Monday, April 26, 2010

In the land of Uz

Silliness overtook me in the Job class this afternoon. We've been reading Carol Newsom's masterful if exhausting analysis of the Book of Job, which reads its various disparate parts as generically distinct - but effective precisely because of this jarring and jostling of genres as a polyphonic whole. It was the turn of Elihu, whom Newsom reads as a "dissatisfied reader" who adds himself to the text. There are questions to be raised about Newsom's insistence that this, and no other part of the book, is an interpolation and needs to be understood in those terms, but her larger argument that a polyphonic text demands that the reader continue its dialogue seems valid and important. It's also an exciting way to think about the work of those editors and interpolators who amplified ancient texts. Elihu represents the reader, that is, you and me, and that part should be not a passive but an active one. So, I told the class, take twenty minutes and change something about the Book of Job.

All sorts of interesting changes were made: the suggestion that the praise of Job in the book's opening was Job's talking over the narrator, a vaguely Hindu speech by Mrs. Job, the recovery of Zophar's third speech, a naturalistic account of the loss and restoration of Job's flocks and children, the excision of the epilogue and Elihu, an opportunity for Job to speak at the end and explain how he experienced things, positioning the hymn to wisdom (chapter 28) at the start of the Book, etc. There was something of substance to each of these - if the responsse were light-hearted (perhaps it was giddiness at tampering with scripture), the textual problems identified was serious.

I'm afraid I can't really say as much of my own effort. I feel obliged to participate in all exercises I ask of students, and often learn something from the experience. I could have this time. I should have gone with my initial idea of having another Elihu-like outsider step onstage to voice the hymn to wisdom, her speaking explained in terms of her distress at the anger Job and his friends were causing in each other and opening up the space for Job to speak for himself. And I remembered once wishing Job had used his restored wealth to set up a classless socialist paradise in which there were no outsiders. Instead I fashioned a coda, modeled on that of the Septuagint, which gives banalizing names and genealogies to all the characters. (Read with an Aussie accent:)

That man was Job, and his story was told us by his wife Dinah, my grandmother. My father Elihu and my mother Potpourri opened a nature preserve for all the wild animals God mentioned in his speech. It's become a popular destination for environmentalist evangelicals. When one of the animals attacks a visitor, it is considered a sign of divine favor. One day my father was blessed by Behemoth in a big way, and now I, Bindi of Uz, am keeper of the memory of Job.

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