“Illuminating Job” by C. L. Seow

C. L. Seow

C. L. Seow

The following post by C. L. Seow, author of the new ILLUMINATIONS volume Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary, originally appeared June 21, 2013, on EerdWord, the Eerdmans blog.

* * *

Readers of the Bible who seek help to plumb the depths of the text often find that they need a veritable library of commentaries. Once, when my colleagues and I tried to put together a list of recommended commentaries for each book of the Old Testament, we realized that in each case we had to name several options — some that emphasized literary aspects, others that were attuned to theological issues, still others that grappled with the philological and historical problems of the text, and so forth. We had to identify commentaries that were broadly accessible, but also those that could serve as reference works.

What we needed, I felt, were commentaries that were literary and theological, but that also attended to text-critical and philological concerns as well as to questions relating to historical and cultural context. What we looked for, but couldn’t find, were organic treatments of the texts that were enjoyable and unencumbered by technical jargon or scholarly diversions, but that were also accompanied by notes that rigorously justified the interpretation and delved in depth into all questions pertaining to the text.  In addition, we saw a gaping hole in available Bible commentaries when it came to their treatment of reception history. Contemporary biblical scholarship has increasingly acknowledged the importance the Bible’s afterlife that is evident not only in commentaries, homilies, theological treatises, and polemical writings but also in music, literature, visual  and performing arts, and indeed, in any and all ways that the text has been encountered.

Job 1–21, the inaugural volume in the ILLUMINATIONS commentary series.

Job 1–21

The new Illuminations series is my attempt — and the attempt of many of other excellent biblical scholars — to create commentaries that do all these things.

Accordingly, the introduction of the inaugural volume — on the book of Job — includes the standard discussions of texts and versions, language, the integrity of the book, provenance, genres, structure, artistry, and theology. It also includes, however, a lengthy survey of “the history of consequences” in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each chapter of the book, too, is treated in all these ways. Thus, for example, in my treatment of Job 3, which is widely viewed as among the most beautiful poems in the Bible, there is a full exploration of the way the poem works not only as a theological text but, well, simply as poetry — the visual and oral wordplays, the imagery, the humor, and the play of ambiguity. Also mustered to elucidate the poem are analogous texts from ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Canaan, as well as iconography from Egypt.

Along the way, the reader comes to see how various early and medieval interpreters offered brilliant insights that moderns generally miss. In Job 3:3-5, the reference to the conception of a “man” has troubled modern interpreters who recognize that the term is more properly used of an adult male than of an embryo or infant. So why does Job say “a man is conceived”? To avoid the awkwardness, scholars sometimes emend the text to read “male” or “boy.” Yet early interpreters recognized that Job is speaking not of himself but of humanity as a whole. Thus, Origen (3rd century) judged that Job’s problem is not so much with his own existence but with human existence. Didymus the Blind (4th century) concurred that Job was speaking “concerning the entire human race.” For Hesychius of Jerusalem (5th century), Job was alluding to the creation of the first human being. Such interpretations send readers back to reconsider the text, whereupon they might realize that the Hebrew term in the book typically refers to the human being (“mortal”), as opposed to God.

It may seem odd that the poet should use such a term when it is Job in particular who is the subject of the preceding line. Yet parallelism is not the mere repetition of ideas. On the contrary, the second line may heighten the stakes. In this case, the poet moves from an impersonal Day in which Job was born to a personal Night in which he now dwells, and, in a move that literary critics call “defamiliarization,” the poet momentarily disorientates the reader through the  unexpected sequence of birth followed by conception, and through the jarring image of the conception not of the infant born but of the “man” — the “mortal.” Then the reader is reoriented by an allusion to the creation of the cosmos, except that it is the undoing of creation that is now in view. Insofar as these ancient readers mentioned above were able to cope poetically and theologically with this disorientation, they prove to be extraordinarily sensitive readers of Joban poetry.

In his exegesis of this passage, Hesychius of Jerusalem (5th century) proceeds to associate the light in 3:4c with Christ and the darkness in 3:5a with “the Enemy,” that is, the Devil. Modern critics may dismiss this Christological reading as anachronistic and fanciful. What is important, though, is that Hesychius recognizes the integral relationship between verses 4 and 5 and the personification that is at work. His exposition reflects the ancient liturgy for Christian initiation. A candidate for baptism would face the West, which represents Darkness, and renounce all ties with “the Enemy”; he or she would then turn East to acknowledge allegiance to Christ the Light. Hesychius recognizes the tension between personified Light and Darkness in Job’s poem, although Job seems ironically to be calling for the opposite of what the Christian baptismal liturgy performed. In his despair, Job cries out for the abandonment of the light’s — and God’s — claim on him on the one hand and for the futherance of the claim of darkness — and with it, his own personal annihilation — on the other. Some illustrations of the passage in an early twelfth-century manuscript from Cyprus may reflect an exegesis similar to that of Hesychius. In these, Job is shown cursing the day of his birth, while personified Darkness stands nearby in a mandorla. Job is shown in these illustrations with his hand extended toward personified Darkness, as if reaching out to it. This representation of personified Darkness is unusual, since elsewhere it is typically Christ who is depicted in a mandorla. The manuscripts portray personified Darkness as an ominous counter-redeemer to whom Job is reaching out through his malediction. These early Christian interpreters have appropriately called attention to the relationship between verses 4 and 5. They understood the former to contain an allusion to divine presence, and emphasized the tension between redemption by God in verse 4 and the counter-redemption by Darkness in verse 5. These ancient interpreters — including the artists — prove to be perceptive close-readers of the text who have much to contribute to their modern counterparts.

It is, after all, both the artists and the scholars — both the theological minds and the creative spirits — who have encountered, grappled with, and, yes, interpreted Job and the Bible’s many other beautiful and challenging texts through the ages. And it is my intention that, through the Illuminations commentary series, modern readers may in turn encounter their many voices — and themselves enter into the great and ongoing conversation.

Click to order C. L. Seow’s Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary, the opening volume in the ILLUMINATIONS commentary series.

To discover more about ILLUMINATIONS:

  • Read a basic introduction to the series on EerdWord, the Eerdmans blog. 
  • View the series trailer on YouTube.
  • Watch a video interview with C. L. Seow. 
  • Read an excerpt from C. L. Seow’s Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary.
  • Check out an interview with C. L. Seow about the series published in Marginalia.

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