In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Maria Doerfler about the death of children in the Bible as they explore the following questions:
- How did ancient people view childhood mortality?
- How does the Bible reflect times of crises in the ancient world?
- What are we supposed to learn from the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11?
- How does the New Testament complicate the interpretation of Judges 11 for Christians?
- What is a verse homily?
- Where do we see expressions of grief in the Bible?
- What did Augustine say about childhood mortality?
- What does Maria mean when she talks about a pedagogy of emotions?
- How can the Bible teach us to express emotion?
- What can we make of Sarah’s absence in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac?
- Where does the example of Job appear in writings in the ancient world?
- How can biblical texts and other ancient texts around childhood mortality still speak to us today?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Maria Doerfler you can share.
- “Scripture provides starting points for homilists, for people who write hymns, for people who write letters of consolation to begin to think about both what makes for a desirable emotional landscape in a Christian.” @DoerflerMaria
- “Christians can be taught by emulation and by participation in these stories how to approach their own emotions.” @DoerflerMaria
- “Grief is natural and grief is something that ought to take place within the context of the Christian community.” @DoerflerMaria
- “Parental bereavement remains a very, very difficult topic in a contemporary setting and in many regards its really a radioactive topic in the sense that nobody finds resources to really speak about it.” @DoerflerMaria
- “I want to challenge the assumptions that these are no longer stories that we need in a contemporary, western setting.” @DoerflerMaria
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Jephthah’s Daughter’s, Sarah’s Son
- Book: Reading the Bible with the Dead
- YouTube: The Bible for Normal People
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People, and our topic today is “Reading the Bible in Times of Crisis.”
Jared: And we wanted to just make mention here at the front, you know, we do talk about loss of children in the Bible and in the early church, just to be sensitive to anyone as far as what you’re going to be hearing. And we’re talking with Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, Maria Doerfler. Yeah, we don’t just talk about that. It actually is a bigger conversation about how we read our Bible.
Pete: Yeah, and that’s what’s really, was very fascinating and very apropos for our podcast to talk about how Christians in the early centuries use certain texts in the Bible that talk about children who die. And it’s actually, you know, this could be a very hard topic for people to listen to, we understand that, but the real focus of this is on hermeneutics. It’s on the nature of biblical interpretation; it’s what people do all the time with their Bible. This is just one example of people doing that very thing – engaging the Bible creatively, looking for little gaps and little ends so they can commune with God at a time of crisis for themselves. And I think everybody who’s read the Bible has done that on some level.
Jared: Yeah, that’s well put. All right, well, let’s jump into this conversation then and hear from Maria.
Maria: Every child who passes is, in a sense, being offered up by the parents to God not because the parents, ideally of course, have a hand in the killing of the child, but because the parents must on some level, ascend to this bereavement and must continue to put their faith in the divine regardless.
Jared: Well welcome, Maria, to the podcast. It’s great to have you!
Maria: Thanks so much for having me! I’m delighted to be here.
Jared: We have a pretty nerdy topic today, but I think it’s going to be really relevant to how we think about the Bible in a bigger picture. But let’s start with this really nuanced understanding of the idea of looking at narratives in the Bible of child death and then how the early church would’ve read those narratives for their own time and place. So, maybe just start us off with how would you, how did you even come to the idea that this would be something to look at and have some importance?
Maria: Thanks, Jared. This is really, not only is it a nerdy topic, but you know, as someone who’s been living with this topic, you do get excited about your research and you want to talk about it and you know, you’re sitting in a restaurant and you know, suddenly you notice that three tables away people are quietly inching away from you –
Maria: Because you’re talking about childhood mortality in antiquity and it’s just off-putting.
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Maria: So, the question of how I came to it is, as these things tend to go, a little bit of a multi-part thing. On one hand, it’s really an expression of my broader interests as a student of early Christianity. I sometimes describe myself as a historian of exegesis as an extreme sport.
