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1. Introduction—Job as Legal Argument
This commentary on the Book of Job focuses on the language, flow of the argument, and ideas of this ancient classic. I have already written a (shorter) book on the structure and main argument of Job, with a detailed consideration of its contents (see my When Leaving Faith is a Good Choice: Re-reading the Book of Job, Inkwater, 2020). This book differs from Leaving Faith in that it tries to understand and explain each verse of the book, giving due attention to the difficulty of the language as well as the radical nature of the ideas. More than sixty years ago the Harvard Law School-trained poet Archibald MacLeish gave us a dramatic retelling of the Book of Job in his J.B.; this book, in contrast, will emphasize the legal, psychological and theological issues emerging from Job.
We are especially fortunate to have three English-language commentators of enormous erudition who have recently published or are publishing hefty works on the Book of Job. David Clines’ careful three-volume study is a masterpiece of literary, theological, lexical and argumentative awareness. After working through his massive tomes, I get the impression that he has left few stones unturned in his many words on the text of Job. Yet then, just as one thought that the most definitive word about Job had been spoken in this generation, out comes CL Seow’s magnificent first volume of his two-volume commentary on Job (2013). Like Clines, Seow gives us enormous wisdom and insight. The length of the first volume (Job 1-21), with index, is almost 1000 pages. As I write this today (May 2019), Seow’s second volume has not yet appeared. If it were possible, Seow gives us even more on Job than does Clines, for he is interested in what he calls the “history of consequences,” or how the text of Job was read in the Christian, Jewish (and sometimes Muslim) worlds over the centuries. Of special and unique importance in Seow’s work is his focus on artistic depictions of various passages/stories in Job. His incredible skills in ferreting out the most arcane, but relevant, material is awe-inspiring.
Not to be ignored in the wake of the impressive “Clines/Seow” commentaries is the arresting 2006 “shorter” (i.e., less than 800 pages!) commentary by Union Seminary (VA)’s Samuel E Balentine. Balentine’s virtue is to emphasize both the meaning of the text as well as the what one might call the literary, artistic and theological readings of the Book of Job over time. His diligence in tracking down artistic representations of scenes of Job may indeed have provided some of the stimulus for Seow’s work (or vice-versa). The format of Balentine’s commentary, in the Smyth & Helwyn series, lends itself to exploration of dozens of topics that the text only mentions in passing, such as the relationship of the Book of Job to what he calls “levitical religion” or the exploration of themes of failure and success by contemporary authors (e.g., Joyce Carol Oates) and the Book of Job. Both Seow’s and Balentine’s books are designed with the more general reader in mind, while Clines’ three volumes are intended for the scholarly reader. It is a bit difficult for me to understand, however, how the typical lay person might pick up Seow’s 1000-page volume on the first half of Job for a leisurely read since it is often enough of a challenge just to get people to read Job 1. . .
I hasten to say, however, that despite being surrounded by this mini-cloud of most impressive witnesses, I find there still remains room for more reflection on this timeless classic. Perhaps this statement simply illustrates Robert Gordis’ remark that just as it is the secret ambition of every male actor is to play Hamlet, so it is the unspoken desire of every biblical scholar to write a book on the Book of Job. Writing more than 470,000 words on Job (as this commentary is) is usually the work of at least a decade; sometime even twenty or more years. It is the ultimate mountain climb, the ultimate depth search.
If there is anything that this commentary hopes to offer beyond that of Clines, Balentine and Seow (and I can in no way match some of their profound linguistic learning), it is an awareness of the legal aspects of the “case” of Job and especially the way that this “case” may end up putting God in a vulnerable position at the end of the book. Though I am interested in theological, lexical and grammatical issues, I am especially interested in the legal aspects of Job's "case."
A brief personal note: in early mid-career, after twenty years in Biblical Studies and allied fields, I decided to go to law school, become a litigation attorney, a law professor and then legal consultant. My time in law made me sensitive to the way that almost all communication, and especially communication of a legal nature, attempts not just to clarify wrongs but to gain an advantage over another person. This advantage is gained through clever manipulation of words, through calculated response to what has been already said, to laying out one’s case with precision and power. Because Job actually uses the language of law when he presents his “case” (13:18), we are, I hope, enriched by considering the ways that the Book of Job functions as a legal argument.
That is, as this commentary unfolds, I try to stay closely attuned not only to the way that Job’s case against God actually develops but also to the ways that God’s absence (Job 3-37) and then God’s presence (Job 38-41) not only doesn’t “solve” the case but ends up digging God more deeply into a theological/legal hole. Much has to be said and argued in order to defend this claim, but it will be this kind of claim that is central to my treatment of Job.
After a brief prose narrative, the Book of Job uses the form of a dialogue to present an extended reflection on the issue of pain. Pain, like death and taxes, comes to all of us. It comes to us in all kinds of forms, physical and emotional. Sometimes we know the reason for it. For example, I feel a pain in my foot because I got up from bed in the dark and inadvertently kicked it against the door. We nurse the hurt, ruefully rubbing the toes until the pain has subsided, and then vow not to do that again. Pain over.
Yet, often our pain doesn’t leave us immediately. It persists. And it can destabilize our life. Like an unwelcome guest who will not leave, or the din of unappreciated music that will not stop, so pain is a throbbing reminder not just of our mortality but of our vulnerability to sources we cannot control. We try to do all we can to minimize it, but somehow it continues to find us, bind us, blind us.
The Book of Job explores the pain attendant on great loss. More specifically it explores the issue of how pain might affect a reflective person of religious faith. Job not only seeks the source of his own pain, but also whether there is any meaning in it, and how the pain is either exacerbated or lessened by religious faith. What I will conclude is that pain often leads a person not only to re-examine the fundamental categories of life, such as the nature of God or the role of friendship, but also to discover the kind of person you are as a sufferer. That is, are you one who acquiesces in the suffering without objection? with mild objection? Or are you one who will leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of the reasons for suffering and whether you can, in some way, explain it or relieve it?
In When Leaving God is a Good Choice, I mentioned the knotty and baffling issues with respect to the authorship, date, place of composition, stages of composition and literary parallels to Job in the ancient world. I won’t repeat those words here. All we know is that the Book of Job is a product of the people of ancient Israel (written, in my approach, before the 5th century BCE), but as to where it was written, whether it is more of a folk tale or historical narrative, and how it relates to other currents of ancient Hebrew thought is uncertain. It is safe to say that it often holds up to question the easy platitudes of the Book of Proverbs as well as questions language of wondrous admiration of the Psalms, yet it isn’t easy to say at first reading what the Book of Job actually concludes.
On the one hand, the Book of Job seems to suggest that it is permissible to question God and the pain that one feels in suffering but, in the end, it is best to accept the mystery of human suffering and submit again to the power of a good but sometimes inscrutable God. That is how the ending of the Book of Job is normally read. On the other hand, as this commentary will argue, I see a progressive series of destabilizations or questionings going on in the Book of Job with the final one, which I call the “destabilization of faith,” actually occurring in Job 42. To use words from the title of my previous book, I see Job “leaving God” or abandoning his prior faith in Job 42.
Job and the Problem of Pain