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Victor Sasson, «The Literary and Theological Function of Job’s Wife in the Book of Job», Vol. 79 (1998) 86-90
Against a background of her family situation, the negative role of Job’s wife in her husband’s trial is analysed here. It should be noted that there is no mention of her in the Epilogue that would correspond to her being mentioned in the Prologue. Apart from never being mentioned by name, she is altogether overlooked when Job is restored to good fortune.
In the Prologue to the Book of Job, Job is depicted as notorious for his great wealth, and famous for his exceptional piety. God, presiding over an angelic convention, draws Satan's attention to this perfect man. He asks an innocent, rhetorical question regarding Job's commendable piety. Satan exploits this occasion to brand Job a hypocrite, accusing him of having some ulterior motive for his piety. Job he says must be giving only lip service in return for the great material prosperity God has showered upon him. Once he is deprived of this prosperity and struck with disease, Job will certainly blaspheme. Eventually, God is induced to put Job to the test as suggested by Satan with all manner of disease, having first destroyed all his wealth and eliminated all his ten children. But Job still does not blaspheme. For one reason or another, Job's wife is left untouched. At some point she intimates to her husband that he is something of a fool for sticking to his blind faith in God. She tells him to curse God and die. He rebukes her:
You talk as any wicked fool of a woman might talk. If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil? (2,10; NEB)
It is not clear why Job's wife is spared the fate of the children. In the Epilogue to the story although she remains nameless she serves as a necessary vehicle for the continuation of Job's line.
In a recent essay on the Book of Job, David Clines makes some statements about Job and his wife from an unconventional stance. He discusses such issues as patriarchy, the suffering of Job's wife, gender dominance, and makes biased and unfair allegations against Job the man and his author 1.
He defines patriarchy as "a social system in which men have unproblematic power over women" and views Job's verbal rebuke of his sacrilegious wife as an example of such power over women. Job it is alleged lumps all women as "foolish chatterers"! There is no evidence, however, that Job lumps all women as such. It is also not clear how one can dismiss Job's wife's terrible blasphemy so lightly, while at the same time magnifying and condemning Job's well-deserved verbal reprimand.
Then Job is accused of ignoring or suppressing his wife's suffering in the story. This allegation shows a failure in understanding that Job's wife is not a major character in the dramatis personae. The book is not a drama about Job's wife. She plays a minor role and, admittedly, a negative one. There is no reason to see this as sex discrimination on the part of the book's author.
What is central to the drama is the suffering and torments of Job himself. Perhaps more importantly, Job's wife is not a conscientious, devoted, sensible, compassionate wife like, say, Portia (the wife of Brutus). If she were such a wife, she would embrace her husband's suffering as her own. She would tell her husband it is God's will to submit oneself to adversity. She would be a tower of strength to him. We do not expect her to be the perfect, ideal wife portrayed in chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs , one who speaks nothing but wisdom and lovingkindness; but we do expect her to be a sensible, God-fearing woman. The Prologue to the Book of Job, however, makes it quite clear that she is fickle and sacrilegious. In fact, she only adds to her husband's suffering, distancing herself from him. She has developed a loathing for him. In the words of Job himself:
My breath is noisome to my wife (19,17a; NEB).
She is, indeed, a foolish woman, speaking like one of those foolish female chatterers. She makes an outrageous, blasphemous suggestion: to curse God and incur the penalty of death. In a sense, she joins hands with the Adversary, Satan. By seeking death for her husband, she seeks the easiest way out of a marriage and a commitment; the easiest way out of a test. Typically, our politically-correct critic twists the evidence and accuses the victim, not the perpetrator simply because the perpetrator happens to be female. He points a finger at good, steadfast, pious Job now dispossessed, humiliated, in pain, wallowing in dirt and ashes of treating his wife as a non-entity 2.
Another claim is that Job's wife even though she herself says nothing about this personal matter has spent fifteen "whole years" of her life being pregnant with Job's twenty children (seven sons and three daughters before Job's trials began, in ch. 1; and again seven sons and three daughters after his trials, in ch. 42). But, surely, they are her children as well as his. Children in the Near East are considered a blessing and a source of happiness, and the Hebrew Scriptures enjoin us to have as many of them as possible (cf. Ps. 127) 3. Our critic simply cannot entertain the thought that
Job's wife actually desired and enjoyed bearing and raising her own children. He has uncritically adopted a fashionable stance of aborting nature and substituting rhetoric for substance.
Regarding the so-called gender dominance, there is ignorance if not deliberate suppression of the subtle (and not so subtle) dominance of women over men. Men and women are different, because they have been made different. They have different anatomy and different psychology. Women exert their dominance over men differently. In the case of Job's wife, to get herself out of her commitment and thus betray her husband in his terrible adversity, she did not ask for divorce. She found a better convenient alternative at hand: she simply told her husband to commit suicide! There will be commentators, no doubt, who will contend that Job's wife only wanted to help her poor husband out of his misery. Such a warped interpretation, however, would only violate the tenor and drift of the text.
