Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament

Jim Moyers, MA

Poetry & Wisdom


Still following the order in Rabbi Sandmel’s The Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Psalms is next.  When I think of Psalms I remember my grandfather reading them for family evening worship.  I can almost hear his voice, strong and clear, as he solemnly recited the elegant lines of the King James Version of those ancient poems.  I don’t remember when I learned Psalm 23 “by heart.”  But it must have been relatively early in my life.  Maybe I simply learned it via hearing it so often.  Other psalms I remember less perfectly in the form of lines detached from the rest of the poem.  One I remember being sung so many years ago by the Sunnydale Academy choir:  “The Lord is my light and my salvation.  Whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life.  Of whom then shall I be afraid?” (27:1).

In The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, Richard Hess discusses in some detail the structure of ancient Hebrew poetry and its relation to other ancient Near Eastern literature.  Poetry in the Bible, like the poetry of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, isn’t based on what we think of as the usual poetic basics of rhyme, rhythm, and meter.  Which makes it easier to preserve the original meaning in translation than is the case with some other languages.  But some features of Psalms are unavoidably lost in translation.

The basic unit of Hebrew poetry is two, or sometimes three, lines in which the second and sometimes third line develops, reinforces, or contrasts with the first line.  For instance this from one of my favorite psalms:

     The heavens are telling the glory of God;

     and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

     Day to day pours forth speech,

     and night to night declares knowledge

                                       Psalm 19:1-2

Something else I was unaware of is the close relationship of biblical poetry to the literature of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  The fourteenth century BCE Amara letters exchanged between Pharaoh and the heads of Canaanite city-states that were vassals of Egypt praise Pharaoh using phrases that Psalms applies to God.  The thirteenth century BCE “Hymn to the Sun” of Akhenaton, the pharaoh famed for briefly establishing an Egyptian monotheistic religion,  contains many lines and expressions similar to those of Psalm 104.  A second century BCE hymn to the Egyptian god, Horus, parallels Psalm 20 on which it may have been based.  

The 1928 discovery of a number of inscribed clay tablets, some containing mythological poems, from thirteenth century BCE Ugarit contributed to a new understanding of the background of the Bible.  The Ugaritic language is closely related to ancient Hebrew and Ugarit poems are similar to biblical poetry, especially that of Psalms.  Descriptions of the Ugaritic god Baal use phrases almost identical to those used to describe Yahve.  Some psalms seem to have borrowed and adapted earlier Ugaritic poetry, apparently without regard for its origins in the worship of “false gods.”  Evidently there was a good deal of back and forth literary borrowing in the ancient Near East.

Numbering of the psalms differs in the Septuagint and Masoretic Texts but there are only minor textural variations.  There are more fragments of Psalms than any other Old Testament book in the Dead Sea Scrolls including fifteen psalms that are not in the Jewish/Christian canon.

In reading Psalms I found it difficult to stay focused.  As might be expected with poetry there is a lot of repetition.  A few psalms are duplicates either in whole or part of others.  Then it occurred to me that the psalms were not intended to be read but performed.  Psalms is believed to have been the hymnal of the Jerusalem temple and few people read through a hymnal!  

I thought I knew the book of Psalms relatively well, but reading it now makes me realize that there is a lot that, if I noticed it at all, I must have let pass without thinking much about it.  One of the things that particularly stands out now are mysterious words and phrases that are not part of the psalms themselves.   Some are dedications or brief explanations of the situation in which a psalm was composed.  For many of the psalms there are instructions for liturgical performance, instruments to be used, and what would would seem to be the tunes, with names like The Hind of the Dawn, The Dove, and Do Not Destroy, to which they were to be sung.  Others name the author of a psalm.  Some are Hebrew words, most prominently “Selah,” the meaning of which is unknown.  

David is credited with about half of the psalms; others are attributed to Solomon and some otherwise unknown persons.  There are one hundred fifty psalms, with a few duplicated either in whole or part, divided into five “books” of unequal size for no obvious reason.  Each book ends with a doxology which is not part of the preceding psalm.  Some scholars have speculated that the fivefold division is meant to parallel the five books of Torah.  Or perhaps Psalms is simply a compilation of five already existing collections of psalms?

