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Judy Klitsner

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2015

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The Book of Job and its Paradoxical Relationship with the Akedah

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-book-of-job-and-its-paradoxical-relationship-with-the-akedah

APA e-journal

Judy Klitsner

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The Book of Job and its Paradoxical Relationship with the Akedah

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TheTorah.com

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2015

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-book-of-job-and-its-paradoxical-relationship-with-the-akedah

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Symposium

The Book of Job and its Paradoxical Relationship with the Akedah

In an effort to make greater sense of the inscrutable story of the Akedah and its relationship to the equally morally complex book of Job, some unconventional exegetical methods are called for. The aim of this essay is to apply two such methods, both of which are literary in nature. The first entails reading the Akedah in light of its subversive sequel. The second calls for a non-linear, post-modern reading of the biblical narrative.

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The Book of Job and its Paradoxical Relationship with the Akedah

William Blake (1757–1827)

Part 1

The Akedah: An Unresolved Story

A Précis of the Story

In the story of Akedat Yitzhak (Genesis 22), arguably one of the Bible’s most theologically troubling stories, God orders a faithful servant to slaughter his innocent son, all as a test. The father offers not a word of protest; he proceeds with a series of actions, which culminate in his wielding a flesh-eating knife over his son’s bound body. The son is spared by a last-minute divine reprieve, after which a ram acts as a substitute offering. The well-known but little understood story of the Akedah ends with Abraham meriting the accolade of “ירא א-להים (God fearing)” and with the reiteration and expansion of God’s earlier blessings, which are now elevated to the level of God’s solemn oath.

A Happy Ending Camouflaging a Darker Conclusion

On the surface, we might argue that the Akedah has a “happy ending.” Abraham manages to avoid slaying his son, while at the same time demonstrating his unflinching willingness to fulfill God’s command. For proving his self-sacrificing mettle, Abraham is amply congratulated and rewarded.

But when we closely examine the text’s presentation of the story, we note a darker, more ominous conclusion. The careful reader will note several subtle changes that transpire in the story’s telling.

Loss of the “Beloved” Child

At the outset (v. 2), God refers to Isaac as “your son, your only, whom you love (אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙). At the climactic moment of reprieve, however (v. 12), Isaac is called merely “your son, your only (אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖),” with no mention of Abraham’s love for his son.

Loss of Closeness and Unity of Purpose

Early on, the story emphasizes the extreme closeness—and, it seems, an accompanying commonality of purpose—between Abraham and Isaac.[1]  In describing the father-son trek toward the fateful mountain, the phrase “the two of them went together (וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו)” occurs twice (vv. 6, 8).

Deliberately excluded are the נערים, the lads who set out with them at the journey’s beginning (v. 3), and who are instructed to remain behind while Abraham and Isaac ascend to godly territory (v. 5). Significantly, the lads are told to wait with the חמור, an unflattering detail associating the uncomprehending animal and the young men.[2] 

As we read on, we are jolted by the story’s conclusion, in which Abraham alone returns to his lads.[3] Replacing the absent Isaac are the lads, who were so recently deemed unworthy of Abraham’s company. Abraham and the lads now go off together in a new direction; it is this modified combination of people that now lives in a state of יחדו (v. 19).[4]

A Covenantal Win with a Personal Loss

The story’s subtle shifts and omissions suggest that the reader’s initial sigh of relief may have been premature. While it is clear that on a covenantal level, Abraham emerges victorious, it seems that he has not fared nearly as well on a personal plane. The careful wording of the text suggests that Abraham has lost many things along his journey: the love toward his son that was initially assumed by God; the father-son connection emblematized by the word יחדו, “together,” and most disturbingly, by the story’s end, Abraham seems to have lost Isaac himself.

The Unfairness of the Akedah

If the reader felt an initial sense of harmonious resolution at the story’s end, Abraham’s personal tragedy should challenge and confound. We are left with a formula that is virtually impossible to comprehend: God’s steadfast servant endures both temporary and enduring trauma, all undeserved, much of it directly from God.  These ordeals serve to highlight and exaggerate the eternal problem of God’s injustice in the world.

It is always difficult to understand the suffering of the innocent; but the Akedah raises the philosophical stakes by asking how, of all people, God’s most loyal adherent and his blameless son could be singled out for such pitiless treatment. Compounding the theological difficulties is the behavior of the story’s protagonist: how could Abraham—the same Abraham who was so outspoken in defense of the wicked people of Sodom!—comply with God’s horrific command without comment or protest?

