainly to show how presumptuous this human critic of divine justice has been. Job concedes; the prose frame-story then clicks shut by restoring to Job health, wealth, and prestige, at the same time symmetrically providing him with another set of children.

This ending has troubled many readers over the centuries. Even if we put aside the closing of the folktale frame, so alien to later sensibilities in its schematic doubling of lost property and its simple replacement of lost lives, the Voice from the Whirlwind (or more properly, Storm) has seemed to some a rather exasperating answer to Job’s anguished questions.

The common objection to what is clearly intended as a grand climax of the poetic argument runs along the following lines: the Voice’s answer is no answer at all but an attempt to overwhelm poor Job by an act of cosmic bullying. Job, in his sense of outrage over undeserved suffering, has been pleading for simple justice. God ignores the issue of justice, not deigning to explain why innocent children should perish, decent men and women writhe in affliction, and instead sarcastically asks Job how good he is at hurling, lightning bolts, making the sun rise and set, causing rain to fall, fixing limits to the breakers of the sea. The clear implication is that if you can’t begin to play in my league, you should not have the nerve to ask questions about the rules of the game.

Some modern commentators have tried to get around such objections by arguing that the very inadequacy of the solution to the problem of theodicy at the end of Job is a testimony to the integrity of the book and to the profundity with which the questions have been raised. There is, in other words, no neat way to reconcile ethical monotheism with the fundamental fact that countless innocents suffer terrible fates through human cruelty, blind circumstance, natural disaster, disease, and genetic mishap.

Rather than attempt a pat answer, then, the Job poet was wise enough to imply that there could be no real answer and that the sufferer would have to be content with God’s sheer willingness to express His concern for His creatures. This reading of the Voice from the Whirlwind is up to a point plausible, but it may glide too easily over the fact that God’s speeches at the end have, after all, a specific content, which is articulated with great care and to the details of which we are presumably meant to attend carefully.

It has also been suggested that the “solution” to Job’s dilemma is in the essential act of revelation itself, whatever we think about what is said. That does seem a very biblical idea. Job never doubts God’s existence, but, precisely because he assumes in biblical fashion that God must be responsible for everything that happens in the world, he repeatedly wants to know why God now remains hidden, why He does not come out and confront the person on whom He has inflicted such acute suffering. The moment the Voice begins to address Job out of the storm, Job already has his answer: that, despite appearances to the contrary, God cares enough about man to reveal Himself to humankind, to give man some intimation of the order and direction of His creation.

This proposal about the importance of revelation at the end brings us a little closer, I think, to the actual intent of the two climactic divine discourses. What needs to be emphasized, however, considerably more than has been done is the essential role poetry plays in the imaginative realization of revelation. If the poetry of Job — at least when its often problematic text is fully intelligible — looms above all other biblical poetry in virtuosity and sheer expressive power, the culminating poem that God speaks out of the storm soars beyond everything that has preceded it in the book, the poet having wrought a poetic idiom even richer and more awesome than the one he gave Job. Through this gushing of poetic expression toward its own upper limits, the concluding speech helps us see the panorama of creation, as perhaps we could do only through poetry, with the eyes of God.

I realize that this last assertion may sound either hazily mystical or effusively hyperbolic, but what I am referring to is an aspect of the book that seems to have been knowingly designed by the poet and that to a large extent can be grasped, as I shall try to show, through close analytic attention to formal features of the poem. The entire speech from the storm not only is an effectively structured poem in itself but is finely calculated as a climactic development of images, ideas, and themes that appear in different and sometimes antithetical contexts earlier in the poetic argument.

In saying this, I do not by any means intend to dismiss the scholarly consensus that there are composite elements in the Book of Job, that it is not all the work of one hand. The most visible “seams” in the book are between the frame-story and the poetic argument, but this evident disjuncture is not really relevant to our concern with the Voice from the Whirlwind, and it makes little difference whether one regards the frame-story as an old folktale incorporated by the poet or (my own preference, based on a few tell-tale indications of Late Biblical Hebrew in the frame-story) as an old tradition artfully reworked by the poet in a consciously archaizing style.

Within the poetic argument itself, there is fairly general agreement among scholars that the Hymn to Wisdom, which is Chapter 28, and the Elihu speeches, Chapters 32-37, are interpolations for which the original Job poet was not responsible. I am not inclined to debate either of these judgments, but I should like to observe that the later poet and, in the case of Chapter 28, the editor who chose the poem from the literature of Wisdom psalms available to him were so alive to the culminating function of the Voice from the Whirlwind that they justified the inclusion of the additional material at least in part as anticipations of the concluding poem.