Maria: Now, what I mean by that is that I’m really interested in how individuals and how communities read their authoritative texts, regardless of what those texts are. Sometimes they’re law, sometimes they’re philosophy, a lot of times they’re scripture and particularly how they read those text in times of crisis. So, these crises can be communal, or they can be extremely personal and when it comes to the death of children, this project obviously falls a little bit more into the personal end of that category. But I don’t want to understate how important children, in antiquity as indeed today, also are for communities. The death of a child has this ripple effect through the community.
For example, I was just recently looking at one funerary hymn that comes to us from the 8th century, and it describes the death of a child as just a removal of that central peg of a tent. It is being pulled out and everything around it collapses. So, in that sense, it kind of fits into the broadest scheme of what I’m interested in, but I will also say that the first impetus for beginning to look at this came to me when I was doing some training in ancient language known as Syriac, really, it’s just a further development of Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus spoke. This is a homily from the 6th century, and it focus specifically on children that had died. I should tell you right away the texts that specially deal with this topic are actually pretty rare in antiquity.
But I’m reading along and I’m reading along and I look up and my immediate impression is like, wait, they can’t actually be saying this. That’s usually how research topics come to me, when I read something and I’m just going, “oh, that’s just wrong,” or “oh, that’s totally surprising.” So, in this particular instance, I had always thought about death of children, late antiquity, as something that was pretty well dealt with by the time that Augustin, big important 5th century North African dude, came around who says that, you know, to address the potential of what happens to children after death, you simply need to baptize them as early as possible. But what I was seeing in these other sources was instead an appreciation of children regardless of their baptism as pure, as unspoiled, as, you know, a category of people that do not need to go through any after death sort of challenges whether it’s purgatory, whether it’s a period of waiting for the last judgement, but they immediately pass into the presence of Jesus as would be expected of martyrs in that period. So, finding material that really pushed against the grain of what I sort of “knew” was happening in late antiquity was another thing that sort of nudged me into that direction.
Pete: Hmm. Yeah, there’s so much happening with your thought process there, Maria, and one thing that you said that struck me was even at the very beginning, reading texts in times of crisis and just to take a step back from all this, you know, the argument has been made, I think it’s a sound argument, that the Bible itself, especially the Hebrew scriptures, arose because of crisis, because of the Babylonian captivity and we tend to want to commune with God when things aren’t going well, both on the personal level and on the corporate level. And this is just one example, I guess, one rather fine-tuned example of that, I would even say, common religious phenomenon.
Maria: I think that’s absolutely right, and I think that’s also what makes scripture such a tremendous resource for thinking about these crises situations, again, whether they’re personal or whether they’re communal.
Pete: All right, so we’re going to get into how these representatives of the early Christian church maybe handle some of these stories in the Bible, but let’s, let’s take a few minutes and sit with some of these stories and just try to understand what might’ve motivated these early interpreters and, I mean, do you have one or two that are sort of your go to favorite texts about children dying in the Bible?
Maria: Oh, yeah. Well, doesn’t everybody have favorite texts of children dying in the Bible?
I was afraid you were going to say that.
Jared: I was gonna say, favorite, Pete? I don’t know if that would’ve been the word I would’ve used.
Pete: Okay. What is a compelling example? Let’s not use favorite, what is a compelling example?
Maria: Okay. So, I am going to split my vote on this and I’m going to go with one text that is super well known and another text that people tend to stay away from. It’s not generally featured in lectionaries, it doesn’t really get preached on, etc. But at the same time, these are two texts that are very frequently sort of handled in tandem with one another in antiquity, which is interesting in its own right. So, the first text, the one that is perhaps the less known of the two is the story of Jephthah’s daughter, and of course, this immediately shows up in the title of my book. It’s an absolutely compelling narrative that comes to us from the book of Judges 11. And in antiquity, it frequently gets paired with a story that’s really, really well known, at least in a contemporary setting, and that’s the story of the binding of Isaac of the Hebrew word that’s frequently used for that story is the Akedah, that shows up in Genesis 22. So, take your pick. Where do you want to begin?
