Sunday, February 22, 2015


This week in my Old Testament course we took a look at the wisdom literature in general and I looked at the book of Job in particular. I listened to episode 270 of the Professional Left (henceforth to be referred to as PL) podcast (from around  the timestamps of 22:00-32:00) and their discussion of Job. Advanced warning of language used within the podcast, but it is worth a listen. I won't be summarizing their words, instead I will just be looking at what it is that they get right about Job, what they get wrong, and where are the grey areas that need more information.

PL levies the claim that God makes a bet with the Devil. This is a mixture of being true and false. God does indeed make a bet, but it is with the accuser, a heavenly being whose has the job of trying to get God to find humans as being guilty. Because the accuser in Hebrew is ha-satan, our podcasters attribute this title of satan to the Devil. But when the book of Job was written ha-satan didn't have any of those cultural meanings behind it that we think of when we hear "satan". So PL misunderstands the role of ha-satan in the podcast, but they are trying to talk about the right thing, and that's the wager God enters into with ha-satan concerning Job. Dr. Lester points out in his lecture that this wager isn't even initiated by ha-satan, but by God.

PL correctly identifies that God is the epitome of a righteous man in the Old Testament (they technically call him the "other" righteous man after briefly mentioning Noah). This plays out in the scripture where Job is called "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" (Job 1:1), and then later God echoes the narrators words exactly when challenging ha-satan (1:8 and 2:3). 

PL states that God murders a bunch of people in this bet with ha-satan and this is true with an asterisk after it. Technically, God doesn't kill anybody in Job, instead ha-satan does. However, ha-satan kills Jobs family and servants with the express permission of God to do so. God knows full well what ha-satan will do and gives the ok for it. So God doesn't really kill anybody, nor is it God's idea to kill people to test Job, but God is certainly ok with the plan to do so. 

PL rightly points out that Job is pissed off at God for turning on him, and the even maintain Job's blamelessness like happens in the story. Job is always adamant that he did nothing wrong and this is true. Job wants to know why God is treating him in this fashion, or as PL puts it "where the hell do you get off doing this?" What PL misses here is Job's deep understanding that by asking God this question and demanding an audience that he cannot win for God is more powerful than he is and there is none who can fairly decide between him and God. This is exactly what happens when God shows up to respond to Job. Instead of answering Job's questions, God explains how much bigger God is than Job and how Job could not possibly understand things because of that (Job 38-41). 

Early on in their discussion PL brings up the perspective that the lesson of Job is about how the inner life is more than what can be represented by a lifestyle. This seems like a pretty simplified explanation but is decently adequate. What's missing here is a discussion on wisdom and how this message that being righteous doesn't necessarily equate to a good, comfortable life, is counter the the conventional wisdom found within scripture and within ancient Semitic people's worldview. 

Dr. Lester discusses Carol Newsom's experiment of looking just at the narrative frame of Job in which Job is righteous, has everything taken from him, but is then vindicated and given more than he had before as payment for his suffering. This fits within the conventional wisdom, that Job had lots because he was good, unjustly had things taken away, and was therefore rewarded even greater for that injustice. All is well. But in doing this we ignore the arguments Job has with his friends and is these arguments that force God to come and respond to Job, even if God never answers the questions. Job is rewarded for speaking correctly and those arguments Job gives run directly counter to the conventional wisdom espoused by his friends. 

PL talk about how Job has lived up to the contract, God's covenant with the people, and God ignores this completely. This is Job's argument. He is not being punished because he has failed to follow his end of the covenant, but because God isn't upholding God's end of the covenant. God ultimately finds that Job is correct in this and rewards him for it.  PL also mentions how Job is given a new family as part of his rewards with a large emphasis on how the book seems to just think the original family was unimportant because Job gets this new (and better) family in the end. They particularly focus on Job's wife, however, unlike their assertions Job's wife is never killed. She survives with Job. While this certainly doesn't excuse the idea that Job's new kids make up for him losing his earlier children, the wife isn't treated as being necessarily like chattel as PL argues. 

PL took a good attempt at examining Job for a ten minute discussion that included other things as well. They didn't fare too poorly, but more information on the context of wisdom literature and having examined the text to make sure all of their claims were accurate would have helped their discussion.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Psalm 44

I will be looking at Psalm 44 this week for my Old Testament class. Using questions found here, I will examine this Psalm. I will list the question before answering it so that you do not need to follow the link unless you want to read more about how to read poetry.

Who is the speaker?
The speaker is an anonymous member of the Israelite community writing on behalf of the people. Note that the author begins with "We have heard with our ears, O God." (emphasis added). The author continues throughout the poem using we, us, our, etc.

What circumstances gave rise to the poem?
It appears as if a key military defeat caused the author to write this poem. The poem begins (44:1-8) with the history of military successes, all of which are attributed to God. Immediately following this section is a description of military defeat. Examples are in verses 10 and 11"you made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil. You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations." This last sentence also suggests that the defeat was not a solitary incident but instead was a larger defeat that ended in a period of exile as the Israelites are now scattered.

What situation is presented?
In the face of this defeat and exile the author also finds no cause for God turning God's back on the people "All of this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant." (verse 17).  The people want to know why God has let them suffer when they have not failed to follow their end of the covenant.

