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19. The Ash Heap and Job’s Wife

8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Search the Internet under the title “Pictures” and “Job on the Ash Heap,” and you will get a wide (and wild) array of artistic conceptions of this event. Some of them portray Job as an emaciated creature, looking forlornly over his shoulder as he is accompanied by his three friends (2:11-13). One of them, however, shows a buff Job with rippling muscles rather cautiously scraping his bulging left bicep with a potsherd. Though it was certainly no laughing matter for Job nor is it for the reader, we can’t suppress a smile when we see how some artists have “read” Job 2:8.

All the text tells us is that Job took a potsherd (cheres, from the verb charash, which can mean “to plow” or “engrave”) and scraped himself. We have seen the verb for “shave” already (gazaz), but here we have the hapax garad, in the reflexive or hithpael, meaning to garad himself.There are no other words derived from the g-r-d root in the Bible, and so we just assume it means “scrape,” but that is a reasonable assumption, since he probably isn’t going to take the potsherd to carve tattoos. Though in Job 42 we have the euphonious phrase “dust and ashes” (aphar/epher) to describe Job’s desired final destination (42:6), here he is just on the ashes (epher).He sits himself “in their midst,” the same word to describe the Satan’s position vis-a-vis the other heavenly beings in 1:6; 2:1.


Job 2:9 gives us a remarkable, but brief, interaction between Job and his wife. Women usually get short shrift in ancient literature, and the Book of Job is no exception. And, Job’s wife has generally been cudgeled so significantly in the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of this passage that she is as bruised as Job is full of boils. Yet, there is nothing in the text to suggest that her statement is a carping one, a critical one, or one that rejects Job. Because we don’t hear the tone of her voice nor do we know her from previous interactions, her statement is a wonderfully plastic statement, allowing most diverse interpretations. I will only give two or three here and then promote my own.


Her six words can be broken into two groups of three words. The first ‘three’ repeats the words of God in 2:3. In 2:3 God was boasting to the Satan that Job “still holds fast to his integrity.” In 2:9, Job’s wife says “you still hold fast to your integrity.” Almost all interpreters and translators render this as a question: “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?”—as if she is deliberately taking God’s words and turning them into a mocking or, possibly, an impatient, question. Yet, we don’t have to read her first three words as a question though, to be sure, the Masoretes included the ancient equivalent of a question mark in their tenth century text of Job. The ancient text, of course, was unpunctuated and, as such, allows for both readings here. Thus, we have good grounds for reading Job’s wife’s words as a statement: “You still hold fast to your integrity.” Because God has just used the words in a declaratory form a few verses previously, what is to prevent her from doing the same here?


If we think about it for a moment, it makes a lot of sense for Job’s wife to be making a statement rather than asking a question. Job has evinced nothing but admirable behavior so far, bearing the vicissitudes of loss with an equanimity and trust that is legendary. Readers, starting with some apocryphal books to the Old Testament and then continuing with the Book of James, have admired Job’s patience shown so far. Why would we expect that Job’s wife would be any different? It makes a lot of sense for her to say: ‘(I see) you are still holding fast in your integrity.’ Most women would admire that in a husband. Why would we immediately think that Job’s wife would be different?


Then, she has three more words.  Literally, they are “Bless God and die.” Almost all commentators also reverse the literal meaning and give them as “Curse God/renounce God and die.” So, though we literally have a statement: “You still hold forth to your integrity,” perhaps said in admiration; and then an exhortation, “Bless God and die,” almost all readers have seen this as a kind of saucy question: “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?” before urging Job to curse God and get it all over with—perhaps because a curse of God was believed to set in motion a series of events that would lead to the death of the curser.


My reading of Job’s wife’s words is that she is gently commending him for his integrity, admirably recognizing his steadfastness, but she also realizes the enormous toll that the multiple attacks by God through the Satan had taken on Job. So, she encourages him to continue to do what he has been doing:  “Bless God” before dying.  Let’s read barak here as “bless.”


One argument against what I have just said is that Job seemingly responds dismissively to his wife in verse 10. He says that she is speaking as “one of the foolish women” speaks. But we don’t know if Job is referring to the first or second part of her statement, or the entirety. If she is mocking or criticizing him, as the traditional translators render 2:9, then it would make sense for Job to condemn all her words. But if we accept the first of her three words in 2:9 as commendatory, we can read Job’s words as responding to her last three words. By this time there is so much confusion surrounding the word barak that even the mere mention of it might cause Job’s outburst. He himself has used it opposite to its literal meaning in 1:5. Perhaps he “misheard” her here. Or perhaps he doesn’t like her rushing to the conclusion of death because Job will want to fight for quite a while before giving in to death.


Thus, when Job says in 2:10 that “You speak as one of the foolish women,” a good case can be made for Job’s saying this in response to his understanding of her use of barak as a “curse” in 2:9. She may be encouraging him to keep blessing God. Job may hear it as a encouragement to “curse” God. Thus, she must be a “foolish” woman. It wouldn’t be the first time that husbands and wives have messed up their communication, even to the extent of using the same word to mean completely opposite things. Or, perhaps he hears her to say “keep on blessing God” but that he would “die.” Job might have taken umbrage at that suggestion.  


The first half of Job’s words in verse 10, should be read as follows: “In words you speak like one of the foolish women.” But then the second half has a few different translation possibilities. The usual way is to translate them as a question: “Shall we receive the good from God but the evil not receive?” If it is a question, then Job would be criticizing his wife for complaining when the bad has come their way.  


Yet, we can also translate it differently, as a statement. This seems to me to be the most natural way to read the words. Then we would have: “We also receive/shall receive the good from God but we do not/shall not receive the evil.” The potentially interesting interpretation of this reading is that Job refuses to accept what has happened to him and his wife as evil. By hearing his wife telling him to die, Job hears her as telling him to give up the fight, and to accept what has happened to them as bad/evil. But Job refuses to go down that road. Everything, then, that comes from the divine hand would be good. They just have to figure out, patiently, how it is good.  


Yet, by the end of verse 10, even after exchanging only a few words with each other, there remains so much confusion between husband and wife that if Job’s wife were interviewed she probably would have said, ‘I wanted him to bless God before dying, because I saw that his pain was so severe and irreversible.’ If Job were interviewed, he probably would have said, ‘I got mad at my wife because she wanted me to curse God and then die.’ Not only are men from Mars and women from Venus, but, as women from time immemorial have said, ‘You didn’t hear what I said!’ Amid all the chaos and pain of the moment, we can barely suppress a smile.  Job and his wife may have faced the same communication problems as every couple. . .


After this little exchange happens, the author hastens to add that “in all this” Job didn’t sin with his lips. Generations of scholars, beginning with the Rabbis, have wondered if this meant that Job might have sinned in other ways. But the narrative seems committed to the notion that Job kept his integrity not just throughout Chapters 1-2, but also through the rest of the book. Perhaps the mention of not sinning with the lipsin 2:10 is written because of the harsh exchange that the couple just had. It might have had its harsh dimension, but it was what couples do. Job didn’t sin. It would have been nice if the author had asserted the same thing for Job’s wife. It would have saved later commentators a lot of ink before they almost ritually denounced her.  

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