Monday, July 11, 2011

Job as Myth

In a recent Facebook conversation on how to read the Bible, I argued that Scriptures must be interpreted in light of the literary genre of any given text. These genres span everything from the highly historical records (such as genealogies) that recur throughout the Old Testament, to the highly symbolic "apocalypse" genre that characterizes the book of Revelation.

As part of this argument, I noted that "the book of Job is an extended parable, wrestling with the problem of evil and offering possible resolutions." I asserted that it should be considered mythic in the literary sense, and that its nature was essentially fictional.  I was asked about this assertion, and here was my explanation and defense.

First, the setting is introduced in a cursory (nearly non-existent) manner. All we know of Job is that he was "of the land of Uz" and "one of the richest men in the east." This strikes me as fairly typical of Ancient Near Eastern story-telling technique, in which a place name would be cited to give the myth a faux-realistic edge. "One Thousand and One Nights" (the famous tales of Scheherazade) offers many instances of this technique in action. The dearth of detail in grounding the narrative in a concrete setting can be contrasted with the contextual riches of more historical works like 1 Samuel, which introduces nearly every character with geographic, cultural, and even genealogical information.

Second, the plot is pretty evidently mythic in nature. The prologue sets up Job as a good man blessed with all manner of riches and untroubled by fickle Fortune. The cut-scene to a heavenly courtroom, and the dialogue between Satan and God, introduces a tension or conflict that does not arise organically from the prologue. We get the impression of a deus ex machina, a plot contrivance to interrupt Job's happy life and set up the remainder of the book.

Third, the intent of the book is not history, but theodicy. This is reflected in the style. The vast majority of the book is a theological discussion, punctuated by events that are described solely in order to introduce the next cycle of monologues. Indeed, the narrative pretty consistently violates the dictum "show, don't tell." In sharp contrast with the historical books, the book of Job is primarily invested in neither the events nor the characters, but rather the ideas under discussion.

Fifth, even the characters sound like archetypes. Job's three friends are not introduced as historical figures, nor even given the dignity of being literary characters with some degree of personality. They appear in isolation, only identified by a name (
Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) and a place (respectively, Teman, Shuah, and Naamah). They are not characters so much as plot devices: each 'individual' advances a particular understanding of theodicy, a particular argument for the goodness of God in the face of an evil world. Only Job, being the main character, is given any depth of characterization or any human pathos. The only other character with some semblance of personality would be Elihu the Buzite. Elihu, a young man who appears near the end of the book, serves in a sort of semi-prophetic capacity, resolving the earlier dispute to the best of human wisdom, and prefacing the appearance of God Himself coming in a cloud.

Sixth and finally, the literary style and structure of Job speaks to it being a creative piece, not a work of historiography. It begins and ends with a prose prologue and epilogue, while the main text is in the form of a didactic poem. Thus I conclude it is wisdom literature, not history.

There are no doubt more arguments to be raised, and (no doubt) many possible counterarguments I'm not considering. Do you have any thoughts or responses?

1 comment:

  1. I think you did a nice job. The thing about Job is WHAT causes the dialogue, WHAT is said, and WHAT causes the eventual repentance. It all has to do with God, Man's interpretation of God, and God's just mercy and judgment.

    I concur especially with your last to second graf (the sixth point!); well said!