Thursday, January 19, 2006

Faith, Fiction, and the Jewish Scriptures (on the Book of Job and the literal truth of Scripture)

(I wrote this article quite a while ago - my son Tzviki has since finished hesder and is doing a BA in Jewish education!)

©Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in Judaism 39: 215-20, 1990.

My six year old son, Tzvi, is precociously sensitive to the complexities of narrative truth. Once, after I related to him in Hebrew a conversation from my childhood, he exclaimed: “That can’t be right, you’ve got everyone speaking Hebrew, but in America people speak English.” I hope that no one else takes similar offense at my having translated his Hebrew for quotation in an English language publication. More seriously, he also asked a question which has, no doubt, thrown many a parent into a fit of soul-searching unknown since adolescence. The question is: “Are the stories of the Bible true?” Personal beliefs aside, it is clear that the traditional Jewish consensus answers with a resounding “yes.” Surprisingly, there is one narrative book in Jewish Scripture whose traditional status in unclear. I refer to the book of Job.

The concluding pages of the first chapter of the Talmudic tractate, Bava Batra, contain a relatively long and sustained discussion of Job. In the course of the Talmud’s attempt to establish the time and authorship of the book, the following incident is recounted:

A certain one of the Rabbis came before Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani and sat down and said: “Job did not exist and was never created, rather he was [a character in] a fable “(B. Bava Batra 15a).

While R. Shmuel bar Nahmani argues against this view, it has certainly found its supporters among later authorities. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides clearly states that the story of Job “is a parable intended to set forth the opinions of people concerning providence.” More recently, the prominent Orthodox Israeli exegete, Amos Hakham, has stated that “all of the contemporary commentators agree that Job is a parable.”2

The fact that Job was not thought of as literally true tells us something important about the rabbinic attitude towards Scripture as a whole. The Rabbis did not adopt a “fundamentalist” view of scriptural truth, requiring that Scripture qua Scripture be historically accurate. Given, then, the flexibility of rabbinic thought, we may reasonably ask why the rest of the Bible’s stories were (almost) always thought of by classical Judaism as accurately describing past events.

Some texts lose none of their importance if read as fiction. It makes little difference to the reader that Madam Bovary never existed. But, suppose one read such things about one’s own spouse! Then the accuracy of every detail might seem more crucial. Most of the stories of the Jewish Scriptures belong to the second category of texts. When the Book of Exodus retells the story of Israel in Egypt, its self-conscious purpose is to establish the historical basis of God’s special dominion over the Jewish people, as expressed in the first of the Ten Commandments. The covenant between God and His people partakes of the formal aspect of a legal contract, and the believing reader (and this is the only reader taken into consideration by the Torah) consults Scripture as an accurate record of each party’s compliance with the contract. If the Exodus were considered a myth, the entire material basis of the covenant between God and Israel would collapse.

There is also a deeper, epistemological issue at stake here. In the Torah, Moses repeatedly urges his audience to accept the evidence of their own eyes, to remember the miracles performed for them:

You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land the great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles. (Deut.29: 1,2).

Why call upon the people to remember events unless they were supposed to have actually taken place? Moses calls upon them not to worship images, since “you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire” (Deut. 4:15). What sense can be made of such an appeal if it is not understood as pointing to a real experience of theophany at Sinai?

All of this leads to what must be, for the secular reader, the great paradox of the Bible’s place in the development of human consciousness. On the one hand, the Bible promotes an anti-mythical, almost empiricist view of the world. As a modern philosopher might say, the myths of pagan religion were unverifiable. Human experience could offer no evidence for or against the truth of mytho-poeic entities. Yet, the Bible takes religion seriously and seeks to apply to it the same standards of credibility which are used in every day life. The paganism of ancient times failed the Biblical test. The Canaanite gods did not answer human prayers in a regular fashion; neither did they punish the wicked nor reward the just. Attacking idolatry in terms of an almost vulgar positivism, the prophets deride the “holy” images of competing religions as the lifeless artifacts of a preposterous superstition.

On the other hand, the Bible replaces the rejected pagan myths with new, equally incredible tales of Divine intervention in the mainstream of ancient history. Of course, these stories describe exactly the kinds of events which could serve as empirically valid evidence for the truth of Judaism. But those who reject the truth of Scripture must ask, how did it come to pass that the same prophets who introduced a critical attitude towards the Divine were also the promoters of this new, fantastic mythology? To make matters worse, this new mythology is presented against the backdrop of an astonishingly naturalistic historical narrative. The Jewish people and its greatest leaders are repeatedly subjected to bitter criticism consistent with the muck-raking style of Scripture’s attack on paganism. This practice of honest self-appraisal was quite unheard of in the literary traditions of Israel’s ancient neighbors. The result is a kind of “warts and wonders and all” account of covenantal history. Why embellish mere myths with such painfully realistic detail?