Pete: Let’s begin with Jephthah’s daughter because it’s such an uplifting story. That was sarcasm, people, by the way. I don’t mean that at all, so go ahead, Maria. Let’s talk about Jephthah’s daughter first.
Maria: I can tell Pete is preparing us for the warm and fuzzy stories.
Maria: So, this comes to us from the book of Judges 11, chapter 11, and if you’ve spent any kind of quality time with the book of Judges one of the things that you notice is that the protagonist and the heroes, with maybe a couple of exceptions, are not really the people for whom you would find yourself generally rooting. And one of those is Jephthah who is one of the Judges of Israel, that is to say he is an important military leader.
He’s particularly important in fighting off the Ammonites and in the middle of battle, Jephthah makes a deal with God. And the deal amounts something like this, and Jephthah is setting the terms of this deal, although there is some very interesting language surrounding the Spirit of God coming upon Jephthah as he’s making that particular bargain. We would have to get seriously into the history of translation if you wanted to unpack that, so I’m just totally going to delicately sideline that here. So, Jephthah makes this bargain with God and it’s basically if I triumph in battle, if the Israelites are in fact successful, when I get home the first thing, the first living thing that approaches me as I get home, I am going to sacrifice to you. Now, this is a really weird vow to make and in fact, this is something that all interpreters, whether they’re rabbis, ancient Christians, sort of notice about it because realistically speaking, what was Jephthah expecting at this point in time?
Maria: What are the chances that this is something that would be, you know, kosher and pleasing to God. Suffice it to say, however, Jephthah triumphs in battle. You might argue that the bargain is accepted and then Jephthah returns home and the first living thing that approaches him is his only daughter, and that is truly is Jephthah’s only child is something that a lot of ancient sources really sort of lean into. In fact, the term that’s being used for that, particularly in Syriac, is the same word that’s being used for Jesus in the sense that she is the only begotten daughter in that sense. And she approaches Jephthah and he immediately, he rends his clothes, he expresses dismay, and he says, effectively – what am I going to do? Of course, the answer turns out to be, because this is the book of Judges and we’re, as Pete says, in a profoundly encouraging, uplifting story, that Jephthah ultimately goes through with the sacrifice of his daughter. His daughter assents the sacrifice, asks beforehand to be given some time to go into the mountains with the other young women in order to mourn her virginity, but she ultimately returns, and she is, at least in most interpretations, ultimately sacrificed. There is some leeway in how people have read the conclusion of that particular story, but the overwhelming number of witnesses here proceed on the assumption that she does, in fact, die.
Pete: Yeah. Why, why do you think, I mean, we’re talking earlier about some of the gaps and tensions and some of these stories that make them so interesting, but why would Jephthah have even lamented, he must’ve known it wasn’t going to be a kosher item coming out of his house that he could sacrifice acceptably to Yahweh. He must’ve known it was going to be a human being coming out, and likely his daughter, but he just registers shock at that and that’s always surprised me about that story.
Maria: Hmm. You know, I think at least the overwhelming assumption on the part of interpreters, regardless of their religious tradition, is that Jephthah did not know and perhaps could not have expected. In fact, you know, in the rabbinic tradition, there is frequently the assumption that what makes this vow particularly offensive is that, you know, Jephthah was expecting that a dog would be coming to meet him in this particular setting. But, you know, if we take the text at its face value, which you know, I think we should, this really is a shock and this is a source of tremendous grief for Jephthah at this point in time. And it is something that later interpreters read with absolute horror and particularly in the Christian tradition, by and large, actually I should say both in the Christian and the Jewish tradition, by and large with a great deal of condemnation for Jephthah.