The collected psalms vary a great deal in topic and intent.  Perhaps the best known are hymns of praise to God.  Some seem to be linked to temple ceremonies.  Psalm 45 is a love song for a royal wedding.  I noticed at least three reviews of the history of Israel.  There are confessions of sin, supplications for forgiveness, often combined with an entreaties for deliverance from physical illness.  And a great many pleas to God to save the psalmist from enemies, some calling down terrible curses such as “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks” (137:9).  There are expressions of utter despair such as, “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me,” (22:1) which Jesus quoted on the cross.  And also songs of thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Many of the psalms are lyrical masterpieces; others seem less than inspired.  Some are perhaps more clever than inspired.  There are several alphabetical acrostics, something which of course is lost in translation.  Psalm 9 and 10, which are a single psalm in the Septuagint, begins every second verse with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Which an Oxford Bible footnote says “helps to explain the seeming lack of logical sequence.”  Another acrostic poem is found in Psalm 119.  Each of the twenty two stanzas, for the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, contains eight lines each of which begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each line also contains some reference to the law which is the psalm’s subject.  It is a very long, rather tedious psalm; I think a congregation would have had to be very patient to sit through the whole thing!

I have so far been reading the Revised Standard Version without comparing the two other versions, the King James and the New English Bible, which I also have.  While I didn’t try to read all three versions of Psalms I was curious as to how the KJV and NEB compared to the RSV.  The KJV doesn’t format the text as poetry like the RSV and NEB do.  The NEB drops the extra words and phrases that accompany the psalms - I miss the reminders that the words we have were a part of an ancient performance which is a mystery to us now.  The NEB also modernizes the text a bit too much for my taste.  The RSV I think strikes a happy medium between archaic King James English and the more modern language of the NEB which, for me anyway, loses some of the mystique of the ancient sacred text.  I can’t help but wonder in what setting and with what accompaniment these words originally performed.  What would it have been like to hear and see it?


The Oxford Annotated Bible editors describe the book of Proverbs as “a small library of teaching materials of different origins and dates.”  It is thought to have been assembled in the fourth or third century BCE by a teacher charged with the instruction of young men as evidenced in the repeated address to “my son.”  While there are repeated attributions to Solomon, the book obviously has more than one source.  Best known for its multitude of short aphorisms, Proverbs is similar to wisdom literature from other ancient Near East cultures.  In fact Proverbs 22:17-23:4 appears to have been based on a twelfth century BCE Egyptian text, the “Instruction of Amen-em-ope.”

Proverbs has four separately titled main parts with five shorter appendixes.  The introduction states the purpose of the book, “That men may know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight, receive instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; that prudence may be given to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth - the wise man also may hear and increase in learning, and the man of understanding acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles” (1:2-6).

Proverbs takes a fundamentally optimistic view while warning against the many temptations, especially sexual, that may lure a youth away from a good and prosperous life.  Adherence to moral standards is rewarded with happiness and success.  The first part (chapters 1-9), which may be the work of the teacher who assembled the book, is a warning and admonition to a youth about to enter adulthood.  Most interesting is the personification of Wisdom as a woman who existed before Creation:  “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. . . . When he established the heavens I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep . . . then I was beside him, like a little child (alternate reading of the Hebrew); and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (8:22, 27, 30).  Over time, this personified Wisdom would come to be associated with the Greek philosophical concepts of wisdom (“sophia”) and reason (“logos”).  The Gospel of John famously opens with a description of Jesus as, in the original Greek,  “Logos,” an idea that would be further developed in Christian tradition.  In some forms of Christian mysticism Holy Wisdom (Greek: Hagia Sophia) comes close to being a fourth person of the godhead.  Several modern mystical traditions represent her as a goddess.

But back to the ancient book of proverbs!  Intermingled with praise for the female personification of Wisdom are repeated warnings against “loose” and evil women.  Which set me to wondering if, following the example of the prophets who metaphorically equated Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahve with “harlotry,” Proverbs might be doing something similar.  Although it may simply be that the personified descriptions of Wisdom were interpolated with the more mundane warnings against sexual temptation.  However that may be, Proverbs repeatedly expresses concerns about relationships with women.  There are repeated warnings that “it is better to live in a corner of the housetop . . . in a desert . . . than to live with a contentious woman” who is likened to “a continual dripping on a rainy day”  (21:9, 19; 25:24; 27:5).

