Job is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.
And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).
The idea of Job as theater recurs while reading Scheindlin’s The Book of Job. Scheindlin, for instance, discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:
But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day,
……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)
Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t sharpen them the way Scheindlin does. Scheindlin’s translation also emphasizes how Job’s words feed off those of his friends, an essential component of theater or even plain, old argument. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in the Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.” Scheindlin’s move sharpens the dialogue.
I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As a good rhetorician, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:
“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech,
……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders;
……length of years makes a man perspicacious.”
He has wisdom and power;
……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)
(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.
Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.
As with many a good translation, The Book of Job contains an introduction that alone is worth the price of admission. Consider the respect for larger aspects of narrative suggested by the following commentary on chapter 28, known as the Meditation on Wisdom:
Most scholars agree that this poem is not part of the original book, since it interrupts the dialogue and, by anticipating Yahweh’s message, renders His speech anticlimactic. These particular objections, however, are not very weighty, for, as we shall see, the book is full of repetitions and anticipations, being constructed by concatenation rather than by the requirements of drama. And the Meditation is certainly functional in terms of the book’s overall plan, for it provides a needed change in tone from the vehemence of Job’s speech in chapter 27 to a cool solemnity, a contrasting background for Job’s impassioned concluding soliloquies. (37)
Scheindlin’s approach, here and throughout, is much like Robert Alter’s in The Art of Biblical Narrative. Let the scholars argue about how much editing our received text has been subject to. No possibility detracts from the work’s literary force.
Job’s concatenation – what Scheindlin also calls its “rhetorical juxtaposition” – is paired with poetry:
. . . Job attempts to take control of our human agony, to give it full expression and tame it by means of imagery, rhythm, and wordplay. (23)
This poetry points to abundance, to “a writer who is fascinated with this life, troubled as it is, a man who never wearies of the variety and vividness of the multitude of things that life offers for our observation. In this, he is the temperamental opposite of the world-weary Ecclesiastes, who suffers from surfeit as Job suffers from deprivation” (23). The poetry’s riches contrast with Job’s suffering and, to Scheindlin, suggest the one consolation God offers Job in his suffering: language and the unspeakable cosmos that the language signifies.
The poetry is also problematic. Or, one might say, where many translators find problems, Scheindlin finds poetry:
Though the text has certainly suffered some corruption, I doubt that problems of transmission are a sufficient explanation for the book’s special difficulties. More plausible is the belief of some scholars that the Book of Job was couched by the author in difficult language in order to obscure his unorthodox ideas. (30)
But even this explanation, given also by John McGuckin in The Book of Mystical Chapters to account for the recondite language of the Desert Fathers in the Gnostikos stage of instruction, isn’t enough. Perhaps linguistic confusion also reflects the speaker’s confusion:
Obscurity of language can have a mimetic function: Confusion of language can be used to imitate confusion of ideas, to depict a speaker as being momentarily at a loss, or to represent the breakdown of intellectual control in the vehemence of debate. (31)
Scheindlin’s translation finds plenty of this, particularly in chapter 16, in which, Scheindlin notes, Job “lapses into near incoherence” (184). But while Scheindlin’s translation gives credence to the text’s corruption, to the author’s possible self-preserving obscurity of language, and to these “local mimetic explanations,” Scheindlin finds the most inspiration from a fourth explanation:
. . . the author of Job may have decided that a difficult texture was the right one for his emotionally wrenching theme – a tortured language to describe life’s torment. (31)
The two principal roles for Job’s poetic diction and syntax, then, are at cross-purposes. Scheindlin says that Job’s poetry is the only suitable – the only possible – container for Job’s torment. But he says also that Job’s poetry can serve as Job’s comfort. To reconcile this discrepancy, though, may be to fall into Job’s friends’ chief sin – the pat answer. Who would “turn the night to day / pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness” (17:12)?
Befitting Job’s capacity for paradox, Scheindlin finds little need to resolve textual ambiguity. Consider his non-solution for arriving at the antecedent in chapter 21’s “Who can reproach him to his face? He has acted: Who can requite him?”:
Does this verse refer to the all-powerful wicked man of the immediate context, or to God, the all-powerful deity of the larger context? The ambiguity is a bitter one. (194)
Scheindlin honors Job’s ambiguity as the non-expression of the extraordinary tension between Job’s suffering and his identity as God’s child.
So consider three of my favorite examples in Scheindlin’s Job of diction and syntax. Some famous lines from Job’s chapter 7:
Man’s life on earth is a term of indenture;
……his days are like a laborer’s,
a slave, who pants for a little shade,
……a day laborer, who only wants his wages.
I too am granted blank moons:
……troubled nights have been my lot. (7:1 – 3)
Compare “blank moons” with Pope’s “empty months” or, worse, the Revised English Bible’s “months of futility.” “Blank moons”: full or new moons?
I heard the barking of the seventh seal and beheld, arm in arm, the moonless and moonlit nights.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) March 11, 2014
Of course, even Job’s friends achieve poetry:
Though his stature rise to the heavens,
……though his head attain the clouds,
he meets the same end as his own stool;
……“Where has he gone?” the onlookers say. (20:6 – 7)
But this only serves to raise Job’s game. Job, answering Zophar in chapter 21:
How often does the lamp of the bad man gutter,
……and due disaster fall on him?
Does God distribute pain-portions in His rage?
Do such men become straw before the wind,
……or storm-snatched chaff? (21:17 – 18)
I can hear Job, lips snarled, sneering out that last line.
I’m reading Scheindlin’s Job with Pope’s generation-older translation as a reference. Who, after all, can read Pope’s Job straight through? It’s a wonderful guide, but nothing makes one wish to hear it performed. I wish, though, that some troupe would take on Scheindlin’s Job.
It wouldn’t be easy. How, for instance, would you end it? Lear ends tragically, but Job doesn’t end comically or tragically. It reverts to the fairy tale, to a dream, to the primeval waters. The waters that keep us from Sheol also keep watch between us and the heaven of heavens. They distort sight like tears, and they make the stars twinkle.