Author: Katherine Low
ISBN: 978 0 56723 921 1
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Publisher: Bloomsbury T & T Clark
There are several interpretative ambiguities in the biblical account of Job’s marriage. Is it significant that his wife is not named, and that when at the end (42.13) he has new children their mother (the original one or a new wife?) is not even mentioned? Does Job’s wife bid him bless God and die or curse God and die (2.9)? The verb ba–rak bears both meanings. Is death here envisaged as caused by the blessing/cursing? Is her assertive language a call to Job, and to the reader, to question settled orthodoxies? What relationship between the couple is suggested by his calling her ‘one of the stupid women’ (2.10)? Such ambiguities have opened the door, over the centuries, to a variety of readings of the text and of representations of it in art. Professor Low of Mary Baldwin College in the USA here explores a selection of them within the Christian tradition, showing how the different ways of taking the text were influenced by cultural ideas, especially about gender. In medieval Christianity, which tended to read the Job story in terms of the Adam and Eve narrative, with the ‘dung heap’ being a reversal of Eden and with the serpent standing for Satan, Job’s wife was usually thought of as aligned with Satan (e.g. ‘his wife, the Devil’s helper’: Augustine). She stood for the supposed tendency of women to speak when they should not, and that in inappropriate language. Later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – a period when there was much discussion in domestic conduct manuals about the nature of Christian marriage and the role of women – Satan made less of an appearance, and the Job story came to stand for the human struggle against evil. Job’s wife was now a type of the bad wife. She was often represented as a dangerous, ugly, old – and often foreign! – woman. William Blake (to whom Low devotes a long final chapter) subscribed to a highly idiosyncratic version of Christianity of his own devising which accorded to women a relatively positive, even liberated, role. It is not surprising, therefore, that for Blake Job’s wife was thoroughly benign. In his engravings for the Book of Job, Blake placed his wife, unlike the ‘friends’, by Job’s side; she complemented him. She was his companion in a Christologically conceived journey from the rigid formalism of the Old Testament, though a struggle with the OT God and through creative, imaginative engagement with the world as revealed by Christ, towards a utopia of cosmic harmony. Professor Low concludes that Biblical interpreters today can learn from the Reception History of this text to realize the extent to which their own cultural ideas are likely to shape their exegesis. The point is well made. Professor Low’s book would have benefitted from more rigorous editing. There are grammatical slips and a good number of examples of contorted English. The numbering of the numerous illustrations (all in black and white, and of indifferent quality of reproduction) is odd: there is no figure 1 or 4. Despite these blemishes, this book makes for stimulating reading and points up the importance of Reception History.