In fact, the claim made by some scholars that Chapters 38-41 are themselves an addition to the original text seems to me quite inadmissible precisely because the poetry of this final speech is so intricately and so powerfully a fulfillment of key elements in the body of the poetic argument.

There are, to begin with, occasional and significant adumbrations of the cosmic perspective of God at the end in the speeches of both Job and the Friends. Sometimes, in the case of the Friends, this is simply a matter of getting divine knowledge backward. Thus Eliphaz, in a speech asserting complacent confidence that God invariably destroys the evil man, draws an analogy from the animal kingdom:

“The lion’s roar, the maned beast’s sound — ,
and the young lions’ teeth are ; smashed.
The king of beasts dies with no prey, 
the whelps of the lion are scattered”
(4:10-11).

The point, presumably, is that in God’s just world even the fiercest of ravening beasts can be disabled, as seemingly powerful evildoers in the human sphere will get their comeuppance.

But this is to draw a general moral rule from a rare zoological case, and when God Himself evokes the lion (38:39) along with other beasts of prey, He recognizes unflinchingly that the real principle of the animal kingdom is that the strong devour the weak to sustain their own lives and those of their young. It is that harsher, more inassimilable truth that He chooses to make an integral part of His revelation to Job concerning the providential governance of the world.

More frequently, the Friends, as self-appointed defenders of God’s position, touch on certain notions that are actually in consonance with the divine speech at the end, but both the terms in which such notions are cast and the contexts in which they are set turn them into something jejune and superficial. In this regard, the Voice from the Whirlwind is a revelation of the contrast between the jaded half-truths of cliché and the startling, difficult truths exposed when the stylistic mid conceptual shell of cliché is broken open.

Thus Eliphaz, in one of i he Friends’ frequent appeals to the antiquity of received wisdom, upbraids Job: `

Are you the first man to be born,
before the hills were you spawned?
Did you listen at God’s high council,
take away wisdom for yourself?”
(15:7-8).

Eliphaz’s heightening of a sarcastic hyperbole from verset to verset (first born man — created before the world itself — a uniquely privileged member of God’s cosmogonic council) leads us to a point in some ways similar to God’s overwhelming challenge to Job at the beginning of His great speech.

But Eliphaz invokes creation in the smoothly formulaic language of poetic tradition, which is quite different from the vertiginous vision of the vastness of creation that God’s bolder language will offer. And Eliphaz speaks smugly without suspecting that there might be a chasm between divine knowledge and the conventional knowledge of accepted wisdom. This immediately becomes clear as he goes on to reduce his cosmogonic hyperbole to a mere competition of longevity with Job:

“What do you know that we don’t know,
understand, that is not with us?
The gray-haired and the aged are with us,
far older than your father”
(15:9-10).

A little earlier, there is a speech of Zophar’s that sounds even more like an anticipation of the Voice from the Whirlwind, but again the stylistic and attitudinal differences between human and divine discourse are crucially instructive.

Can you find what God has probed,
can you find Shaddai’s last end?
Higher than heaven, what can you do, deeper than Sheol,
what can you know?
Longer than earth is its measure,
and broader than the sea.
(11:7-9)

In the biblical way of thinking, all this is unexceptionable, and it would seem to accord perfectly with God’s own words in Chapter 38 about the unbridgeable gap between powerful Creator and limited creature. But the very smoothness of the stereotyped language Zophar uses (heights of heaven, depths of Sheol, longer than earth, broader than the sea) is a clue that this is a truth he has come by all too easily.

This suspicion is confirmed when he immediately proceeds to move from an affirmation of God’s power to the usual pat assertion that the all-knowing Creator detects all evil — by implication, to chastise the evildoers:

“Should He slip away or confine or assemble,
Who can resist Him ?
For He knows the empty folk,
He sees wrongdoing and surely takes note”
(11:10-11).

The actual prospect of God as sole master of the heights of heaven and the depths of hell is a staggering one as the Voice from the Whirlwind will make awesomely clear. Zophar’s speech there is too facile a transition from the invocation of that prospect to the time-worn notion that God will never allow crime to pay.

