The first two weeks of classes are in the books! One of my professors observed that most of us were probably going through “Syllabus Shock” the first week. I like that term. It’s a pretty good description of what the first few days felt like. Now things seem to be settling down a bit and I’m getting into a routine.
I’ve noticed there are no slackers here—even the undergraduates doing a semester abroad are serious about their studies. This is not a “come feed the monkeys in Central America for a semester” experience. The expectations are high and the curriculum is serious. As such, I am eating it up and studying like crazy. The beauty of this place is that everywhere you go, there is something of historical and/or biblical significance—often layer-upon-layer of significance—none of which can be ignored. I am sure I will have more to say about that throughout the year.
Every Tuesday and Thursday at 11 AM, I get the honor to “sit at the feet” of Rabbi Moshe. I know that technically, “sitting at the feet” would mean that I was one of his Disciples (Talmidim), but I will take some liberties with the technical term. The class has a massive title: “Text Studies in Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara: The Shared Heritage of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity.” Basically, we are exploring Classical Rabbinic Literature (Rabbis in the 1st century AD and prior) and comparing/contrasting their teachings with New Testament writings. Prior to each class we are to read a list of assigned Biblical texts to the point that we know them by heart (or as close as possible). In class, we discuss, probe and question the Texts and then explore Classic Rabbinic writings on these same passages.
Even though we are VERY early in the semester, there are some basic concepts that are opening up new approaches to studying the Text. When Christianity parted ways with Judaism, we seem to have lost some of these techniques. I am beginning to appreciate that there are things we can learn from how Jews engage with the Text to enhance our own study.
One of the first principles we learned was that when Jews study the Holy Text they look for problems and difficulties. Now, I can see some of my family and friends cringing at this statement. Isn’t the Bible the inerrant Word of God?!? There are no “problems” in the Bible, there are only errant understandings! Well, hang with me for a minute. Let’s dig a little deeper.
While any honest and serious reading of the Text would uncover conflicting statements and things that don’t make sense, there is often a lot of missing information that the Biblical author chooses not to write down. In much of the Bible, we are provided with just the actions of people in the story. Many times we get very little information about their motivations. The Biblical narrative doesn’t often tell us what people are thinking. We simply know what they did. We need to work to figure out why they did what they did. As such, this forces us to be active readers of the Text. If we knew what they were thinking to make them act that way, then we would have a more complete story and only engage with the Text passively—kind of like watching a movie. No real thought—just entertainment.
From a “Jewish” perspective (and there isn’t just one), the “problems” exist in the Text to make us study. The way you study is also important:
- Ask questions. Look for things you don’t know from the passage and ask about them.
- Study should not be done alone. You need to engage with community to have a robust and healthy study of the Text.
- Communal study leads to more than one opinion or interpretation to be debated and discussed.
- Debate and disagreement are perfectly normal and expected. I’m reminded of Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another (NRSV).”
What’s more, looking for problems in the Text is not considered irreverent or disrespectful of the Holy Book. In their view, God put the “problems” there to encourage us to engage with the Text!
The objective of study is not necessarily consensus. The objective is learning from the debate and opinions of others. Back to the Proverbs analogy, the sharpening of iron is an aggressive process. There are sparks and heat as a blade is sharpened against a hard surface. My experience within my own Christian tradition is that we study to gain “The Correct Answer.” Anyone that doesn’t agree with our position on a particular topic is clearly wrong and has probably put their immortal soul at peril. As such, aggressive debate tends to get stifled. It’s more like “iron against butter.”
What is interesting about the Classic Period Rabbis is how well they knew the Text. They knew it by heart; they memorized it; they could recite it; and they could pick up on small nuances of the Text that we’ve never considered. I come from a Christian tradition that has historically prided itself on being “students of the Word.” From what I have seen, even the best in my tradition don’t hold a candle to a Jewish Rabbi of the 1st century and more than likely not one of today either. To really engage in this sort of study, the more you (and your community) know the Text, the deeper and richer your study becomes.
There’s a saying in Numbers Rabbah (the collection of Classic Rabbinic teachings on the Book of Numbers) that says, “There are 70 facets/faces to the Torah.” In Rabbinic thought, 70 is representative of a VERY large number (think: “to infinity and beyond!”). So, the Rabbis believed that there we were an infinite number of teachings available from the Holy Text to be explored and discovered. Each has value and meaning for those that hear it. After all, it’s the divine Word of God!
I’m going to nerd-out on you a little bit. Here’s a “simple” (and maybe a bit esoteric) example: In Gen. 22, God tests Abraham: “…Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you (Gen 22:1-2).” Most of us are probably familiar with that story and how God stops Abraham from following through with it and then reaffirms the covenantal promise. The very next part of the Text is interesting. Picking up in verse 20:
“Now after these things it was told Abraham, “Milcah also has borne children, to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.” (Gen 22:20-24, NRSV)
That’s a lot of names! Here’s the gist: Just after Abraham has almost sacrificed his one and only son, whom he loves, he is told, “Hey! Guess what? Your brother has 12 sons!” How’s that for a little sibling rivalry! If you know earlier parts of the story, you know Abraham and Sarah were getting old. He had a son with Hagar, Sarah’s “handmaiden”, named Ishmael, but was forced to send them away. Then he almost has to sacrifice the only son he has left! Let’s face it, Abraham may have had a little bit of PTSD from his encounters with God—and who would blame him! Then he learns his brother has 12 sons. Well, isn’t that just great!