In connection with Job's three beautiful daughters and the inheritance their father gives them (ch. 42), the comment is made that "the daughters inherit, because the man Job is charmed by them". But this is, surely, begrudging a father looking at his daughters and marvelling at their beauty. Job does not give them inheritance merely because they are beautiful. More likely, the story seeks to show the continued fairness and generosity of the new, restored Job.
As regards sexual temptation, Job is clear about his resistance to it. He is married to a woman he loves very much. He is and remains to be a faithful husband, even though the woman he loves is not steadfast:
If my heart has been enticed by a woman or I have lain in wait at my neighbour's door, may my wife be another man's slave, and may other men enjoy her (31,9-10; NEB).
As a married man, Job even resists gazing at a young virgin:
I have come to terms with my eyes, never to take notice of a girl (31,1; NEB)
Based on the biblical account that Job's three daughters were exceedingly beautiful (42,15), we may credit their mother with captivating physical beauty (and their father with good looks). This is in keeping with experience which shows physical beauty marred in some persons by flawed character. Beauty, however, cannot be a substitute for piety and good character. By itself, it is mere vanity, skin-deep (cf. Prov. 31,30). Job's nameless wife, therefore, must have been beautiful but her beauty was marred by fickleness of character, impiety, and selfishness.
It is a well known scientific fact much to the chagrin of the male that the female of the species will preferably mate, if she can, with the male who is most powerful the one who is most able to provide the most security. In human society, too, this is a fact of life which only a sheltered person living in an ivory tower can deny. Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist, observes: "In women's eyes, public achievement makes a man more attractive as a marriage partner 4. In a real sense, then, it is the female of the species who has always had a need for patriarchy with all the positive and negative aspects it entails. It is she who must have originally created, encouraged, and perpetuated this now much maligned institution. But, evidently, it is part and parcel of the natural process and it is doubtful that anyone can ever succeed in dislodging and eliminating it. It appears to be desperately and tacitly needed by the majority of ordinary, decent women themselves, irrespective of the financial independence they might achieve. Needless to say, with protection comes power-problematic or unproblematic, desirable or undesirable. Perhaps had men naturally needed matriarchy to the extent women have always needed patriarchy, similar results would obtain.
There are, therefore, firm grounds to believe that Job's wife must have married a man much older than herself a Job who had struggled hard enough to amass a notorious wealth. She certainly did not marry him for his wisdom: we can rest assured on that score. Nor did she marry him for his piety, which she considered a simpleton's folly and at which she eventually scoffed. A man with seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-donkeys was to be wooed and brought under the marriage canopy. As a shrewd young lady, she must have found an older, Job rather attractive for a marriage partner, and must have eagerly sought the protection of his name and the security of his wealth. All of this is borne out by the fact that the woman who had extraordinary physical stamina (in contradistinction to her mental impatience) bore Job ten children before his trials began, and ten more after his restoration, making it a total of twenty. Allowing an average of two years span between each childbirth, Job's wife was pregnant over a period of forty years (barring the possibility of any twins). This is a positive and commendable role in the dramatic and near tragic history of the man Job. But as we shall soon see this cannot have been undertaken without self-interest in mind.
Much that we would like to, we cannot end on a positive note regarding Job's wife. We cannot forget that she distanced herself from her husband in his most difficult hour. No doubt some commentators will gloss over or whitewash this part and other embarrassing parts in the story to suit their political agenda. But Job, undergoing extreme torments of body
and mind, had also to suffer the estrangement of an unfeeling, self-centered wife (19,17a) the woman he loved and cherished. In his downfall, she added to his humiliation before the eyes of the world. This was the most unkind cut of all. For one can forgive God for an undeserved test. One can even try to understand Satan's difficult position that of a professional Adversary. But how can one forgive the treachery of the wife of one's bosom at a time when one needs her most? And yet Job foregave her and accepted her return, even though he knew she was only thinking of herself. This is what God called perfect faith and what Job's wife considered to be the faith of a simpleton. Seeing that she also offered him the choice of killing himself, and that she blasphemed God, our overall assessment of this person cannot but be negative. We do acknowledge her productive fecundity, but even in that specific area in which she excelled so well, she did not persevere without obvious self-interest. After the death of her first ten children, she must have hoped for the restoration of her husband's fortunes and consequently, of her own. And, indeed, her estrangement from her husband we notice lasted the length of the dialogues and of Job's trials. This was not a matter of days or weeks, but more probably a matter of months. The moment her husband's fortunes were restored, however, she soon found a way of reclaiming her position as Mistress of the House in Job's mansion. As a shrewd, patriarchal, Iron Age feminist, this nameless woman played her cards exceedingly well. No wonder the Epilogue to Job's drama makes no mention of her at all. It ignores her completely.