Edward Greenstein’s reading of Job

Back in December I read a recent translation of the Book of Job, by Professor Edward L. Greenstein. It’s an iconoclastic translation in which Job remains unrepentant even after God’s speeches.

I liked Greenstein’s translation of the poetry of Job, and I’ll end this post with a taste of that. First I’d like like to argue a little with some of the interpretations that he offers in his footnotes.

For example, when Job says to God in Greenstein’s translation, “Truly I’ve spoken without comprehending,” I disagree only with Greenstein’s footnoted argument that this should be read as a mock concession on Job’s part. I don’t know Hebrew, so the translation itself is not for me to judge, and in any case, as I said, I really like the translation.

In large part, I’ll be asking whether Job’s words are sarcastic or genuine. To do that, I’ll often be considering statements made by Job earlier in the poem.

So this post will emphasize the themes of the story as a whole rather than its translation, though I will offer a few alternative readings and insights by other translators.

Translations below are Greenstein’s unless otherwise noted.

Job 42:2

God has just finished speaking from the whirlwind. Job begins his final reply.

I have known that you are able to do all;
That you cannot be blocked from any scheme

Per Greenstein, “Job is unmistakably alluding to the disdainful remark the deity makes about the builders of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:6,” a verse which he translates as —

they will not be blocked from anything they scheme to do

Greenstein argues that “Job is parodying God, not showing him respect. If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance.”

Greenstein adds that this interpretation of Job may not accord with the widespread view of Job as pious and patient. And this in my opinion is all to the good. However I don’t see Job as engaging in parody here.

Other scholars have connected the above-mentioned verses from Job and Genesis, though with other interpretations.

Robert Gordis says of Job 42:2 that the “same theme is expressed in prose in Gen 11:6”. Gordis refers in his translation to God’s “design” rather than “scheme”. He writes that the word in question generally means “evil plan, plot”, but that it is also a synonym for wisdom in Proverbs, and that it is used of God’s intention to destroy the wicked in Jer. 23:19-20. 

In the latter, Robert Alter’s translation is “plotted”–

Look, the tempest of the Lord!
Wrath springs out and a whirling storm
on the heads of the wicked it whirls.

The Lord’s anger shall not turn back
till it does and carries out
what His Heart has plotted.

Gordis also notes that the word used for God’s plan in 42:2 had been used positively by Job himself in 17:11, to refer to Job’s own plans –

My days have passed,
My plans have been rent asunder

So if Job uses the same word for “plan” in 17:11 and 42:2, I think we can infer him saying something like: while you can tear apart my plans, your plans cannot be blocked by me or any other power, even Behemoth or Leviathan.  

As mentioned above, Robert Gordis links Job 42:2 directly with Job 17:11, Gen. 11:6 and Jer. 23:20. But even if the poet intended only to allude to Genesis 11:6, the allusion need not be disdainful.  The Babel story implies that God alone cannot be blocked from any scheme or plan. Job would easily agree with this (see for example Job 9:4). If Job is alluding to Gen 11, he’s recalling a story that showed that God cannot be blocked as humans can be.

I do think it’s possible that the Job-poet wrote something ambiguous enough to allude to all these verses (Job 17:11, Gen 11:6, Jer 23:20, etc.)  The best poetry often enfolds multiple meanings.

Job 42:3

Truly I’ve spoken without comprehending—
Wonders beyond me that I do not know.

Greenstein describes this as “a mock concession.”  But Job is referring to wonders that are genuinely beyond human understanding. He can’t mean that he understands Leviathan, the Pleiades, the great forces of nature etc. 

Job can’t be mocking what he has just heard unless he really thinks himself to be on God’s level, as one who understands these things. That attitude would vindicate God for posing questions and exposing Job as improperly prideful. Job would be practically volunteering to help God win the argument.

I also have a difficult time seeing Job mocking what he has just heard because, by speaking of natural forces, God has directly addressed some of Job’s concerns. As I’ve been learning from Tom McLeish at his blog and in his book, Job has not restricted his protests to human evil. He has also spoken of natural evils like drought and flood, as we see in 12:15 —

He can hold back the water so that (things) dry up;
Then he can release them so they convulse the earth.

