Saturday, April 2, 2011

Job's Wife: Old What's Her Name

In the story of Job, Job is struck with the most incredible level of suffering imaginable and his nameless wife shows up for one brief moment. Seeing her husband sitting in an ash heap, silently scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery, she says, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die” (2:9).

Why are we not given her name? Wasn’t she important? At the end of the story we are even told the names of Job’s daughters (but not his sons… Job 42:14), but his wife is nowhere to be found (although she was apparently still there since he DID have 10 more children).

Hebrew names many times indicated some facet of the person’s character. In Hebrew tradition, Job’s wife was Dinah (“dee-naw”), one of Jacob’s daughters, which indicates when they believe Job to have lived. If she was in fact Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, her name means “Avenged; Judged and vindicated.” Interestingly enough, Job means “persecuted” in Hebrew and “Repentant One” in Arabic.

Why did the adversary not take her along with Job’s children? Was she under God’s protection, even though the story does not tell us so? Or did the Adversary spare her thinking he could sway her to his purposes?

What was going on in her mind? Fear, resentment, anger, grief?

She was certainly affected by the tragedies every bit as much as Job was, except for the sores on his body, and she was probably the one who should have been dressing them. The fact that he was scraping them with a potsherd may indicate that, in her grief, she was unable to care for her husband’s wounds. Her own wounds were too great for her to think of caring for his.

And yet, at the same time, she could not bear the thought that Job was silently accepting his fate. So she issued a challenge — her immortal words “curse God and die”. Our translation and interpretation of this passage is critical to understanding what was really going on with her.

“Do you still hold to your integrity?” Hebrew: tummah (‘toom-mah' – the feminine form of ‘innocence’. Masculine of integrity is “tom”). She was no doubt as steeped in the philosophy of Torah Obedience as Job was. Was she accusing him of sinning and deserving of his punishment?

“Curse God and die” – could also be “bless” or “kneel” – barach is supposed to include in it the ideas of both cursing and blessing and could have been used here as either irony or sarcasm, i.e., “oh yea, God is so good to us. You can bless him till (or while) he kills you”. Most English translations use “curse”, some say “bless”, some even say “renounce God and die”. If she was saying “bless…” it would align better with a righteous woman suggesting that if Job was going to die, he should be sure his last words were a blessing to God, as was customary at that time. If that’s the case, she was suggesting Job resign himself to his fate.

An interesting alternative perspective was introduced by Ilana Pardes, associate professor of comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She posits that whatever Job’s wife’s words meant, her intention was that silent acceptance of his fate was not what he should do; that the kind of “integrity” Job was displaying lacked substance and what Job needed to do was to challenge the God who had afflicted him… even if doing so meant his death.

So perhaps she was the first to voice her doubts about the efficacy of Torah Obedience and to encourage Job to seek a deeper answer — one that would give rise to questions about the faith he held so dearly.

At first, of course, Job responded to his wife’s suggestion with a harsh rebuke: “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).

Notice however, that after the three friends arrive, Job’s first words come close to doing what his wife suggested. He does not curse God directly, but he does curse the day of his birth, thereby implicitly cursing the creator who gave him life.

So when Job’s wife called on him to “curse God and die”, she may have actually, maybe even unknowingly, initiated the thoughts that lead to Job moving away from Torah Obedience and finding a deeper knowledge and relationship with his God than he had ever experienced before.

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