[This is the first in a series of four pieces arising from my recent, and in some ways still ongoing, experience with an obscure and distressing skin affliction apparently extremely rare in adults. They will not be just about skin, though. Is anything ever really only about what it first appears to be?]
When I announced that I would be absent from The Getting Old Blog for a while because I had come down with what was initially diagnosed as eczema but then turned out to be something else entirely, I described it like this: “It’s a scalp-to-toe proposition, front and back … and makes you feel like Job. (In my case, female version. Was there a Mrs. Job?)”
That last bit about Mrs. Job was a throwaway line, to lighten things up. The only time I had looked at the Book of Job — and “looked” is the appropriate word here — was for a class in Classical and Christian Civilization sixty-five years ago. And all I retained of that long-ago cursory flipping of the pages was that the God of the Old Testament had put good and pious Job through many painful trials, including boils, to test his faith. I didn’t even remember how it came out in the end.
Fortunately, I have at least one better-informed reader, who stepped up to the plate at once. ShimonZ replied: “Yes, there was a Mrs. Job…and her story was what first turned me against the entire tale, though it is reputedly written by Moses himself. She died just to make Job unhappy…and after he’d proven how faithful and innocent he was, she was replaced!”
However, by the time Shimon’s comment reached me, my head was spinning with medication side effects, and I was unable to process anything about this new information other than that the loss of his wife was simply one more punishment God imposed on Job to determine how steadfast was his faith. That didn’t seem exactly fair to the wife, but I had other more skin-specific things on my muddled mind just then, and if I had to think about fairness to anyone, what about me? (It usually all comes down to that in the end, doesn’t it?)
But once my brain had cleared, I looked into the matter further — online, of course — and see that there is much confusion and controversy concerning the significance of this wife, of whom I had not known, during the course of God’s testing of Job’s faith. She shows up in the Book of Job only once, after her husband has lost his wealth, his flocks, his seven sons and three daughters (who were also her seven sons and three daughters), and has been afflicted with loathsome disease. At this point, she asks him a question. Then she tells him what to do, irrespective of the cost. He remonstrates with her. (No, no, bad wife.) And then she disappears. That’s all there is: one sentence, over and out.
Where there’s so little textual data, there’s plenty of wiggle room to go where you will with the story, and both Christians and Jews have had at it with vigor over the intervening centuries. But why would this interest me — a person freshly risen from her sickbed who is not religious in any formal, or even informal, sense and has never engaged in textual, much less Biblical, exegesis either professionally or in some search for inner truth?
Because, put simply, I ask questions too. When unforeseeably bad things happen, I am not docile. In the end, I may have to accept them. But not before trying to find out why. And so, without knowing more, I was at once on nameless Mrs. Job’s side. In her circumstances, I would have done and said exactly the same thing. More specifically, an unforeseeably bad thing had just happened to me, and I was asking some questions and trying to decide what to do about preventing the next unforeseen bad thing. No more blind faith in Dr. Dermatologist for me!
Guess what? Asking big questions about blind faith has been a big no-no for a long time, and even more so if you’re “just” a woman. Here’s one relatively recent take on the matter — both misogynist and repugnant — from http://www.biblegateway.com.
Job’s Wife: The Woman Who Urged Her Husband to Commit Suicide
Strange, is it not, that … we do not have the name of [Job’s] wife who remained at his side all through his trials and tribulations? She is identified by only ten words which she uttered to her husband as she saw him suffering from so much bodily pain and discomfort. ‘Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die,’ or ‘Curse God and die by your own hand. End your suffering by taking your own life.’ She urged him to commit suicide and thus relieve himself of further anguish.
Actually, this alternative reading — ‘die by your own hand’ — appears to be the commentator’s interpretation of ‘and die.’ I myself would have assumed that cursing God in the Old Testament World would have brought a punitive death at God’s hand –which is, I suppose, a sort of suicide, but not exactly where the commentator seems to be going here:
There was also the diabolical suggestion that [Job] should relinquish his faith in God, seeing He was permitting him to endure such terrible physical torment and material loss. It is because she allowed Satan to use her as an instrument to grieve rather than comfort her husband, that commentators have spoken ill of her character. Augustine referred to her as ‘The Devil’s Accomplice’ and Calvin wrote of her as ‘An Instrument of Satan’ and as a ‘Diabolical Fury.’ The little she said to her husband whose heart was at breaking point was enough to crush him altogether. The one closer to him than all others should have encouraged him and offered him human sympathy. Job’s wife, however, was the female foe in his household and reminds us that ‘the worst trial of all is when those nearest us, instead of strengthening our hand in God and confirming our faith, conspire to destroy it.’ (Micah 7:6; Matthew 10:36)
What does biblegateway suggest that Mrs. J. should have said or done when confronted with the pitiable sufferings of her ravaged husband (not to mention what must have been her own)?
