“You cannot prescribe to a symbol what it may be used to express. All that a symbol can express, it may express.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Notebooks 1914-1916, numbered 130-131
Job is, as St Jerome understood well, the slipperiest of the biblical books. It is also one of the rare moments when the Hebrew Bible truly approaches literary and philosophical greatness. In this it ranks alongside the Epic of Gilgamesh as a treasure from the ancient Near East. Its complexity scares me, which is why I have a monograph worth of drafts still sitting unpublished on my hard drive. As a corollary of its complexity, it fascinates me that so many generations of readers have felt compelled to close down its ambiguities and to redeem its horrors: for the god this book offers us is truly a monster. No wonder there is so little evidence of its authority in the sectarian scrolls from Qumran (except perhaps in the Hodayot) or in the New Testament (except perhaps in Romans), no wonder the rabbis debated its meaning so vigorously, and no wonder its reception history is one that reflects the endless attempt to own its meaning. Job becomes patient, he becomes a type of Christ, and so on.
I have here the modest aim of offering a footnote to Deane Galbraith and Philip Davies, via a slight detour through a revisionist approach to the personality of Adolf Hitler. In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Birgit Schwarz has suggested we need to reconsider Adolf Hitler’s conviction that he was an artistic genius. This is the theme of her book Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst (Böhlau, 2009). For Schwarz, Hitler’s conviction that he was a genius misunderstood by those who rejected his art was at the centre of his worldview. Along with his deep inner conviction he needed a community of admirers, of which Josef Goebbels was a fine example, to bolster this delusion. This delusion of genius carried with it the conviction that Hitler was above morality and thus permitted to do anything: “The genius has outstanding ideas, and they must be implemented, even if they are completely amoral.”
The Yahweh of the book of Job is a Genie in the Hitlerian sense. That is, he is utterly amoral by virtue of being an artistic genius above the banalities of the human world in which puny, scabby little Job finds himself mired. This is how he answers Job in Job 38:1-41:26. “Will you condemn me that you may be justified?,” asks Yahweh in 40:8. He asks this in the context of asserting that because he is such a genius that he can create the marvellous cosmos, from the morning stars to the dumb ostrich, he is in no way bound by the kind of morality Job understands. In this I suggest Deane Galbraith is slightly missing the point by suggesting that Yahweh “simply demands obedience without justification.” That, perhaps, was always to be read between the lines of Job 23:12, but the focus in the Yahweh speeches is on Yahweh’s genius, not Job’s obedience. Job submits after a fashion to this dreadful god, but his obedience is not quite the point. It is that to whatever little world of justification Job may feel himself to belong, Yahweh is too much of a genius to worry about it. He can treat Job as a pawn in his cosmic game of oneupmanship with the Accuser without scruple.
But to leave the matter there would be to do an injustice to another genius, the greatest of all ancient Hebrew poets, from whose stylus this masterpiece has proceeded. (S)he was a genius in our sense of an extraordinary talent, not in Hitler’s. This is obvious, given that her name and personality have vanished behind her creation. This creation has much to teach us in the ethical sphere. If there truly exists a god such as the one portrayed in Job, He has nothing to teach us about ethics. As Job himself learns, true ethics begins when we face one another and acknowledge our common humanity (Job 21:5). Here Philip Davies is far too simple in his rejection of the Hebrew Bible. The problem lies as much in the sphere of textuality and the nature of Scripture as in the sphere of ethics in sensu stricto.
Davies’ reflections have much to commend them. It does seem prima facie that it is ridiculous to suggest that the religions of the world have given humans ethics that bestow value on human life: frequently the effects of these traditions have shown the opposite. The “divine command” approach to ethics so fundamental to the Hebrew Bible and to many communities of its readers is arguably not a question of “ethics” at all. For a start, it is inseparable from ancient Near Eastern treaties, in which people were compelled under threat of torture, genocide, and exile (see Deuteronomy 28 for a particularly edifying example) to obey the suzerain king. Such treaties offer the framework for biblical ideas of covenant, and are the reason biblical ideas of covenant are inseparable from ancient Near Eastern notions of kingship. The Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible was created in the image of an ancient Near Eastern despot. If we focus on “codes” of law in the Hebrew Bible, we are more or less lost with respect to ethics. As in Job 1-2, we are surely unable to serve Yahweh gratuitously, because if we fail to serve him he will afflict us with blight and mildew (or at any rate a gruesome skin disease).
But is this all? It seems to me at least that part of the purpose of the book of Job is precisely to deconstruct the covenant on which such a hideous and inadequate moral code is based. It deconstructs it by exposing the unspeakable deity at its root. If, however, we shift our attention from Job 38:1-41:26 and look at the dialogue, we see an attempt to negotiate an approach to ethics that is based not on obeying the random precepts of a capricious (and generally invisible) deity, but rather on attention to the suffering of the Other. Job commands his friends to look at him and be appalled (Job 21:5) – that is, engage with him as he is, rather than explaining his place in an irrelevant and dehumanizing ethical system that buys divine righteousness at the price of human dignity. An ethic that begins with Job 21:5 cannot be a matter of a code of law but must be negotiated in the mess of human life.
For this we need not simply a text but a community of readers, and this is where the problem lies with Davies. He reifies the text in a manner more akin to some (by no means all) of the advocates of theological hermeneutics to which he is so implacably opposed. Scripture only exists, however, in its recognition as such and in its consequent use in the context of an interpretive community. We receive Scripture through the lens of Talmud (in Judaism) or apostolic tradition (in Catholic and Orthodox Christianities). While these traditions provide frameworks that are used to limit the meaning of Scripture, the availability of Scripture to an infinite readership means that its meaning cannot be controlled. There can be no “biblical values” without a community to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of biblical options, yet at the same time there can be no limit on a given reader’s reclamation of Scripture from those who would construe such “biblical values” as the hermeneutical key to scriptural interpretation. More simply, Scripture can be taken to mean (almost) anything; consequently it actually means nothing. The range of possible construals is radically open.
Back to ethics. Job 21:5 can be construed as the key to the deconstruction of the ethical system that the Job of the prologue had taken as read. In the canon of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it is perhaps Leviticus 19:18 that has that honour. This is because to command someone to love their neighbour as they love themselves is to command something that cannot really be codified. While “love” in the context of ancient Near Eastern treaties tends to be a matter of unquestioning obedience, what might it mean to love one’s neighbour in that sense? The radical openness of this command, not to mention its resistance to definitive codification, is arguably what made it so central to the ethics of the synoptic Jesus and of the Hillel portrayed in b. Shabb. 31b, as well as the command on which much of the work of Emmanuel Levinas could be construed as an extended commentary.
So readers make Scripture, and readers make biblical values. Davies is right that it is to some external set of values that such readers in fact make appeal when they attach themselves to “biblical values.” But it is in the engagement between readers, interpretive communities, and the sacred texts that are constituted by them that such values emerge, and in this more complex sense it could just be asserted that “religion” (on some level) has, by an extended process of extrapolation, given us ethical values we can live by.