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Monday, August 20, 2012

Hey Dad, What about us? -- Part 2

This post is second in a series on the Book of Job.  See here for the first post.  As I discussed in that post, there is an odd silence in the book's many discourses over the death of Job's children, servants, and livestock.  This silence is a problem no matter how one assesses the book, but it is especially problematic for traditionalists of various sorts, including orthodox Jews and Christians who hold to a traditional, "high" view of Scripture.

It is also a problem largely overlooked by people who have written on the book.  After an admittedly sparse investigation, I was unable to find a single commentator who addressed the issue at any length.  My survey included the relevant chapters in introductions to the Hebrew Bible by B. W. Anderson,  Brevard Childs, Hill and Walton, Bush, Hubbard, and LaSor, and Carol Newsom's article in the New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.  In addition, I checked the introductory sections of the commentaries of Gerald Janzen (Job, Interpretation) and John Hartley (The Book of Job, New International Commentary on the Old Testament) and the essays in Semeia 7:  Studies in the Book of Job

How did this (IMHO amazing) silence come about?  One huge factor is the weight of the text itself.  The introduction of the Book of Job frames the deaths of Job's children, servants, and livestock purely in terms of how it impacts Job.   To put it starkly, apart from their role in lending poignancy to the predicament in which Job is placed, Job's children don't matter  to the narrator of the introduction and conclusion of the book.  Their characters, feelings, hopes, human potential are all passed over in silence.   What counts is how they make the audience feel about what happened to Job.  The rest of the book does just about nothing to adjust the framing narrator's devaluation of Job's children.   In short, then, the narrative world of the book prejudices the reader to ignore Job's children in favor of Job himself.  We should not be surprised to find the majority of the book's readers doing precisely what the book's structure encourages them to do.

The devaluation of characters is part and parcel of telling a story, but it doesn't make for good ethics in the real world.  Trouble is, the point of the book of Job as a part of sacred literature is, presumably, to educate us about how to make correct moral judgments in the real world.  This narrative devaluation can have bad consequences if not accounted for and corrected.  Ok, so who has been doing the accounting and correction?  Nobody? 

The more commentators I found overlooking this problem the more uncomfortable I got.  Is there something fundamentally wrong about my thinking?  At least some traditionalist readers of this blog are likely to be ready with an answer to this question.  But you had better consider the case of "windbag" (Elihu) in the Book of Job before you fill the comment section with rants.  Elihu's speech is one of the longest monologues in the book (Compare Job's speech in 26-31 and Yahweh's speech in 38-41).  Scholars disagree about how much Elihu contributes to the arguments in the book, but the way he introduces his speech drops plenty of hints about what we should think of it.  He essentially calls himself a windbag and admits that he can't control his anger over the failure of Job's friends to answer Job's challenges.  IMHO his original contributions to the dispute are minimal and certainly don't justify 6 chapters of verbiage.  That the book's conclusion ignores his speeches is another sign that the guy is full of hot air.  Whoever wrote the Elihu section set up this character for a fall.  If critics are right that this section of the book was inserted by a pious scribe who was convinced he could defend God's justice better than the existing form of the book, then the scribe did this to himself.   Take warning, traditionalist! don't be such an idiot as to rant in the comment section before you've thought carefully through this whole post.

"Are you so stupid," the ranting traditionalist might say, "that you completely forgot about God?  He's the creator!  He can do anything he wants to Job's children, servants, and livestock.  You have nothing worthwhile to say about the Book of Job, as your post thoroughly demonstrates.  Job was a righteous man, but you -- you are just a a God-forsaken, liberal, modernist unbeliever."  I'll admit to being a God-forsaken, liberal, modernist "unbeliever,"  but if raising the questions I've raised makes me one, then I guess I'm in good company, because Job raises the same questions about God's treatment of him.  Job may not doubt that God can do whatever he wants with us, but he sure doubts whether it's right for God to whatever he wants with us.  He just happens to leave out God's treatment of his kids.  I don't want to skip over that part.  Otherwise, we're asking the same questions. 

As I pointed out in the first post in this series, there may be better answers to my questions than the ignorant rant I tried to forestall above.  In fact, I intend to examine a whole raft of them in subsequent posts. 

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