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Re-Reading the Story of Cain and Abel — Steven D. Ealy

January 30, 2014
Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel's leg, his left arm and Cain's curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel’s leg, his left arm and Cain’s curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA which promulgates the libertarian views of its founder through publishing, conferences, and educational resources. The operating mandate of the Liberty Fund was set forth in an unpublished memo written by its founder, Pierre F. Goodrich “to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.” This is a review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. This is his review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012.

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At least since Augustine’s The City of God, the biblical account of Cain and Abel has been used to treat them as archetypes of humanity. Augustine argues that mankind is “distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God.” This is the foundation of Augustine’s mystical understanding of the two cities, the city of man and the city of God. Cain was the first citizen of the city of man, while Abel belonged to the city of God.

Both Cain and Abel were “first of all born of Adam evil and carnal,” tainted with original sin. Only Abel, however, becomes a citizen of the city of God because after his carnal birth he “becomes good and spiritual … when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration.”

In Augustine’s reading, Abel’s status as a citizen of the city of God is not a matter of his actions or free choices; rather, he was “predestined by grace, elected by grace, [to be] a stranger below [in the city of man], and … a citizen above [in the city of God].” Based on Genesis 4:17, Cain is regarded as the builder of the first city, and therefore could be seen as the founder of the city of man. Augustine notes this in his discussion of the brothers: “Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.

One of the pitfalls in using Cain and Abel (and perhaps in using other well-known biblical figures such as Abraham or Job) as types is the possibility of allowing the conclusion of the story to lead us into the development of predictable and oversimplified categories that miss the paradoxes and tensions contained in the original biblical story.

A recent work that examines Cain and Abel as types but attempts to avoid this trap is The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. I want to outline Hazony’s discussion here for two reasons. First, Hazony’s work is an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Second, Hazony’s argument is important not just for understanding Genesis 4 but as a radical critique of the generally accepted understanding of the entire Hebrew Bible.

German theologian Paul Tillich became well known in the postwar period for arguing that the heart of Protestantism was “shaking the foundations” of traditional theology. Similarly, Hazony “shakes the foundations” of the accepted understanding by arguing that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, things might not be as clear-cut as they appear to be. Hazony’s major focus in this regard, of which his treatment of Cain and Abel is but a small piece, is to dismantle the popular view that the Hebrew Bible cannot be treated as a serious intellectual document because it is based on revelation and not on reason.

Hazony seeks to establish the role of reason in the Hebrew Bible through a discussion of its structure and by highlighting and illustrating the array of techniques it uses to make arguments of a general nature that can be judged by reason. That is the larger context for Hazony’s treatment of Cain and Abel, which is my primary subject here.

In many engagements with Genesis 4, the focus is almost entirely on Cain, and any discussion of Abel is merely an afterthought. This is certainly the case when we come to the literary treatments of the biblical story as presented in Byron’s Cain: A Mystery and John Steinbeck’s monumental East of Eden. For both of these writers, Cain is the crucial figure. In Byron, he is treated as a Prometheus-like hero who establishes human freedom through his refusal to obey God’s orders.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Cain is also central to establishing the principle of human freedom, which is built around Cain’s discussion with God and the meaning of the Hebrew word “timshel,” which is translated by the house-servant Lee as “mayest.” Lee argues that God’s use of the word “may,” as opposed to “must,” contains the kernel of contingency and openness found at the heart of human freedom.

It is not unfair to say that for both Byron and Steinbeck, Abel is just a stage prop or part of the scenery, while the real action of the story swirls around Cain. This neglect of Abel is perhaps not surprising, and is even suggested in the biblical account in Genesis 4 by Abel’s name, which is related to the Hebrew for “vapor” and “puff of air” (according to translator Robert Alter) and signifies “something transitory” (according to translator Everett Fox).

Given the general treatment of the story, which emphasizes the relative importance of Cain and the relative unimportance of Abel, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the first mention of this story in Hazony’s work refers to Abel and that Cain is not mentioned at all.

In an overview of his entire book, Hazony writes, “The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But … this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture.” The figures most celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues, “are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience — a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of the pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer.” In a way, Hazony sets out to turn the tables on Byron’s understanding; for Hazony, Abel (as the type of the shepherd) will represent dissidence and disobedience, while Cain (as the type of the farmer) will represent conformity and submission.

