Friday, March 19, 2010

Genre and Interpretation in Job

Many critics have denied the essential unity of the book of Job, relegating the prologue and epilogue to an early myth, co-opted by a later poet-sage stretching the folk tale into an epic dialogue, with an Elihu scribe and perhaps a Wisdom scribe adding their two and three cents at various stages in the compilation of the final product of the book we now called Job.

A number of recent scholars have pointed out how unhelpful this redaction criticism really is. At the end of the day this get-out-your-scissors approach to exegesis leaves us with a pile of disconnected scraps which seems to be an elaborate evasion of responsibility on the part of interpreters. Who's to say what Job means when we're dealing with so many fragments, authors, editors, etc.?

Even if the the end product of Job was in any way a collaborative effort, the end product is what we have, and any meaningful interpretation must take the final form seriously.

As Carol Newsom has pointed out, the stark differences in genre have typically been viewed as barriers, deep divides that keep interpreters from allowing the prologue and epilogue from being friends with the dialogues. But as she notes, this is overly simplistic and does not really answer the question of whether the author may have intentionally written in two different genres on purpose and what that purpose may have been.

For just one example, while the literary style of the prologue and epilogue are unmistakably similar, the mediating literary style of the dialogues doesn't allow the reader to return to the epilogue unaffected. The prologue sets a tone that is interrupted but not fully shaken as the text "falls apart" in the dialogic storm of words, and then that storm isn't fully calmed even as Job is comforted and surrounded by family and friends and possessions at the end.

One imagines the black, snarling clouds still swirling in the distance and everything is shiny and sparkling from the rain as the sun breaks out of the clouds. And that's part of the intentional structure, the dueling genres of Job.

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