Birthdays in Job?

I hadn’t thought a lot about birthdays and the Bible. I had heard some vague rumblings that birthdays were a pagan custom that was imported to the faith at a relatively late date and I uncritically accepted that and moved on. Imagine my surprise when I got to John Calvin’s eleventh sermon on Job and he spoke AT LENGTH about the Scriptural, spiritual value of… birthdays?

The origin of celebrating birthdays was the fact that the ancient fathers knew that it was right to give thanks to God and that this day was a solemn time every year for blessing God openly. Yes, for if we have lived some years of our lives, even though we are to remember God’s benefits incessantly, it is nonetheless good that, on the day we entered the world, there be a perpetual reminder to say, ‘A year has passed. God has brought me this far. I have offended him in many ways, and I must now ask him for forgiveness. But especially has he granted me great grace. He has always assured me of the hope of the salvation he has provided, and he has delivered me from many dangers. So I have to remember that, and now that I have entered upon another year, it is fitting that I prepare myself for God’s service, for the bad periods I have gone through have shown me how much I need his help and how I would have been a hundred thousand times lost without him.’

John Calvin. Sermons on Job – Volume 1: Chapters 1-14 (Kindle Locations 2362-2369). The Banner of Truth Trust. Kindle Edition.

All of this comes in reference to the third chapter of Job when Job cries out, “May the day of my birth perish!” To be clear, Calvin isn’t suggesting that’s an explicit reference to a birthday celebration. In context, it’s obviously a reference to the original day of Job’s birth. Calvin is arguing that the day of our birth is a sacred gift. On that day, God imprinted his image on us and honored us with the gift of life. From then onwards, he nurtured us with sustenance and care. We should hold the memory of such a day as holy and never speak ill of that event. Honoring its anniversary is a tradition passed down from ancient times that has sacred value. He admits that pagans twisted birthday celebrations to be something primarily about self-indulgence and that all too often, that’s what birthdays end up being. But the core of the tradition is beautiful because it’s about honoring God and acknowledging what he has given.

So John Calvin thought there was a biblical aspect to birthdays. I was shocked! But even if he’s dealing with an indirect reference in this case, Job 1:4 says that Job’s children feasted together on their birthdays in the NIV translation. Not the translation I was most familiar with, but certainly one that holds a fair amount of weight. Even beyond that, a solid chunk of commentators agree that the best understanding of this passage is that Job’s children were celebrating birthdays (John Hartley’s commentary, Pulpit Commentary, Elicott’s Commentary, etc.). Clearly, this isn’t a wild minority viewpoint. A chunk of legitimate theologians believe that birthday celebrations are biblical!

So are there other references to faithful people having birthdays in the Bible? Well, first off, let’s take care of the obvious references. In Genesis 40, Pharaoh has a (somewhat infamous) birthday that involved executions. To give some background, Joseph had previously met Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and told the cupbearer that he’d be restored to his previous standing and the baker that he would be executed. The prophecy comes to pass on Pharaoh’s birthday. Unfortunately, the exonerated cupbearer doesn’t remember that Joseph’s prophecy and so Joe ends up stuck in jail for a few more years. The other obvious example of a birthday isn’t much better. Matthew 14 and Mark 6 both refer to King Herod’s birthday, on which he allows a beautiful young girl to wish for anything. She wants John the Baptist’s head, and he reluctantly delivers. You can definitely see why birthdays have negative cultural connotations for some readers. But there are a few more references worth delving into.

In the Jewish Encyclopedia (archived online here), Adler and Roubin argue for a few other passages being indicative of birthday celebrations. Hosea 7:5 has a festival called “the festival of our king,” or “the day of our king.” The king gets really drunk that day. They argue that a remembrance of the day of his coronation would be a more somber affair (judging from the notes Josephus left in Antiquities), but a birthday would fit the description reasonably well. They also point to Jeremiah 20:14 in which Jeremiah cries out, “Cursed be the day I was born!  May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” On one hand, this is an obvious example of Hebraic parallelism (saying the same thing twice for poetic effect), but asking that the day of his birth “not be blessed” does suggest that doing something to bless that day was a custom, which would line up very clearly with Calvin’s argument for a day of remembrance and prayer. Genesis 24 also refers to Isaac’s day of weaning, which was cause for a great feast. Rashi, perhaps the most famous Jewish commentator of all time, holds that children were weaned at 24 months and references Talmud tractate Gitten 75b as proof. This establishes that, at absolute minimum, there was a customary celebration of the second birthday, which may well have led to future remembrances as well.