Therefore, when God speaks of natural and often violent forces as beyond the understanding of men, it’s not irrelevant to Job’s concerns. Nor does it demonstrate that God is unconcerned with human beings. By posing questions about natural forces, God has spoken about at least some of the things that Job put on the table. This would be no time for Job to conclude that there’s nothing more to see here.

Job 42:5

As a hearing by the ear I have heard you,
And now my eye has seen you.

Greenstein’s note: “A mock concession; Job has already said this (13:1).”

In 13:1-2, Job said not that he had heard or seen God but that he understands all human wisdom. He said to the Friends –

You see, my eye has seen it all;
My ear has heard and taken notice.

What you know, I know as well;
I fall no lower than you.

Job then said that he would prefer to speak directly with God (13:3) –

Rather I would speak to Shaddai;
It is an argument with El I desire.

In 13:1, Job had just delivered a speech that both imitated traditional wisdom about God’s power and subverted that wisdom by stating that God uses His power for destructive purposes, like causing floods (12:15).

So is Job saying in 42:5 that God’s speeches merely confirm what Job already knew? Is he saying that God has confirmed what Job already could see by way of human wisdom as filtered through his own observations?

The greatest problem with any such interpretation is that there is much more to God’s speeches than what has already been said by Job or any of the Friends.  In my recent posts I’ve mentioned Alter and McLeish but there are of course countless other readings that show this.  To be as brief as possible, I’ll add just one more scholar’s description of what God’s speeches say, and I’ll stick to themes already mentioned.

Robert Gordis writes the following comment, concerning Job’s new knowledge after his encounter with God.  Gordis shows incidentally that Job has a reason for feeling reconciled toward God in 42:5 rather than disdainful:

The Lord’s Second Speech has taught Job to recognize both the mystery and the harmony of the world.  He now quotes the words of the Lord [vv. 3a, 4], to which he replies contritely.  Job declares that his deepest wish has been granted, for his Maker has deigned to answer him.  The beauty of His world constitutes an anodyne for his pain, and serves as the basis for his renewed faith in the justice of God.

This is more than submission to God – it is reconciliation and vindication for Job as well, for his contention that his suffering is no sign of guilt has not been refuted.  Quite the contrary, God’s admission that justice is not all-pervasive in the universe is a clear, if oblique, recognition of the truth of Job’s position. Job’s righteousness is explicitly set forth in the opening section of the Epilogue (42:7-10), where the Lord is angry with Eliphaz and his Friends and it is Job who must intercede for them if they are to be forgiven.

Gordis writes that the poet intended for more to be inferred:

There are, in addition, two other significant ideas implicit in the Lord’s words. In accordance with Semitic rhetorical usage they are not spelled out, but are left to be inferred by the reader. The first is that the universe was not created exclusively for man’s use, and therefore neither it nor its Creator can be judged solely by man’s standards and goals. The second is even more significant. The natural world, though it is beyond man’s ken, reveals to him its beauty and order. It is therefore reasonable for man to believe that the universe also exhibits a moral order with pattern and meaning, though it be beyond man’s power fully to comprehend. Who, then, is Job, to reprove God and dispute with Him?

One last passage from Gordis, concerning the author of Job:

In inviting Job not merely to understand, but rather to revel in the delights of creation, God is not evading, but rather responding, to Job’s cry of agony.  Viewed against the background of the cosmos, man’s sufferings do not disappear, but they grow smaller and more bearable as elements within the larger plan of God’s world.  The author of the Book of Job is both thinker and poet.  The thinker calls upon Job to grasp the world and recognize man’s limitations.  The poet summons him to steep himself in the beauty of the world and to experience it existentially.  By seizing the two staffs of understanding and emotion, man can live wisely, bravely, and joyfully in a world that is miracle as well as mystery.

Incidentally, Greenstein’s reading shares some common ground with that of David Clines, who puts an interesting twist on all this (it’s a twist at least for me). Clines doesn’t argue that Job replies to God with sarcasm, but that Job is nevertheless devastated by God’s discourses. Clines argues that God has been trying to teach Job about much more than His power, but that Job only hears the part about power. Because God has not directly addressed his questions about the injustice of his suffering, Job thinks his worst fears have been confirmed: God is only concerned with power and doesn’t care for human beings, doesn’t wish to hear from them. Job doesn’t learn otherwise until later, when God restores his fortunes and affirms that Job has spoken honestly about God (42:8-17).

