C. L. Seow is Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also general editor of the new ILLUMINATIONS commentary series and author of its inaugural volume Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary.
In this excerpt from the introduction to his new commentary (originally published on EerdWord, the blog of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., which has just released the volume), Seow explores the historical significance of Job, lays out some of the inherent difficulties in interpreting the text, and briefly outlines his own strategy for the commentary that follows.
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What is Job? The answer to the question may seem obvious: it is a biblical book. Yet Job is much more than the most famous literary manifestation of it. The NT calls attention to the “patience of Job” (Jas 5:11 KJV), a phrase that has become a cliché for infinite patience, even though the Job of the biblical book is patient only in the Prologue (1:1–2:13). The image of a patient Job, steadfast in the face of enormous suffering, was perpetuated in Christian exegesis and preserved also in Islam, where Ayyub Ṣabūr (“Patient Job”) is a model of a perfectly submissive faith, a proto-Muslim. This tradition of a patient Job goes back at least to the pseudepigraphical Testament of Job (T. Job), where Job is a hero of faith who remains steadfast despite unjust sufferings repeatedly inflicted upon him. According to the prophet Ezekiel in the early sixth century B.C.E., Job was a man from antiquity renowned for his righteousness, which, the prophet implies, saved not only himself but others as well (Ezek 14:14, 20).
So Job is more than the biblical book. It is a tradition that antedates the book and that has been interpreted, retold, and debated from antiquity to the present by commentators, preachers, theologians, and philosophers. It has also been reimagined by poets, visual artists, and musicians. Job is a story that has exercised Jewish and Christian interpreters, and it has flourished in Muslim traditions. It has been the subject of reflection by intellectuals. It has inspired visual art through the ages — in catacombs and sarcophagi from the first centuries C.E., medieval manuscript illuminations, cathedral sculptures, Renaissance paintings, and modern renderings in a variety of media. There are, in fact, thousands of artistic representations of Job in various genres known from around the world. Job is amply represented in music as well, from Jewish and Roman chants to later motets, madrigals, oratorios, and cantatas, to contemporary music, punk rock, and hip-hop. Job has inspired poets, novelists, playwrights, and satirists. The story has been represented in film and even dance.
All these are part and parcel of what people know as Job. And they each contribute to the conversation in the Joban tradition about the reasons for suffering, particularly the tribulations of the innocent, the possibility of divine complicity in undeserved suffering, the nature of such a God, and the proper response of the faithful when confronted with terrible injustice. To varying degrees, the interpretations and retellings of the Joban tale, both the biblical book and the alternate tradition in T. Job and other sources, shape our perception of what is surely one of the most captivating but unsettling stories ever told.
The Hebrew book of Job is by all accounts an exquisite piece of literary art that has its rightful place among the most outstanding compositions in world literature. It is a work of remarkable theological richness, passion, and honesty. Yet it is also widely recognized as an immensely difficult text to understand. Already in antiquity, Jerome (fourth century C.E.) noted that “an indirectness and a slipperiness attaches to the whole book . . . tricked out with figures of speech, and while it says one thing, it does another; just as if you close your hand to hold an eel or a little murena, the more you squeeze it, the sooner it escapes” (NPNF², 6:491). Despite the contributions of centuries of exegesis, Marvin Pope concludes in his Anchor Bible commentary that Job is still “textually the most vexed in the Old Testament,” wryly adding that the book’s size “would be greatly reduced if all the difficult passages were omitted” (Pope 1973, xliii). Pope has in mind the textual and philological difficulties, but the book is no less vexing in its literary complexity and the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological challenges it poses. This commentary will face the text-critical and philological problems squarely, while paying close attention to the poetics and theologies of the book, as well as the contributions of later interpreters.
Click to order C. L. Seow’s Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary, the opening volume in the ILLUMINATIONS commentary series.