Jared: So, I mean, in some ways though, that whether, whether it’s a surprise and is unexpected or not, for me, it seems to also, that the answer to that also hinges whether I would view him as a sympathetic figure or not. In some ways, there is this passivity to it where this is happening to him rather than him being the agent who basically made a deal to sacrifice his daughter to win a war.
And, you know, is there a sense whenever we’re thinking, I’m also thinking ahead in terms of how in the world would this have been seen by early Christians as a text to talk about in the death of someone else’s child, I wonder if that plays into it at all.
Maria: Yeah, you know, it’s of course Christian, early Christian interpreters in particular, and in fact, Christian interpreters of any era, have that additional difficulty that Jephthah is someone who features in the epistle to the Hebrews in the so-called “Hall of Faith,” you know, where you have the beautiful recitation of, “by faith, Abraham, when called to go to a place,” etc., etc. And there shows up Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and in due course there shows up Jephthah, and in that sense, it very much looks like the author of Hebrews is placing a stamp of approval upon Jephthah’s actions in this particular setting. So, this is a constrained, and for ancient authors who by and large read the Bible holistically, and I don’t mean to say that they read it naively, they’re very much aware that different books are, they do the text critical thinking exceedingly well, but there nevertheless is an assumption that the text is animated by the same Holy Spirit and that every part of it can indeed be made useful for understanding every other part.
So, in that sense, Hebrews 11 places a certain constraint on Christian responses there too, and there’s very few authors who are actually prepared to just come out and say, well, you know, once Jephthah saw his daughter approaching, he really should have just relented and tried to figure out another way in order to absolve himself of that particular vow. That’s by and large not the actual Christian storyline with this. But many Christian authors who see this as a warning, a cautionary tale about how you should not make rash vows because guess what might happen to you if you make a rash vow along those lines. And then, there are a few who particularly focus their condemnation not upon the vow so much, but precisely on that emotional response, Jared, that you called out that in some ways makes Jephthah seem sympathetic to us. But on the other hand, if you contrast that with the response of Abraham to being instructed to kill Isaac, his son, his only son, his beloved son, not of course, not his only son, his only son with Sarah, but to quote the text here for you, Abraham shows no emotional response to this. From this, some ancient authors assumed that if Jephthah had appropriately constrained his emotions here, God would have ultimately not made Jephthah go through with his sacrifice, but because there was no concomitant trust in God, etc., etc.
So, it’s a complicated text with which a lot of early Christian writer’s wrestle, even quite aside from the question of the death of children. That being said, in the number of places it shows up in precisely, I think because of its paring with the story of the binding of Isaac, because so many ancient authors recognize a similar narrative in the two stories, it shows up frequently when it comes to the death of children or, for that matter, the sacrifice of children in other ways. For example, one very famous 4th century author is writing about how his mother “sacrificed him” to a monastic, to a clerical vocation, and describes the sacrifice his mother made in this instance as akin to the sacrifice of Abraham, akin to the sacrifice of Jephthah.
Probably the major locus for thinking about how Jephthah and Jephthah’s grief can ultimately become an occasion for thinking about parental grief more generally is in the context of a long and very beautiful, although of course, in many regards very troubling interpretation of this story that comes to us from a 6th century verse homily. A very homily is exactly what it sounds like, that is to say, it is a homily except it is composed in verse, and certain parts of ancient Christianity particularly emphasize verse as the medium for which they do public theology whether that’s in the form of a homily or in the form of a hymn. And so, in this, there’s a lengthy discussion of the entire backdrop, but even more so, of the suffering that Jephthah undergoes.
And particularly, the tension that Jephthah experiences between on the one hand, the love of God, the desire to fulfill the vow, and on the other hand, the natural love that he as a father feels for his daughter. This is this tension that we see a lot in ancient Christian sources that seek to deal with the death of children. On the one hand, the expectation is completely natural and indeed, as this particular author suggests, commendable that there is the grief for the child. And then, on the other hand, there’s a sense that every child who passes is in a sense, being offered up by the parents to God, not because their parents, ideally of course, have a hand in the killing of the child, but because the parents must, on some level, assent to this bereavement and must continue to put their faith in the divine, regardless.