The Rabbis picked up on the emotional state of Abraham in their quest to gain deeper understanding of Scripture. In Genesis Rabbah (a collection of Classic Rabbinic teachings on the book of Genesis) chapter 57, we get this interesting teaching:
“…Abraham was concerned about further trials/suffering he would have to face. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘You don’t have to be concerned: someone has already been born who will face them in your place. ‘Uz Nahor’s first born and Buz his brother.’”
OK…now on the surface you might be thinking, where in the world did they come up with that? This is where it gets interesting. A little further in Genesis Rabbah 57 it says this:
“When did Job live? Reish Lakish taught in the name of Bar Kapara: Job was a contemporary of Abraham. As it is written: ‘Uz Nahor’s first born and Buz his brother.’ And it is also written: ‘There was a man in the land of Uz named Job (Job 1:1).”
The word, “Uz” (or Utz) only occurs twice in the entire Bible. In Gen. 22 and Job 1:1. The Rabbis connected these two texts. Utilizing this Classic Rabbinic interpretation technique, Reish Lakish believes that, Job must have been a contemporary of Abraham. If you’ve read Job, you know he got more than his fair share of troubles.
But wait, there’s more! Another Rabbi saw it a little differently. Here’s another teaching from the same section of Genesis Rabbah:
“Rabbi Abba Bar Kahanna taught: Job was a contemporary of Jacob. As Rabbi Abba Bar Kahanna taught: Dinah was Job’s wife. As it is written concerning Job’s wife: ‘Job said to his wife, “You are speaking the way one of the foolish women [Heb: Nevalot] would speak (Job 2:10)’. And concerning Dinah it is written (Gen. 24:7): ‘Meanwhile Jacob’s sons came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry because Shechem had committed such an outrage [Heb: Nevalah] in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done.’”
I’m no Hebrew scholar, but according to Rabbi Moshe, this form of the word, Nevalah, only appears in these two passages in the entire Hebrew Bible, so this Rabbi—using the same interpretive methodology (hermeneutic)—made the connection that Job’s wife was Jacob’s daughter, Dinah.
So, we have two different interpretations. Which one is right? Which opinion won the day? Are you ready? They’re both right!
To our Western minds, we struggle with this. How can there be two (or more) opposing correct answers?
So, let’s take a quick look at the implications of the hypothetical idea that Dinah was Job’s wife. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped by a ‘local boy’ named Shechem. Admittedly, the Text is a bit unclear if it were forced/violent rape or whether she was a young, naïve teenager that gets seduced by the older Shechem (statutory rape). In either case, she’s a poster child for the #metoo movement. In her culture, her future is probably a life of shame. She is damaged goods.
Now imagine that after this, Dinah does marry Job. Initially, that would be a great reversal of fortunes! From shame to the wife of a “blameless and upright man (Does that ring any bells?).” Life is looking REALLY good. But, what happens to her then? She gets caught up in the cosmic test that her husband, Job, is subjected to as well! She loses all her children, all their fortune and then her husband gets struck with a horrible skin disease. We focus on the trials of Job, but his wife is suffering the same fate. In the ancient world, she has no means of support and her situation is dire. She has gone from shame to redemption to destruction. Lightning struck twice; and the 2nd time was worse than the first—much worse.
I would suspect that most of us know someone that can’t seem to catch a break. If it’s not one bad thing, it’s three. It might be loss of multiple jobs, disease, financial hardships or a combination of all the above. Often times it doesn’t just affect that person. There is collateral damage impacting spouse, children, extended family and friends. It’s natural to ask how can so much bad happen to a single person? If you were honest with yourself, you’ve probably thought, “they must be doing it to themselves, somehow.”
Or perhaps you are that person that just can’t seem to get ahead; that faces one challenge after another. You might be thinking: What did I do to deserve this? Where is God in the midst of my suffering? When will God answer my prayers? Is He even there? Does He care about me? In a Rabbinic sense, I think those are all valid questions to ask of the Text.
The last time we see Job’s wife (in action) in the Book of Job is in Chapter 2. She is pretty bitter and nasty with him. We can almost give her a pass. After all, she is suffering too. However, her situation is addressed by proxy along with Job’s at the end of the story. Job remains faithful. He perseveres. He never really gets the answer he wants, but he keeps his faith. In the end, he is blessed more than he was before all the pain and suffering—doubly blessed. He has a larger family and even more wealth than before. Despite her bitter view of the whole dire situation, she is blessed too. She bears the children. She is made whole with the restoration of her family and their fortunes.
If you are one of those people suffering like Dinah, Job’s wife, in this Rabbinic opinion, then this becomes a message of hope that God hasn’t forgotten you. God does love you and there will be a day–maybe at the end of days–when you will be doubly blessed for remaining faithful. In the meantime, hang in there!
In good Classic Rabbinic tradition, you can agree or disagree with whether Dinah was Job’s wife. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that by considering this, does it open up additional value and meaning to the story of Job and of Dinah’s untold story in Genesis? Does it share some new insight about faithfulness and God’s ultimate promise of restoration for His people? Does it speak to you in the situation that you find yourself in? Does it give you a little more grace towards someone you know? I think I have to agree with the Rabbis that is does.
Now here’s the really cool thing. Two highly respected Jewish Rabbis in the New Testament use this Classic Rabbinic thought process/debate and interpretive methodology as well: Jesus and Paul. Personally, if it was good enough for them, it’s probably good enough for me too.
Here is something for you to chew on this week:
- Pick a passage of Scripture—Old or New Testament, it doesn’t matter.
- Look for “problems” in the Text
- What questions arise from these problems or missing pieces of data? (Think “why” questions)
- Do some creative searching for answers to these questions. Maybe debate some answers with friends. It’s OK if you don’t agree with each other.
- See if you gain some new level of understanding into the Text.
Let me know what new insights you gain into the Text that you had not realized before.