Robert Alter’s reading of Job

I am currently taking in Robert Alter’s reading of the Book of Job, in his “Art of Biblical Poetry.” Alter reads Job not primarily as a text containing ideas, questions and answers but firstly as a great poet’s depiction of the world and its Creator. What Alter finds is that God in his final speeches answers Job quite intimately, using specific words that Job himself had used earlier. Where Job had cursed his own birth and had spoken — quite understandably, given all that has happened to him — only in images of darkness and extinction, God answers with his own births: those of the earth, the sea, the rain, the animals; and he answers with images of both darkness and light. A lot of images of light.

Alter is not the first to see these connections between God’s words and Job’s earlier speeches. But because Alter hears God and Job speaking poems that must be read together, he sees God answering Job’s words in countless specific ways, with God answering not as a theologian but as the Creator.

God, of course, had used language in Genesis to create the world and its creatures, so the poetry of the Book of Job is not just pretty words — language has specific power here.

I thought it would be useful to pair up the parts of Job’s speeches that correspond with God’s. Below is a list of the closest verbal connections that Alter identifies — the places where God actually uses the same words or images as Job, while giving them a different or larger meaning.

Job, speaking of the night on which he was himself conceived (3:7-9) —

Oh, let that night be barren,
let it have no song of joy.

Let the day-cursers hex it,
those ready to rouse Leviathan.

Let its twilight stars go dark.
Let it hope for day in vain,
and let it see not the eyelids of dawn.

God, speaking of the morning on which the earth was created (38:7) —

when the morning stars sang together;
and all the sons of God shouted for joy

Job was so desirous to annul his own birth that he wished his day of birth to be cursed by those who have the power (God?) to subdue even the great mythological beast, Leviathan.

God, speaking of this same Leviathan (41:10-11) —

His sneezes shoot out light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of dawn.

Firebrands leap from his mouth,
sparks of fire fly into the air.

*************************

Job, regretting that the day of his birth did not shut his mother’s womb, or that he did not emerge stillborn (3:10-11) —

For it did not shut the belly’s doors,
to hide wretchedness from my eyes.

Why did I not die from the womb,
from the belly come out, breathe my last?

God speaks of the sea being born, and received as an infant might be, but contained (38:8-11) —

Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb

when I made cloud its clothing,
and thick mist its swaddling bands?

I made breakers upon it My limit,
and set a bolt with double doors,

And I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
here halts the surge of your waves.”

*************************

Job, lamenting that he was born only to be beset by senseless suffering (3:20a, 23) —

Why give light to the wretched[,]

To a man whose way is hidden,
and God has hedged him about.

God (38:8a) —

Who hedged the sea with double doors[?]

*************************

Job, fearfully describing God as destroying the waves of the sea (9:8):

He stretches the heavens alone
and tramples the crests of the sea.

God, allowing the sea’s waves but giving them limits (38:10-11) —

I made breakers upon it My limit,
and set a bolt with double doors,

And I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
here halts the surge of your waves.”

*************************

Job (9:7) —

He bids the sun not to rise,
and the stars He seals up tight.

God, speaking of creation (38:7) —

when the morning stars sang together;
and all the sons of God shouted for joy

*************************

Job describes God as abusing all rulers and nations and leaving them in death’s shadow (12:21-23):

He pours forth scorn on princes,
and the belt of the nobles He slackens,

lays bare depths from the darkness
and brings out to light death’s shadow,

raises nations high and destroys them,
flattens nations and leads them away.

God speaks of both light and darkness; knows where both can be found; appoints light to shine on the wicked at dawn; speaks of darkness as being led back to the “house” where it originated (38:12-13, 17, 19-20) —

Have you ever commanded the morning,
appointed the dawn to its place,

To seize the earth’s corner,
that the wicked be shaken from it?

Have the gates of death been laid bare to you,
and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen?

Where is the way that light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,

that you might take it to its home
and understand the paths to its house?

*************************

Job (9:9-10) —

He makes the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the South Wind’s chambers.

He performs great things without limit
and wonders without number.

God (38:24, 31-33) —

By what way does the west wind fan out,
the east wind whip over the earth?

Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades,
or loose Orion’s reins?

Can you bring constellations out in their season,
lead the Great Bear and her cubs?

Do you know the laws of the heavens,
can you fix their rule on earth?

Job after God’s answer (42:3) —

Therefore I told but did not understand,
wonders beyond me that I did not know.

