The Book of God and Man: A Study of the Book of Job.
by Robert Gordis.
The University of Chicago Press. 389 pp. $8.50.
The book of job continues to fascinate and challenge scholars. Last year, we had Marvin Pope's translation and commentary on the Anchor Bible, and now we have Robert Gordis, the distinguished Jewish authority on Hebrew Wisdom literature, presenting a study, a commentary, and a translation. Gordis puts the book into its historical setting, demonstrating its relation to the principal strands of ancient Hebrew religion and culture as well as to the whole corpus of Wisdom literature produced by the various nations of the Fertile Crescent. He assigns the book to the early post-Exilic period, after Deutero-Isaiah, between 500 and 300 B.C.E. and sees it as part of the concern with the fate of the individual (as distinct from the nation or the family) shown by upper-class writers in that unstable period. The lower classes, facing their unvaried lot of poverty and oppression at the hands of both domestic and foreign masters, began to look to a future life to redress the balance, or to await some great supernatural cataclysm which would usher in a new order. Out of this came apocalyptic movements, frowned on by official Judaism but highly influential in the development of Christianity. But the Book of Job is not apocalyptic, and it specifically denies belief in an after-life. It is the work of a great upper-class poet, obsessed with the problem of personal suffering and the apparent injustice of God in dealing with individuals. Though its theme is personal rather than national, it is also universal, not concerned with the survival of the people of Israel (neither the setting nor the characters of the book are Israelite) but deeply worried about the problem of theodicy, God's justice in dealing with men.
Using as a framework a simple folk-tale written in a clear, direct, classical Hebrew, the author has built up a dialogue between Job and his “comforters” in an extraordinarily rich and difficult vocabulary which goes beyond the range of normal biblical Hebrew. The original folk-tale tells of a prosperous man who was visited with great afflictions but who, in spite of everything, resisted the temptation to “curse God and die,” and was rewarded for his patience in the end by a restoration of more than his former prosperity. It is interesting that until relatively recently in the history of both Judaism and Christianity, it is the simple moral of the folk-tale that was dwelt on: we still talk of “the patience of Job” as though we had never read beyond Chapter One of the forty-two chapters of the book. However, in the development of the dialogue by the great poet who used the original folk-tale merely as a starting point, Job is shown as far from patient. Emboldened by his agony and his outraged sense of injustice, he asserts that God's power is not matched by His equity and he challenges God to face him and tell him what he has done wrong that he has been made to suffer so. He sees the world full of the prosperous wicked and the tortured innocent, and will not accept for a moment the simple equation between suffering and guilt that his friends try to force on him—nor will he even accept Elihu's more sophisticated view that God sometimes sends suffering to test character and prevent future evildoing by shaking moral complacency. He does not doubt God's omnipotence; he does doubt His justice. Yet running through his anguished cries of despair and anger, and his contemptuous dismissal of his friends' conventional arguments, is another argument: If only Job could get God to face him properly, he would somehow find his advocate, his defender.
In a curious way, Job seems to appeal from God to God—either from one aspect of God to another, or even to a principle beyond God. When he cries that in spite of everything “I know that my Redeemer lives” (and the Hebrew word go'el, traditionally translated as “redeemer,” originally meant the nearest kinsman who had the duty of exacting vengeance in a blood feud, and then took on an extended meaning of defender or deliverer), is he saying that in spite of everything he believes that God, whom he has been attacking as his persecutor, is really on his side, or is he looking to some power behind God? Earlier, Job had said: “Yes. He may slay me; I have no hope, but I will justify my ways to His face”1 and we get the feeling that if only he could force a confrontation with God, he would find God, the unjust wielder of power, and God, the redeemer, identical. Sometimes a curiously elegiac note rises up: here is Gordis's rendering of one such passage:
If a man die, can he live again?
all the days of my service I
till my hour of release should
You would call and I would an-
You would be longing for the
work of Your hands.
