Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Book of Job in Ritual Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Book of Job in Ritual Perspective

Article excerpt

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I. THE NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK

In a series of recent articles, Michael V. Fox has argued for a new view of Job's unity, based on the idea that there are "two dimensions of reality" in the book of Job. There is a level of reality "within the narration"-that which Job perceives, namely, his inexplicable loss-and a level "above the narration"-that which Job does not perceive, namely, the satan's provocation of God. Job must be kept in the dark about the reasons for the situation in which he finds himself if the terms of the contest between the satan and God are to be upheld, that is, if Job is truly to be tested as to whether he is a God-fearer or whether he will merely "curse God and die" (Job 2:9) in the face of suffering.1 The great strength of this reading is that it establishes a connection between the prologue (chs. 1-2), in which the reader (but not Job!) learns of the satan's proposition, and the divine speeches that appear toward the end of the dialogues (38:1-41:26). To win, YHWH must compel Job to retract his claims against him without revealing the source of his suffering. YHWH does so by demonstrating to Job his general ignorance of heavenly and earthly matters, not to mention the matter at hand. Job, accordingly, backs off: "Indeed, I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know" (42:3) In Fox's account, therefore, the book of Job is, ultimately, "pietistic, demanding unqualified faith in God's goodness."2

To buttress this reading of the divine speeches, Fox explicates a passage that appears at the very end of the dialogues, Job 42:6, ..., which he would understand to mean that "Job, sitting on dust and ashes, feels disgust (at his earlier words) and repents."3 Fox suggests that Job repents not of "any sin of commission" but of speaking in ignorance of God, "obscuring the plan in words without knowledge" (Job 38:2; 42:3).4 Fox's chief concern here is to reject any reading of Job 42:6 that would claim, contrary to appearances, that Job is not really backing off, that he upholds his complaint against the deity until the end. This reading, in turn, supports the common view of the prologue and epilogue as later pietistic additions at odds with the more central dialogues of the book.5

The weak link in this argument is Fox's penitential reading. Can we really say that Job has sinned and now must repent, that once he was dwelling upon the ground on account of mourning (2:13) and that he is now sitting again (still?) in "dust and ashes" on account of penitence? YHWH never accuses Job of sin, nor does Job confess it. The epilogue is explicit: it is the friends of Job who have incensed YHWH and who must have sacrifices brought to expiate their sins (42:7-8). Job requires no expiation.

I share with Fox a sense of the explanatory power of the narrative frame for understanding Job. Whether the prologue and epilogue always accompanied the dialogues is not clear to me, but, at the very least, I would affirm that reading the composition as it stands does not merely obfuscate but, also, contributes in important ways to making meaning out of the book and its various components, as well as to establishing productive connections, as we shall see, between the book and other pieces of biblical literature. I would like, however, to buttress Fox's overall argument by taking issue with his interpretation of Job 42:6. What will be proposed is that we are not, in fact, dealing here with penitence but rather with the renunciation of a ritual stance of mourning.6 One of the unnoted implications of the debate over the prologue's place in Job is the question of whether the mourning rituals alluded to therein might play some role in explicating the rest of the book. Viewing the book in the context of mourning practices, that is, within what we might call its ritual framework, also provides a way to envision its unity without reducing the book to a pietistic tract. …

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