Tag Archives: Bible

“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.

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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.

Video Interview with C. L. Seow

Check out this ten-minute video interview featuring C. L. Seow (author of the ILLUMINATIONS series’ inaugural volume on Job 1–21), which the folks at Eerdmans filmed last November in Chicago at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting.

In the video, Seow describes the “Aha! moment” that inspired the series, the fresh way in which it aims to approach the task of biblical interpretation, and how that fresh approach plays out in his new volume on Job.

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

Excerpt from C. L. Seow’s Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary

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

Job 1–21

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.

Series Trailer for ILLUMINATIONS

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

Last month on EerdWord, Eerdmans Publishing proudly introduced its newest Bible commentary series, ILLUMINATIONS, along with the series’ inaugural volume, Job 1-21 (now available!).

This innovative biblical resource offers both accessible interpretation and in-depth commentary, focusing not only on the text in its original context but also on how it has been received and understood throughout the ages. It seeks “to alert the reader to the history of conversation surrounding biblical texts and to invite the reader to enter it.”

Check out the series trailer (featuring general editor C. L. Seow) put together by the Eerdmans Internet marketing team. Enjoy!

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