Israelite Funerary Practices
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Sounds like the world's most boring dissertation of all time. Fear not, Shmoopers. We've got you covered.
We all have rituals surrounding death and what the living do when they lose a loved one. Some people scatter ashes, some focus on burial, and still others mummify their dead (hello, ancient Egypt). Why are humans so concerned with death? Because—spoiler alert—we'll all experience it.
The ancient Israelites were no different. We learn this the hard way in Job when all of Job's family—except his wife—dies. Yep, all of them. Sounds like a perfect opportunity to show how a culture responds to this kind of thing.
When an Israelite died, the common mourning practice of was to tear your clothes, put on some sackcloth, and cry your eyes out. In fact, Israelites did this when there were national disasters, too—you know, city-sacking, exile, and all that jazz.
We don't know exactly when Job was written, but it was probably composed at a time when many Israelites were asking themselves big questions like "Why was our culture destroyed?" or "Why did God allow our cities to burn when we were faithful?"
Of course the questions in Job are universal, but in a political sense, these questions could definitely have been referring to the Babylonian exile. If it was all compiled around or after the 6th century BCE (check out "Setting" for more on that), that puts us right smack dab in the middle of all that. So if you're an Israelite writer hanging out on the banks of the Euphrates in exile, or ruminating on the fact that such a tragedy even happened, you might want to recombine this old Israelite myth with some newer ideas (like Satan) that would relate to people's modern situation.
Job's Job: Mourning
Job spends his entire book in a position of sadness and loss. Most books of the Bible take place on larger stages, but the Book of Job goes down at a very specific and narrow point in the human life cycle: mourning. If we were to film this book, the whole movie would take place on a single set, probably in a single day. Sounds artsy. It's no wonder we're made to think pretty hard about death.
Picture it. Job's entire life is destroyed and his skin is nastified, and what does he do? He "took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes" (2:8). That's right: he scrapes his sores with a broken piece of pottery. Folks, it doesn't get any more physical than this. Job is sitting in the ruins of his house, covered in sores, rubbing at them with a piece of broken china.