That's the sort of God Job would like, a God who would enable a man to live again after death (which Job did not believe God could or would do), when a loving reconciliation between the creator and the creature could take place. But nowhere in the poem is it suggested that this will actually occur. Even though, in the astonishing conclusion of the poem, God does appear out of the whirlwind and confront Job, it is to assert the unfathomable diversity, wonder, and splendor of the universe and God's unknowable power in creating it. Job is abashed, but God does not reprove him for his near-blasphemous words: on the contrary, he reproves his friends (who had maintained throughout the discussion the conventional doctrine that suffering must imply prior sin) for having talked nonsense.
Job gets his confrontation, then. But it is not the kind he had demanded, with a clear statement of what he was supposed to have done wrong so that he could disprove it in open court, as it were. God's voice, speaking marvelous poetry, gives a tremendous picture of the great non-human forces in the universe, almost as though to suggest that man hardly counts. The memorable portraits of behemoth and leviathan (the hippopotamos and the crocodile) suggest two things, says Gordis. “First, man, who is only one of God's creatures, is not the measure of all things and the sole test of creation. Second, man's suffering must be seen in its proper perspective within the framework of the cosmos.” And Gordis goes on to say that “evil will then seem less pervasive in the universe than Job's anguished cries have made it appear.” To this, one can only reply that surely in any higher religion man has a special relationship to God which cannot be blurred by dwelling on the magnificence of the non-human creation; and secondly, that if man suffers unjustly, his suffering—whatever proportion it happens to occupy of the sum-total of activity in the universe—still represents injustice, and God should not be unjust. One is reminded of the servant girl who pleaded that her illegitimate baby was a very little one. The size is not relevant to the issue.
I cannot myself feel that what is going on in this extraordinary final part of Job is quite what Gordis says it is. For he then goes on to say that God's second speech to Job teaches Job “to recognize both the mystery and the harmony of the world.” The mystery, yes; the power, the diversity, the sheer scope and even monstrousness of creation, yes. But harmony? I can find nothing in the original text which suggests this notion. In other words, it seems to me that Gordis is rationalizing a bit. God says that His creation is mysterious and wonderful and that man cannot begin to understand it. That is all the answer Job gets. God does not say to Job that if he could see the creation as a whole he would recognize its harmony and justice. He does not say that man's suffering is justified because it is so small a part of the totality of the universe (which is a pretty dangerous position theologically and morally anyway). He calls attention to Job's inability to command the morning, tread on the sea-bed, discover the home of light, bind the chains of the Pleiades, seize leviathan with a net, and do many other things; and it is true that the list of these things is absolutely stunning in its suggestion of power and glory, so that it does exalt the spirit to read it. But the only answer to Job's question is that there is no answer: the universe is more complicated than man can ever hope to understand, so he had better refrain from discussing the principles on which it is run. Yet Job is not punished for having raised the question; instead, his friends are reproved for having given the neat, conventional answers. There are no answers that man can understand.
One can argue forever about the real meaning of the last part of the book, and if I have some minor disagreements with Dr. Gordis it is not because I do not appreciate the scholarship and the qualities of mind and imagination that reveal themselves again and again in his commentary. I was particularly impressed by his solution to some of the perennial textual problems presented by this difficult work, one part of which is clearly incomplete and out of order but which, on the whole, is much less in need of radical emendation than earlier scholars, in the heyday of textual reconstruction, believed. In a perceptive chapter on “the rhetoric of allusion and analogy” Gordis draws attention to the great demands made on the reader in the ancient Semitic world, not only in vocalizing a consonantal alphabet in the process of reading, and in supplying punctuation, but also in following what is often a highly allusive line of thought, and in making sense of parallels and contrasts which are set going by imagery lacking either cumulative or antithetical conjunctions. By the simple process of recognizing certain sentences as quotations, existing within unwritten quotation marks, he makes impressive sense of entire chapters that had been truncated or scrapped by earlier editors. In his translation, he helps the reader by putting into Job's mouth, as he addresses his friends, such phrases as “You say . . . but I maintain” and immediately the whole pattern of the speech becomes clear and we are no longer bewildered by arguments of Job's opponents emerging intermittently from the mouth of Job with disturbing lack of logic. Similarly, Job may cite a well-known proverb before going on to confute it with reference to his own experience. If we do not recognize that proverb as a quotation, we are puzzled by Job's saying one thing and then going on to say the precise opposite.