Offsetting the misogynistic verses are admonitions to follow the counsel of one’s mother, the advice of a mother to her son who is identified as an Arabian king, and, closing out Proverbs in an acrostic poem, a glowing description of “A good wife who can find?  She is far more precious than jewels” (31:10).

Chapter 30 opens with a rather confusing dialogue begun by someone who has “not learned wisdom” and lacks “knowledge of the Holy One.”  In verses that resemble those of Job he asks who knows God.  The apparent reply (no speaker is identified) is less poetic, an assertion that “every word of God proves true. . . . Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (30:16).

Most of the book is a recitation of proverbs attributed to Solomon.  An older person well experienced in life and the ways of the world is advising an inexperienced young man as to how he should live his life.  The focus is on what constitutes a morally upright and responsible life with warnings against doing otherwise.  Reward for righteousness and punishment for moral failings will come as success or failure in this life.  While there are reminders of the importance of a right regard for the Lord, the author’s primary arguments are based on wisdom and experience rather than prophet-like revelations.   Some of the proverbs have become well known even to people who may have no other knowledge of the Bible and no awareness of where the sayings they repeat originated.

A few of the proverbs made me pause to wonder just what they were saying, but for the most part the admonitions and advice offered are straightforward, what one might expect to hear from someone committed to the status quo who is tasked with preparing young people for adult life.  It is, as Rabbi Sandmel puts it, “sound and good; it is also safe and prudential, without the slightest element of risk.”  It is also rather unimaginative and not likely to inspire anymore than does the advice of the average high school teacher to the average high school student.  Sandmel sums it up: “The book itself never strays from that which is right, socially acceptable, and useful.  It is an edifying and sound book, but unimaginative righteousness may, for some, become tedious.”  As is probably true of most things that begin with something like, “Hear my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching” (1:8).


Had I been asked as a teen or young man to name my favorite book of the Bible I most likely would have indicated Ecclesiastes which fit my depressed and cynical outlook during that time of my life.  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (or “Emptiness, emptiness, all is empty” in the New English Bible) seemed a good description of life as I then experienced it.

Ecclesiastes doesn’t fit very well with the rest of the Bible; in fact it often seems outright heretical in its cynical outlook.  It is in sharp contrast with the orthodox and positive tone of Proverbs.   Wisdom praised in Proverbs is just another form of empty vanity in Ecclesiastes.  According to rabbinic tradition the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon of Hebrew scripture was disputed.  The traditional belief that Solomon wrote it is perhaps why it is in the Tanak and the Old Testament.  

Ecclesiastes is a Greek form of the Hebrew Koheleth whose words the book presents.  Koheleth is a title for someone who conducts an assembly or school.  Perhaps “teacher” would be a better English rendering than the “preacher” of the King James Version.   Koheleth relates how he pursued knowledge and wisdom, madness and folly.  He indulged in pleasures, acquired vast possessions, slaves and concubines, and built great works.  But in the end concluded that “all is vanity.”

Koheleth is identified as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” which would seem to mean that he is Solomon.  But textual considerations and the rationalistic tone, which may have been influenced by Greek thought, indicate a third century BCE date.   Other ancient Near Eastern literature contain pessimistic statements similar to those of Ecclesiastes.  The epic myth, Gilgamesh from approximately 2100 BCE Sumer, like Ecclesiastes, describes human achievement as “only wind” and recommends that life be enjoyed now because eventually death will end it all.     

In the first chapter the book’s thesis is stated:  “All things are full of weariness. . . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (1:8-9).  Nothing anyone can do can change anything for “all is vanity and striving after the wind” (1:14).  The ways of God in ordering what happens are beyond understanding: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11).  Righteousness goes unrewarded while the wicked prosper, and all alike perish in the end.  No matter what one does s/he will still die and vanish from existence just as the animals do.  “I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are sill alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been” (4:2-3).  Again and again aspects of human existence are examined and the conclusion drawn that “all is vanity.”

