Chaucer, Shakespeare and Job

You who swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind, can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?  (Job 37:17-18)

Going through a YouTube video the other day, I saw an atheist making fun of the Bible.  “Consider Job 37:18”, he wrote, “a clear case of where Christians have to do the magic of reinterpretation in order to save the Bible from falsification.”  Honestly, when I see this kind of criticism I think it rather amusing.  While I agree that there are many valid reasons to doubt the truth of Christianity, a minor problem with a translation in a book that uses many poetic devices is not one of them.

First of all, it is important to understand that the Old Testament is very old.  As demonstrated by the remarkable consistency between the fragments of the Old Testament found by the Dead Sea and the various lineages of Old Testament manuscript that have come down to us through different Jewish communities, the Old Testament text is essentially the same now as it was two thousand years ago.  Since Job is thought by many scholars to be one of the oldest books in the Bible and since it is at least 2000 years old, the fact that some of the idioms or expressions have lost their meaning over the last 3000 years should come as no surprise.  See if you can make sense of the following passages from Shakespeare and Chaucer.

A man may, if he were of a fearful heart,
stagger in this attempt; for here we have no temple
but the wood, no assembly but horn-beasts. But what
though? Courage! As horns are odious, they are
necessary. It is said, ‘many a man knows no end of
his goods:’ right; many a man has good horns, and
knows no end of them. Well, that is the dowry of
his wife; ‘tis none of his own getting. Horns?
Even so. Poor men alone? No, no; the noblest deer
hath them as huge as the rascal. Is the single man
therefore blessed? No: as a walled town is more
worthier than a village, so is the forehead of a
married man more honourable than the bare brow of a
bachelor; and by how much defence is better than no
skill, by so much is a horn more precious than to want.

(Shakespeare, 1623 – As You Like It Act III Scene III)

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.

(Chaucer, 1380’s Troilus and Criseyde)

Of course, in the comparison between the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare has every advantage.  First of all, there has only been seven centuries since Chaucer while there has been thirty or more since Job.  Secondly, the printing press has been around for most of the time since Chaucer and for all of the time since Shakespeare.  Ask a linguist and they will tell you that the ability of the printing press to preserve written works has the effect of slowing down the evolution of a language as the persistence of older manuscripts tends to preserve older meanings of various words.  Finally, England has not succumbed to foreign invasion since Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote.  Contrast this to the turbulent history of the Jewish people since the book of Job was written.

So when we consider the Bible, we should consider what a miracle it is that we can actually understand these words that have come down to us through the mists of time.  We can read the story of Joseph and understand his anguish at his imprisonment and at the betrayal of his brothers.  We can read the story of Jacob and understand his love for Rachel.  It is simply astonishing that modern people can read these stories and understand them thousands of years after they were originally written.

And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.  (Genesis 29:20)

In fact, because of its antiquity the Old Testament is extremely precious as a historical resource.  In it we can find ancient examples of things that are often claimed to be uniquely modern.  Take, as an example, the idea that the concept of romantic love is a modern invention.  If you watch “Fiddler on the Roof”, you will find there the idea that political progressives invented romantic love in the last few centuries.  The verse above demonstrate that this is untrue.  In the fact that Jacob loved Rachel so much that 7 years seemed to him to be a short time, we clearly see that the concept of romantic love is as old as humanity.  Similarly, in the story of Nathan holding King David accountable for the murder of Uriah the Hittite, we find the first expression of the principle of the rule of law where a king is held accountable for the death of a subject.

But getting back to the problem with Job 37:18, let us consider the exact Hebrew words as given to us by the Blue Letter Bible:

שַׁחַק shachaq – the sky

חָזָק chazaq – which is strong (mighty or hard)

יָצַק yatsaq – and as a molten

רְאִי rĕ’iy – looking glass

Now I am no Hebrew scholar, but it seems to me as though a “mirror” would have been a fairly amazing technology for people in the time when Job was first written down.  A mirror requires a flat surface or it will introduce flaws or distortions.  Might not the comparison to a looking glass have been an idiomatic expression saying that God lays out the sky without flaw or with tremendous precision?   A modern equivalent might be, “God lays out the mighty sky like clockwork” and this would speak of the tremendous precision of God in creating the heavens.  If this were the case, then this would be one of the most remarkable passages of the Bible.  Why?  Because the extreme fine-tuning of the cosmological constant which determines the rate at which the heavens expand is one of the most powerful arguments for the existence of a divine creator.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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