Book of Job

David Cowles

Jan 24, 2022

Continuing with the Book of Job theme, Job is arguably the most important work in the entire Old Testament, possibly the second most important book in the whole Bible – behind the Gospel of John. Some Jewish commentators claim that it is the 5th book of Moses and rightfully belongs as part of the Torah. It is frequently quoted in the works of the Church Fathers (100 – 500 AD), perhaps more than any other single book of the Bible, and it has inspired a number of modern adaptations (e.g., Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.).

Continuing with the Book of Job theme, Job is arguably the most important work in the entire Old Testament, possibly the second most important book in the whole Bible – behind the Gospel of John. Some Jewish commentators claim that it is the 5th book of Moses and rightfully belongs as part of the Torah. It is frequently quoted in the works of the Church Fathers (100 – 500 AD), perhaps more than any other single book of the Bible, and it has inspired a number of modern adaptations (e.g., Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.).


And yet, nobody has the slightest idea what it means! Job is the Finnegan’s Wake (James Joyce) of Scripture. Historically, reading and interpreting Job has been a bit like taking a Rorschach Test: it tells you more about the reader than it does about the text itself.


Two quick examples: In most translations, Job’s wife is quoted as telling Job, “Curse God and die!” But the Hebrew verb ‘to curse’ is also the Hebrew verb ‘to bless’, so she could just as well be saying, “Bless God and die!” Quite a difference.


Second, we are told initially that 3 of Job’s old friends have come from great distances to ‘comfort’ him. However, toward the end of the book, a 4th so-called comforter, Elihu, appears and addresses Job and his friends. Some commentators view Elihu as ‘God’s Advocate’; they see his remarks as an introduction, a helpful transition, to the speeches of God that come afterwards. But others view Elihu as ‘Satan in disguise’, contradicting and undermining both God and man (Job). Under these circumstances, how can anyone hope to understand this work?


If it’s so difficult to interpret, why is it so important? First, because of the magnificence of the poetic language, arguably unsurpassed even by works like Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf or Milton’s Paradise Lost.


Second, because of the urgency and centrality of the subjects it treats…and the depths to which it explores those subjects: the nature of God, the nature of God’s relationship with the universe in general and with humanity in particular, mortality (death), evil, morality (sin) and justice.


Then why so difficult? First, it is widely believed that the story of Job long preceded (perhaps by more than a millennium) the assembly of the Hebrew Bible (c. 500 BC). Some scholars even believe that major parts of the book were originally written in a language other than Hebrew and then translated – with no loss of poetic beauty – but with considerable loss of clarity.


Others believe the Hebrew text has been corrupted over centuries of copying and recopying. Still others believe that some verses were added by commentators long after the Hebrew original was composed. In all likelihood, all of these theories are correct!


Fortunately, a recent translation (2019) by Edward Greenstein offers us a glimpse of daylight. Without fudging over any of the interpretive hurdles embedded in this ancient text, Greenstein succeeds in giving us a thorough and internally consistent reading. New to Job – or just returning – this might be the place to start!

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