There does seem to be a reasonable amount of weight against birthdays as well. First off, let’s acknowledge the bad arguments. A lot of the arguments against birthdays in that you’ll find across the internet comes from bizarre speculation. Weird websites argue that all birthdays come from this cult or that cult and gift-giving is representative of making sacrifices to false gods. There’s a mysterious lack of citations in all this, which makes sense. Birthdays aren’t really “from” any particular place, as far as I can tell. A handful of cultures all developed some form of commemorating the day of their birth, and there’s even certain eras where such celebrations gain popularity and others where they lose it depending on cultural trends. For example, Professor Howard Chudacoff argues that the modern American birthday rituals took shape in the 19th century when standardized education made age a more important factor in a young person’s life (which helps explain why there’s still an active copyright on the shockingly young song, “Happy Birthday”). All of that to say, it’s more complicated than some of the poor arguments make it out to be.

But let’s evaluate the good anti-birthday arguments. If we look to that ancient Hebrew historian, Josephus, in Against Apion book 2 chapter 26, he argues that Jews do not celebrate birthdays because they don’t want to drink to excess and want to live sober lives. Early Christians also appear nervous about birthdays. Origen definitively comes down as anti-birthday, saying in his Homily on Leviticus:

Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, (Gen 40:20) and in the New Testament, Herod (Mark 6:21). However, both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. For the Pharaoh killed “the chief baker,” (Gen 40:22) Herod, the holy prophet John “in prison.” (Mark 6:27) But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birthdays, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.

Homily on Leviticus VIII, trans. Barkley

It does seem likely that early Christians carried the same discomfort towards birthdays that Jews of their time did. Judging from a handful of secondary sources I got my hands on, some of that Christian discomfort tended to uniquely focus on Roman and Greek religious practices that were incompatible with Christianity (the act of honoring birthday spirits and the like). As time went on, those associations dimmed and birthdays didn’t seem as threatening as they once were.

So were birthdays an alarming heathen practice throughout the entirety of Bible that the people of Israel had to resist? Or is Calvin right? Was some memorial of the day of one’s birth both reasonable and respectful and twisted only by heathen influences? I think the attitude towards birthdays likely depends on the era you’re looking at. There were a lot of groups in that region throughout history that celebrated birthdays in some way, shape, or form (Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Arabs, etc.) It would be odd for that to have been permanently and absolutely resisted as evil, especially when we take some of Adler and Roubin’s references into account. While far from airtight, they establish that there’s precedent for the idea of something like birthdays in Israel, depending on the timeframe you’re looking at. Were Job’s kids celebrating birthdays? They very well may have been, especially when you consider that Job and his family did not live in Israel and were probably used to different cultural norms. That being said, by the time you get to the New Testament era, it seems clear that the dominant Greco-Roman understanding of birthdays (along with some historical bad influences) left a distaste for them among devout Jews and Christians that wore off over the coming centuries. Ultimately, I think Calvin has a leg to stand on when he’s talking about the potential scriptural value of birthdays. Which is just a delight. Next time you have a birthday, you can rest easy knowing that you’re not secretly engaging in wild pagan idolatry.

Translation and the Gospel

A few years back, I read a really helpful article by a sociologist about different cultural communication styles.  Communicational norms were rated on two axes: direct-indirect and formal-informal.  The first axis (formal-informal) is mostly about structure.  Formal communication involves certain levels of decorum, contains some form of hierarchy, and moves at a slower pace.  Informal communication is freer and quicker, but it leaves a little more room for error.  The other axis (direct-indirect) has a little more to do with efficiency and manners than form.  A direct communicator says exactly what they mean, but it’s not always pretty.  An indirect communicator dances around the point a bit, but they don’t run much of a risk of offending anyone.

Everyone has their own expected style of communication based on the norms that they’ve worked within, but when we enter areas with other dominant communication styles, we have to pay really close attention.  It’s easy to misunderstand or be misunderstood!  An example that was offered up involved a German analyst that was working at a British company. His manager stopped by his desk one day and asked if he’d ever considered doing his reporting a little differently.  The analyst said no.  The manager gave a bit of a sigh and wandered away.  A week passed.  New reports were filled out.  The manager was back at his desk.  “Hmm, I really do imagine we’d all be able to read the reports much more quickly if the format was a little different.  Have you ever thought about that?”  The German admitted that he hadn’t thought about that before and went back to work.  The manager walked away.  Again, reports were filled out.  Again, they were the same.  The manager come to the worker and told him that he would have to be let go.  He was shocked!  Why?  The manager told him that he’d been asked repeatedly to change the way he was reporting and he had failed to do so.  The German was legitimately baffled and insisted that he’d never once been asked to change the report!  He’d only been asked if he had considered alternative methods.  It seemed like a really theoretical question to him, but to the British manager, he was practically barking orders.  The German was used to a much more direct style of communication (as Germans tend to be), while the British manager had a comparatively more indirect way of communicating (as is the norm for many Brits).  In this case, the difference in expectations cost the German his job.

