Have You Considered My Servant Job? Understanding the Biblical Archetype of Patience

Have You Considered My Servant Job? Understanding the Biblical Archetype of Patience

Have You Considered My Servant Job? Understanding the Biblical Archetype of Patience

Have You Considered My Servant Job? Understanding the Biblical Archetype of Patience

Synopsis

The question that launches Job's story is posed by God at the outset of the story: "Have you considered my servant Job?" (1:8; 2:3). By any estimation the answer to this question must be yes. The forty-two chapters that form the biblical story have in fact opened the story to an ongoing practice of reading and rereading, evaluating and reevaluating. Early Greek and Jewish translators emphasized some aspects of the story and omitted others; the Church Fathers interpreted Job as a forerunner of Christ, while medieval Jewish commentators debated conservative and liberal interpretations of God's providential love. Artists, beginning at least in the Greco-Roman period, painted and sculpted their own interpretations of Job. Novelists, playwrights, poets, and musicians--religious and irreligious, from virtually all points of the globe--have added their own distinctive readings.In Have You Considered My Servant Job?, Samuel E. Balentine examines this rich and varied history of interpretation by focusing on the principal characters in the story--Job, God, the satan figure, Job's wife, and Job's friends. Each chapter begins with a concise analysis of the biblical description of these characters, then explores how subsequent readers have expanded or reduced the story, shifted its major emphases or retained them, read the story as history or as fiction, and applied the morals of the story to the present or dismissed them as irrelevant.Each new generation of readers is shaped by different historical, cultural, and political contexts, which in turn require new interpretations of an old yet continually mesmerizing story. Voltaire read Job one way in the eighteenth century, Herman Melville a different way in the nineteenth century. Goethe's reading of the satan figure in Faust is not the same as Chaucer's in The Canterbury Tales, and neither is fully consonant with the Testament of Job or the Qur'an. One need only compare the descriptions of God in the biblical account with the imaginative renderings by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Franz Kafka to see that the effort to understand why God afflicts Job "for no reason" (2:3) continues to be both compelling and endlessly complicated.

Excerpt

Critical study of the Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting has stimulated interest in the individuals who shaped the course of history and whom events singled out as tragic or heroic figures. Rolf Rendtorff’s Men of the Old Testament (1968) focuses on the lives of important biblical figures as a means of illuminating history, particularly the sacred dimension that permeates Israel’s convictions about its God. Fleming James’s Personalities of the Old Testament (1939) addresses another issue, that of individuals who function as inspiration for their religious successors in the twentieth century. Studies restricting themselves to a single individual—for example, Moses, Abraham, Samson, Elijah, David, Saul, Ruth, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah—enable scholars to deal with a host of questions: psychological, literary, theological, sociological, and historical. Some, like Gerhard von Rad’s Moses (1960), introduce a specific approach to interpreting the Bible, hence providing valuable pedagogic tools.

As a rule these treatments of isolated figures have not reached the general public. Some were written by outsiders who lacked a knowledge of biblical criticism (Freud on Moses, Jung on Job) and whose conclusions, however provocative, remain problematic. Others were targeted for the guild of professional biblical critics (David Gunn on David and Saul, Phyllis Trible on Ruth, Terence Fretheim and Jonathan Magonet on Jonah). None has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the reading public in the way fictional works like Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. and Joseph Heller’s God Knows have done.

It could be argued that the general public would derive little benefit from learning more about the personalities of the Bible. Their conduct, often less then exemplary, reveals a flawed character, and their everyday concerns have nothing to do with our preoccupations from dawn to dusk. To be sure some individuals transcend their own age, entering the gallery of classical literary figures from time immemorial. But only these rare achievers can justify specific treatments of them. Then why publish additional studies on biblical personalities?

The answer cannot be that we read about biblical figures to learn ancient history, even of the sacred kind, or to discover models for ethical action. But what . . .

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