Thursday, March 19, 2015

Abaddon Laid Bare

It is my custom to read the Book of Job during Lent. This began approximately seven years ago. Thus far, I’ve been fairly consistent with observing it.

 Job is one of the exemplary books of Hebrew canon. The profound dilemma it poses in relation to the human condition and the existence of God has gripped and vexed its audiences for the better part of its history.

 The book’s great literary theme is the source of its fame and infamy, especially in Christian interpretation where the protagonist struggle could, at best, be interpreted as a type of Christ or an exemplar of Christian endurance in the face of suffering. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Iob has come down to us as the most archetypical example of the later.

 The literary themes continue to engage audience in our contemporary context. Our post-existentialist context cannot help but find Job’s predicament as redolent of the towering hopelessness that marks man’s place in the universe.

 In the field of historical criticism and textual criticism, Job’s appeal is seemingly more esoteric. True, questions abound about the correct form of the text. More interesting, perhaps, is the mythological current running throughout the text. Perhaps this should be stated with more nuance. For the person interested in the historical development of religion or comparative mythology, the book of Job, regardless of when the text was forged in a manner we would identify as recognizable, is an exquisite repository of pre-monotheistic Israelite religion.

 Whether by accident owing to the antiquity of the basic narrative in the ancient near east, or due to a conscious attempt on the author’s part to evoke the aura of antiquity, Job retains a roll call of ancient gods that likely swirled amid the early Israelite religious matrix before the definition of one God above all others. As even the book of Exodus alludes, before Yahweh was, there was El Shaddai (cf., Exodus 3:13-15, 6:2-3). This name/ Deity is prominently invoked in Job and recalls a time when Hebrew theology had not entirely solidified around Yahweh and his temple.

 My purposes do not concern El Shaddai; the above is meant to provide an example which ought to demonstrate the treasure trove of ancient mythology running through the book. Anyone who makes the effort to read Job on its own terms, without the weight of dogmatics bearing down, and is willing to do a little bit of work will, I think, invariably notice how multilayered it is. This is in no small part to strands of old mythologies and pantheons keeping a constant pulse through the text.

 For now, I would bring your attention to Job 26:6,

עָרֹ֣ום שְׁאֹ֣ול נֶגְדֹּ֑ו וְאֵ֥ין כְּ֝ס֗וּת לָֽאֲבַדֹּֽון׃

γυμνς δης νπιον ατο, κα οκ στιν περιβλαιον τ πωλείᾳ. (LXX)

“Before his eyes, Sheol is bare, Perdition itself is uncovered.”(New Jerusalem Bible)

 “Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering.” (NRSV)

 The appearance of Abaddon should interest us; ideally, anyone reading the text would recall Revelation 9:11. The author of Revelation provides us with the two language variants of the angel of the abyss: Hebrew Abaddon and Greek Apollyon. Critical scholarship is almost universal in proposing that Abaddon was originally a Semitic deity of death or the underworld, the memory of which survived into the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Septuagint and the Vulgate appear to translate Abaddon at face value, i.e., destruction, ruin. Of these two versions, the Septuagint is more important, as it is in circulation at the time other Jewish works featuring Abaddon are circulated and/or composed, most notably in certain texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls that plainly conceive of Abaddon as a being and not a place. Thus, we can postulate some form of religious or ideological continuity between the Judaism represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the early Christianity represented by the author of the Apocalypse.

But what of the appearance of Abaddon in the text of Job? What of the surviving memory of an ancient deity of death or the underworld? It remains just that, a memory of an older theology that persists through time in virtue of the sacred page. It is the quest of scholars to decipher his identity, purpose, and original relationship to the principle Deity, Yahweh. Invariably, it comes down to rather opaque clues. The data is there to be scavenged from the long process of religious standardization. What the data means is lost among the disputes born from intensive scholarly investigation.


  1. I would like to thank you for this excursus into the Book of Job, and into an examination of the pantheon of gods and demons present in that book.

    And now, I would like to ask what probably is a dumb question. I have noted that the rabbinic commentary has been helpful in elucidating a number of the early traditions in Torah, and particularly in Genesis/Bereshit. Is it possible that such commentary, if examined, might be helpful in an examination of the Book of Job?

  2. Not a dumb question at all.

    I have not examined much rabbinic commentary on Job, so, it is difficult to say. This being noted, I would imagine it might be a fair bet that such commentary is valuable, in so far as you are likely to encounter a number of non-canonical but still well established "folk" elements preserved in such commentaries.

    Again, though, I am not as well versed in early rabbinic commentary on Job.