The Monsters of the Bible Professor Madadh Richey examines some of the Bible’s most monstrous characters Photo/Getty Images A 12th century commentary on the book of Job shows that Satan gave him a disease. By
The Monsters of the Bible
Professor Madadh Richey examines some of the Bible’s most monstrous characters
July 19, 2022
Madadh Richey is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at Brandeis. This article originally appeared on The conversation.
What is a “monster”? For most Americans, that word conjures up images of haunted houses and horror movies: spooky creations, neither human nor animal, and generally diabolical.
But it can help to think about “monsters” beyond these instinctive images. Since the 1990s, researchers in the human sciences be very carrefully to “monstrous” bodies in literature: characters whose appearance defies conventional wisdom about what is normal.
Bible scholars like me have followed in their footsteps. The Bible is full of monsters, even if they aren’t Frankenstein or Bigfoot, and these characters can teach important lessons about ancient authors, texts, and cultures. Monster-like characters – even human ones – can convey ideas about what is considered normal and good or “deviant”, disturbing and bad.
Sometimes the bodies of monsters are depicted in a way that reflects racist or sexist stereotypes about “us” versus “them”. literary theorist Jack Halberstamfor example, wrote about how Dracula and other vampires reveal anti-Semitic symbolism – even on Count Chocula’s cereal boxes. Such images are often inspired by anti-Semitic tropes that have been around for centuriesportraying the Jewish people as dark bloodsucking parasites.
Biblical monsters are no less revealing. In the Book of Judges, for example, Judge Ehud confronts the grotesque Moabite king Eglon, who is lethally fat and dies in an explosion of his own excrement when a sword gets stuck in his stomach – although most modern translations to make this a little more chastely:”[Eglon’s] fat closed [Ehud’s] blade, and the guard went in after the blade – because he didn’t pull the dagger out of his belly – and the filth came out.
In describing Eglon, the text also teaches the Israelites how to think of their Moabite neighbors across the Jordan. Like their emblematic king, the Moabites are portrayed as excessive and disgusting – but ridiculous enough that the Israelite heroes could defeat them with a few rounds.
Characters like Eglon and the famous Philistine giant Goliath, who fights the future King Davidprovide opportunities for biblical writers to subtly instruct readers about other groups of people whom the writers view as threatening or inferior.
But the Bible sometimes draws a relatable human character, then inserts twists, playing with audience expectations.
In my own recent work I have suggested that this is exactly what happens with the book of job. In this essentially poetic book of the Bible, “The Satan” asserts that Job acts righteously only because he is prosperous and healthy. God grants the demon permission to test Job by having his children killed, his cattle stolen, and his body burst into painful boils.
Job is then approached by three friends, who insist that he must have done something to bring about this apparent punishment. He spends the rest of the book debating with them the cause of his torment.
The book is full of monsters and already a familiar subject in monster studies. In chapters 40-41, God boasts of two superanimals he created called Leviathan and Behemoth. A mysterious, possibly maritime monster called Rahab appears twice. Job and his friends refer to vague night visions which terrifies them.
And of course, there is also another “monster”: Job’s test is caused by “the Satan”. Later in history, this figure became the archdemon of Jewish and Christian theology. In the Book of Job, however, he is simply portrayed as a crooked servant, a devious member of God’s heavenly court.
But I would say there is another “monster” hidden in plain sight: the man at the center of it all. Like Bible scholars like Rebecca Raphael and Catherine Southwood pointed out, Job’s body is central to the plot of the book.
Job stoically tolerates Satan’s attacks on his cattle and even his children. It’s only after the second attackwhich produces “a severe inflammation on Job from the sole of his foot to the top of his head”, that he lets out a deluge of complaints.
To illustrate his suffering, Job repeatedly describes his bodily decay with macabre and horrible images: “My skin, blackened, peels off. My bones are charred from the heat. And: “My flesh is covered with maggots and clods of earth; My skin is broken and purulent.
Job’s body is so transformed that he too can be considered a “monster”. But while Job might think that the deity prefers ideal human bodies, that is not necessarily the case.
In the book’s narrative, God supports unique and extraordinary monsters that would, at first glance, appear to be evil or repulsive – but actually serve as prime examples of the wonder and diversity of creation. And it is Satan, not God, who decides to test Job by physically afflicting him.
Some books of the Bible indeed consider monsters as simplistic and inherently evil “others”. The prophet Daniel, for example, has visions of four hybrid beasts, including a winged lion and a multi-headed leopard. These were to symbolize threatening ancient empires which the author of the chapter despised.
The Book of Job does something radical by opposing this limited view. His inclusive perspective paints the ‘monstrous’ human as a sympathetic character who belongs in a diverse and chaotic world – challenging the preconceptions of readers today, just as he might have been thousands of years ago. of years.