The Bible’s Book of Job could be the book of America in 2020 – rife with pandemic death, inexplicable suffering, tested faith, and social injustice. We think we know poor bedeviled Job — stripped of his family, wealth and health — and the message the Bible sends in his story.
But do we? Are we meant to see a patient Job, a prefiguration of Christ, submitting to God even without explanation for his suffering, trusting in God? Or to take a lesson from a defiant, sharply honest Job who never lets a bullying God off the hook in his demands for justice and moral framework for the world?
It’s all in the Bible but which Bible? Scripture is understood differently across millennia, cultures, languages, and belief systems. The New International Version says Job recants his lawsuit against God in verse 42:6 and will “repent in dust and ashes.” Yet, in his very modern translation, Job (Yale University Press, 2019), by Bar Ilan University Bible scholar Edward Greenstein, Job is disgusted with an unjust God — one who permits the righteous to be afflicted while the wicked prosper — and he sneers in 42:6, “I am fed up.”
Academics and theologians agree, Job poses very steep difficulties to translation and interpretation. However, this year, scholars are offering three new, serious but accessible titles with fresh insights.
Two of these titles delve into Job’s riches and challenges but are not primarily about the Book of Job. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler, have co-authored, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (Oct., HarperOne), examining how Scripture was read and understood by five distinct religious civilizations. Kenneth Seeskin, author off Thinking about the Prophets: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (Sept., Jewish Publication Society) includes Job as a unique voice in his analysis an array of six prophets to whom God has spoken along with Amos, Ezekiel, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Speaking Truth to Power
The paperback edition of Greenstein’s Job will be released in November. Jennifer Banks, senior executive editor for religion at Yale, who worked with Greenstein on the interpretive introductions to the Job chapters, calls this translation, “A celebration of the human thirst and demand for justice and the necessity of speaking truth to power.”
Greenstein spent decades researching more than half a dozen ancient Semitic languages that colored the primary Hebrew and Aramaic languages in Job to come up with a text that might shock today’s readers. He writes in the book, “There is no delicate way to put it: much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged.... The theme of the book, the one that upon reflection has been highlighted all along, is the importance of proper speech— honesty in general and truth in God-talk in particular.”
Job does not reveal a clear and holy purpose to human suffering. That the protagonist Job is restored, in the end, to health and prosperity is no more clear than why God permitted Job to be torture-tested by Satan at all. Instead, it shows God rewarding Job for calling for compassion for his misguided friend who wrongly attempt to explain and vindicate God. Greenstein writes that his Job is a “subversive” translation of a book that actually “ends in a manner that glorifies the best in human values.”
Redemption is Not Job's Story
In an interview with PW, Greenstein says, “I’m a philologist at heart, searching for what ancient texts meant when they were first put together. Job wasn’t meant to satisfy people’s need to believe there is something redeeming in the world. It isn’t necessarily my own belief or even what later Jewish translations or Christians made of Job, particularly those who see him prefiguring Christ.”
Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, and Brettler, professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University, who co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament, are well versed in the distinctions in the hermeneutics. The Bible with and Without Jesus distinguishes between a description of Job in the King James Version in James 5:11: “Ye have heard of the patience of Job” with the “endurance” of Job in The New Revised Standard Version. In a joint email interview with PW, the writers said, “Many Christians view Job as a Christ-like figure who suffers silently. Jews are generally more likely to view Job as impatient and, especially after the Holocaust, to see Job as protesting against the suffering of innocents.”
They argue that the Book of Job demolishes the idea that all suffering is punishment for sin, rather it is just part of the way the world works. And Job’s response to suffering has lessons they see resonating in 2020. The authors say in their interview, “Suffering should not make us powerless: To the contrary, like Job the impatient, we must call for justice and for the alleviation of suffering. Our role is to take care of those in need by pursuing justice ourselves (Deuteronomy 16:20). The Hebrew verb there is better translated “run after, chase.”
Questions for God and Humankind
What does God expect of humankind and what do we expect of ourselves? These are the kinds of questions Levine and Brettler take on, says Mickey Maudlin, senior v-p and executive editor for HarperOne.
“Dealing with ‘the other’ is the number one issue we are dealing with today, forcing us to rethink all our comfortable tribal frameworks. Any thoughtful religious person must wrestle with how their tradition makes sense of the diversity of other traditions and experiences. The idea that everyone must conform to one true faith has become untenable, and books like The Bible With And Without Jesus push us to go deeper,” Maudlin tells PW. He adds, “The Bible is a much wilder, more radical work than we assume, and the only reason one believes that they have it all figured out is if they have managed to find a way of ignoring large portions of what it actually says.”
And what it actually says in Job is don’t blame sin, says Seeskin, who is retiring this month from dual professorships at Northwestern University, in philosophy and in Jewish civilization. He writes that the word “theodicy” means “the vindication of God’s goodness in a world that appears to contain evil and suffering. Thus theodicy tries to show there is a reason why God allows evil and suffering to occur.” The Book of Job blows that up.
Modeling a Response to Evil
It says, “Theodicy is bogus,” Seeskin says. "The question that matters is not “is not ‘Why there is evil?’ but ‘How should one respond to evil?’” Job is there to model for humanity that we are to condemn injustice and speak up for the suffering — never to tell people, as Job’s friends tell him, they must have sinned and deserved their punishment, Seeskin argues. He writes, “Not only does God not resort to theodicy, God expresses anger at those who do.” In the end, Job maintains his moral integrity while he admits his intellectual fallibility, the philosopher concludes.
Rabbi Barry Schwartz, director of the Jewish Publication Society, says Seeskin’s book is part of the JPS Essential Judaism series and a follow-up to his earlier book, Thinking about the Torah. “Looking to the prophets in 2020 seems very timely, and the challenge of Job and the messages of wisdom can give us is very appropriate to our troubled times,” Schwartz tells PW.
All three editors expressed a belief in a continuing demand for biblical commentary and criticism, despite surveys documenting Americans's shift to toward secularism and vague spirituality detached from Bible roots. Maudlin at HarperOne says, "One reason we are publishing fewer books on the Bible is because the culture is becoming more post-Christian and so the general audience is less curious about it. But I think that is more a reflection of how it is being taught today, which is often defensively and tribally. Still, the Bible has a long history of being rediscovered and seen in a new and compelling light. I would not underestimate it. There are good reasons why it is the bestselling book of all time.”