The tension between miraculous events and the critical Biblical out- look reaches its height in the story of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. According to the story in the First Book of Kings, Elijah assembled the entire Jewish nation at Mount Carmel in order to witness a daring experiment. He was to prepare a sacrifice to God, while four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal made ready an offering to their deity. The point was to see which god would demonstrate his reality and power by sending down fire from heaven to consume his particular sacrifice. The prophets of Baal went first. During the performance of their rites, Elijah baited them: “Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is musing or he is easing himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be wakened” (I Kings 18:27). Elijah’s contempt for the Baal worshipers was typical of the critical prophetic stance. He took Canaanite paganism as a religion about as seriously as a modern Westerner might take the native cults of Africa or the Pacific Islands. One might even say that, by today’s standards, Elijah’s intemperate positivism seems somewhat old-fashioned. His disdain for the supernatural is more appropriate to the French Enlightenment than to late twentieth century “New-Age” thinking. Yet Elijah’s experiment did not end by merely refuting superstition. The prophet went on to repair God’s broken altar, prepare the sacrifice, and have it all repeatedly doused with water until the surrounding ditch was also filled. After Elijah pronounced a short prayer, fire came down from heaven, consuming the offering — altar stones, water and all. What are we to make of the conclusion of this story? After arousing in the reader a feeling of shared intellectual superiority — we join Elijah in scoffing at the ineffectiveness of the Baal worshipers’ primitive rites — it goes on to describe the most incredible wonder performed by the God of Israel before the massed audience of his wayward people. As usual, the skeptical reader is left in a quandary, but one thing is clear; this story was meant to be taken in dead earnest and any attempt to soften its claims by a metaphorical interpretation will undo its basic intention. The point of the story is that the true God of Israel can do what the mythological Baal cannot. Neither can we dismiss the description of Elijah’s miracle as the product of an uncritical mytho-poeic imagination. By holding the claims of idolatry to the standards of everyday reality, Elijah overthrows mytho-poeic thought. If it did not really take place, the story tells us nothing.

If Scripture’s mixture of common-sense empiricism and tales of God’s wonders is confusing to the nonbeliever, it is downright exasperating to the believer. The great challenge of the Bible to contemporary Judaism is how to remain loyal to the critical spirit of the prophets and still keep faith with God in a world that has not known His direct intervention for quite some time, Would the generation that “feared the Lord and believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31) after witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea have gained this faith in the century of the Holocaust? The most typically modern answer to this problem is to take the Existentialist’s “leap of faith”, a freely made decision to accept the truth of religion without regard for objective reason. Satisfying as such fideism may be to religious sentiment, nothing could be more foreign to Biblical (and most post-Biblical) Jewish thinking. Whether or not we accept the Exodus as historical fact, the Jews of Biblical times most certainly did. To pledge allegiance to a God who has miraculously freed you from centuries of repressive slavery hardly requires a leap of faith!

In its complete form, the existentialist argument extends beyond questions of faith to questions of works. God’s mitzvot become the absurd commands of the Lord of Kierkegaard, a deity as far removed from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as is the God of the philosophers. The non-believer has his own version of fideism, exchanging Judaism’s Moshe Rabbeinu for a Nietzschean super-man who imposed a new table of values upon his people through sheer force of will. These views have become so popular that even people who should know better interpret Scripture by their lights. Contrasting Enlightenment political thought with the Torah, Allan Bloom writes:

Such imperatives are the very opposite extreme from those enunciated in the Ten Commandments, which provide no reasons for obeying their injunctions and do not affirm fundamental passions but inhibit them.3

Of course, this is sheer nonsense. As in matters of faith, Scripture takes a reasonable attitude towards matters of law. In the first place, it must be recalled that, to Biblical thinking, Divine Providence was a very real factor worth taking into account by those who sought to satisfy their “fundamental passions.” The commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother” was tied by Divine promise to the very real “passion” for long life — “that thy days may be prolonged” (Deut. 5:16). Secondly, no philosophical consequences may be deduced from the fact that the Ten Commandments provide no explanations of the social and political benefits which their observance will incur. Indeed, we do not always expect such explanations to be written into the wording of modern legal codes either. In any case, the Torah clearly views itself not as the fiat of an inscrutable Deity, but, rather, as a just and reasonable system of law whose wisdom should be apparent to all nations:

For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people... And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:6,8).

It might be argued that fideism constitutes a refinement of Biblical faith, a higher plane of religious existence. The fideist has freely chosen to believe, while the characters who populate Scripture had belief forced upon them by the crude testimony of their own senses. How is Biblical man’s concept of God to develop beyond the bounds of his personal experience of the miraculous?

