Davis Hankins on C.L. Seow’s Job 1-21: Interpretation and Commentary.
An irony pervades the practice of writing the critical biblical commentary: quite often, the biblical scholar offers an analysis of an ancient literary artifact that seems antagonistic to its living legacy. Since biblical scholars often write critical commentaries for other specialists, they tend to focus their efforts on reconstructing the original context, discerning the shape of the original text, and uncovering the original meaning of the text. They ask very precise questions and linger over minute philological details in their answers. At their best, critical commentaries involve awe-inspiring levels of learning and research. At their worst, they avoid provocative questions and seem oblivious to the consequences of these literary artifacts for later readers. They are often indifferent if not hostile to creative adaptations of biblical texts, perhaps because those very adaptations comprise the things of which scholars feel they must disabuse people when teaching them about the Bible.
C.L. Seow’s recent tome on the first half of the book of Job stands uneasily — to say the least — within the tradition of the critical biblical commentary. On the one hand, Seow attends to all the text-critical, philological, and historical concerns of traditional critical commentaries. There are ample discussions of the relationships between and among alternate texts and versions, date, provenance, composition history, genre, structure, literary devices, and content. On the other, after introductory critical essays but before the conventional line-by-line commentary on Job 1-21, a monograph-length section (titled “history of consequences”) explores the interpretation of the book of Job in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities from antiquity to the present. In the field of biblical studies, this sort of research usually goes by the name “reception history,” but Seow’s choice to call it “history of consequences” underscores a dual agency. The text is not simply received; it has consequences for those who use it.
Despite a recent increase of biblical scholars researching the history of consequences, the precise nature of the relationship between interpretations of a text and its history of consequences in various literary, liturgical, artistic, and other domains remains unclear. Scholars most often carry out the study of consequences at a safe distance from traditional, so-called historical-critical scholarship. Commentaries supposedly determine what the book actually is, and then, once that is settled, reception historians explore the book’s consequences. Is Seow’s commentary, then, actually two books, one dropped into the middle of another? Or do the consequences of a book actually belong at the very center of its meaning?
Seow’s ordering suggests the latter. As does the letter from the editors about this new commentary series, Illuminations, which argues that reconstructing a biblical text’s original meaning is an insufficient task for biblical criticism, because every point along a text’s long history of use and influence constitutes a part of that text’s meaning. Yet it is not clear to what extent we should understand this sweeping claim. To paraphrase the well known thought experiment about the tree falling in the lonely forest: if a text has consequences, yet no one today perceives them or even traces of them, are these consequences really part of that text’s meaning? If Seow is correct that every aspect of a text’s history is part of its meaning, then the commentary genre must change. The traditional commentary should be seen not merely as lacking a fuller treatment of the text in history, but as incomplete insofar as it fails to take the text’s reception history into account.
In Seow’s hands, the book of Job achieves a truly unsurpassed fullness of meaning. From his thorough vindication of Elihu’s speeches as one of a pair with God’s speeches and integral to the book as a whole, to his compelling case that the linguistic peculiarities in Job are best understood as products of the author’s deliberate attempt to imbue the book with an aura of exotic foreignness, Seow consistently provides reasonable, well-supported, yet fresh perspectives on the most significant issues facing readers of Job.
In a commentary so far-reaching on a book so contentious, interpreters of Job will doubtless find much to which they object in addition to many new insights. For example, Seow writes, “Given the narrator’s portrayal of God in the Prologue, Job’s responses of faith in 1:21 and 2:10, profound as they may be taken on their own, seem like reflexes of naïve piety. Read in light of the third chapter, one wonders if this simplistic faith might not have been shaken.” He shares this idea of naïve faith with most interpreters throughout history, but one can only wonder how Job’s statements could be seen as naïve within the literary context. Such a naïve reading actually seems possible only apart from the literary context. And to what or whom is this supposedly naïve piety directed? Not to God, for Job describes God with merisms that attribute to God causality that is wholly unprincipled (1:21 — giving and taking; 2:10 — good and evil). Not to his former faith, since 1:5 portrays it as reliant upon God’s principled responses to the world. Not even to his former self, for the tale relates the complete annihilation of all that is initially associated with him. Though they may lack significant substance, Job’s responses are not naïve. They are instead pure assertions of fidelity to nothing but the truth of an experience that has completely altered himself, his world, and his God. Job’s ensuing speeches in the dialogue do not depart from but instead fill out this pure fidelity.
