Here’s another selection from the book Milton and I are writing. First is Milton’s homily, followed by a fictional counseling session based on my real life encounters with my clients.
Curse God and die
She finally speaks and says, “bless God and die.” That’s right. The Hebrew text has barek, the imperative for “bless,” not “curse.” Of course we have been taught that the text reflects the insertion of a euphemism deriving from the piety of later editors of the text. Reading the text as it stands, though, with the word “bless,” would make Job’s following response significant in another way. It would not be the “blessing” for which he would be accusing his wife of folly, but the “dying” part; as if to ask his wife, “why would blessing God lead to my death”? But of course, the readers know that central to the terms of the story is Job’s pious naivete, which leads to his lamentable situation in the first place. He wouldn’t be so concerned, anyway, as he somewhat blithely offers the language of benediction.
And despite the fact that Job’s wife only opens her mouth to her husband after the passage of time, she is there throughout the story. Did you notice her? She is there as early as the first reference to Job’s ten children (v. 2). For how else could those children even be Job’s, without his lifelong partner? She is there when the servants of the house are mentioned, because who else would supervise the household (v. 3). She is present when the satan says to God, “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has…” (v. 11), for in the ancient world, Job’s wife would have been counted among his possessions. And likewise she’s there when that fourth messenger comes and says “your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house…” (v 18), because these are her children, too.
So, we are somewhat implicated in our reading if we think that the speech of Job’s wife is her first interjection into the story. And if you have ever thought that, you are like many who have so embraced the patriarchalism of the biblical story that you leave unconsidered the woman’s point of view on all of this disaster. And if you’ll grant such a silent presence of Job’s wife, how do your thoughts include her in the narrator’s opening description of Job: “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (v. 1b). It is a statement about Job’s morality; was it a statement about the moral convictions of his wife, though? The satan’s test is about whether Job “fears God for nothing,” not whether his wife does. But don’t we readers hold her accountable in some sense for Job’s moral convictions, too?
We should remember that she is as ignorant of the heavenly test as Job is. And for all she knows, her situation– having lost all of the household income as well as all of her children, and having now to care for a husband who is not only sick but has lost his social standing as well as his livelihood—is her husband’s own fault. Besides, how would she know how all of this disaster came to happen? Isn’t it understandable that she would wonder why her husband is sitting there concerned about his moral principles when there are other issues to be considered about: his own well-being, for starters. Her jarring words, “bless God and die,” call readers’ attention to the incongruity of her husband’s preoccupation with his own moral virtue while everything around him, including the people who have depended upon him, now have to face alone their own plight of suffering.
And so, should contemporary readers put Job’s wife on trial, especially when she is not saying anything other than what Job is himself doing, blessing God and dying? Maybe the words of Job’s wife call contemporary readers to think beyond the story in ways they might otherwise not have done. Job’s wife is truly an innocent bystander who is caught in the collateral damage of Job’s moral convictions.
It is passivity that dulls feeling.
“Thanks for coming in Janie. There are some circumstances I know I’ll never fully understand unless I hear from the spouse. I appreciate you taking some time from your busy day to speak with me.”
In our email communication to set up this session it was clear Janie would be a reluctant participant. I assured her I wasn’t trying to rope her into marriage counseling. Understandably, when someone like me approaches someone in Janie’s shoes, he or she assumes that I’m going to be just one more voice admonishing, “You must stay in your marriage!”
“What I think I know is that Raymond has spent most of the last year in bed, leaving you to handle everything related to the home and kids. But how would you describe the situation?”
“That’s a pretty good summary. His construction business went under after the tornado two years ago, and it took six months for him to figure out he was not properly insured. At least it took six months for him to tell ME that he wasn’t getting any insurance money to replace all of his equipment. He ran around like a chicken with it’s head cut off for a little while, and then just sort of collapsed.”
“What an awful situation.”
“Yep, that’s what it’s like to be married to Mr. Perfect after Mr. Perfect hits the skids.”
“If you’ll pardon me for stating the obvious, you sound angry.”
“F-ing right I’m angry. My apologies for language unbecoming a lady.”
“No apology necessary. Raymond seems pretty sure you’re done. He says that once your nursing license is back up to date, he expects you to take the kids and move back to where your parents live. I don’t want you to tell me anything that you wouldn’t tell Raymond, but in order to help him, I need to have an idea of what kind of support he can expect.”
“I’m afraid there won’t be much coming from me. When business was booming he didn’t care what I thought, and now that the business has cratered he just wants me to clean up the mess while he lays in the bed and moans.”
“He didn’t care what you thought when things were on the upswing?”
“Nope. The money started coming in six years ago, I started asking him about getting the college funds up to speed. He ignored that, but didn’t have any trouble dropping ten grand into the capital campaign at church.”
“Okay, you’ve got my curiosity stirring. It sounds like you were fairly sure about how the finances should have been handled. Do you know why you sat back and let things head down a dangerous road?”
“What was I supposed to do? He wouldn’t listen to me.”
“I’m not sure there was anything in particular you were supposed to do. I’m just always curious about how we sometimes remain passive when we see danger on the horizon. Maybe you can help me gain a bit more insight. For instance, if you could tell that the brakes on your car were not working right, and if Raymond would not take the time to get it fixed, would you just keep driving the car until you wrecked?”
“That actually happened.”
“No, I mean that a few years back the van started pulling hard to the right whenever I would brake. It scared the shit out of me, but Raymond wouldn’t take the time to get the van to the shop.”
“What finally happened?”
“One day I was driving by a mechanics shop and thought, ‘I’m sick of this,’ and pulled in to the place. The old guy was great. He took a look, and was able to fix it on the spot. He told me I was lucky he had the parts on hand.”
“Wow, a mechanic who fixes something on the spot?”
“Yeah. He’d noticed the two car seats, and didn’t figure it was a good idea to put me on the waiting list.”
“See? This is what I’m talking about. Why is it that in some situations we take action to get things done, and in others, we don’t?”
“Good question. I guess having someone look at the brakes seems a lot simpler than taking over the finances. Raymond always acted like the money side of things was his domain. But now you’ve got me curious too. Why didn’t I take a stronger stand?”
There’s simply no way to truly wrap our modern, American minds around the social context of Job’s story. The notion that a wife would be an equal partner in marriage would have been inconceivable to original listeners of this story. We bristle at the thought of a man treating his wife like property, and expecting her to quietly fulfill her duties.
Yet, how often do both husbands and wives relegate themselves to such a position?
I often hear people saying something like, “I’ve seen this coming for years,” and yet also agreeing that they weren’t willing to intervene actively enough to create change. When we do this, it’s almost as though we choosing to be “property.”