Pete: So, the text like Jephthah’s daughter, a text like that is read perhaps, I mean, I don’t want to overstate, but perhaps looking for or teasing out potentialities for early Christians who are bereaved to connect their own experience with something the Bible is saying.
Maria: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right Pete. This is what I sometimes talk about in terms of there being a pedagogy of emotions. In other words, scripture provides starting points for homilists, for people who write hymns, for people who write letters of consolation to begin to think about both what makes for a desirable emotional landscape in a Christian, of course, something with which, you know, we see engagement from the earliest epistles onward. And these stories provide a place simply by being part of a community that worships together. Christians can be taught by emulation and by participation in these stories how to approach their own emotions.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Maria: There’s a whole variety of different kinds of emotional pedagogies to different ends. Some of them are very harsh, some of them are, in particularly the more elite material, the more philosophically inclined material, where we see particularly strong influences from the philosophical school of the stoics is very emphatic on not showing grief and at all points acquainting oneself with the extreme ephemerality of life.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Maria: But overwhelmingly, those emotional pedagogies seek to combine the thread of that, with the recognition that grief is natural and grief is something that ought to take place within the context of the Christian community. It is a joint exercise.
Jared: So, I wanted to maybe talk a little bit more about, you used the phrase “emotional pedagogy” which may be new for some people, but in my mind I can’t separate it from the idea that there was an understanding that we needed to grieve these things. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say, it’s not a psychology textbook. It’s not saying, you know, here are the five levels of grief and five stages of grief and that sort of thing, but on some almost extra-biblical level, we understand the need to grieve and so when we look, then, at the Bible, we map that intuition, or that understanding communally onto the text, and we bring it into that process. Is that, am I overstating that? How would you, how would you maybe, in your own words, talk about this emotional pedagogy?
Maria: No, Jared, I don’t think you’re overstating this at all. I think that’s a very helpful way of thinking about it. One of the things that ancient Christian readers are exceedingly astute at is taking the stories that they find in scripture, which incidentally, our authors know by and large much, much, much better than I ever will. I don’t want to speak for you, much, much, much better than the overwhelming majority of contemporary thinkers and writers on these topics ever will, but they take the story seriously to the point where they recognize the silences. And so, when you look at a story like Genesis 22, that is the binding of Isaac. It’s quite famous, but the essential gist of it is that Abraham and Sarah, having had a son together at a very, very mature age, against all hopes that they would ever have a child together.
That son grows up and the voice of God comes to Abraham that says take your son and take your son on this mountain about three days journey from here and sacrifice him to me. Of course, in due course, this is a story that has a happy ending. I don’t want to leave anybody here teetering at the edge of their seats, but as they say Abraham assents to the sacrifice, takes Isaac, his son, up the mountain, and at the moment where Abraham is prepared to cut his son’s throat, there is an angel that stops Abraham. And there is a ram that’s caught in a thicket nearby that is being substituted for Isaac and the verdict, ultimately, that comes from God is that God now knows the faith of Abraham. But one of the things that, you know, again, for many people this is a very familiar story. And so, we don’t worry too much about the empty spaces. But for ancient readers, one of the real challenges that this raised is that if we think of Isaac as a young child in this particular context, such that, you know, his father can take him on a journey, what is happening with Isaac’s mother in the middle of all this?
Pete: Mm hmm, right.
