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I had the great privilege of attending a mini-conference on the 6th commandment last Friday & Saturday. (“Thou shalt not kill … ” ) Although I found all the papers read quite brilliant, one that really stood out for me was a paper read by Prof Ed Noort of Groningen University. (Now, I’m not sure if I understood everything correctly, so what follows is my reception of his paper.) The part that interested me most was his analysis (and my understanding thereof) of the book of Job. Especially the following, very vital information: we, as readers, know what is happening in the heavenly court, while poor Job is quite oblivious in all his suffering down on earth. He remains faithful throughout, while quite frankly, God and the devil is betting up there! This is almost ironic. In a  way, we can speak about the Darker Side of God. (One could add to this a whole host of other texts in the Old Testament, but that is not quite my point here.)

The really interesting part surfaced in the Q&A session. A comment was put out there that, unlike the other (Greek and Roman) traditions, which simply relegated tough questions like why pain and suffering exists to the realm of myth*, the book of Job actively levels critique and asks questions. Even more to the point: the book of Job spills into the “real world” by challenging the reader – if one is confronted by pain and suffering, is it simply God and the devil betting up there? The book challenges our interpretation in the interaction that we have with the real, physical world every day. The first scenes in the book open the possibility for us, the readers, to doubt the intention of God – in real life!

Perhaps this discovery is not new. In fact, to me, it seems very akin to Walter Brueggemann’s “core testimony” and “countertestimony“, as he developed it in Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. (Again, how I understood / remember it – I’m no old testament theologian.) Perhaps, too, Prof Noort’s paper especially struck me because of recent discussions and a recent blog post by a friend of mine on why we read the Bible. To summarise (and probably do violence to) his conclusions: one should be willing to disagree with the Bible.

In fact, to  do exegesis and always “agree” with the biblical text is simply dishonest. This would in many cases actually imply that one disrespects the author(s)’s intentions** and misuses the Bible to suit one’s own purposes. Sometimes, the best way to respect the text is to disagree with it – just as one can only be a true friend to someone if one is willing to also level respectful critique*** (and be willing to take the same – NB!). In reflecting on our tradition, this might be called an outside argument for reading the Bible – to honestly, honestly, honestly and respectfully read our tradition, and also point out how we disagree with it. Although it is still part of us.

In reflecting on the exposition of the book of Job with which I started this post, I would like to supply too an inside argument for reading and disagreeing with the Bible: the aspect of debate has been part of our tradition since – well, since time immemorial. In this we discover ourselves and are, again, formed by our tradition – even as we are shaping it.

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FOOTNOTES

*With myth, in this case, I mean mythological language and stories about the Gods. One might argue that this is also the case with Job – that it is a mythical telling of a heavenly scene. This argument has some merit; but my focus here is on the implicit critique that goes along with the narration.

** Yes, I know the “author’s intentions” is impossible to determine. But there are some cases where we can be pretty sure that what the author meant is not how we understand it today. To me, this also underlines the importance of historical-critical studies of the Bible. One should at least attempt to understand the intentions of the author(s); otherwise, one is misusing the text.

*** I thank all my friends for their past and future critique; also on this blogpost.

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