There is no hope of an afterlife:  “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. . . . Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9:5-6, 10).

The best one can do is to enjoy life.  “I commend enjoyment, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink, and enjoy himself, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of life which God gives him under the sun” (8:14).  “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. . . . Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (9:7,9).

There are several sections of proverbs, most of which maintain the overall pessimistic tone of Ecclesiastes.  Chapter 3:1-9 contains the “To every thing there is a season” verses Pete Seeger set to music which the Byrds turned into a Top40 radio hit.  But Seeger left off the final line which undercuts the positive tone of the song people know:  “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (3:9).  

As has been the case with passages in several of the other OT books that I have so far read, I came across familiar verses which take on a different meaning when read in context.  For instance the often cited “Remember your creator in the days of your youth“ (12:1), which seems to be urging a young person to be mindful of God, has a different meaning when read along with the following texts which metaphorically describe the inescapable decrepitude of old age which ends in death.  A note in the Oxford Bible suggests that a very similar Hebrew word meaning “your grave” would fit the context better than “your creator.”  Someone perhaps tried to introduce piety into a discouraging text?  

The Preacher/Teacher concludes with “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (12:8).  There follows a brief description of Koheleth as a wise teacher and a warning to “my son” to not go beyond “the collected sayings which are given by the one shepherd. . . . (For) of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:11-12).

Then comes the Ecclesiastes text I most often heard quoted:  “The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14).  This utterly orthodox statement coming after eleven plus chapters that at times come close to heresy is more than a little startling.  It is like a cynical opinionated and wise person who challenges orthodoxy at length and then concludes with a trite statement of belief.  Many scholars have concluded that the “end of the matter” text is a later addition by an editor attempting to make the book more acceptable as scripture.  If so, the attempt was successful as Ecclesiastes made it into the Old Testament for us to puzzle over.  

Samuel Sandmel nicely reconciles the seeming contradictions of Ecclesiastes:  “The genuinely religious do not blot out the doubts the are to be found in Ecclesiastes by pretending that they do not exist.  They tolerate them as a part of the normal expression of perceptive and thoughtful people.  These words of doubt do not defeat genuine religious faith, but form the counterbalance that keeps religious faith effective and suitable for human beings” (p. 274).  Faith and doubt are perhaps the two sides of religious experience, perhaps of human experience in general - see my Faith and Doubt In Psychotherapy for this idea in a different context.


The book of Job is described by Samuel Sandmel as “the literacy masterpiece of the Tanak” (p. 273).  It is also one of the most difficult books of the Bible.  Its elegant poetic style challenges translation.  It doesn’t help that the text is damaged in some places.  Some sections are seemingly out of order; some parts have apparently been lost.  There are words that occur nowhere else in extant ancient Hebrew texts, the meaning of which is unclear or unknown.  Passages lack an explanatory context which might more clearly establish meaning.  The Oxford Bible annotations “Heb. obscure, Heb. uncertain” occur more often in Job than any other Old Testament book I’ve so far read.

In addition to technical issues, Job challenges orthodox belief.  “In tone, emphasis, and content it stands in direction opposition to themes basic in other scriptural writings” (Sandmel, op.cit.).  Job challenges the belief that one’s fate, divine reward and punishment, is determined by one’s conduct.  It is the most outstanding example in the Bible of theodicy which wrestles with the question of why evil persists despite the existence of an all powerful and just God.  Put in the simplest terms, theodicy attempts to explain why bad things happen to good people while good things happen to bad.  

Job opens with a prose prologue which describes the protagonist as a very pious and blessed man with great wealth.  Although Job faithfully worships Yahve he doesn’t live in Israel and is apparently not a Jew, making the book of Job unique in yet another way.  Then the scene shifts to “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (1:6).  Satan (“the Accuser” in Hebrew) is not yet the Devil he came to be in Christianity but seems to be, as he is in Zechariah 3, a member of the heavenly court with some function that involves “Going to and fro on the earth” (1:7).  The Lord brags about Job: “There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8).  Satan responds that Job is only righteous because of the divine blessings he receives.  If he were deprived of his riches he would curse God.  God takes up Satan’s bet by allowing him to bring disaster on Job, only Job himself must not be harmed.  In one day Job loses all he has, including his ten adult children.  But he remains faithful, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).  

