Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Is their impatience at an end?

Tried something fun in "Performing the Problem of Suffering" class today, but I'm not sure it worked. The topic was whether the Book of Job should be read as a whole or approached as a composite of multiple authorships which we, as readers, are free and perhaps obliged to take apart. Students have to write a paper in the next weeks considering how the structure of the Book of Job addresses the problem of suffering. After that, they'll have to memorize a 10-line passage (from any edition, translation, even language they wish) and recite it, explaining why they chose it. So today we explored the issues around the book's seared surface, in part through reading aloud.

Introduction: One book or two? The common distinction between the "patient Job" of the prose frame and the "impatient Job" of the poetic dialogues, and the different views on which came first: a pious tale hacked, or a profound poem coopted

Read aloud together:
David Rosenberg's rendering of Job ch. 3 (24 slides like these)
What did that feel like? (discussion)

• the poetic view and jazz-like voice of the Job author
• Rosenberg's inclusion only of Job's speeches (chs. 3-35), an extreme version of the "impatient Job" school

Text historical scholarship suggests more parts (authorships?) than just frame story and poetic dialogues. Who remembers what they are?
• Elihu, and Carol Newsom's account of him as the "first reader"
• ch. 28

Read aloud together:
Job 28: 1-2, 7-15, 20-28 (King James Version, these 6 slides)
What was that like? (discussion)

Lecturette: Much hinges on what we make of this: who is speaking?
• most translations today separate it out with a title like "hymn to wisdom"; it almost certainly an insertion, may well have an independent origin
• but before chapter headings and text-historical research made it thinkable to parse a Biblical text this way, it was assumed that it was spoken by the person speaking in chs. 27 and 29: Job

Read aloud together:
same but preceded by 27:1, 13-23, without interruption (9 slides in all)
What did that feel like? (discussion)

Lecturette: Newsom's suggestion that the poems (including Elihu and 28) interrupt the pious tale of the frame story, a tale whose arc continues to shape the book.

Activity: the pious tale must have included exchanges between Job and his friends - now lost - which were quite different from those which displaced them. With a partner, try to reconstruct what those exchanges might have been like. Job's words might be familiar - like what we see in chs. 1, 2 and perhaps 28. But what do his friends say? We'd run out of time so sharing and discussing what happened there had to happen in the later discussion section.

How'd it go? Everyone was involved (they had to be!), and the discussions were vigorous and surprising. Students had strong and interesting reactions to the visceral and contemporary language of Rosenberg's translation - most appreciated it. A little unexpectedly, the students really liked the "hymn to wisdom," even in the archaic-sounding language: one illuminatingly commenting that it had a liturgical quality. But what really caught me by surprise was their willingness to consider that these might be Job's words (obvious to premoderns but well nigh unthinkable given what we know about the history of the text today). In vain did I point out that the remaining fourteen chapters of the book hardly seem necessary if Job already knows all that at 28. The "impatient Job" was all but forgotten, not to mention the God who addresses him.

Judging from my discussion section, the final activity fell flat. Maybe this is because 28 does offer an easy way of thinking about the whole; even Job's quest for answers is really just a rhetorical exercise - everyone knows that wisdom isn't accessible to us human beings, including him! So they didn't imagine the "patient" Job's friends might have asked some of the questions taken up by the "impatient" Job of the dialogues.

(I played the friend with one of the teaching assistants as a smarmy-pious Job. I encouraged him to protest the injustice of his situation - he mustn't forget that he's innocent! I accusing him of being a fool for his unchanging expressions of faithful acceptance. I even suggested he pretend to repent so God would give him what he in any case deserved. I don't know where those came from - some from Job's actual speeches, but some also from the responses of some my atheist students to Job.)

It's an interesting exercise, though. If I have a chance to do something like it again, I think I'll set it up a different way. I'll keep the structure of today's lecture - savoring the voice of the rebellious Job first, and then something more "patient." It might be a good idea for the poetry of the two readings-aloud to be more similar in style than Rosenberg and KJV, too. Maybe I need to assign a vindication of the "impatient Job," too, not just the meliorist ways of keeping the whole book in play of Newsom and Cynthia Ozick (and, last week, Elsa Tamez and David Clines). Maybe we do Rosenberg first, let people appreciate the power of the idea that Job's speeches can stand on their own and are smothered by the rest. (Needless to say, Rosenberg doesn't include 28!)

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