A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…


The Coen Brothers Take on Job

A new movie opens today.  Entitled “A Serious Man,” it’s the biblical story of Job told through the eyes of Joel and Ethan Cohen.  According to the New York Times review, it’s one of the Coen brothers’ darkest comedies– both “hilarious and horrific.”

The trailer shows a man in existential and religious crisis.  It’s 1957, and Larry’s family and professional lives are falling apart.  Friends and religious leaders aren’t any help.

What does life mean when it is so incredibly painful?

I look forward to seeing the movie and to hearing what others have to say about it.

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Why Read the OT (1): As Background

A lot of folks treat the Old Testament as “background” reading for something else.  For Christians, it’s treated as the prequel to the New Testament, the part you have to read in order to understand the stuff you want to read. Who is Melchizedek and why does the book of Hebrews link him to Jesus?  Why was circumcision important to Jews of the first century?  What does atonement mean?  What’s a covenant? The Old Testament offers the answers for the New Testament reader who wants to know.


In non-religious circles, students of art, music, and literature are encouraged to learn the Old Testament in order to understand the references in their own subject matters.  After all, it’s the well from which Handel (actually his librettist) drew most of Messiah, including the Hallelujah chorus. Of course you can appreciate the stylistic dimensions of Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s wife” at the Met and Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail” at the National Gallery without understanding the stories behind them.

But Goltzius’ “Lot and His Daughters” in the Rijksmuseum is more deliciously creepy when you know what’s going to happen after the guy drinks that bowl of wine.

Old Testament literacy also helps folks “get” the references in pop culture.  It explains what half of U2’s lyrics are about.  It shows up over and over in South Park episodes, as when Kyle’s parents read him the Book of Job.  And it’s been great fodder for Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments, allowing him to poke fun at people who don’t know biblical stories–Noah, Cain and Abel, the 10 Commandments. (see blog post on biblical literacy in popular culture)

Especially in the U.S., the political arena is filled with allusions to and arguments about the Old Testament.  Obama’s inauguration speech alluded back not only to the founding fathers but also the Old Testament prophets, and a few hot passages from Leviticus are common weapons for those who stand against same-sex marriage.

But reading the Old Testament as only as background overlooks the true riches of this collection.  In the next few blogs, I’ll share some other reasons to read the Old Testament.

The Bible and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The pope’s comments during his recent visit to Israel spurred a reader of the website to ask me this question:   “Why would the pope support the creation of a Palestinian state, since the Bible claims that God has given the Holy Land to the Jewish people?”

I thought others might be interested in my reply.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?   Since the Bible insists that God promised land to Abraham’s descendants, and since Jews are descendants of Abraham, then obviously Israel always and only belongs to Jews.

But the issue is far more complicated than such a simple formula implies.

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The Shack and the Book of Job

My main complaint about The Shack is that it isn’t very interesting as a story. The book starts out well enough, with an interesting (if disturbing) plot, and I find myself wanting to know what has happened to Missy, the main character’s daughter.  I am ready for characters to be developed, details to be filled in, the mystery to be solved.  I am ready for something to happen. 

But The Shack quickly abandons plot for the sake of dialogue–really alternating monologues– about theology.  Speeches about the nature of the Trinity, the fairness of God, and the tragedies caused by freewill go on and on, with Missy’s fate remembered only occasionally.  At the very end of The Shack, we get a little action.   But not much.

To be fair, I have to make the same critique of the book of Job. 

Job starts out with an interesting (if disturbing) story about a man whose life is tormented by the death of his children and the ruination of his health.  All this takes place, readers learn, because of  what’s transpiring in another realm.  God is allowing The Adversary (not really Satan in the full sense) to orchestrate Job’s suffering not in order to teach him anything (since Job has no knowledge of what’s going on) but in order to prove a point with The Adversary. 

Two chapters into the book of Job, the plot evaporates and alternating monologues begin. One of Job’s friends talk.  Job talks. Another friend talks.  Job talks. And on and on.  The maddening cycle of speeches only ends when God gives the final monologue, the “speech from the whirlwind” in chs. 38-41 that confronts Job with rapid-fire rhetorical questions.  As in The Shack, the speeches address God’s fairness and whether bad things really do happen to good people.  Only at the very end of Job does the plot return.  Job’s life begins again.  He has new children.

For a long time, scholarly interpreters have treated the book as the result of pious editing.  The speeches are so harsh–these interpreters believe–so borderline heretical, that a folktale was added to soften its edges.  The bitter filling of Job might be more palatable if sandwiched between two slices of a bland tale about a patient sufferer.

That’s not the way I read the book of Job.  I think the book’s prologue and epilogue make its theology more rather than less disturbing.  If you take the prologue seriously, human suffering has nothing to do with human action:  Job’s life is determined by actors of whom he remains unaware and not by what he thinks, feels, or does.  If you keep the prologue in mind when you listen to God’s Great Speech, then the divine one isn’t telling the whole truth.  God talks at length about controlling the world but never mentions the real cause of Job’s suffering.  The narrator may let the reader know that the struggle between God and The Adversary started everything, but the divine one doesn’t let Job in on the secret.

The Shack offers readers a much more comfortable theology than the book of Job does.  In The Shack, God is tirelessly kind and nurturing and always wants the best for humans. Bad things only happen because people do bad things.  There’s nothing scary about God.  Such is not the picture of God in the book of Job.  There are lots of ways to understand God’s speech in chs. 38-41,  but almost all point to the complex and unknowable nature of God.

Many Christians distance themselves from Job’s picture of God:  to them, it represents “the Old Testament God,” one far inferior to the God of love that Jesus preached. They believe Jesus came to reveal God as comforting and easily-accessible, like Papa in The Shack.

But I do not dismiss Job as an old or inferior way of thinking.  I don’t claim to know the full truth about God, but I have listened to enough people who claim to have experienced the dark side of divine sovereignty to know that Job speaks to their experience. I have heard this testimony especially from people whose children have died:  they testify that reading Job is more helpful in a time of breath-choking pain than hearing simplistic explanations  about why people suffer. 

I read Job as human testimony to pain and to the experience of divine absence. I’m glad it’s in the Bible, even if I wish there were more plot and less talking.  I wish The Shack had more plot, too, but mostly I wish it witnessed to a more complex view of God.

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