My dream Job

3PictureBookScheindlinJobJob 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)

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary
Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary

(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.

Continue reading

Psalm 39: next to nothing

3PictureJobByzantineManuscriptRobert Alter finds a neat way to end Psalm 39, the psalm that most focuses, in semantics and structure, on man’s evanescence.

Alter’s notes for Psalm 39 demonstrate (1) the predominance of “breath” (e.g., “Mere breath is each man standing”), (2) the echoes from Job (e.g., “You . . . melt like the moth his treasure”), and (3) the contrast between the psalm’s triadic lines (psychological tension) and dyadic lines (symmetry). Alter’s last verse confronts these components.

I’m used to the psalm ending on something like the Revised English Bible’s simpering:

Frown on me no more; let me look cheerful
before I depart and cease to be.

But Alter likes how Raymond Scheindlin translates Job’s end for its chapter 10, rendering the “disputed verb avligah” as “catch my breath”:

Let me alone so I may catch my breath

before I go on my way, not to return
into a land of darkness and deathgloom

Psalm 39’s final verse uses the same verb. Alter adopts Scheindlin’s strategy, giving the last verse’s dyadic structure something of the roundedness of the previous triadic lines:

Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.

Based on these lines alone, I just ordered a copy of Scheindlin’s Job – a used, hardcover copy for next to nothing.

The illustration is from a Byzantine manuscript in Rome’s Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. You have to love how it depicts who I guess are Job’s friends: all mouth.

Lectio: snuggling inside a phrase

3PictureIlluminatedRicePsalterI’ve been reading Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary at about a psalm-every-two-days clip, and I’ve had to balance my excitement of reading an accurate and startlingly fresh translation with my goal of getting back into lectio divina. When the new translation’s freshness or the commentary’s new information unexpectedly leads me into lectio, as it did this morning, my usual balance board acts more like a launch pad.

Today is the first day of Psalm 26. Here are Alter’s versions of verses 2 and 3:

2 Test me, O LORD, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
3 For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.

Here’s part of his commentary regarding verse 3:

This is a clear instance of what some biblical scholars call a breakup pattern. The phrase “kindness and truth” esed-weemet, meaning something like “steadfast kindness,” is split between the two versets, standing as bookends at the beginning and end of the line. (Kindle Locations 2526-2529)

The psalmist seems to sandwich verse 3 between the two concepts the phrase esed-weemet holds together. Verse 3, then, can be read as an examination of the phrase. He suggests from it, I think, that the Lord’s kindness he insists on keeping before him is the only means of walking in the Lord’s truth (or, as the Revised English Bible and the margin note to the New American Standard have it, his “faithfulness”).

But it’s a personal examination, too, a prayerful consideration of himself inside the phrase. His amplification inserts himself between the phrase’s two meanings like a kid who snuggles between her parents in their bed. It’s the “prayerful reading” that “is the first moment of lectio divina” (Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, 61). It shows a ready and imaginative heart, one willing to pry with prayer into a single phrase’s meaning, willing to section a phrase’s fruit and eat its sections one at a time with slow attention.

(The illustration is a detail from the Rice Psalter.)