Saturday, February 24, 2018

Maternal thinking

It's harder than it used to be to tell the story of Job without thinking about his wife. She suffered all he did, after all, and gets no thanks for it. (We'll be hearing her voice in class week, in "Testament of Job" and Robert Frost's Masque of Reason.) But what about Job's mother?


You know, the one he mentions at 1:21:

Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither. (KJV)

And again, in searing chapter 3:

Let the day perish wherein I was born, ... 
Because it shut not up the doors of my mother's womb, nor hid sorrow from mine eyes. (3:3,10)

These lines, which I confess I haven't lingered over, and certainly never thought to read together (one's part of the "frame story," the other of the "poem of Job"), turn out to be central to the ecotheological reading of the Book of Job of the "Earth Bible." (The image above is their logo, the work of Australian Aboriginal artist Jasmine Corowa. It shows a Bible read from below, from the Earth and Earth Community.*) Because, of course, Job's mother is (also) Earth. And it is to the womb of the Earth that this man, his mortal life in ruins around him, dreams of returning, a place of comfort and rest, where human travails are none:

There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. 
There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. 
The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master. (3:17-19)

Job looks forward to escaping from God's blind and cruel scrutiny there:

The eye of him that hath seen me shall see me no more: thine eyes are upon me, and I am not. (7:8)

Norman C. Habel, whose reading of Job this is, makes a compelling case that Job's view of the world is, or once afflicted becomes, an "inverse cosmology, a radical reversal of the traditional worldview of his day." During his brief hour between coming out of and returning to the sheltering earth, man is the plaything of a capricious God. Indeed, in this reframing, God's injunction to the satan to torment Job all he wants but not to let him die (he is in thine hand; but save his life [2:6]) seems not like mercy but torture. For Job, Habel argues "The oppressive presence of heaven is like hell, and the imaginary world of the dead within Earth is like an abode of heavenly rest."**

This is still an "imaginary world" to Job (one of three "fantasies" Habel thinks Job indulges in in his distress), and Habel's God will later invite Job to discern the wisdom in the Earth and everywhere else, but it is still a place where we can hear the "voice of Earth" in the Bible. Indeed once you start listening for the voice of Earth in the text, buried though it usually is beneath anthropocentric concerns, it seems that God, too, found Wisdom in the Earth (see chapter 28***).

I've known of Habel's ecotheological work for some time but it's taken thinking about Job in the Anthropocene to get me to finally read it. It's fascinating! Through Habel's eyes one can see Earth's Wisdom as a central character in the story of Job. It's not just another of God's projects - were you there, puny man? - drawing our attention away from our lives to this overwhelming power, but a guide and companion to God in creation, pointing us back to the Earth Community and our life as part of it.

*Norman C. Habel, "Editorial Preface," The Earth Story in Wisdom Traditions, ed. Norman C. Habel and Shirley Wurst (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 10
**Norman C. Habel, "Earth First: Inverse Cosmology in Job," in The Earth Story in Wisdom Traditions, 65-77, 69
***Norman Habel, "Where Can Wisdom be Found? Re-discovering Wisdom in God's Creation," in The Nature of Things: Rediscovering the Spiritual in God's Creation, ed. Graham Buxton and Norman Habel
 (Wipf and Stock, 2016), 139-56

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