Folk tales and conspiracies in the Bible.

Signpost for 4th October, 2015, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 1:1;2:1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

The readings this week are not meant to be taken literally. Phew, because a couple of things struck me straight away.

Firstly, this is the second time the writer of Job says the ‘sons of God’ came before the Lord and Satan came, too. “Pardon? Isn’t Jesus the only son of God?” you may well ask.

Well, here’s something to think about. Kathryn M. Schiofferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Luther seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota points out that wherever the word ‘Satan’ appears in the text of Job, the definite article is attached to it in Hebrew. In other words, Satan is not a name, it’s a title – the Satan.

She goes on to say, “To “satan” in Hebrew is to accuse, to indict, or to be hostile towards. The Satan in Job, though ominous, is not the full-fledged demonic figure” we are more used to imagining. All of which makes me think that the phrase ‘son of God’ might well have had a different meaning for first century Jews and early Christ-followers.

Then there’s the story of Job itself that’s very disconcerting. Virginia Woolf once wrote to a friend: “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” Isn’t that what most of us think on first reading Job? I did.

That’s because most of us don’t realise this is a very good example of an ancient tale – more like a folk tale with a moral than any kind of reality show or partial history. Just look at Job 1: 6-8 and 2: 1-4; the poetic repetition is like a ballad or a saga. It’s a literary device. Here’s another clue – Uz is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. Maybe it didn’t exist. Maybe it’s a once-upon-a-time kind of place. And then, all the characters are cardboard, even God, and Job, really. You can almost imagine this being badly acted out as a medieval morality play.

So what’s the moral? Some scholars think Job is a folk tale that tries to shows just what it really means to fulfill this commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Then the Lectionary gives us a psalm to echo that thought. We won’t be able to help but hear Job’s voice speaking Psalm 26 in church on Sunday.

The rading from Mark causes a lopt of people trouble too. Discussing it in full could easily take up a whole Signpost. Suffice to say for now, a literal reading of this passage as a condemnation of all divorced people is definitely not what it’s about. Mostly it’s about the fact that the Pharisees are out to trap Jesus. Look carefully. Jesus is put in exactly the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist losing his head. John declared Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias “not lawful”. The Pharisees ask Jesus the very same question, “Is it lawful?” And remember, Jesus is in Perea here, under Antipas’ jurisdiction (Mark 10:1 which our lectionary misses out is crucial.) We know that the Pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (Mark 3:6). If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce now, those Herodians would like nothing better than to see him suffer the same grizzly fate as John.

Paul

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