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(loosely continuing this conversation.)

Some of the individual sections of Job – especially Job’s speeches – open up the ethical imagination, giving rise to an endless chain of questioning by generations of subsequent readers. One of the main reasons for this is not hard to find: the book provides one of the most fundamental challenges to and protests against God’s actions in the Hebrew Bible, and one of the most puzzling (non-)resolutions to these challenges and protests. There is a story about some nineteenth century author – I forget who, but he was irreligious, and I’m guessing it was either Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde – who stayed up all evening reading the book of Job, immersed in its poetic passages, in awestruck appreciation of its artistry. For him, it was the only thing worth reading in the Hebrew Bible.

But Job doesn’t just open up ethical questions. It also closes them down. Reading Job requires that we take notice of both its open and its authoritative voices. For Job, as a whole book, shuts down the conversation as much as it opens it up. Job must be appreciated in the straitjacket of its full dimensions as well as in light of the counterhegemonic voices it contains.

The attempt to control and restrict the meaning is not something that occurred when the book was canonized. Already, the prologue, epilogue, and divine speeches provide Job with an authoritative voice within the writing of the book itself. Does it succeed in closing down the meaning completely? Not at all. But like a canon, authoritative voices obscure and replace the earlier forms with new meanings, tainting the whole, reconstituting its emphases and intertexts rather than completely silencing the text. (And these authoritative voices also fail to be quite as comprehensive as they try to be, the necessary failure of hegemony that preserves the voices of dissent, and makes us smirk at power…)

The final effect of the book of Job (in the perspective of its disharmonious totality) has its closest parallel in Dostoyevsky’s novels, where I always find the dissenting voices more interesting than the whole into which they are forced. There is room for seeking out these conflicting voices, but against the Romantic claims of ‘polyphony’ (or worse, a text which ‘deconstructs itself’, whatever that means), this is a job for interpreters to do, to read the text against its dominant and dominating grain. Barthes was right (in S/Z): truly open (writerly) texts are nowhere to be found; conversely, the classic texts were never multivalent, they are only ‘moderately plural (i.e., merely polysemous).’

But there is an ever-present risk in attempting to flush out these suppressed counter-voices. In straining to find the useful, liberating parts, do we necessarily and consequentially redeem the text? Is this not a further way that the hegemonic voice assimilates dissent (e.g. ‘anybody can become President of America, because Capital gives everyone an equal chance!’)? Isn’t this the problem with Trible’s project, if it is left there? Her mosaic (of Miriam) is quite brilliantly constructed, but turning it into a Mosaic (with an upper-case ‘M’) not only reinscribes the dominant ideology, but appears to redeem the text. The same can be said for the recent flurry to find isolated verses in the New Testament which demonstrate its amazing power for political liberation from colonial and imperial power. Or, again, the current greening of scripture, you know, that book which begins with the command to rape and pillage the Earth. (And yet, a nagging doubt: why do these uses all seem to come along after the secular movements which inaugurated them, if they were to be found in the Bible all along?) Do these endeavours really liberate, or are they ways in which hegemony accommodates dissent so that it cannot explode into real opposition?

But more concretely… Job 21:5 would be a wonderful verse to support an ethical response based on the Other… if it weren’t in Job. Unfortunately, though, it is. And it comes immediately after Job 21:4, which notes that Job’s problem is not with other people, but with God himself, and with a doctrine of retribution that Job (the person) never challenges (he only challenges what he sees as God’s poor implementation of retribution, first in relation to himself, and, when this doesn’t convince his friends, belatedly in relation to others: the poor, the victims). The immediate ethical response to an Other, the face which appears before us, has to be read against the grain in Job. The reason Job thinks that his friends should put their hands on their mouths is that Job (a righteous man) is being punished (the retributive punishment for the unrighteous). This is the mouth-covering horror of it. It is this theological, reflective consequence – utterly removed from any personal ethical response – which is in view here. It is ethics subsumed under human-divine relations, not human-human relations. Job’s instructions to his friends to put their hands over their mouths has the double purpose of getting them to shut up so he can take his hand off his own mouth and accuse God of causing unjust punishment for a righteous man (21:3; cf. 7:11), and letting them know that their proper response should be horror rather than blame at the failure of retribution (21:6-7 & ff).

blake-jobIf God were merely amoral and capricious in his divine speeches, that woud be one matter. But God attempts both to insist on his righteousness and also insist on his superior knowledge. It is this combination that results in a further injustice, what Lyotard terms ‘absolute injustice’, in that Job is not only arbitrarily punished – but his very ability to protest has been taken away from him. Coming at the end of the book of Job, after all Job’s speeches, the divine speeches always have this ‘higher’ ethical purpose in mind. If Job is at all associated with ancient Near Eastern wisdom, I don’t think one can separate out God’s appeal to cosmic order from ethical order. See, for example, chapter 28. And God certainly doesn’t separate the two in his divine speeches. To the contrary, he links his withholding of light with punishment of the wicked (Job 38:15) – a strange action for an ‘amoral’ God. When he cross-examines Job in the interlude to the divine speeches, it is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ which is explicitly at stake (40:8) – unspeakably, Job’s goodness and God’s evil. If God were just claiming to be amoral, that would not leave the book of Job so haunted with injustice. We would simply conclude that God abdicates any ethical responsibility. Fair enough, it’s a big task. But because God is claiming to follow some moral law that is above any earthly comprehension, especially Job’s, he becomes absolutely injust: Job is not only dealt with arbitrarily, but has been robbed of his ability to protest. This is not only a silence in which Job’s complaints are unanswered by God in Job’s own terms, but a silence which has rendered all protest unanswerable. ‘Yhwh’s revelation to Job does not promote dialogue; it ends it’ (Morrow 2006: 145).

As Philip Davies concluded, it is fine to take ethical points from the Hebrew Bible, but only if accompanied by the realization that we are cutting and pasting according to our own standards. Otherwise, such an approach faces the risk of redeeming the text and legitimizing its dominant ideology, an ideology which is, in large part, simply banal.

– Deane