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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2014
Number 81
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Mysteries of the Book of Job: From Elihu to Elie Wiesel

A Review essay by Cliff Edwards

The Book of Job: A Biography by Mark Larrimore. Princeton: Princeton University Press

For the patient reader, Larrimore’s book builds chapter by chapter an imposing and exciting edifice of conflicting and revealing interpretations of the Book of Job and the wider Job legend. We are left with the possible conclusion that this mystery book of the canon is a troubling guide especially suited to the restless soul of the modern seeker bereft of community and facing a questionable providence. For the impatient reader, I would suggest turning immediately to the final chapter, “Job in Exile,” which takes note of modern historical-critical scholarship and follows the book of Job “through the upheavals of the twentieth century,” including the fascination and struggles with the paradoxes of Job by Rene Girard, Elie Wiesel, and Margarete Susman. I believe that final chapter will lead even the most impatient to turn back and begin with chapter one to get the full “biography” of the Book of Job.

It is worth noting that Larrimore’s book is one of a series of volumes titled “Lives of Great Religious Books” that already contains eight volumes, including such a variety of works as The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the I Ching, and promises many more volumes, including The Book of Revelation, Confucius’s Analects, Josephus’s Jewish War, and Rumi’s Masnavi. If Larrimore’s volume represents the scholarship and readability of the series, we are in for much excellent and enlightening reading. Larrimore himself directs the Religious Studies Program at Eugene Lang College of The New School for Liberal Arts in New York City, and has edited the volume The Problem of Evil: A Reader, and co-edited The German Invention of Race.

The Introduction and Chapter One of The Book of Job: A Biography tell us as much about ancient understandings and practices in interpretation as about the complexities of the several stories of Job as viewed by “ancient interpreters.” Focusing on such works as the apocryphal Testament of Job, Gregory the Great’s sixth-century Morals in Job, and Talmudic midrashim, the manner in which the entire Bible was read into the Job story by Jews and Christians through allegory and the search for cryptic clues in unlikely places makes for fascinating reading. The more a passage in Job taxed the reason, the better, as it indicated a divine invitation to search through the entire canon and extra-biblical legends to fill in the gaps with hidden solutions. In the Testament of Job, for example, the Egyptian King Job(ab), purposely destroys the shrine of Satan in spite of the punishment in store, answering the question of the reason for Satan’s attacks. To tie Jobab into Jewish tradition, he is finally given Dinah, daughter of Jacob, as his new wife. In Gregory the Great, Christ, as the clay of Adam, is both the potsherd fired by the Passion and the act of scraping away evil, prefigured in the life of Job. In “Baba Bathra” of the Babylonian Talmud, Job is finally given a double reward on earth in order to exhaust his reward in this life, for he is a heathen and should be excluded from the world to come.

Chapter Two, “Job in Disputation,” views medieval sources, often focused on philosophic views of Job intended to teach us “how to engage in philosophic discussion on providence,” with emphasis on reading Job “aporetically,” a puzzle calling for our solution. In Maimonides’ twelfth century Guide of the Perplexed, The book of Job is interpreted as a parable describing God “by means of negations,” concealing truth from the “vulgar.” Maimonides interprets the word “Uz” to be a form of the verb for “meditation,” calling the reader to ever deeper meditation on the Job parable. Thomas Aquinas finds in Job structured debates not unlike those held at the University of Paris. Aquinas interprets evil as privation, and affirms that the fact that this world does not make sense is intended to lead us to trust in providence and the world beyond. John Calvin’s 159 sermons on Job view the “darker side of God’s nature,” and caution “humility and silence” as the best answer to God’s questions.

Chapter Three, “Job Enacted,” goes beyond the Job of philosophers to locate the Job encountered by ordinary persons, generally through ritual, lectionaries, private devotions and public performances. Holy Week readings, veneration of Job as a saint with accompanying iconography, the story of a “female Job,” Griselda, texts for the Office of the Dead, Books of Hours, and the Mystery Play “La Patience de Job,” are all explored. Job’s story becomes for many a “licensed way to grieve” and a definition of “religious patience.” Interesting, though, Larrimore notes that Vatican II “all but excised Job from Catholic liturgy.”

Chapter Four, “Job in Theodicy,” focuses on poets, philosophers, and theologians dealing with the problem of evil in Job, from Leibniz (who coined the term “theodicy” (“God-justice”), to Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Kant, Schleiermacher and Otto, and to the visionary illustrations of the book of Job by William Blake. For many, Job became a “model of an anguished but fervent modern religiosity.” Voltaire saw his Candide as “Job brought up to date,” and called upon us to leave the vapid affirmations of Pangloss behind and turn to “cultivate our garden.” Kant focused upon the moral sincerity of Job and called for not supplication but a religion that begins in honesty, courage, and good conduct. To Schleiermacher’s view of a religion whose heart is experience and Rudolph Otto’s focus on the mysteriousness of God, Larrimore adds an appreciation of Blake’s turn to images, to a restoration of art to worship, and the “seeing of the eyes.”

Chapter Five, “Job in Exile,” takes us into twentieth-century textual, historical, and literary criticism of the book of Job. Are we to find composite authorship and disjointedness? Why does Satan disappear after the prologue and Elihu appear unannounced? Where does the Hymn to Creation of chapter 28 come from? Is the prose frame intended to cloak the dangerous poetry that follows, or is it a folk story that “provoked an intervention from a brilliant poet?” Larrimore’s references to Carol Newsom’s The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations convinced me that creative theories about Job continue to be generated. Newsom suggests that a single author might well be responsible for the several “voices” of the book, and that we might place ourselves beside “Elihu,” perhaps companions of the book’s first “dissatisfied reader.”

But it is Elie Wiesel’s reading of Job that dominates this final chapter. “The silence of God at Auschwitz ” has deepened the dark mystery surrounding Job’s suffering and God’s puzzling response. In his 1986 Nobel Prize speech, Wiesel views Job as the face of all the oppressed, while in his Messengers of God he notes how deeply troubled he is by Job’s submission. Wiesel prefers to believe that the ending of the canonical book of Job is lost, lest Job become an “accomplice of the killer of his children.” For Wiesel, faith is located in our continuing Job’s questioning, not in our finding there an answer. Larrimore cites Richard Rubenstein as going a step further as he questions faith in any God sustainable after the Shoah. The chapter concludes by turning to the Jewish philosopher, Margarete Susman, who links Kafka’s “evocation of dehumanization” to the story of Job, and who views Job’s negative and anguished forms as closer to the heart of Judaism than the Davidic Covenant. For Susman, Job is the modern soul’s guide.

It would be gratuitous to complain that this or that interpreter of Job is missing from Larrimore’s work when he has made such riches available to us. Yet I would have liked to see, for one example, Jung’s Answer to Job given some exposition beyond mere mention of the title. I would also have been interested to know what has been excluded from the “biography” when Larrimore notes that his focus is on Western interpreters, or when he admits that Muslim interpretations have been omitted because they are so different. But again, my own view is that Larrimore has put together a fascinating “life” of the Book of Job and its related legends, and has written with a facility that should attract readers to this wealth of material he has gathered.

Cliff Edwards is professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and consulting editor of Menorah Review

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