(Thanks to McLeish for pointing me to Clines.)

Per Clines, God bypasses Job’s questions about justice, and Job feels slighted by this; he reciprocates by ignoring most of what God has said. As Clines puts it at a moment midway into God’s speeches, neither of the two disputants “has conceded any ground to the other. Nor has either, it appears, really been listening to the other.”

Job 42:6

That is why I am fed up;
I take pity on “dust and ashes!”

This is the culminating verse of the Book of Job, and the place where Greenstein’s translation differs most from traditional ones. His Job remains angry about God’s injustice and takes pity on humanity, whom Job refers to with the phrase “dust and ashes”.

The King James is the most famous of the traditional translations:

Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

In some translations Job “recants”, which I’ve always found disappointing. It goes too far. Job’s speeches, even for modern readers, are ennobling and energizing.  To recant is to contradict everything previously said, and that is too much, even if you believe that Job’s previous views have been shaken by the new revelation.  God himself later affirms, in some way, Job’s speech about Him. So “recant” goes too far.

Allan Callahan, author of The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, offers this alternative reading

Greenstein translates Job 42:6 as a parting shot of defiance: “That is why I am fed up / I take pity on ‘dust and ashes.’” But everywhere else in the book of Job, the verb in the latter clause, which Greenstein translates as “to pity,” means “to comfort, console” (see Job 2:11, 7:13, 16:2, 21:34, 29:25, and 42:11), and elsewhere it appears intransitively as “to console, comfort oneself” (see 2 Samuel 13:39, Jeremiah 31:15). Why not, then, “I console myself with dust and ashes,” meaning that Job remains without consolation?

The JPS translation of Job notes that 42:6 is ambiguous —

As Job’s final comment, this verse would seem to be key to understanding the book as a whole. The Heb of the text, unlike the rest of Job, is not difficult, but is very ambiguous.  The verb translated as ‘recant’ more typically means “despise,” and neither verb in the first half has the expected direct object—what does Job recant / despise or relent? As translated, the second half reflects Job’s basic creaturehood, the fact that unlike God, he is a mere mortal, ‘dush and ashes’. The preposition that opens this section is more naturally translated “on,” however, and thus this phrase may be a prosaic notice that Job feels this way while he is mourning on a dust-heap (see 2.8).  Thus, the highly ambiguous poetry concludes with this seemingly simple but ambiguous verse.  Whatever it means, the LORD seems to be satisfied that Job has responded adequately (see 40.5), so the poetic section of the work is concluded.

I don’t know whether Greenstein’s rendering of the verse is best. But I think it makes sense in English even after genuine concessions from Job. In that case, Job is shattered and humbled by God’s revelation but cannot help protest one last time that he is not okay with humanity’s lot, and he takes pity.

Job had previously said something in 13:18-19 that may shed light on what he means in 42:6 —

Here: I am laying out my lawsuit.
I know I am in the right.

Who would argue the case with me?
I would then keep silent—and expire.

The Poetry

There is something beautifully blunt about Greenstein’s short verses. They capture anger, violence and ugliness in the speeches very well.

For example, 6:8-9 —

Would someone grant what I ask?
Would Eloah grant what I hope for?

That Eloah would comply and crush me!
Release his hand and cleave me!

or 12:23 —

He elevates nations, then disperses them;
He expands nations, then deports them.

(a perfect alliteration across lines)

And 14:20 —

You assault him continually—and he passes on;
You disfigure him—and then you dispatch him.

Or 21:26, referring to two men, one righteous and one wicked –

They lie in the dust together,
And maggots cover them both.

Job’s speech in this translation is direct, and his words punch.  The beat, if I’ve heard it correctly, is vigorous, short and insistent, without ever becoming a uniform shrill.  In some translations, Job can occasionally sound whiny; not in this one.  Here he is angry, and with reason.  Right or wrong he always stands as a formidable opponent before God and is never a self-pitying supplicant.

Though I disagree with much in Greenstein’s footnotes, his translation of the Book of Job has been both invaluable in itself and a spur to much ongoing reflection about this greatest of poems.

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