Part 2

The Resonances between Book of Job and the Story of the Akedah

The attuned reader of the Bible will discern the vibrant, often turbulent conversation that is constantly taking place between its passages. Words and themes are borrowed liberally from certain narratives and reapplied in other, parallel texts. In academia, this phenomenon is called intertextuality. Similarities in language and theme invite readers to draw stories together, and reading them this way offers greater insight into both.

Intertextual Resonances

A number of intertextual resonances connect the book of Job to the story of the Akedah.

Names

Just after Abraham’s departure to Beer Sheba, he receives word that his brother has spawned twelve male offspring, each of whom is mentioned by name. Three of these names reverberate strongly with certain place names in the book of Job.

Gen. 22 Job
כב:כא אֶת ע֥וּץ בְּכֹר֖וֹ וְאֶת בּ֣וּז אָחִ֑יו וְאֶת קְמוּאֵ֖ל אֲבִ֥י אֲרָֽם: כב:כב וְאֶת כֶּ֣שֶׂד וְאֶת חֲז֔וֹ וְאֶת פִּלְדָּ֖שׁ וְאֶת יִדְלָ֑ף וְאֵ֖ת בְּתוּאֵֽל:

א:א אִ֛ישׁ הָיָ֥ה בְאֶֽרֶץ־ע֖וּץ אִיּ֣וֹב שְׁמ֑וֹ
א:יז ע֣וֹד׀ זֶ֣ה מְדַבֵּ֗ר וְזֶה֘ בָּ֣א וַיֹּאמַר֒ כַּשְׂדִּ֞ים שָׂ֣מוּ׀ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה רָאשִׁ֗ים וַֽיִּפְשְׁט֤וּ עַל־הַגְּמַלִּים֙ וַיִּקָּח֔וּם וְאֶת־הַנְּעָרִ֖ים הִכּ֣וּ לְפִי־חָ֑רֶב
לב:ב וַיִּ֤חַר אַ֨ף׀ אֱלִיה֣וּא בֶן־בַּרַכְאֵ֣ל הַבּוּזִי֘ מִמִּשְׁפַּ֪חַ֫ת רָ֥ם

22:21 Utz the first-born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram; 22:22 and Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Yidlaph, and Bethuel.” 1:1 There was a man in the land of Utz named Job.
1:17 This one was still speaking when another came and said, “A Kasdi (Chaldean) formation of three columns made a raid on the camels and carried them off and put the boys to the sword.
32:2 Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, was angry.[5]

These names serve as intertextual links. Since the first link comes in the opening verse of Job, we might argue that from its very beginning, the book of Job makes its intertextual intentions known.

 Characterization of Protagonist

Abraham and Job are the only two biblical figures to earn the precise personal accolade of ירא א-להים, “God-fearing.”[6] 

Abraham (Gen 22:12) Job (1:1)
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה כִּ֣י׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה…
אִ֛ישׁ הָיָ֥ה בְאֶֽרֶץ־ע֖וּץ אִיּ֣וֹב שְׁמ֑וֹ וְהָיָ֣ה׀ הָאִ֣ישׁ הַה֗וּא תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְסָ֥ר מֵרָֽע:
And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God…” There was a man in the land of Utz named Job. That man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.

Moreover, they are the only two biblical characters to refer to themselves as עפר ואפר, “dust and ashes.”[7]

Abraham (Gen 18:27) Job (30:19) Job (42:6)
וַיַּ֥עַן אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר:
הֹרָ֥נִי לַחֹ֑מֶר וָ֝אֶתְמַשֵּׁ֗ל כֶּעָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר:
עַל־כֵּ֭ן אֶמְאַ֣ס וְנִחַ֑מְתִּי עַל־עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר:
Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” He regarded me as clay, I have become like dust and ashes. Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.

Death of Protagonist’s Child(ren)

Aside from the linguistic parallels between the stories, they are similar thematically. Both deal with the death of the protagonist’s child at the command of God, through no fault of either the protagonist or the child. From one story to the next, we are faced with an appalling escalation. The Akedah story narrates a last-minute divine reprieve (a deus ex-machina of sorts). Job contains no such saving grace; all ten of Job’s children die as part of God’s test of Job’s loyalty.