Who or what is the audience?
God is almost certainly the one being written to. But the NRSV also begins with the sub-heading of "To the leader. Of the Ko'ra·hites. A Mas'kil." So it would also appear that the author is writing to whoever leads the Ko'ra·hites.

What is the tone?
This is a lament Psalm. It is the people crying out to God in their suffering.

What form, if any, does the poem take?
This Psalm uses the typical Hebrew couplet throughout it. An example of a synonymous couplet comes in verse 23:
A"Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?"                                                               
B "Awake, do not cast us off forever!"
Early on the Pslamist uses two couplets to repeat the same idea. From verse 2:
A "You with your own hand drove out the nations,"
B "but them you planted,"
A "You afflicted the peoples,"
B "but them you set free;" 
Here, the A lines mirror each other in describing how God treated the non-Israelites and the B lines mirror in God's treatment of the Israelites. Making both couplets work together while each couplet also serves as an example of antithetic parallelism, where what is put forward in line A is opposite of line B.

How does the form relate to the content?
Hebrew couplets are often used to reinforce ideas. For example, the stanza of verses 9-12 is focused on God's rejection of the people. Each couplet expresses this in a new way and each B line emphasizes a specific point made in the more general A line. For example, in verse 11 the A line is "you have made us like sheep for slaughter." This is a broad statement that could mean lots of different things, but the B line defines this general statement: "and have scattered us among the nations." It is the scattering of the people that makes them like sheep for slaughter.

Is sound an important, active element of the poem?
It is hard for me to answer this question. As Bandstra's textbook makes clear, the importance of the sound of Hebrew poetry is almost always lost in translation. It is most likely that sound is indeed important in the Hebrew text, but in the English translation any rhymes or alliterations that exist in Hebrew disappear.

Does the poem spring from an identifiable historical moment?
Yes and no. As Pslams are often specific, yet vague, it can be hard to identify with certainty what exactly caused the Psalm to be written. We've already identified that the Psalm appears to come after a military defeat, possibly even a defeat that led to exile. However, since Israel suffered more than one military defeat and more than one exilic period, it is difficult to place exactly which defeat/exile is being referred to in this Pslam without more information.

Does the poem speak from a specific culture?
The poem speaks from the culture of ancient Israel. Some time between 740 and 580 BCE if either the Babylonian or Assyrian exilic events are the cause of this poem.

Does the poem have its own vernacular?
Without knowing the original Hebrew and the hebrew found in other Pslams it is not really possible to answer this question.

Does the poem use imagery to achieve a particular effect?
The Psalm does use imagery to reenforce ideas. We have already discussed the imagery of being sheep led to slaughter found in verse 11. However, verse 19 is also a use of metaphoric imagery. "Yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness." These images reenforce the hopelessness and abandonment felt by Israel.

What kind of figurative language, if any, does the poem use?
Again, the examples given in the last answer work for this as well. Also, the language of Israel being sheep for the slaughter is repeated in the B line of verse 22.

If the poem is a question, what is the answer?
This Psalm is a question of sorts. It is asking God why are the Israelites made to suffer and feel forgotten. No answer is given in the context of this Psalm. If one of the exilic periods is indeed the reason for this Psalm than elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible the answer given is that Israel did not hold up their end of the covenant. This runs counter to the claims made within the Psalm itself in verses 17 and 18. However, that does not mean that the Psalmist is correct in their interpretation of Israel's conduct. Nor, does it mean that they are wrong however. Again, more historical knowledge would be needed to answer the question.

What does the title suggest?
The title given in the English NRSV translation is "National Lament and Prayer for Help". This is a Psalm of all of Israel crying out to God and asking for relief.

Does the poem use unusual words, or words in an unusual way?
Again, without more knowledge of the Hebrew involved in this poem, or what was common at the time of its writing, it is not really possible to answer this question for Psalm 44. Although, as far as I can tell from the English translation, no unusual words are used, nor are words used in an unusual way with the exception of certain words that are seemingly lost to history like Sé'lah and A Mas'kil. Both of these words are not translated, and my attempts to seek reputable sources for translations failed. A Mas'kil has been re-appropriated in more modern times it seems, but the ancient use of it, as far as I can tell, remains to be unanimously agreed upon.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hermeneutical Triangle

The hermeneutical triangle is a series of three points (author, referents, and reader) which all center around a fourth point, which is the text. By beginning with the text itself and then examining it through the lenses of the other three points you can derive meaning and understanding. This is what hermeneutics is, finding the meaning in a text.

One of the points of hermeneutics has puzzled me, not because I think it unimportant, but because I have been unsure how we can truly go about understanding it fully. This is the referents point of the triangle (and by some extension the reader point as well). Referents deal with understanding what is going on in the world of the author. This means historically and culturally understanding their context. However, this is very difficult for us to do. When dealing with something from the distant past, thousands of years removed from the present day, understanding the culture and ways of thinking of the people in that culture is quite difficult. We may be able to identify some of the historical pieces, but even that will remain incomplete. Further, this seems to rely on the author closely mirroring or embracing what we do know of the culture from that time. This is almost certainly not the case over a collection of books like the Bible. Just in our own time we can recognize that different people speaking to the same events in our time come to very different conclusions and these conclusions may or may not be tied into the broader culture.

Ultimately, hermeneutics will never be perfect because our knowledge is not perfect. While I have particular problems with parts of the hermeneutical triangle, I recognize that we must do our best to deal with these issues of context, even if we assuredly fail to take everything into account.