Again the day comes for the sons of God to present themselves in the heavenly court.  Satan is again present.  God notes that Job “holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause” (2:4).  (There is unclarity here as to whether it was Satan or God who brought affliction upon Job).  Satan responds, “Skin for skin!  All that a man has he will give for his life.  But put forth your hand now, and touch his bone and flesh, and he will curse you to your face.  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold he is in your power; only spare his life.’  So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself; and sat among the ashes”  (2:4-8).

Job’s wife, who apparently was spared when the rest of the family was killed, urges him to “Curse God, and die.”  But “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:9, 10).  Three friends of Job arrive to “console and comfort” him but are so shocked to see his misery that they sit silently with him for seven days and nights.  Then “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day he was born” (3:1).  There follows some of the most profound poetry in the Bible as Job maintains his innocence while his “comforters” doggedly insist that he must be a great sinner to have had such suffering imposed upon him.  The proverbial “patience of Job” is not very much in evidence; Job is anything but patient, railing against his would-be comforters, and finally demanding that God explain why he has allowed such suffering to come to an innocent man

The poetry of Job equals that of any other literature.  The Oxford Bible comments that Job 14, (“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.  He comes forth like a flower, and withers. . . .”) is “one of the great poems in all literature.”

Job insists that he is blameless, certainly not guilty of anything that would justify what has happened to him, while his friends grow increasingly impatient with his unwillingness to yield to their arguments.  Who is he to question God?  What has happened to Job must be just as God is just.  If only Job would repent of whatever it is he has done, God would bless and restore him.  As the accusations grow more pointed, Job becomes more sarcastic in his replies, “ You indeed are the knowing ones!” (12:2).

As the back and forth continues Job switches from confronting his accusers to a demand to confront God himself.  While acknowledging that God is “not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together” (6:25), he still “would speak to the Almighty and I desire to argue my case with God” (13:3).  “Behold he will destroy me; I have no hope (often mistakenly rendered, based on a marginal note in a manuscript of the text, “Yet I will trust in him” which is more reassuring for orthodox belief but doesn’t fit the context!); yet I will defend my ways to his face” (13:15).  There is a parody of Psalms 8 in Job 7:17-18: “What is man, that thou doest make so much of him?  and that thou doest set thy mind on him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment?”  Whereas the psalmist praises God for his attention to man, Job wants God to “Let me alone” (7:16).  Job complains that God has dealt unjustly with him and denounces his would be comforters for joining God in persecuting him (19:21-24).  He believes that his righteousness will be recognized after his death (19:25).  Yet meanwhile the wicked go unpunished while righteous people like him suffer.  God destroys the hope of man (14:14-21).  He cannot find God to confront him with his injustice (23:8-9).  “I call to thee, and thou dost not answer me; I stand, and thou dost not heed me.  Thou hast turned cruel to me; with the might of thy hand thou dost persecute me” (30:20-21).  

Chapters 24-27 are confusing.  Some scholars have tried to rearrange the order of the text to make it better fit the structure of the rest of the poem but it seems as if some passages have been lost.  Chapter 28 is an apparently misplaced wisdom poem with no connection to the rest of Job.  

In chapters 32-37, after “these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes,” (32:1), a previously unremarked upon younger man defends God while reproving Job at length.  Job must be wicked because God doesn’t punish the just; Job should receive God’s punishment as a corrective for which he should be grateful.  God doesn’t respond because Job is not appealing to him in the proper way.  Most commentators believe that this section, which differs from the rest of the poem in language and style as is more apparent in Hebrew than in English translation, is a later interpolation presenting a more orthodox view to counter the heterodox trend of the rest of the poem.

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ ’’ (38:1-2).  Who is Job to challenge God?  God will question Job, and not Job God.  There follows a lengthy, rather sarcastic but beautiful passage citing the mighty wonders of creation in contrast to Job’s ignorance:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4).  God and his works are far beyond the understanding of mere mortals such as Job.  Chapters 38-41 contain some of the most stirring nature poetry in world literature.  

