Monday, February 22, 2010

No misreadings here!

And in the Job course today we were swimming in the sea of Talmud! With the help of my colleague F, a specialist in midrash, we made our way through the section of the Baba Batra (part of the Babylonian Talmud) which contains the most concentrated discussion of the Book of Job in rabbinic literature (including this gloss). It's bewildering and then intoxicating, so different are its way of making arguments - philological, conjectural, anecdotal and often far-far-fetched - and its refusal to adjudicate between them. Is Job a parable, or did he live in the time of the Babylonian exile, or of Moses, or of Ruth? - Yes, quite possibly! Was Job as pious as Abraham, or less so, or more so? - Indeed, not unlikely!

I found one part particularly interesting, an extended passage in which God's speech to Job (the theophany) is read as an argument. Too often, especially in our time, God's speeches are understood as anything but argument, no more than so much noise, bluster, bullying; Job is shouted down; his questions - indeed all human questions - are blithely or brutally ignored as God revels in the enumeration of things bigger and stranger than humankind can fathom. Yet here, some of these claims are interpreted as responses to Job's questions and, along the way, proofs that God is as attentive to the tiniest detail as to the big picture.

To understand it, though, you'll need to understand that Job's question is construed as the accusation that God has mistaken him for an enemy, perhaps because things like tempests interfere with His perception. The argument rests on - or plays with - the close resemblance of the words Job [בויא, Iyob] and enemy [ביוא, Oyeb]. (The other thing to know is that the word for tempest apparently sounds like that for hair.)

Job said to God: Perhaps a tempest has passed before thee, and caused thee to confuse Iyob [Job] and Oyeb [enemy]. He was answered through a tempest, as it is written, Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, … Gird up now thy loins like a man, for I will demand of thee and declare thou unto me [38:1,3] 'I have created many hairs in man, and for every hair I have created a separate groove, so that two should not suck from the same groove, for if two were to suck from the same groove they would impair the sight of a man. I do not confuse one groove with another; and shall I then confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood? [38:25] Many drops have I created in the clouds, and for every drop a separate mould, so that two drops should not issue from the same mould, since if two drops issued from the same mould they would wash away the soil, and it would not produce fruit. I do not confuse one drop with another, and shall I confuse Iyob and Oyeb?' … Or a way for the lightning of the thunder. [38:25] Many thunderclaps have I created in the clouds, and for each clap a separate path, so that two claps should not travel by the same path, since if two claps travelled by the same path they would devastate the world. I do not confuse one thunderclap with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth, or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? [39:1] This wild goat is heartless towards her young. When she crouches for delivery, she goes up to the top of a mountain so that the young shall fall down and be killed, and I prepare an eagle to catch it in his wings and set it before her, and if he were one second too soon or too late it would be killed. I do not confuse one moment with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? This hind has a narrow womb. When she crouches for delivery, I prepare a serpent which bites her at the opening of the womb, and she is delivered of her offspring; and were it one second too soon or too late, she would die. I do not confuse one moment with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? (16a-16b)

What's wonderful in this is not just the image of a God attentive to the smallest detail, who's engaged with the welfare of each individual thing in nature, no matter how tiny, in its individuality - and so of course also about each human being - but the suggestion that it's all about (or at least like) reading. God hasn't misread Job's name. His prodigious and meticulous care of His creation is like the rabbis' care for the text of Scripture - including seemingly heartless and narrow-wombed ones like the Book of Job! (Images from here)

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