These similarities qualify the book of Job to be labeled as a parallel or a sequel to the Akedah.

Part 3

Will Job Remain God-Fearing and Perfect?

The text introduces Job as “תם,” a term that means perfect and whole.[8] The prologue to the book of Job poses the question as to whether or not the perfect, God-fearing man will remain so,[9] even in the face of God’s unjust revoking of all his earthly privileges.[10]  

Like Abraham, Job will be faced with the specter of unspeakable—and wholly underserved—loss: of personal wealth, family, of legacy and of any semblance of justice and order in God’s world. Will Job, despite God’s unprovoked attacks upon him, act like Abraham, suspending his own feelings and withholding his critique of God? Alternatively, if his mouth were to be unleashed and he were free to criticize God’s system of justice, would he continue to be considered a perfect and God-fearing servant?

The Cracking of Job’s Armor

As tragedy follows tragedy in the book’s prologue, the only words uttered by Job are expressions of faith in God (1:21; 2:10). But at the prologue’s end, the first hint of a crack in Job’s armor may be detected.

ג:א אַחֲרֵי כֵן פָּתַח אִיּוֹב אֶת פִּיהוּ וַיְקַלֵּל אֶת יוֹמוֹ
3:1 Afterwards, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth (Author’s translation).

The hero opens his mouth and begins to curse, and the reader is steeled for the long-predicted words of heresy. But this is not what happens. Instead, Job directs his curse inward, at the day of his own birth. Jobs armor has cracked, but it is only a small crack. The Satan was correct in predicting an end to Job’s reticence; but he was wrong in his claim that the unleashing of Job’s tongue would signal a descent into blasphemy. What remains to be seen is if, despite the harsh, uncensored challenges against God that are soon to follow, Job will continue to be God’s תם, the equivalent of the God-fearing Abraham.

Job versus his Friends: Competing Theologies

Job Speaks Up against God

For the next thirty nine chapters, the book of Job takes the form of dialogue; it contains torrents of words exchanged between Job and his friends, and between Job and God. In this new version of the Akedah story, the hero withholds nothing in protesting his own innocence and in criticizing God’s system of justice. For example:

יט:ז הן אצעק חמס ולא אענה אשוע ואיו משפט.
19:7 I cry, “Violence!” but am not answered; I shout, but can get no justice.

Job has the temerity to liken God to the Bible’s greatest sinners. In his presentation, it is now God, and not the outlaws of Noah’s great flood, who is the perpetrator of [11] “חמס,” and it is God, and not the wicked people of Sodom, who is the withholder of “משפט.”I[12]

Job’s Friends Defend God: Speaking up against Job

In sharp contrast to Job’s combative words are the remarks of his friends, who act as God’s apologists:

ד:ו הֲלֹא יִרְאָתְךָ כִּסְלָתֶךָ תִּקְוָתְךָ וְתֹם דְּרָכֶיךָ: ד:ז זְכָר נָא מִי הוּא נָקִי אָבָד וְאֵיפֹה יְשָׁרִים נִכְחָדוּ:
4:6 Is not your fear (of God) your confidence, your perfection your hope? 4:7 Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the  upright been destroyed?

In their efforts to subdue and educate Job, the friends present a tidy and equitable world, in which injustice simply does not exist. If tragedy has befallen you, they instruct, point your finger not at God, but at yourself and your own misdeeds. In the theology presented by Job’s friends, a true תם—unlike the flawed and misguided Job—would have been immune to disaster.

Within the abundant verbiage of the book of Job, two divergent views emerge. The first is that of Job, whose fierce challenges to God’s order represent a radical departure from Abraham’s silent compliance at the Akedah. The second is the view of the friends, whose words justify and affirm all divine action and who seek to quash Job’s objections.