Was the story true?  No idea.  It certainly could have been.  And I think it highlights how important recognizing communication styles can be.  Not that this particular model is the end-all be-all of communication styles.  There are all kinds of models out there.  This one seems considerably less arbitrary than some others, but I’m sure there are alternatives worthy of consideration and more axes you could add.  Either way, it made me think of my work in ministry and how I communicate effectively (or ineffectively) because of these expectations.

My speech style tends to be informal-indirect.  This was the dominant way of speaking in the region I grew up (central Ohio), and I think it’s relatively common throughout the midwest.  To us, informal language shows that you don’t think you’re better than anyone else.  You’re just a regular person trying to get a message across without any bells and whistles.  Formal communication seems comparatively stifling.  For example, when I worked in banking, I remember people sending e-mails that said, “Please advise on this project’s status,” and rolling my eyes.  They could  have just swung by my desk and asked, “Hey, what’s going on with this?”  I’m no grand vizier.  No “advising” seemed necessary.  As for the indirectness, it just seems so much more polite than the alternativve.  If you dance around the point just a smidge, you can say something without stepping on any toes.  For example, if you asked if I wanted a slice of pie that you brought over, I might say, “That pie looks phenomenal!  I wish I had room in my stomach, but if I ate one more piece of pie, I’d burst.”  That means no.  Further asking will not result in a new answer.

My move to Appalachia has thrust me into a region where the most common communication style is a little different.  The dominant axis of communication down here is informal-direct, and my words require some translating at times.  I remember someone asking me in my first few weeks if I wanted them to do some task around the church that I didn’t really want them to do.  I responded with the perfect informal-indirect response: “Gosh, I love your energy!  We need more of that kind of passion!  And you’re looking to address something that’s so needed around here.  My only concern is… is this the right time for that?  Because if we do the right act at the wrong time, it may well be worse than no action at all.  Why don’t we hold on that for a while and wait until we can really find that perfect opportunity.”  

The poor congregant just kind of stared at me.  “Soooo… you want me to do it next week then?”

Someone else in the room translated for her: “He says he doesn’t want you doing that.”

I was horrified.  How rude!  I didn’t say that!  I mean, I did, but I danced around and made it way prettier.  A “no” in such uncertain terms was practically a gunshot in my mind, but the congregant didn’t seem to mind.  “Oh, ok,” she responded.  And she went about her day as though nothing had happened.

There’s been a few occasions like that where what I say requires translation from a native speaker.  Which leaves me excited as I’m digging into Schleiermacher’s “On the Different Methods of Translating.”  This is a classic in translation theory and theology.  He opens by acknowledging that translation is far more than just switching one language to another:

Are we not often compelled, after all, to translate for ourselves the words of another person who is quire like us, but of a different temperament and mind?  …Occasionally we must translate even our own words, when we want to make them our very own again.  And this skill is practiced not only for the purpose of transplanting into foreign soil what a language has created in the fields of scholarship and the rhetorical arts, thereby expanding the horizon of power of the mind, but it is also practiced in business transactions between individuals of different nations, and in diplomatic exchanges of independent governments, in which each is accustomed to speak in its own language to ensure strict equality without making use of a dead language.

”On the Different Methods of Translating,” (ironically) trans. Waltraud Bartscht, Theories of Translation, 36-37.

Translation is a vast project of getting an idea to one person to another in a comprehensible way.  How do we do it well?  What are its boundaries?  And is he stretching the word “translation” further than it should be stretched?

There are massive implications here for our Bibles.  More importantly, I think there are massive implications for the way we share our faith.  Are we “translating” Christianity to each person when we share the Gospel, seeking to explain it in a  way that both honors the original intent, yet can exist within the region’s dominant social imaginary?  What constitutes a valid translation of the Gospel message and when has someone left the original intent so far behind to appeal to the dominant social imaginary that their “translation” ceases to be legitimate translation?