“Curse God and Die! Redeeming the Wife of Job: Being with someone who is angry with God.” by Jo Kretzler
Most people are familiar with the story of Job. How he was a righteous man, tormented by Satan seemingly with the approval of God. How he held fast to his integrity despite suffering over and over again with the loss of his children, his possessions and his health. However, not much attention or consideration is given to his wife, she is often dismissed as an atheist, called faithless, evil or a servant of Satan. But what if we spent some time with her and looked at the events in this story from the point of view of her character? Are we willing to reach out to someone who is not responding with the “patience of Job?”
The story of Job has many interpreters, and is retold in many different traditions. This story, most familiarly found in the Hebrew Bible, appears in the Septuagint, the Quran, and in many other ancient writings. Job’s wife, who in the first century story, “the Testament of Job” is given the name Sitis, has a different role to play in each retelling.
In the Hebrew Bible she is the first human to speak, her words, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” are often seen as an angry diatribe of a faithless woman. Augustine refers to her as the Devil’s helper, an atheist, early church fathers describe her as “an unthinking fool, an irritating nag, a heretic, a tempter, an unwitting tool of the devil, or even a personification of the devil himself.” She is dismissed as shrew and a nagging wife who tries to tempt her husband to turn away from God. She is seen as someone who Satan uses to tempt Job, thus turning Job into a second Adam, but redeeming himself by not giving in to the suggestion of his wife. Adam, and mankind are redeemed, however Eve and womankind are condemned once more to the role of devil’s helper.
Augustine went even further, explaining that God left Job’s wife unharmed because God knows that man is always tempted by woman, just like Adam was tempted by Eve. Job broke this cycle, though, by not yielding to his wife–not cursing God–becoming a new Adam of sorts.
In the Hebrew Bible we find only one sentence attributed to Job’s wife, and her short sentence has been deconstructed by many scholars. However, more consideration is given to her in the Greek text of the Septuagint, as Job is sitting on the trash heap on the outskirts of town, he is scraping his wounds with a potsherd and his wife comes to him.
“How long will you persist and say, ‘Look, I will hang on a little longer, while I wait for the hope of my deliverance?’ For look your legacy has vanished from the earth – sons and daughters, my womb’s birth pangs and labors, for whom I wearied myself with hardships in vain. And you? You sit in the refuse of worms as you spend the night in the open air. As for me, I am one that wanders about and a hired servant–from place to place and house-to-house, waiting for when the sun will set, so I can rest from the distresses and grief that now beset me. Now say some word to the Lord and die!” (Job 2:9 LXX)
Here her “curse God and die!” is reduced to “say some word to the Lord and die!” but the sentiment presented is the same. Job’s wife, in an acknowledgement of the extreme power of God, knows that in cursing God, Job will fulfill the rules of this cruel cosmic experiment, and be condemned. However, in Hebrew this word can also be translated to “Bless God and die.” Most English translations read this as a euphemism for cursing God but it may be that Job’s wife is suggesting that Job bid farewell (i.e. “bless God”) and accept his fate (die) This then becomes a means of administering a sort of last rites to the ailing Job, Give your final blessing to God and say good bye. I can imagine her uttering these words each one separated by a guttural sob, as she watches her husband, her companion, with whom she has raised ten children and lived a good life, suffering such torment and covered with sores. Her cries are not the scorn of an atheist; they are the desperate groaning of a woman in utter anguish.
Another reframing of this story is found in The Testament of Job. This is an anonymous apocryphal work, likely written originally in Greek, which is said to have been composed between the first century BCE and the first century CE. In this telling of the story, Job’s wife is given the name Sitis. Naming her is a dignity not afforded her in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint. By naming her, this story gives her an identity, rather than being viewed as one of Job’s possessions, she now becomes a person in her own right. We can relate to her, she, like Job, has lost all her children, all her possessions, and the status of being married to a landowner.