Seow rightly reads Job’s friends against the grain of interpretive trends by viewing them as — in principle at least — caring, reasonable theologians whose main concerns with Job are his refusals to accept the finitude of his human condition and to trust the justice and goodness of God. For Eliphaz, Seow writes, “human creatureliness means that one can only stand before divine sovereignty in hopes of grace.” With Job, however, Seow tends to follow a standard interpretation according to which Job counters the friends by emphasizing the significance of his experience as indicative of a gap separating God from any principle of justice. One regularly gets the sense that, for Seow, the answer lies neither with the friends nor with Job alone, but rather in maintaining them in tension. For Seow, “Job’s view becomes problematic when it is absolutized,” just as the friends’ “theology from on high … must be balanced by [Job’s] theology from below.” My sense, on the contrary, is that Job’s view of the “absolute” is profoundly — even structurally — different than that of his friends. A combination of theology from above and theology from below is impossible without compromising what makes Job’s position so radical, interesting, and superior. In my opinion, Job’s perspective is neither reconcilable with nor susceptible to the same problems that face the friends’ precisely because he sees the absolute not as a transcendent given but as an immanent perspective that emerges from the conditions of his life and experience. Of course, such particular interpretive differences should not detract from all the rich philological, philosophical, and theological insights that I have gleaned from Seow’s work.
Where this commentary truly shines is in the intersection between the interpretation and the history of consequences. One may have thought of Job as a sufferer who ultimately humbles himself before the divine yet stands firm against the verbal onslaughts of other people, but this interpretation means so much more when it is more or less shared among a Jewish interpreter who grasps it as the way of a faithful Jew in Nazi Germany, a Christian interpreter who views it as the model for all facing Arian persecution in the fourth century, and a medieval Sufi mystic who uses it to encourage others to cry out in pain to God. Indeed, one might even say that this same interpretation of Job changes irreversibly after encountering these voices. Such are, in any case, the stakes of Seow’s claim.
In a field that is so new, there are bound to be areas of potential growth. A tension pervades Seow’s organization of his research into separate sections under the headings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim consequences. One of the major contributions of Seow’s commentary is that it brings together these interpretive traditions that commentators have often falsely and mistakenly separated. Yet Seow’s research often indicates the extent to which these labels are unhelpful or even misleading, as he accounts for much overlap and interdependency in the various consequences of Job within and among different subgroups of these three religions. Incidentally, this mitigates the impression that Seow covers Muslim consequences in a mere seven pages after seventy-six on Christian consequences and fifty-seven on Jewish consequences, since he deals with Muslim consequences a number of times outside the borders of the brief section titled “Muslim Consequences.” In any case, it often seems that the different consequences had more to do with the historical and contextual conditions than with the fact that an interpretation was, say, Jewish rather than Muslim. At one point Seow admits that telling a Jewish commentary apart from a Christian one can be difficult in terms of content and method. He is talking about the early twentieth century, but his comment applies equally to medieval Jewish interpreters in the Islamic east, and to other places and times.
This strained character of Seow’s organizational division of the history of consequences into separate religions begs questions about its ultimate usefulness and costs. Seow’s analyses might have benefited from shedding this division and reorganizing the data, perhaps according to time period and social location, or even a thematic organization according to different kinds of uses and influences of the text. Even still, Seow has surveyed much of the data, and so should be thanked for a service to anyone who would venture to reorganize this material.
Beyond Joban studies, Seow’s work unsettles the traditional commentary genre and opens vast interpretive possibilities for rereading our great books in light of the caches of evidence that interpreters have long treated according to what could be characterized as a usefulness paradigm. That is, the present text and interpreter make use of the past only to the extent that the past is useful to present concerns. What is not useful is suitable only for the archive. The uniqueness of Seow’s approach might be described in terms of its emergentist paradigm: the present is nothing more than an emergence out of the possibilities past consequences have opened.
More than simply a breath of fresh air for our shared humanistic inquiry, such work is also potentially quite urgent at this moment when the humanities are threatened on many different fronts, including by the ubiquitous demand for demonstrable usefulness. Where is the demonstrable usefulness of the humanities more clearly evident than in the history of consequences? This history reveals not only the usefulness of the humanities, but also how the humanities have shaped what counts as useful, an impact often overlooked in such discussions. While this history largely remains to be written, Seow’s significant contribution will hopefully and surely compel us to continue writing it.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- Mapping the World beyond the Garden: Is the Bible Ever Read in its Context? – By Brennan Breed
- Domus Magna: The Enduring Power of the Psalms – By David W. Stowe
- Tessa Rajak talks to Timothy Michael Law about the Reception of Josephus
- The Canon(s) of the Jewish Scriptures – By Edmon L. Gallagher