*************************

Job, wishing his birth-day to be covered in cloud and darkness (3:5) —

Let darkness, death’s shadow, foul it,
let a cloud-mass rest upon it,
let day-gloom dismay it.

God has his own uses for clouds, and speaks of birth (38:8-9, 25-29) —

Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb

when I made cloud its clothing,
and thick mist its swaddling bands?

Who split the channel for the torrent,
and a way for the thunderstorm,

to rain on a land without man,
wilderness bare of humankind,

to sate the desolate dunes
and make the grass sprout there?

Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?

From whose belly did the ice come forth,
to the frost of the heavens who gave birth?

*************************

Job, wishing for his own birth-day to have never entered the cycle of time (3:6) —

That night, let murk overtake it.
Let it not join in the days of the year,
let it not enter the number of months

God speaks also of months, and of birth (39:1-4):

Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time,
do you mark the calving of the gazelles?

Do you number the months till they come to term
and know their birthing time?

They crouch, burst forth with their babes,
their young they push out to the world.

Their offspring batten, grow big in the wild,
they go out and do not return.

These are not all of the correspondences between God’s speeches and Job’s, not even all the ones that Alter identifies. These are just the closest and most significant correspondences of individual words or phrases, as identified by Alter. But Alter sees Biblical poetry not as static lists of words and images but as dynamic speech with complex themes, sometimes containing verbatim repetition but more often presenting subtle changes in meaning, or small shifts in images that the reader can feel, etc. In short: specific words are repeated; but entire themes in Job’s speeches are recalled and reworked across multiple lines of poetry in God’s speeches.

Alter observes, as many have, that much of God’s speech doesn’t directly answer Job’s question about why these terrible things have happened to him. This is true, and God’s answer to Job can be bittersweet at best, given what has happened to the man. Even when God speaks of light and birth, the images are unsentimental and sometimes terrifying. (Arjuna also feels this terror when, in the Bhagavad Gita, he is allowed to look directly upon the Creator of the universe.) But Alter’s reading makes God’s words at least seem relevant to Job in a way that they don’t always appear to be, especially when you attempt to read God’s speech in isolation from Job’s.

God’s speech is often criticized as mere boasting, as if God is saying: I am the creator of the world, you are not, so how can you presume to challenge me? And God actually says to Job (38:2-4) —

Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?

Gird your loins like a man,
that I may ask you, and you can inform Me.

Where were you when I founded earth?
Tell, if you know understanding.

So the ungenerous reading of God is not based on nothing. God really is reminding a mortal of his limitations, and He’s not being gentle about it.

But how does this explain why God spends so much time speaking in images of light, and particularly, why He speaks at length of animal births? The ungenerous reading would mean that God is saying: look at the wonders of the animal world, I created all this. Simply more boasting. But that interpretation has never seemed persuasive when I’ve read those lines; more often, I have just puzzled at why God should be speaking of wild animals calving. After reading Alter, though, I can’t see these as mere boasts, or as irrelevant. God is clearly replying to Job’s own pained words about birth, extinction and darkness; it’s a sometimes terrifying response, and always unsentimental, but it embraces Job’s own words, and in that sense it’s an intimate answer.

So I find that this poetic reading of the Book of Job makes one thing especially clear. God has heard Job, attending to his particular words, and has chosen to respond to them — not usually with the meanings that Job had in mind, but rather with additional connotations of light, birth, time, and life that Job in his distress and mortality could not see.

God does all this without ever attempting to speak of light without darkness. In fact God speaks at length about dark forces, at times describing them as things that need to be exposed (the wicked at dawn), or contained (the sea at the shoreline), or even admired at a certain level (Behemoth, Leviathan), since they, too, were created by God, and everything they are comes from Him.

Thus none of this denies the darkness that has afflicted Job, or seeks to reason the dark away. A specific answer about the man’s sufferings doesn’t come; and this must remain painful. But Job’s words have been heard and considered, and they are given back to him in God’s words.

3 thoughts on “Robert Alter’s reading of Job

  1. Thank you so much for introducing me to Robert Alter here. I confess that I too have read those last chapters of Job as a demonstration of divine power. I think that I might be seeing them differently in future.

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    1. My pleasure, Stephen. Alter has translated the entire OT but if you ever just want to check out his Job, there’s a smaller volume of his called The Wisdom Books, that contains just three of his translations — Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. I haven’t read Proverbs yet but his Ecclesiastes is great.

      Yes, it can all seem like it’s about power. And the Job poet is trying to say a lot about God’s power, but there’s also so much more being said, particularly with all the birth images. And the light.

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