FYP Texts: The Sacred Poetry of the Book of Job

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2005/20016 issue of Tidings.

WHAT DISTINGUISHES the Hebrew sacred texts from those of both the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians is that they have never ceased to be read, since they were first engraved onto stone, then transcribed onto papyrus, copied onto parchment and printed upon paper. Even though the Sumerians and Egyptians had built up awesome urban civilizations long before the children of Israel were even “a glimmer in God’s eye,” our appreciation of their sacred writings is really only as a result of dedicated 19th-century archaeology and cryptography. By way of contrast, the Hebrew canonical writings have never ceased to be read, promulgated, published or revered since Moses first received his epoch-making commandments from the Lord God of Israel at Mt. Sinai.

Obviously a short column cannot do justice to this collection of sacred writings, but perhaps a latecomer to the canon (the so-called Book of Job) might provide a snapshot of the continuing power and authority of these ancient texts, which have been honoured with the generic designation “Bible.” This Greek derivation – meaning simply “book” – is itself a reference to the ancient port of Byblos in the Levant, from where papyrus was exported throughout the Mediterranean. Scripture was then understood as the “book of all books.” In short, it set the standard for every other form of written literature.

The Book of Job, a microcosm of the Bible itself, is an accumulation and aggregation from quite different historical periods and interests. The same issues are taken up again and again by the passing generations, each time deepening, clarifying and fine-tuning the same inspired parable of the “divine wager” was placed around the original painting as a frame of Job’s misfortunes before it could be hung on the “wailing wall.”

The essence of the book of Job conforms to the sacred poetry of the Hebrews, whose distinctive feature has been called “parallelism,” which is to say a poetry in which every verse contains a repetition, an elaboration, an ornamentation or even a correction of the succinct initial statement. Listen to the repetition of Job’s despair in Chapter 3: “Why did I not die at birth, / come forth from the womb and expire? … For my sighing comes as my bread,/ and my groanings arc poured out like water.”

As poetry, the authority of this Biblical book can never be exhausted. With poetry, it isn’t just a matter of flipping through the text to extract the essential arguments and then stacking them up against the usual philosophical objections in a high-powered seminar. Here, the Scriptures expect the reader to allow them to work their magic by the constant reiteration of Job’s laments, complaints and demands for justice. Per­ haps the hardest lesson any of us have to learn, when confronted with the infinite sorrows of our human existence, is that you can’t (you mustn’t!) hurry the pace of grief. The heart has its reasons, and grief demands its own timetable. The days, weeks and years of mourning refuse to be hurried along with easy expressions of sympathy: the time has simply to be endured. Often one hears that the book is too repetitive, too monotonous, in its rehearsal of Job’s lamentations. But the truth is that through the repetition, through the parallelism, attentive readers find themselves suddenly sitting on an arid plain right next to Job, also robed in sackcloth and ashes.

Of course, there are arguments in the Book of Job, and perhaps we shall have occasion in future to look at them more closely. But in the meantime, let me refer you to the profound analysis which a Canadian scholar has offered with respect to Job’s trials. Northrop Frye, who would have wholeheartedly supported our rummaging around in these ancient texts, makes two invaluable points. The first is quite simple: when reading the Book of Job, always remember that what Job suffers is not a punishment, but a test. The fabulous frame of the Book reports a wager between God and Satan (the adversary) about the integrity of God’s servant, Job.

There are also answers (of a sort) in the Book of Job. But Frye has something more profound to offer than any glib responses which might be tendered by Job’s comforters. Frye says somewhat enigmatically: “Real questions are stages in formulating better questions…” Everyone involved in King’s Foundation Year Programme always hopes that each graduating class has been presented with these real questions, which only lead to better ones.


FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.


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