God’s Oration: Affirmation of the Akedah

Which view will emerge as the book’s ultimate message? From God’s fiery oration in Job 38, the answer seems clear:

לח:א וַיַּעַן יְ-הֹוָה אֶת אִיּוֹב מִן הַסְּעָרָה וַיֹּאמַר מִי זֶה מַחְשִׁיךְ עֵצָה בְמִלִּין בְּלִי דָעַת… לח:ד אֵיפֹה הָיִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי אָרֶץ הַגֵּד אִם יָדַעְתָּ בִינָה…  לח:יב הֲמִיָּמֶיךָ צִוִּיתָ בֹּקֶר יִדַּעְתָּהַ שַּׁחַר מְקֹמוֹ:
38:1 Then the Lord replied to Job out of the tempest and said: “Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?… 38:4 Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding… 38:12 Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place…”

God’s words are designed to overpower and humble; Job, the infinitesimal and insignificant, should have remained as silent as Abraham on his way to Mt. Moriah. From what follows, Job seems to accept God’s position:

מב:ג לָכֵן הִגַּדְתִּי וְלֹא אָבִין נִפְלָאוֹת מִמֶּנִּי וְלֹא אֵדָע… מב:ו עַל כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל עָפָר וָאֵפֶר…
42:3 “…I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know… 42:6 Therefore I recant and relent, being nothing but dust and ashes.”

Job is cowed into recanting, an act that is expressed by the flexible Hebrew root נ-ח-מ, which can mean to regret (Gen 6:6) or to comfort (Gen 37:35). It seems that the book of Job, after tolerating its hero’s remonstrations, restores philosophical order by reinforcing the messages of the Akedah. But the book of Job is not quite finished.

Part 4

Job as a Subversive Sequel to the Akedah

Just when we thought its message of humble submission to divine might was clear, the book radically shifts its direction. God now turns to Job’s friends not to congratulate them for their philosophically superior world view, but to express anger at their inability to speak as correctly as had Job, God’s loyal servant:

מב:ז וַיְהִי אַחַר דִּבֶּר יְ-הֹוָה אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל אִיּוֹב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הֹוָה אֶל אֱלִיפַז הַתֵּימָנִי חָרָה אַפִּי בְךָ וּבִשְׁנֵי רֵעֶיךָ כִּי לֹא דִּבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכוֹנָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב. מב:ח וְעַתָּה קְחוּ לָכֶם שִׁבְעָה פָרִים וְשִׁבְעָה אֵילִים וּלְכוּ אֶל עַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב וְהַעֲלִיתֶם עוֹלָה בַּעַדְכֶם וְאִיּוֹב עַבְדִּי יִתְפַּלֵּל עֲלֵיכֶם כִּי אִם פָּנָיו אֶשָּׂא לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת עִמָּכֶם נְבָלָה כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכוֹנָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב.
42:7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job. 42:8 Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, My servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about me as has My servant Job. 

Instead of God censuring Job for his unbridled critique, God chooses Job to intercede on behalf of his errant friends.

Job Reinstated

Job’s friends and family come to comfort him for the tragedies he endured, with the root  נ- ח-מ now employed to mean not recanting, but comfort:

מב:יא וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵלָיו כָּל אֶחָיו וְכָל אַחְיֹתָיו וְכָל יֹדְעָיו לְפָנִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ עִמּוֹ לֶחֶם בְּבֵיתוֹ וַיָּנֻדוּ לוֹ וַיְנַחֲמוּ אֹתוֹ עַל כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר הֵבִיא יְ-הֹוָה עָלָיו…
42:11 All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and had a meal with him in his house. They consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the Lord had brought upon him…

Finally, in a fairy tale-like ending, all of Job’s possessions are restored (including brand new children!) and Job dies (Job 42:17)—in language remarkably similar to the account of Abraham’s death (Gen. 25:8)—“old and contented (זקן ושבע ימים).”

A Subversive Sequel

Looking back at the intertextual resonances between Job and the Akedah/Abraham’s life, we see that the book of Job serves not as a simple sequel to the Akedah but as a subversive sequel.

Stories echo one another not only to amplify, interpret, or simply to paint a story with some of the colors of an older, more familiar one. At times, a story will borrow language and theme from another in order to challenge its assumptions and ultimately overturn its conclusions. By so doing, the retold story is a “subversive sequel” to the other. [13]

In its final verses, the book of Job overturns the Akedah’s messages of wordless compliance with God’s decrees. In this subversive sequel to the Akedah, God’s chosen is revealed to be not the most silent and subdued, but rather God’s most outspoken combatant.

Significantly, the defiant Job, no less than the submissive Abraham, ends his life with God’s stamp of approval, along with great blessings and personal contentment.

Part 5

Non-Linear, Post-Modern Endings: The Final Message of Job?

