Monday, February 01, 2010

Testament to something

In class today we discussed the Testament of Job, a rendering of the Job story from two millennia ago, plus or minus a century or two. It's frustrating for me, a modernist used to pretty easy dating of texts, not to know more, especially as it might seem that plus or minus a century makes all the difference here: pre-Christian or post?! It seems wiser to say that the Testament of Job, along with the Septuagint translation and the Aramaic Targum of Job found at Qumran, are all part of a larger tradition of Job interpretation, a mostly oral tradition sometimes known as the "legend of Job," which influenced artistic representations of the Job story into the early modern period, and which may well even be older than the canonical text. They tell a story subtly but profoundly different.

The differences from the canonical Book of Job are many. The main ones seem to be an enlarged role for Job's wife and, related to this, a quite different cognitive situation for Job. Let me take the latter first, as it enables us to see what role the enhanced Mrs. Job plays. (There are other differences too: the satan has become Satan, and Job has a second wife who, like him, is an Israelite, for instance...)

The Job of the Testament knows exactly what will happen to him, and indeed knowingly brings it on himself. After wondering if a much-venerated idol's temple ... [c]an really be [to] the God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and us ourselves (II), he has a dream in which a loud voice with a very great light informs him: He to whom they bring the whole burnt-offerings and pour out milk-offerings is not God but the power of the Devil. Indignant, Job asks for authority to go out and cleanse this sanctuary (III).

And the light answered me and said, You can indeed cleanse this sanctuary, but I must let you know everything the Lord has commanded me to tell you. ... If you do attempt to cleanse Satan's sanctuary, he will turn against you in anger and fight against you; but although he will afflict you with many calamities, he will not be able to kill you. He will take your possessions away: he will destroy your children. But if you endure, I will make your name famous among all generations on earth until the end of time. And I will return your possessions to you, and double shall be restored to you, so that you may know that the Lord has no favourites and richly repays everyone who obeys him. And you will be raised up at the resurrection; for you will be like a boxer in the games who keeps the struggle up and gains his crown. (IV)

Job razes the temple to the ground, and the promised afflictions arrive, described in far greater detail and taking much longer than seems to be implied in the canonical book. Eventually, Satan relents (though the sufferings go on at least another three years):

Lo, Job, I am exhausted, and I give in to you, though you are human and I am a spirit: you are smitten by disease, but I am in great distress as well. For it is as if two athletes were wrestling, and one threw the other; and the one that was on top silenced the one underneath by filling his mouth with sand and twisting his every limb. But the one underneath bore it all with patient endurance, and did not give in, and it was the one on top that at last shouted out that he was beaten. (XXVII)

Eventually his friends (all kings in this version - Job, too) come and Elihu speaks too (actually a refreshed Satan speaks through him), but the dialogue is abbreviated. God's speech is briefer still: After he [Elihu] has ceased his fine words, the Lord apeared to me and spoke through whirlwind and clouds. And he censured Elihu... (XLII) Restoration soon follows, Job is healed and all is well.

But is this Job's ordeal anything like that of the protagonist of the canonical book, who has no idea what is happening to him - doesn't precipitate it, and certainly has no assurance that the suffering has a meaning or an end? We concluded not. The Testament's Job knows exactly what's going on, and has his eyes on the prize, as when he responds to his hard-working but demoralized and humiliated wife's complaint:

Lo, I have been afflicted by diseases for seventeen years, and I have submitted patiently to the worms in my body. But I have never been so dispirited by the pains as by the words you have just uttered, Curse [lit: Speak a word against] the Lord and die. This is a burden we both of us bear together - the loss of our children and possessions: would you have us now curse the Lord and so deprive ourselves of the great wealth that is to be? (XXVI)

The Biblical Job has no such assurance. At no point in his speeches does he demand, let alone expect, a restoration of wealth and happiness. So the quality of patience (if it is patience), endurance, persistence that he shows is an entirely different animal than that of the Job of the Testament.

Strikingly, the cognitive situation of the Biblical Job is more like that of the Testament's Mrs. Job, who - as we just saw - has not been told what's going on, and has certainly not chosen her fate. Indeed, the relationship between the Testament's Job (who knows of the test, that he can withstand it, and initiates it) and Mrs. Job (who doesn't know any such thing) is remarkably like that between God and Job in the canonical book! Yes, she stumbles a few times - the canonical Job too comes close to blasphemy - but she persists, and is celebrated when she dies. In fascinating ways the Testament's Mrs. Job is the true vehicle of the message, or the challenge, of the canonical Book of Job.

There's much more one might say about her. Why, for instance, must she die, however happily (on seeing that her children are not dead but were transported bodily into heaven), mourned by humans as well as animals (XL), rather than sharing in Job's restoration? She has a far better image than the wife of the Biblical Job (though she has to work harder for it, supporting her diseased and ostracized husband by begging and drudgery for people who were once her servants, eventually even selling her hair for bread) - might she be giving him a run for his money? What role do gender roles play in the story more generally?

I don't think that the author of the Testament of Job deliberately or even knowingly displaced the God-Job relationship to Job-Mrs. Job. The story he (presumably) wrote was surely one he'd heard before, the same story which led the translators of the Septuagint to add a Testament-like speech for Mrs. Job to the Greek translation of the Book of Job. So how might this displacement have happened?

It may be that the far more disconcerting story of the biblical Job, abandoned (for all he knew) by his God, haunts the legend of Job. The true story of Job will out!

Or maybe it's that the Bible's story of Job is truer to the experiences we actually know. Even if one were assured that God is in control, that no suffering happens by accident or for no reason - that one's affliction were actually a vote of confidence from God! - there's a cognitive gap between this faith and an actual life of apparently meaningless loss and devastation. A story which didn't include that gap wouldn't ring true in the same way. Further, true patience, or endurance, or persistence, or faith, or integrity - whatever it is that Job is thought to exemplify - arguably requires just such a gap.

Perhaps thinking about the importance of this gap can help explain why the apparent tension between the prose tale and the poetic center of the Biblical Book of Job didn't raise eyebrows until recently, and even why the legend of Job persisted as long a it did - to keep the two parts in a balance threatened by the greater weight of the poem of Job. It can also perhaps help explain why Mrs. Job, a one-line walk-on in the Book of Job, persistently endures in dramatic and artistic retellings - and in some of them, at least, is more human and more impressive than he.

(Translation of the "Legend of Job" by R. Thornhill is from The Apocryphal Old Testament, ed. H. F. D. Sparks (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984)

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