She cries out in lament of her situation, she was once wealthy; she was a mother to ten children she felt them move inside her and nursed them at her breast. She guided them lovingly into adulthood and watch them find spouses of their own. Now she is tricked by the devil into selling her hair for bread with which she feeds Job. She hires herself out as a servant to the families who once visited her chambers with deference and respect, Sitis cares tenderly for her husband who has abandoned her to her grief, and is not offering her any comfort.
And yet history does not comfort her either, readers of scripture have not been kind to her as she cries out in anguish. We are uncomfortable being alongside her, we want to judge her response to Job, feeling as if we would not respond to such torment in the same way. We might uphold the commands within the beatitudes “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” as long as those who mourn, mourn within the boundaries of behavior that seems appropriate.
Job’s wife vanishes from the rest of the book, although we know that Job goes on to have more children after he is restored beyond his former wealth, so we can presume that Job’s wife has a role to play there. Otherwise she is ignored after her cry of grief. What is her role in their new life? Does she have to find a new place for herself and Job to live? Is she preparing food and medicine for her ailing husband? Was she the one who had to bury her deceased children? Of course we don’t have any real answers, as they are not included in this story, just as we don’t know the whole story when we encounter someone who is just as angry at God. We can feel the need to control the responses of those who are suffering with pithy sayings and theological statements that do not help the person we are trying to comfort. In the book “Job and the Mystery of suffering”
Richard Rohr writes: “Remember that the opposite of love is not really hatred, but control. God remains in love and therefore out of control mode. When we are not in love, we are invariably trying to control everything–it’s a good litmus test. God seems to be fully in control only when we give it back to God. That is the beauty and limitation of those who love. They can give up control, they can weep instead of explain.”
Maybe a more loving response to Job’s wife would be to allow her to express her feelings. Seeing her cry as a lament psalm rather than an expression of a lack of faith. In scripture we have many examples of this lamenting over suffering. It is reflected in the emotion of Psalm 31:10-11,
“For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.” [NRSV]
As Christians, we are often led to believe that joy is the only appropriate emotion at all times, after all joy is listed as one of the fruit of the spirit [Gal. 5:22] and Paul, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, exhorts:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18[NRSV]
How do we hold this potential for joy in tension with a crushing grief? How would Job’s wife read this command from Paul, and not feel bereft, neglected, and judged by the very people she has turned to for comfort? As part of any community of people there will be times in each of our lives when we encounter a Sitis, a Mrs. Job, and sometimes it will be our turn to experience loss and grief. Being in community means that we have to learn how to be along side Sitis when she is crying out “Curse God and Die!” to not try to diminish her pain, to not try to placate with the white noise of empty theology that really has no meaning at the core of someone’s grief. We can look to the life of Jesus for examples of when to preach and when to remain silent. At the tomb of Lazarus we see Jesus in distress when he witnesses his friends grief.
In the Gospel of John: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.” John 11:33-35 [NRSV]
Also as we move towards Easter and Good Friday, we can see utter despair in the cries of anguish from the cross, the voice of Jesus combines with the voice of Sitis and the voices of all who have felt abandoned by God as he quotes from Psalm 22:
‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’
So how do we respond when we encounter someone in so much distress? Does God abandon those in pain and yet offer comfort to others? Job receives answers from God in a whirlwind and we don’t know if his wife was present for this revelation or not. But it is not always in a whirlwind that God reveals God’s self, for Elijah, God was a quieter presence.
In 1 Kings we read: “He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” 1 Kings 19:11-13 [NRSV]
When God seems far away, God is actually very near. The same God, who is in the whirlwind for Job, is in the silence for Elijah in the cave at Horeb. God reveals God’s self to us in many different ways. That is part of the mystery of infinite relationship. We might be expecting, demanding, looking, and waiting, for a whirlwind, for a tangible experience of God to answer our questions and solve all our problems. And we might as a result, miss the voice of God in the silence.