After a lengthy recitation of his creative might, “The Lord said to Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?  He who argues with God, let him answer it.’  Then Job answered the Lord, ‘Behold I am of small account; what shall I answer thee?  I lay my hand on my mouth.’ ” (40:1-4).  Seemingly not content with Job’s response, God discourses further on his power over nature in contrast to the limited strength of a mere human like Job.  Job again responds, “ ‘I know that thou canst do all things. . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . .  therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes’ ” (42:2-3, 6).  So ends the poem.

The prose epilogue returns to the folk-tale style of the prologue.  God rebukes the three friends, “For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  Which seems a bit confusing after the Lord has spoken out of the whirlwind in reproof of Job’s ignorant questioning of divine purpose.  But Job has apparently been found innocent of his friends’ accusation of sin; his suffering is due to no fault of his.  

Job is to pray for his friends who are instructed to offer penitent sacrifices.  After Job prays for his friends, “the  Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (42:11).  All his relatives and acquaintances come to show sympathy and comfort him for “all the evil that the Lord (not Satan whom the epilogue doesn’t mention) had brought upon him,” bringing him money and golden rings (42:11).  He has seven more sons and three more daughters.  Interestingly the names of the daughters, but not the sons, are given: Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eye Shadow.  In the ancient Near East usually only sons were heir to a father’s wealth.  But Job gave his daughters “inheritance among their brothers” (42:15).  After one hundred forty years more “Job died, an old man, and full of days” (42:17).

For anyone seeking absolute clarity about the nature of evil in relation to God, Job provides little comfort.  The ending seems much too neat, almost a dismissal of everything that went before.  There is nothing in the conclusion about the bet God and Satan made or any recognition of the injustice done to Job.  Is God in fact capable of evil?  He at least seems to permit it to afflict innocent people.  What about the seven sons and three daughters who perished?  Do their replacements really counter the loss to Job and his wife of ten children?

With the appearance of Satan as the agent of evil visited on Job, the book of Job seems to be the beginning of what Carl Jung, in his controversial Answer to Job, saw as a splitting off of evil that had previously been attributed to God.  But God is still complicit in what happens to Job, and in the epilogue is said to have brought “all the evil” on Job.

Job is perhaps the most profound book in the Bible.  Over the centuries there have been a great many interpretations of Job ranging from skeptical to pious and everywhere in-between.  Job doesn’t provide a clear answer to the questions it raises, and perhaps that is what makes it so compelling.  God doesn’t respond to Job’s demand for an explanation of why he has been plunged into misery; he simply overwhelms the suffering, protesting man with a display of his power.  What happens to people is, like God himself, beyond human understanding.  The best human beings can do is to humble themselves before the awesome and mysterious majesty of God who has created all things and decides their fate as he wills.  Basically life is a mystery.  That seems about right to me.


I don’t recall hearing much about Lamentations in church or church school.  Probably because it is harder to apply its texts to anything other than their original focus which was grief over the destruction of Jerusalem.  The five poems that make up the book are cries of anguish for the city and the temple apparently deserted by God in anger over the sins of his chosen people.  The city that was supposed to last forever lay in ruins.

Jeremiah was traditionally believed to have written Lamentations.  But the language and style differ from that of the book of Jeremiah, and most commentators believe the prophet wasn’t the author.  Four of Lamentations’ poems are acrostics based on successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Chapter 5, while not an acrostic, has the same number of verses as the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The acrostics of course are not apparent in English translation.  But the poetic quality, equal to that of laments found in Psalms, is still evident in English.  The editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible describe Lamentations as “a small psalter of communal laments.”

Jerusalem is described as feminine, as a mourning widow, “the daughter of my people,” “the daughter of Zion” who has been made empty and desolate.  God himself has brought about the disaster:  “The Lord determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; he marked it off by the line; He restrained not his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament, to languish together” (2:8).  Jerusalem has been made to suffer for her transgressions with her nakedness exposed to all the world.  God seems to have completely abandoned her: “Why dost thou forget us forever? . . . Hast thou utterly rejected us?” (5:20, 22).

