Saturday, February 20, 2010

Enemy of wisdom?

Finished Kugel's How to Read the Bible (and updated my first post). It is a tour de force, a demonstration of how the "ancient interpreters" made the Bible into the Bible, and a sustained argument for why contemporary Jews and Christians should learn to see the values of their traditions in those of the interpreters, not in the "pre-Bible" disclosed by modern biblical scholarship. As he sees it, there's really no alternative, if you're going to continue to have a Bible.

But there's an interesting blind spot in his view - our old friend Job! The chapter on Job is the shortest in Kugel's book (admittedly other books of the Bible are often bundled into chapters, but this is conspicuously and perhaps intentionally the shortest chapter). Job's supposedly eternal questions aren't mentioned. Kugel doesn't even mention the familiar compositional questions of frame story and poem of Job. And Kugel dismisses the book's celebrated poetic language as phony baloney, a language no real person ever spoke (641)!

I think I know why. Job is a sustained assault on wisdom literature. But, Kugel will argue in the next chapter, wisdom is the attitude of the "ancient interpreters" whose stance he is commending to us: It is really the wisdom mind-set that made so many ancient texts become a series of eternally valid lessons, the wisdom of the ages (671). But wisdom doesn't know what to do with Job, whose author both entertains and lampoons wisdom arguments, indeed "plays both sides against the middle." But once the Bible had become a great book of lessons, the question "What am I to learn from this?" had to have a straightforward answer (642)! The Book of Job won't play that game.

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