…..Job was determined not to sin with his lips as his thoughtless wife had done….Because God has given woman an affectionate heart, and a large capacity for sympathy and compassion, it is incumbent upon women…. to ….persist in encouraging [their husbands] in times of great trial and tragedy. It is only thus that a woman functions as God meant her to, as an ‘helpmeet.’ © 1988 Zondervan. All Rights Reserved.
Woman as mindless helpmeet. Heavy stuff. Enough to turn the most ardent believer into a feminist. If this was the male mindset in Job’s day, can you blame Mrs. J. for disappearing from the text? Luckily, there is another way of construing the Job family situation:
Wife of Job: Bible by Ilana Pardes
[from the Jewish Women’s Archive, http://jwa.org.]
In the well known biblical story dealing with the problem of undeserved suffering, Job loses his [ten] children, his possessions, and his health. Job’s nameless wife turns up after the final blow, after Job has been struck with boils. Seeing her husband sitting in the dust, scraping his sores silently, she bursts out, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ (2:9) She cannot bear her husband’s blind acceptance of the tragedies that befall them. Indeed, the attention to Job’s suffering usually ignores the fact that she too, after all, is a victim of these divine tests in addition to being pained by exposure to his afflictions. (19:17) To cling to a model of perfect devotion to a supposedly perfect God when reality is so far from perfection seems to Job’s wife to be not exemplary strength, but an act of cowardice. Such ‘integrity,’ she seems to be saying, lacks a deeper value. What Job must do is to challenge the God who has afflicted him so, even if the consequence is death.
Much has been written about the unusual challenge the Book of Job offers in its audacious questioning of the ways of God, but one never hears of the contribution of Job’s wife to the antidogmatic bent of the text. …She opens the possibility of suspending belief, of speaking against God. Job’s initial response to his wife’s provocative suggestion is harsh: ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?’ (2:10) When the dialogues begin, however, Job comes close to doing what his wife had suggested. He does not curse God directly, but by cursing his birth he implicitly curses the creator who gave him life. Much like Eve, Job’s wife spurs her husband to doubt God’s use of divine powers. In doing so she does him much good, for this turns out to be the royal road to deepening one’s knowledge, to opening one’s eyes.
Job’s wife disappears after her bold statement…. [She] is conspicuously absent from the happy ending in which Job’s world is restored. Job’s dead children spring back to life, as it were, because he ends up having, as in the beginning, seven sons and three daughters. Yet his wife, who actually escaped death, is excluded from this scene of family bliss.
But that’s okay, because it’s the family bliss of an Old Testament world, where ten new children by a second wife [Dinah, daughter of Jacob] can replace ten dead children, and a wife, similarly replaceable, is a mere extension of her husband. Not really something you or I would want for ourselves or our families. You see, there’s more, only it’s not in the Bible. According to the apocryphal Testament of Job, Job’s wife did have a name. It was Sitis, or Sitidos, and she was, in a way, an outsider: a woman of Arab descent. So what I would like to think is that she went away and made a whole new life for herself as Sitidos, a woman with a mind — far from undeserved suffering inflicted on her to test her husband’s faith.
This piece may have seemed like a wandering through the wilderness. It wasn’t. What began as an idle posting reference to Job, or Mrs. Job if there was one, turned out to be useful and fortifying in thinking for myself about my own recent “ailment.” Although my immediate response to unforeseen misfortune may be to hurl myself on the nearest mattress, sob, shake my fist at the plaster ceiling and cry out, “Why me, oh God? — eventually, as in the words of the song, I do pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. Which is what I did when the worst of my recent affliction began to resolve itself. But where and how to start? Learning about Sitidos taught me something: If the status quo fails you, curse it and look elsewhere. You probably won’t die. She didn’t.