Chapter 3 is a personal lament:  “I am the man who seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long” (3:1-3).  Still there is hope, for “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. . . . ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, therefore I will hope in him. . . . For the Lord will not cast off for ever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (3:22, 24, 31-32).

Unlike the prophets, Lamentations doesn’t detail the transgressions that have brought down God’s wrath.  Perhaps by the time it was written the waywardness of the Lord’s chosen people in breaking their covenant with him no longer needed to be reviewed again.  Jerusalem and the temple, along with the favor of God were gone, seemingly never to return.  All that was left was anguished grief:  “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.  The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! For this our heart has become sick, for these things our eyes have grown dim, for Mount Zion which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it” (5:15-18).

Song of Songs

An entirely different kind of poetry is to be found in the Song of Songs, a joyous, passionate, even erotic celebration of love.  Over the many centuries since its inclusion in the biblical canon, Song of Songs has been a scandal for many who equate religion with prudishness.  It is one of the least religious books in the Bible with no mention of God.  There seems to have been debate as to whether it, along with Ecclesiastes, should be included in the Tanak.  But there is also a record of the very influential Rabbi Akiba (second century CE) saying, “All Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Sandmel, p 318).  At the other extreme some nineteenth century scholars considered the book to be immoral.  

Over the centuries people uncomfortable with its eroticism have tried, not all that convincingly, to make Song of Songs into something other than what it is.   Judaism tends to be more accepting of sex than is Christianity.  But even so there is a traditional Jewish interpretation of the book as an expression of God’s love for Israel.  Along the same lines, there is a long Christian tradition of the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love of Christ for his bride, the church.  One reading divorces it completely from sexual love by claiming it is a symbolic description of the history of Israel from the Exodus to the time of the Messiah.   All of which represent attempts to deny the obvious fact that the Song of Songs is really about erotic love.  

Trying to read Song of Songs is a bit bewildering.  It is not a single poem but jumps from one to another without clear transition or explanation.  There is disagreement on just how many separate poems are in it.  Lines are spoken by male and female voices along with what seems to be a chorus.  But the text lacks notations to designate the speakers.  Samuel Sandmel likens it to reading a play in which there are no indications of who is speaking when.  Translation is challenging given the poetic structure and the fact that, as with Job, there are many words with unclear or unknown meanings.

It may be that the Song of Songs is a collection of songs that were performed at weddings with the primary speakers/singers being a bride and groom with a chorus, perhaps the bridal attendants, joining in at intervals.  Several lines are repeated as one might expect with a song.  There has been speculation that the poems originated in ancient fertility rituals in which the male lover is the deity and the female the cult prostitute who represented the deity’s consort.  However convincing proof for that theory is lacking.  The groom in some places is identified with Solomon and the bride is described as dark, leading to the conclusion that at least some of the poems were for the wedding of Solomon with one of his foreign brides.  But those references may be more poetical than literal.  

Interestingly over half of the lines are spoken by the woman; few other books of the Bible have so much feminine presence.  Repeatedly a warning is sounded, perhaps by a female chorus, against overly hasty love:  “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up nor awaken love, until it please” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4).

The erotic nature of the Song of Songs is apparent from the very beginning plea, “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth” (1:2).  The lovers’ voices alternate in expressing their desire for one another.  There are two passages (3:1-5; 5:2-8) in which the woman, “upon my bed by night” longs for her lover and, perhaps dreaming, goes in search of him.  The lovers meet in garden settings amid sensual surroundings.  Some of the imagery is a bit strange for modern ears:  “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (4:5; 7:3); “Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus” (7:4).  But there is nothing dated about the passion and compelling nature of love expressed throughout the Song of Songs.

     Set me as a seal upon your heart,

     as a seal upon your arm;

     For love is as strong as death,

     jealousy is as cruel as the grave.

     Its flashes are flashes of fire,

     a most vehement flame.

     Many waters cannot quench love,

     neither can floods drown it.

     If a man offered for love

     all the wealth of his house,

     it would be utterly scorned.


© 2021 James Moyers


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