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The Undecidability of in the Prologue To Job and Beyond1

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image of Biblical Interpretation

In his treatment of the Platonic dialogue, the Phaedrus, Jacques Derrida teases out the striking way in which the dialogue pivots around the undecidability of the word pharmakon, which can (and does) simultaneously carry the two antithetical meanings of "poison" and "cure." In the book of Job, we find a similarly curious phenomenon with the Hebrew root The accepted primary meaning of is "to bless." Four occurrences of in the prologue to Job (1:5, 11; 2:5, 9), however, are commonly taken as euphemisms and rendered in the antithetical sense of "to curse." The assured rhetoric and virtual unanimity of interpreters indicates that they have experienced little difficulty in determining its euphemistic sense in these cases. On closer examination we find that the apparent ease with which the meaning of is settled in these instances is illusory. To begin with, the control group of "euphemistic" uses of outside the book of Job consists only of two occurrences in 1 Kings 21, which prove to be as much a result of narrative artistry as scribal piety. Likewise, in reconsidering the four occurrences in Job, we discover that each may indeed be translated in the primary sense of "to bless" and make sense in the narrative. The point of this exercise in counter-reading is not to prove that always means "to bless" in the prologue to Job, but rather that it is the site of conflicted meaning in each occurrence. Too hastily resorting to "euphemisms"-thereby settling the semantic undecidability - results in an under-reading of the prologue and of the book as a whole. Instead, we find that the faultline within runs much deeper than a single word, extending throughout the book and evincing a fundamental ambivalence about the character of God.

Affiliations: 1: Georgetown University


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