The Book of Job: A Biography?
by mark larrimore
?princeton, 296 pages, $24.95
The book of Job has served as a philosophical Rorschach blot for its most outspoken interpreters, from the Talmudic rabbis and Church Fathers through their medieval philosophical successors and down to modern philosophers, theologians, and creative writers. The individual characters in whose elusive speech the narrative unfoldsGod, Satan, Job himself, his three interlocutors, the belated guest Elihutend to become stock representatives of philosophical positions or exemplars of religious judgment.
Mark Larrimore has undertaken the daunting task of capturing this two-thousand-year record of interpretation. He spends significant time on the pseudepigraphic Testament of Job, in which Satan is a ubiquitous agent of temptation while Job remains pious throughout. Larrimore implies that this work is a reaction to the rebellious Job of the biblical book and that the proverbial “patience of Job” in the Epistle of James is influenced by the Testament.
For Larrimore the medieval and early modern periods mark the rise of the Book of Job as disputation, with Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin as his chosen representatives. These writers see the book through the prism of the question of evil. Maimonides is the first of them to ascribe specific philosophical views to Job and to the other speakers in the dialogue. For the sake of argumentative consistency and focus, Maimonides dismisses many powerful emotional passages as philosophically irrelevant digressions. Other theologians, in the service of Job’s pious image, play down his pungent sayings. Calvin, for whom Job is a vehicle for communicating the transcendence and inscrutability of God, cites some of Eliphaz’s utterances as if they were Job’s, assuming, as did other Jewish and Christian writers, that all Scripture delivers the same message, irrespective of the speaker.
With the modern problem of theodicy, the readings of Job that attract Larrimore’s attention are increasingly embedded in larger philosophical, literary, or academic projects. Perhaps the most thought-provoking element in this book is Larrimore’s emphasis on the importance of Kant, more than Leibniz, as the hinge around which the history of theodicy revolves.
The last chapter, “Job in Exile,” is a bit heterogeneous. It contains a sampling of twentieth-century Bible criticism, mostly attempts to rearrange the text or speculations about interpolations, but also includes post-Holocaust ruminations, with much space dedicated to Elie Wiesel.
There are limitations. Dostoevsky does not appear in the index, though Ivan Karamazov is mentioned and there is a fleeting reference to Fr. Zosima’s retelling of Job, Larrimore offering no indication of its influence on philosophical discussion. There are two apt citations of Kierkegaard’s Repetition but none of the two “upbuilding discourses” on Job 1, all of them published the same day. Chesterton gets his due, perhaps because he has attracted the attention of iek.
In particular, there is no space for either analytic philosophy or the traditional kind of literary criticism, practiced by Robert Alter or Harold Fisch, that concentrates on the poetic imagery and the narrative contours of the book. Larrimore uses the word “polyphony” a couple of times, and a footnote refers to Carol Newsom’s commentary that, in my opinion, most instructively approaches Job from a Bakhtinian perspective. These omissions are regrettable, because detailed literary analysis may afford the best opportunity of redeeming the full register of voices and moods in Job from the temptation either to attribute to the book a uniform message or to reduce it to a series of obscure fragments.
Shalom Carmy is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical ?Council of America.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of First Things.