Maria: And it’s interesting, because in Genesis 22, Sarah does not show up and I have to give a shout out to the wonderful scholar of Hebrew Bible of the Old Testament Phyllis Trible who has talked extensively about precisely this text and in fact, calls it the “Sacrifice of Sarah.” But so, ancient writers would look at this text and just go, wait, how can Abraham get away with this? You know? That there’s a loving mother and he’s just absconding with the child for nefarious purposes. This is not something that I think we see raise significantly in interpretations of this text in a contemporary venue, but in antiquity, that part of the story is absolutely ubiquitous within Abraham has to make a grueling decision. Do I tell my wife, do I tell the mother of this child what has been asked of me? If I’m not going to tell her, why not and how am I going to sneak the child away? And Sarah actually shows up in a lot of these narratives, a lot of interpretations of Genesis 22. Sometimes she’s actually written into the story, sometimes she appears as sort of this figment of Abraham’s imagination, but in all these places, Sarah is there to express the grief and the horror that one would expect a parent to feel when instructed by God to go and take a child and kill that child as a sacrifice for that God. So, in these places, by noticing these silences, by thinking about how a character, a real character would have responded, the writers are not reading into the text, but creating a text that is evocative for the audience and that for the community, is a way of giving voice to the challenges that the community is experiencing, both in grappling with the text and in their own lives.
Pete: So, Sarah is, maybe to put it another way, tell me if this is fair or not, Sarah is carrying the emotional burden of that story where Abraham is not and that is the means by which people who have lost children can maybe connect with that story on a deep level.
Maria: I think that’s right, and of course, you know, one of the reasons, perhaps, for us to begin with the story of Jephthah is because there we see a grieving, and in many interpretations, a deeply grieving father. Many of these stories parcel grief out as something that is proper to women, and that’s, of course, a gendered approach to emotions that’s significant in antiquity and in many regards, this is part of the heritage of antiquity that we’re preserving in many families today as well. But yeah, Sarah becomes this, Sarah becomes a voice for parents and there’s some truly beautiful ancient expositions of this. In one instance, when Abraham returns from the mountain, and Sarah receives her son back because the general assumption is that Sarah has intuited that something horrible is in the process of happening.
When Sarah sees her son again, her response is from this day forward, you will be known as Sarah’s son, you will be known as the child of the pyre. And there is the assumption, the statement that, in fact, God has honored Abraham’s faithfulness but has also honored Sarah’s love and care for her child and as a result, has returned that child to her. Now, in Christian discourses, of course, the possibility of receiving one’s child back even when that child has passed away is something that is frequently sort of moved into the realm of resurrection discourses. But here, we’re really seeing that sort of logic of loss and the celebration of return acted out with biblical character.
Pete: Mm hmm. Well, okay, I would be very upset with myself if I didn’t ask you to talk about this other example that my students ask about all the time, and that’s Job. And the loss of his children and his response to that, so, can you unpack that story a little bit and then get into how, maybe, that story was appropriated by grieving parents?
Maria: Thanks, Pete. I’m so happy your students are asking you about this. Just this past semester, I was reading a significant part of the book of Job with my students and a lot of my students just sort of glossed right over this.
Maria: So, Job, of course, has famously entered common parlance as this example of patient enduring of suffering. Job, as you know, sort of becomes the central focus of a wager between God and a figure that is, in the Hebrew, ha-satan, that is to say the adversary. I’m going to totally leave that to you to unpack via connections between that figure and the figure of Satan as he becomes known in Christian discourse. I’m gonna pass right by that.
Pete: Thank you.
Maria: Any time. Just say that ultimately, God is bragging on Job. Have you seen my servant, Job? He is awesome. And ha-satan says, “well, sure, yes. I mean, you know, you’re inundating him with riches, you’ve given him everything he could possibly want.” God returns and says, “well, you can test him.” And what then follows is a series of trials that begin with the removal of Job’s possessions, his herds, the animals he has, the servants or slaves that he owns. It ultimately culminates in Job being stricken with boils head to toe. But in between there sits an element that in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament actually gets passed over very rapidly. But that for a lot of interpreters really become the crux of understanding Job’s suffering as well as Job’s effort to ultimately get a hearing of God because as those of you who are familiar with the book know, Job never accedes to ever having done anything to merit the punishments that he is receiving.
