THE SACRED TEXT: PART TWO
(Note: The following blog continues the series begun in October 2012, on the evolving topic, "Suffering, Consolation, and Dreams at Life's Extremities," to be completed and revised in late 2013.)
As I was saying in my previous blog, the sacred texts of the religious traditions occupy two quite different places in the minds of people today. In the first place, the texts may be employed at times of suffering, death, and/or meaningful occasions such as marriage, the baptism of children, bar mitzvahs, and even the taking of oaths as when witnesses testify in a court of law, or the President of the United States pledges to uphold the Constitution of the country. These are grave occasions: we are reaching for a symbol of the highest authority that we share collectively -- the sacred text.
Now the truth is, as we all know, participants in those activities may or may not place any credence in the texts. Some adherents of religion may find deep consolation and guidance, while other individuals simply participate in the private or public ceremonies because they are rituals that call for some form of literary, historical validation.
This is what I mean when I say that the texts occupy two quite different places in the collective psyche of our people. In this second place, individuals may even acknowledge the "literary" contribution that the texts have made to the history, customs, and ceremonies of our public life, but the texts themselves would actually be regarded as little more than antiquated pieces in a museum of artifacts.
The reason for this, as I described earlier, is that the religious leaders, who function as guardian of the sacred texts, have sanctioned them with such divine authority that they may no longer be subjected to investigation by human authority. In these cases, the texts have become seen as inerrant and infallible.
But it is not consistent with all religious officials, teachers, ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and followers that the texts are regarded as inerrant and infallible. In fact, there has developed a strong movement in the past two centuries, having originated in the seventeenth century, to apply historical research in the serious study of sacred texts. Drawing upon the skills developed in literary studies, Biblical scholars have expanded their investigations to consider the lineage of manuscripts chosen for texts; the sources of those manuscripts and texts; the various forms of the writings within the texts; the language itself; the time, place, and social setting of the writers; the composite nature of the particular texts, and the theological purpose of the writer who works as an editor (redactor); parallel texts that may have influenced the writers; anthropological customs; and the religious as well as political forces that influence the choice of texts which have been selected for inclusion in the canon (official compilation of scrolls or "books" that make up the sacred text as a whole).
An example of the integrity of this level of scholarship may be seen in M.H. Pope's Job (1965), an Anchor Bible commentary. (See reference below.) In this scholarly commentary, Pope moves very patiently throughout his introduction to include the following topics: literary integrity, literary form, date, author, place of Job in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, textual problems, language, parallel literature, Old Testament affinities, and the purpose and teaching of the book.
In summary, then, we may understand Job as a work of the sixth century B.C.E., compiled and edited by a writer who worked with many sources, the first of which may have been a folk tale dealing with suffering. The writing has been filtered through the geography of a wider region than Mesopotamia and Palestine; it has also been drawn from many religious traditions.
From this vantage point offered by Pope, a reader of Job is liberated from a need to find coherence and unity in the baffling inconsistencies and incongruencies of the text. For example:
1. The three primary sections of the book -- prologue, dialogue, epilogue -- differ completely in language, theology, and God-images;
2. The names of the deity are not consistent throughout and include Yahweh, Eloah, El, Elohim, Shaddai;
3. The text leaves us with a number of puzzling themes: unexplained human suffering; a bellicose deity who shows no empathy for Job's suffering; the intimidation of Job who never has his questions answered regarding the meaning of suffering; the ambiguous role of the so-called friends who appear to advocate in behalf of popular religious platitudes, but are strangely condemned by the deity; the strange, silent disappearance of Satan after he has tempted the deity into a mischievous morality play that only hints at an attempt to answer the question of evil.
The above are my readings of the text, not Pope's. My point here is to say that those issues I have sketched above, in my opinion, need to stand as the inconsistencies, incongruencies, and questions that they are, rather than to be patched together in such a bizarre would-be pattern that they actually detract from what I take to be the central theme of the book that echoes down through the centuries.
That central theme is gathered from several places in the text where Job speaks like this:
I want to argue my case with him (the deity). (13:3)
Don't let my call for justice be silenced. (16:18)
I want someone to plead for me. (16:21)
How I wish that someone would remember my words. (19:23)
Will no one listen to what I am saying? (31:35)
And in the text, no one does listen to what Job is saying! Not his friends and not his deity. It is true that the epilogue attempts a fairy tale ending in which Job is given riches and family to compare with all his deity had taken from him earlier. But it is just that, a very unsatisfactory fairy tale ending that fails to answer Job's questions. They still linger in our ears as well as our hearts and prompt us to seek answers.
To return to the question I asked earlier in the preamble to this series of blogs, what does the mother mean when she rushes to her distressed child with the consolation, "It's all right." What does the mother see in the darkness that Job did not, perhaps could not, see? What is IT that is all right? Between the mother's calm innate assurance and Job's heart-wrenching plea for understanding, justice and empathy, we stand in the gap.
We want to reinforce the mother's promise to her child by turning to the book of Job, that classic in human suffering. We want to find in the book some hint of IT that will give us hope to fortify our journey, to be able to assure our anxious children that "it's all right." Granted, as I quoted earlier, the Christian church has taken liberties with the text ("I know that my Redeemer lives...") to make bold a declaration of promise for life beyond death. Such liberty with the text surely draws upon a deep consolation of hope that is projected upon the ancient writing. It is not the suffering Job's consolation, and it is not the basis for the mother's assurance to her child. We do no service to ourselves or others when we attempt to gerry-rig the text in order to make it something it is not so that it might be able to say something it does not.
But it is the depth of anguish found in the text that brings us to empathize with the suffering Job. In that empathy we discover our deeper humanity. "Who will plead my case?" We will.
Pope, M.H. (1965). Job. The Anchor Bible, vol. 15. Garden City, New York: Doubleday
and Company, Inc.