Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The content of the characters in Job

What do these characters say about Job, about each other, about God, and about their various sources of authority for their views? Answering these questions helped me form an opinion about each character. I cannot agree with the three comforters and their assessment of Job. Nor do I think their sources of authority are adequate in themselves. You will of course recognize that tradition and Scripture are among their sources. Their problem is that they cite them as authoritative in themselves. They speak at a distance from their authority and from their God, always in the third person, almost 'hearsay'. Their truth stands on its own and as a result is without foundation in their citing of it.

Job in contrast observes and complains. To God he speaks - often switching mid-speech to direct confrontational lament (See chapters 7, 9, 10, 13). Of God he speaks, reflecting, as the frame story notes, those words that were prepared for him and therefore right for him to say, and intimating as I have noted before those characteristics of God that are required for us to live (e.g. start at chapter 23 and work backwards). In contrast, Bildad concludes chapter 25 and the last noted words of the comforters with humans as maggots and worms, a far cry from the words that are prepared that we know for instance from Psalm 8.

How can we then 'rightly' speak of God? We cannot remain at a distance from our sources of authority. What a terrifying risk - what if our authorities are not trustworthy? Imagine you are made to acknowledge a structure of tradition or Scripture that you do not trust in? You might find yourself on the outside. So you conform but for your own integrity's sake you must be at a distance. Does Job succeed in getting around this problem? And if so how?

We get a clue - a very important one - from the last human character to speak, Elihu. Elihu has some very bad press as I reported earlier.

The narrator takes a long time to introduce Elihu in contrast to the brevity we have become accustomed to. But Elihu takes a whole chapter (so far) - filled with meta-talk, before he gets to any point. You are allowed to laugh. It is a comedy after all. (But who gives himself as answer?)
Edwin Good (In Turns of Tempest, A Reading of Job) has nothing good to say about Elihu and though Crenshaw (Defending God) does say there is some insight from Elihu, he reports that the opinions of Elihu among the scholars are not generally positive. Here is Good as reported against chapter 37
Elihu's theology is depressingly conventional, adding nothing except detail to what the friends have given us in quite sufficient detail. His style is more than depressingly opaque, uttering sentence after sentence in which the words make sense one by one but defy comprehension in combination. It is wordy, convoluted, often scarcely intelligible. The speeches contain some nuggets of semiprecious metal, but embedded in such thick clods of ordinary dirt as to weary the miner beyond reason. Dealing with good poetry is hard and exhilarating, Dealing with Elihu is just hard.
This will not do as a final opinion. The pinions of God fall more fully around Elihu in ways that are unique in the poem. He speaks of his maker as One who 'soon will lift me up' and he says,
the spirit of God has made me
and the breath of the Sufficient has given me life
He intimates that he is among those in the assembly
if you have power to turn me
order before my face - present yourself
He alone finds the ransom for the lost
ransom him from his descent to the pit
I have found a price
And he defines himself as of the work of God - similar to the wisdom of chapter 28
and to the one whose work I am I will give justice
There are too many clues here to ignore. The poet has done something unique creating this character. No one responds to him in the poem and he it is who brings on the speeches of YHWH. Even if this character is an addition to the poem, it is a brilliant one, not without reward.

Crenshaw attributes cruelty to Elihu for the words at the end of chapter 34. But what is he making of that verse? Is Job to suffer for ever? Or is Job as parable-man to suffer on behalf of all till all turn from their distance, solitude, and third party knowledge of God? So Elihu can criticize Job's speeches as without knowledge and still himself survive the commendation of Job's words about God in the frame story.

Of the human characters, Elihu and Job both survive through closeness to their sources. (The comforters survive through Job's intercession.) Can we also survive? To be close to our canon of scripture requires diligent slow reading. To be close to our tradition requires care and feeding of liturgy without compromise. To be close to our God requires mystery and obedience. What great difficulty - hearing the invisible, critiquing sloppy performance and poor poetry, and escaping somehow from the distorted lenses of history, ecclesiastical policy, and confessional abbreviations of theology.

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