So, that piece in the center of all this is that Job’s ten children who were in the habit of dining with one another, they’re very loving kids, they are killed as they’re gathering at the home of the eldest son, the roof caves in and they are crushed under the building there. Within the context of the book of Job, this is a story that finds a resolution of sorts. That is to say, at the end in the final chapter, God makes restitution and gives Job twice over all things that he has lost. Interestingly, there is not a twofold return of the children, but he does get ten new children. The question, of course, arises why not twenty new children and some interpreters say, well, because, you know, the first ten are, in fact, preserved in heaven. That’s just a little side note, less about the ways in which this story is being deployed. So, this is something that for ancient interpreters, becomes a really key vignette for talking about parental suffering and parental bereavement. And, you know, there’s a couple of things that really lend themselves to this. On the one hand, here we have not just a death of one child, but multiple deaths. This is something that’s relatively common in antiquity.
We have letters from people to their spiritual authorities, whether they’re rabbis or whether they’re bishops, just writing about having lost not just one child, but in swift succession a whole number of children. And on the other hand, it’s that Job, of course, he’s always known as the righteous gentile. In other words, he’s kind of an everyday sort of guy. I mean, sure, he’s particularly righteous and particularly standup, but he’s a married man. He is wealthy, he has children, he is, in other words, a better model in some ways for what family life and the losses that family life can involve for a lot of the lay people in early Christian communities. And so, in these places, we see Job in a variety of guises. One of the places where he shows up is in a funerary oration that Gregory of Nyssa, who is a really important 4th century bishop and writer, preaches for the funeral of the daughter of a Roman emperor, in which instance our homilist just takes this story and uses it to expound the experience of parental grief, but also how ultimately that particular grief ought to be dealt with, which is to say that Job, at least in the context of the book of Job, accepts this as ultimately something that is of God, even if it is something that is unintelligible for him, and even if it is something that is deeply and profoundly unwelcome. There are, of course, also other expositions of this particular narrative that are perhaps a little less, shall we say, accommodationist. I’m always particularly struck by a Greek homily that talks about Job not only as being struck down in mourning for his children, but in fact, has Job go to the house that has collapsed and with his own two hands, begin digging in the dirt. And in the dirt, he uncovers not just the bodies of his children, but the body parts of the children. This is, in many regards, really a quite gruesome sort of account. And Job begins sort of the grieving labor of, you know, figuring out which body parts belong to which child. And in a sense, putting the children back together in the midst of all his mourning. This is a Job that looks, in many regards, much less stoic than the biblical Job as we encounter him in the Old Testament or as we encounter him in a lot of other expositions, but it nevertheless gives you a glimpse into how this potential for developing the narratives of the Old Testament for communities. How that really, how that can flower, even in a story where, you know, in Job 1, there’s, you know, a line and a half that’s ultimately dedicated to the death in children and to Job’s response there too. But in these expositions, the become opportunities to really speak to parental grief.
Pete: Yes, because what broke, the straw that broke the camel’s back for Job was not the loss of his children, but his own physical pain. At that point he said, I wish I had never been born. And I’m thinking as a parent, I would’ve said that a chapter earlier when a roof fell on my children. So, the story of Job again, and I say this positively, is being mined for potential ways of connecting with God and I wonder, Jared, if you’re thinking the same thing that I’m thinking here. We’ve had James Kugel on a couple of times on the podcast, of course, one of his favorite topics to talk about is how scripture got its life precisely for this reason. Because people kept it alive by appealing to it in ways that were very creative, midrashic might be the technical term. And I just find that fascinating because that hasn’t stopped, but in antiquity, I mean, we haven’t mentioned this yet, but it’s hard for modern western people to connect with this concern to find texts to talk about child bereavement because it’s not something we experience to the extent that they did.
Maria: Yeah, so obviously the connection that with the work that James Kugel does is absolutely right. This is Midrash and it’s happening in Christian communities as much as it is happening in Jewish communities. Sometimes to the same effect, sometimes in very different ways.
