Friday, July 02, 2010


Sometimes things line up in interesting ways that make a crazily wide-ranging project like mine seem worthwhile after all. In trying to write about Calvin, I learned (from Susan Schreiner) that he misattributes a quotation in the Institutes of the Christian Religion:

All must immediately perish, as Job declares, “Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his Maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth? They are destroyed from morning to evening,” (Job 4:17-20). (III.12.1)

These aren't Job's words, but Eliphaz', and recounting something heard from a figure in a dream. (At left, Blake's depiction of the scene.) This seems a curious mistake for as close a reader of the Bible as Calvin to make.

But maybe it wasn't exactly a mistake.

20th-century scholar N. H. Tur-Sinai argued, on the basis of later references in the Book of Job, that the dream at issue was not Eliphaz' but Job's. 4:12-20 may really belong at the end of chapter 3, but at some point in the text's transmission got moved. The Jewish Study Bible considers the argument convincing enough to recommend this correction. If the dream was not Eliphaz' but Job's, then its upshot is not accusation but defense - not that Job should shut up since even the heavenly beings are impure, but that even the heavenly beings need divine mercy so why ride a mere mortal so hard?

This might make sense in historical critical terms, but can it shed any light on premodern interpretation? Premodern interpreters didn't - couldn't - imagine the Bible has a history, and that its text might be marred by corruptions. But it turns out that Tur-Sinai's view has antecedents. Four Jewish liturgical poems, dating from the 6th to the 12th centuries CE, invoke the passage in question. But these are poems for the New Year and the Day of Atonement, during which it is forbidden to cite verses about judgment. Instead, each seems to use these words to plead for divine mercy. Here's part of Adon beshoftakh, composed by Elijah bar Shemaya at Bari in Italy c. 1160 CE and recited in penitential services held before sunrise on the night before the New Year:

Lord, when You judge man, the worm,
in your wrath remember [Your] grace and [Your] mercy.
As You hold trial to adjudge the guilty,
clear the erring and the foolish, holding them innocent.
Be kindly and good to the culpable;
do not draw out the quarrel to its fullest.
[A people] poor indeed and empty of ability
our calling to You to reveal Yourself to them.
Here we are before you, [confessing our] vast guilt
too ashamed to open our mouths and ask mercy.
For can man come out justified from [before] God?
Can he be reckoned pure before his Maker?
qtd. in Mayer I. Gruber, “Tur-Sinai’s Job in the Jewish Liturgy,”
Review of Rabbinic Judaism
6/1 (2003): 87-100, 96

Mayer I. Gruber, who discusses these poems in connection with Tur-Sinai's thesis, suggests that the later liturgical poets may have followed the examples of the earlier ones here: "For many Jews from a traditional upbringing, the meaning of the biblical text is the one it has acquired in Rabbinic midrash rather than the original meaning, which would be of interest to a Bible critic. Similarly, I imagine, for Elijah bar Shemaya the meaning of the dream vision, at least in the context of writing and reading liturgical poetry, was the meaning that had been given to that vision by his predecessors in the art of synagogue poetry." As for the earliest? He might have been "an original and brilliant biblical exegete"; or perhaps there were various recensions of Job floating around for a while - we know this to have been the case for some other scriptural texts. (Op. cit., 98) If 4:12-20 originally did come at the end of chapter 3, there must have been multiple versions as the text was altered, at least for a brief time. In any case, the liturgical poems suggest the existence of a centuries-long alternative understanding.

Can this explain Calvin? Perhaps. Though I'm not the person to do it (heaven forfend!), someone might find that rabbinic awareness of the possibility of reading 4:12-20 as Job's rather than Eliphaz' vision found its way into something Calvin read, perhaps the Postilla of Nicholas of Lyra, which apparently included Jewish interpretive traditions... Of course, for Calvin putting these words in Job's mouth rather than Eliphaz' doesn't make them any the less a leveling condemnation of human beings. On the other hand, we too quickly assume that Calvin's all about judgment, when he's also (but you have to go through the condemnation step to get here) about mercy.

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