The translation itself is always interesting and often illuminating, though the scope of the book does not allow detailed textual notes defending a given rendering. Occasionally Gordis, in his desire to make the point absolutely clear, adds a word not in the original, and I am not sure that this does not weaken rather than strengthen the effect. For example, the second verse of Chapter 12 is rendered thus both by the King James Bible, and the Jewish Publication Society translation:
No doubt but ye are the people,
And wisdom shall die with you.
Marvin Pope (who takes the Hebrew word am to be a technical social term meaning upper-class landowners, though its basic and more general sense is simply “people”) renders:
No doubt you are the gentry,
And with you wisdom will die.
No doubt you are the people
and with you all wisdom will
In his desire to spell out what the original means, Gordis adds “that count” (not in the Hebrew), thus blunting the sly irony of the original, and adds the word “all” (also not in the Hebrew) before “wisdom.” It is true that this results in a crystal-clear statement of the intention of the original, but it lacks its compression and thus its power. Again, let us compare the opening on Chapter 3 in the three versions (King James, Pope, and Gordis):
Let the day perish wherein I was
And the night wherein it was
‘A man-child is brought forth.’
Let that day be darkness; . . .
Damn the day I was born,
The night that said, ‘A boy is
That day—let it be darkness.
Perish the day when I was born,
and the night which said:
“A man-child is conceived.”
That day—may it be utter dark-
Only Gordis adds the unnecessary word “utter,” which is not in the Hebrew. (The Hebrew word choshekh is simply the ordinary word for darkness: there is another Hebrew word for darkness, arafel, used in Isaiah and usually translated “thick darkness,” but it is not the word used here.) Nevertheless, Gordis's is a clear and vivid translation, and a conservative one in the sense that he does not emend the masoretic text unnecessarily. Here is a final example of different renderings of the same passage, nicely illustrating not only some of the linguistic difficulties but also the way in which the doctrinal element can affect the translation. The first is from the King James version, the second from the Jewish Publication Society, the third is Pope's and the fourth Gordis's:
For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
But as for me, I know that my Redeemer liveth,
And that he will witness at the last upon the dust;
And when after my skin this is destroyed,
Then without my flesh shall I see God.
I know that my vindicator lives, A guarantor upon the dust will stand;
Even after my skin is flayed,
Without my flesh I shall see God.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
though He be the last to arise upon earth!
Deep in my skin this has been marked,
and in my very flesh do I see God.
Pope gets “guarantor” by reading the Hebrew word acharon, which normally means “last,” in the light of the Mishnaic and Talmudic term achar'y (responsible). But he adds that it makes little real difference whichever way we take the word, “since the crucial point is that the vindicator and guarantor is not God but rather a mediator, an arbiter who will eventually prove Job's innocence before God.” But Gordis returns to the older view that the go'el is God, seeing Job as appealing from God to God, from the God of power to the God of justice. It is, for Gordis, a mystical vision which Job has for an instant and cannot sustain: “In this moment of mystical exaltation, Job feels his ultimate reconciliation with God engraved on his very flesh. He yearns to hold fast to the ecstatic experience, but it flees. The vision of the future fades as quickly as it has come, and there remains only the agony of the present.” Much of Gordis's interpretation depends on his seeing swiftly changing moods succeeding themselves in Job's consciousness. This enables him to retain as authentic many passages earlier editors threw out as illogical excrescences.
The argument will go on. No study of this fascinating book can be final: but this is an impressive and illuminating contribution.
1 Gordis's translation.