Although miracles may “force” belief in the existence of God on those who witness them, they by no means dictate love of God or faithfulness to Him. This distinction might seem artificial, the theological fall-out of modern philosophy’s attempt to sever values from facts. Could a person who had witnessed authentic miracles reject the God who had produced them? According to the Torah, yes. After living through a prolonged process of miraculous redemption from slavery, personally escaping the Egyptian army by crossing dry land in the midst of the sea, arid eating manna from heaven, the Jewish people remained a cantankerous, rebellious mob of runaways. No act of Divine intervention could keep them from grumbling about Moses’ leadership, the hardships of nomadic life, or their monotonous diet. Given half a chance, they would gladly worship idols or chase after Moabite women. No matter what God did, the Jews had to make up their own minds about being faithful to Him.

By adopting concepts from Hassidic thought, it is possible to develop a religious psychology which explicitly confronts the tension between man’s unceasing struggle to establish an ever-more authentic relationship with God, and the primitive basis of that relationship in the testimony of Biblical history. While human spiritual development requires “falls” — periods of questioning — as well as “ascents,” a Jew’s fundamental indebtedness to the God who took him out of Egypt will always preclude the possibility of a complete break. Of course, the value of such a religious psychology for us is severely restricted by our ability honestly to accept the Bible as historically true.

That Biblical man did achieve a level of religious existence beyond that implied by a mere common-sense belief in God and His covenant, should be evident to any sensitive reader of Psalms. A verse such as, “Oh God, thou art my God; earnestly I seek thee: my soul thirsts for thee, my flesh longs for thee in a dry and thirsty land” (Psalms 63:2), is clearly informed by a deep religious sentiment. Would we consider a woman’s love for a man any more profound because she had no good reason to be sure that he really ever existed in the first place? Or would we merely question her sanity?

So far we have seen why most narrative portions of Scripture demand a literal reading, and why such a reading did not necessarily impose a limit on the reader’s spiritual growth. It is also now clear why the Rabbis were not especially troubled by the idea of Job’s fictional status. The action of Job takes place in the distant land of Uz, far removed from the arena of God’s great interventions in history. Its protagonists are not even designated as being Jewish, so that anything which happens in the story has no bearing on Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. The scope of action is personal. The vagaries of a single man’s life, detached from broader public events, cannot offer sound evidence of God’s presence. Since there was no compelling reason to accept Job as fact, the Rabbis were willing to treat it as Divinely inspired fiction.

Given that a fictional reading of Job was possible for Judaism, it still remains unclear why some of the Rabbis decided to make good on the option and declare Job a fable. Would it not have been safer to preserve the uniform validity of the entire Jewish canon? I believe that the main problem which the Rabbis had with the Book of Job was with the character of Job himself. According to the Rabbis, Abraham’s unique piety was the original foundation of his election by God. What, then, are we to make of Job, an ancient, perhaps non-Hebrew, saint, perhaps a contemporary of Abraham himself, who underwent so much suffering, yet remained true to God? Was he Abraham’s equal?

Many midrashim were written in response to this threat to Jewish chosenness. Some tried to prove Job a secret heretic, or that Abraham’s trials were the more demanding. Talmudic concern for Abraham’s rival reaches the heights of paradox in a statement of Rabbi Levi:

Satan’s intentions were for the sake of Heaven... When he saw that the Holy One Blessed Be He was beginning to favor Job over Abraham, he said, “God forbid, He has forgotten Abraham’s love!” [and therefore set out to persecute Job] (B. Bava Batra 16a).

It is there further related that when Ray Aha bar Yaakov later retold this idea, Satan himself arrived to kiss the great rabbi’s feet in gratitude!

While these Talmudic ploys help justify Abraham’s election, they dilute the strong lessons of Job. If Job is portrayed as less than righteous, his suffering seems less appalling, his appeals to God’s justice smack of insincerity. If Job is more righteous than Abraham, why was he not chosen by God? By fictionalizing Job, both Abraham’s historical uniqueness and the high seriousness of Scripture’s great theodicy could be preserved.

1. Guide to the Perplexed, Pines, tr., III:22, p. 486.

2. Sefer Iyyov (Da’at Mikra series, Jerusalem, 1970), Introduction, p. 19.

3. Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987), p. 288.


Blogger Uri Cohen said...

Thanks! Very interesting.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Machonite said...

Absolutely fascinating. We want more!

6:49 AM  
Anonymous me said...

many of the opinions of who iyov was place him long after avraham.

I think the general reason to say that iyov is a parable is the same as the reason there are so many opinions as to who iyov is: that the book seems disconnected from the rest of Jewish history (and unlike works like koheles or mishlei is not attributed to anyone in the text).

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