The observation that we might not be seeing these as stories about the death of children, because frankly, childhood mortality in the United States, in the western world more generally, is very, very limited. I think that’s, I think that’s right. In many regards, these things do not stick out to us and other things that those who are tasked with expounding these texts, ministers, whether they’re authors, in many regards, their job is to see the things in them that will ultimately be useful to the community in the present as well as in the past. But what I will say, however, is that parental bereavement remains a very, very difficult topic in a contemporary setting. And in many regards, it’s really a radioactive topic in the sense that nobody finds resources to really speak about it. This is something that I’ve encountered personally in conversation with people who read my work or who’ve heard about my work, and it’s always deeply humbling to find that what, you know, in many regards, I had intended for an academic audience, ultimately ends up speaking to individuals who have lost children. And in some ways, becomes a resource for communities in thinking about this. So, I want to, I want to challenge the assumption that these are no longer stories that we need in a contemporary, western setting. Even if they are made useful for families who suffer miscarriages, families who suffer the death of a child at a much later point in the life of a child than, you know, we would experience in the ancient world. I think we continue to need these stories in our communities.
Jared: Well, maybe, as Pete mentioned earlier, this idea of having these texts stay alive as we make use of them in our current crises and current context and current challenges, maybe as we wrap up our time, I think maybe one final question would be are there, not just for the death of children, but in general, in your work with these ancient Christian interpreters, what would be some feedback or some next steps for people as they try to make sense of an ancient text in light of the things that they’re facing today? What are some, maybe, pointers or pieces of advice for people who really want the Bible to be relevant and to be applied and provide that comfort and guidance in some ways in these challenging times? How do they do that?
Maria: Thanks, Jared. And I’m going to use your kind invitation here to plug someone who is absolutely not me, but is a friend and a former mentor of mine, John Thompson, who is a brilliant scholar of all things Calvin, but has also I think at this point, about fifteen years ago, written a book titled Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Itself. And you know, I would be very happy for anybody to pick up my book or read my articles, in fact I’d be happy to, you know, send you my page proofs, please don’t tell my publisher I just said that. But in many regards, John is writing for an audience that might well be academic, but is really writing for Christian communities and is writing about the usefulness of the ways in which these stories have been deployed in those contexts. So, that’s my plug.
Jared: Nice! Well, and along those lines, where else can people find more about you and your work? Where can we point people to or books maybe, or articles, or other things that you’ve written?
Pete: Yeah, what’s the name of your book that we’ve been sort of talking about here?
Maria: Yes, I should tell you! So, the book is titled Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son: The Death of Children in Late Antiquity. It’s published with the University of California Press. I think if you get it without a discount it comes to about $27 for a very pretty hardcover that you can have and sit on your dining room table as a conversation starter. You can also find me, well, you can find me at Yale University’s Department of Religious Studies, where I teach courses on this and a variety of random things including religion and science fiction on a semi-regular basis. You can find me on Twitter where it’s @DoerflerMaria and I would, and you can, of course, always reach out to me by email. My contact info is on my department website, I would be delighted to hear from you.
Jared: Excellent! We always appreciate that kind of invitation and appreciate your graciousness. So, thanks so much for just enlightening us with something that would’ve never crossed my mind to think about, and yet it has so many relevant, I think, applications beyond just this particular challenge, but just in how we read our Bibles. So, thank you so much.
Pete: Thank you.
Maria: Thanks so much, Jared; thanks, Pete. This has been a pleasure.
Jared: Thanks, everyone, for tuning in. I just wanted to mention, if you aren’t able to join us on Patreon where we have all kinds of resources, you can also find more resources on YouTube. So just go to YouTube and search for The Bible for Normal People. You’ll get 2-5 minute videos that give you some in depth analysis, a little bit of insight on different biblical texts. And again, help maybe learn a little more about what the Bible is and what we do with it. All right, see you there.
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Dave: Thanks as always to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. Thanks for listening.
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