What are we to make of the apparent contradiction between Job’s surrender and his triumph? Rather than seeking to harmonize the two positions,  much is gained by viewing them as two separate and irreconcilable conclusions to the book.

In what would today be termed a post-modern style, the book of Job has two distinct endings, which carry contradictory viewpoints on the question of human response to unjust suffering.

  • In the first ending, when reminded of humanity’s natural dimensions and limitations, the hero recants, נ-ח-מ, falling into an Abraham-like silence.
  • In the second ending, the aggrieved protagonist is granted an audible and defiant voice. This time, the hero receives validation and comfort–with the root נ-ח-מ co-opted for opposite purpose for the evils inflicted by God’s incomprehensibly unfair world.

Which ending carries the “true” message of the book of Job? This is a question not asked by a post-modern mindset.

Job and The French Lieutenant’s Woman

In the 20th century work of fiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the protagonist, a man of high societal rank, agonizes in choosing between love and duty. Should he fulfill his obligation and marry his betrothed, an uninteresting woman of his own social status? Or should he follow his heart and embrace the alluring, unruly social outcast, a choice that would inevitably lead to his public censure and ostracism? Instead of solving the problem for his readers, author John Fowles wrote two parallel, contradictory endings to the book.

In explaining his decision, Fowles said the following:

I wrote and printed two endings to the French Lieutenant’s Woman entirely because from early in the first draft I was torn intolerably between wishing to reward the male protagonist (my surrogate) with the woman he loved and wishing to deprive him of her.[14]

 In the complicated matters of love and duty, Fowles avoided a simple ending that would neatly resolve all questions. Instead, he opted for a non-linear style, which would more accurately reflect the complexity and the conflicting nature of the human emotions he sought to portray.

Dual Ending of Job: No One Answer to Theodicy

The question of unjust suffering (theodicy) is certainly no less fraught than the emotional dilemma raised by Fowles.[15]  With its incompatible endings, the book of Job both negates and affirms the viewpoint of the Akedah.

Second Ending: The Right to Criticize God – An Adverse Response to the Akedah

Job’s second ending, the subversive sequel to the Akedah, presents a hero who is outraged and unreservedly outspoken in response to God’s inscrutable actions. In this model, although God does not provide answers as to why the good continue to suffer, the human being is given all possible latitude in rejecting apologetics and in criticizing God’s system of justice.

First Ending: Standing in Awe of God – Affirming the Akedah

Yet alongside this second ending stands ending number one, which is not supplanted by the book’s final words. This ending, which reaffirms the theological premises and conclusions of the Akedah, suggests a humbler response to injustice.

This model suggests that at times the human being stands back in awe and in complete surrender to God’s staggering might and recants perceived truths in favor of God’s greater knowledge. To borrow a term from James Kugel, at pivotal moments in life, especially in times of crisis or tragedy, a person embraces a state of “starkness.” In his poignant account of his confrontation with a life-threatening disease, Kugel recalls, upon receiving the difficult diagnosis, his own moment of starkness:

After the initial shock, I was, of course, disturbed and worried. But the main change in my state of mind was that—I can’t think of a better way to put it—the background music suddenly stopped. It had always been there, the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replace by nothing, just silence. There you are, one little person, sitting in the late-summer sun, with only a few things left to do.[16]

Kugel posits that in situations of dire need, people often shrink and retreat, seeing God’s world in simpler, less nuanced, but ultimately more powerful terms. In these moments, reflected for example in Job 42:6, God is great and we are not; God’s word is justice and we stand in uncomprehending, unquestioning submission before it.

Conclusion: The Endings of Job and Rosh Hashana

While the second ending of the book of Job is more naturally compatible with a modern mindset and its sophisticated philosophical constructs, the model of the first ending captures our attention on Rosh Hashana, when we read the story of the Akedah and hear the shofar that recalls the ram slaughtered in Isaac’s stead.

By design, the Jewish calendar offers a holiday whose recurring liturgical theme is God’s royal grandeur. On Rosh Hashana, we create our own crisis moment, in which we stand before God, in stark vulnerability, quite simply begging the Almighty to grant us another year of life.  On Rosh Hashana, we are all Abraham at the Akedah and we are all Job in the eye of God’s sublime and mysterious storm.

Published

September 8, 2015

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Last Updated

November 17, 2019

Footnotes

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Judy Klitsner is a senior lecturer at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where she teaches Bible and biblical exegesis. She is the author of Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other.