The first line of resistance of shepherd dissidence is against corrupt human institutions, but it goes beyond this. Hazony writes, “Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and other biblical figures are at times portrayed as resisting not only man but God himself.” Note the importance Hazony attributes to Abel, placing him first in this list of biblical heroes. He concludes, “The biblical narrative endorses… an outsider’s ethics, which encourages a critique even of things that appear to be decreed by God in the name of what is genuinely beneficial to man.” From this biblical perspective, Hazony continues, “what is genuinely beneficial to man is that which will ultimately find favor in God’s eyes,” even if the idea will not originate with God and even if it was in opposition to God’s original plan.

Perhaps as surprising as Hazony’s emphasis on Abel is his characterization of Cain. Hazony’s introduction of Cain occurs when he places Cain’s story within the broader sweep of biblical history; he argues that it “is very uncertain ….that we can really understand the story of Cain, a farmer, murdering his brother Abel, who is  a shepherd, if we do not recognize that his first act of violence between farmers and shepherds is a premonition of the violence between farmers and shepherds that appears in the later story of Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again in the story of David.”

As already noted, Hazony argues that Cain and Abel are presented as distinct theoretical types. Cain is a farmer “who represents tradition-bound and idolatrous societies such as Egypt and Babylonia” and “whose highest value is obedience.” Abel is a shepherd “who stands for the spirit of freedom in search of that which is the true good.” Abel represents the individual and the society “that is willing to forsake the might and riches of the great civilizations for the sake of personal freedom and the hope of something higher.”

Hazony situates the story of Cain and Abel in its biblical context. Cain and Abel are born to Eve after she and Adam have sinned and been expelled from the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground due to you, and in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it give forth for you, but you will eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken.”

God then sends them out of the garden “to work the ground from which he had been taken.” This passage emphasizes the “bitterness of the farming life” and is made even stronger by the words used to describe Adam’s fate. According to Hazony, the Hebrew term usually translated “till” or “work” the soil also means “serve.” Thus, “God has in fact punished man by sending him ‘to serve the ground’ — to become the servant and slave of the earth itself.”

In Genesis 4, we turn immediately to the story of Cain and Abel. The tale is told concisely: “Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.

The text emphasizes that the idea of making a sacrifice to God is Cain’s. It is Cain who inclines toward piety, and thinks to make some of his meager supply of food, which he has scraped from the soil, and sacrifice it to God in gratitude.” Second, as a tiller of the soil, Cain is following the instructions God had given to Adam. Hazony writes. “He works the ground just as God had told his father to do. He submits to God’s will, and even, amid the curse and the hardship, finds it in his heart to be grateful to God for what he has.”

Hazony’s account of Abel is also different from the standard view. First, Abel merely follows Cain’s example in making a sacrifice. There is no suggestion that his offering is superior to his brother’s. Second, while Cain has followed in his father’s career and tilled the soil in accordance with God’s instructions, in becoming a shepherd “Abel has … found a way to escape the curse upon the soil.”

Hazony maintains that the biblical text emphasizes “the fact that this is about what Abel wants, first and foremost, rather than about what God wants.” So the pious and hard-working Cain’s sacrifice is rejected while the sacrifice of the self-indulgent Abel is accepted. How can this be brought into an understandable framework?

Hazony argues that the story is constructed so as to present readers with a stark choice concerning the best way of life: “Each archetype represents a way of life and an approach to living as a human being, to ethics.” First is the life of the farmer as portrayed in Cain. “Cain has piously accepted the curse of the soil … as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as had his father before him…. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, a life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.”

Next is the life of the shepherd. “Abel takes the curse of the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God decreed it, and that his father had submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will.”

While God said nothing about shepherding when he ejected Adam and Eve from Eden, it develops that shepherding does fit within God’s plans. What God really wants, according to Hazony, is “an improvement in man’s station, a greater goodness which comes of man’s own unsolicited efforts.” Hazony concludes, “God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. This is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice.” (I note in passing a point that Hazony does not make — this discussion of man’s improvement of his situation sounds much like Locke’s account of the divine origins of property in his chapter on property in the Second Treatise.)

Hazony concludes with a fascinating appendix titled What Is ‘Reason’? Some Preliminary Remarks. Here, having rejected the traditional distinction between reason and revelation, he draws on the Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Their perhaps unexpected appearance should serve as a hint to readers whose understanding of Scripture differs sharply from Hazony’s in some respects that they can nonetheless profit from time spent with this book.

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