Sept. 29, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 3

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    Job's story: Centuries of analysis

    Since it first appeared in the Bible, the story of Job -- a victim of suffering he cannot understand -- has been a "defining myth" of Western civilization, according to Susan Schreiner, Associate Professor in the Divinity School.

    "From Gregory the Great to Franz Kafka, the image of Job has challenged every attempt to explain suffering and to justify God's actions," Schreiner writes in her new book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Calvin's Exegesis of Job From Medieval and Modern Perspectives.

    "Job belongs to the West," she continues. "His story has captivated the human imagination and has forced its readers to wrestle with the most painful realities of human existence."

    Schreiner said that Job particularly has been used as a symbol in the 20th century.

    In other words, "Job is hot," she said.

    "Writers from Robert Frost to William Safire have used Job as a symbol," she said. "When I was writing the last chapter of the book, on modern interpretations of Job, the hardest thing was cutting people out. Everyone is using Job now. Someday in the far future someone is going to do a dissertation on the 20th-century image of Job, and they are going to have a rich source of materials."

    It is for that hypothetical graduate student as well as a much wider audience that Schreiner has written her new book. "I have written as much as I can in a style that puts the scholarly apparatus in the footnotes and makes the text accessible to anyone who is interested in Job," she said.

    Although the book focuses primarily on John Calvin's 16th-century interpretation of the Book of Job, Schreiner also analyzes interpretations by Gregory the Great, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and others.

    "I'd like people to see in this book that the ancient legend of Job has had a perennial fascination over the centuries, including our century," she said.

    Schreiner begins her book with the work of Gregory the Great, whose 6th-century Moralia in Iob became the most influential interpretation of Job's story through the early and high Middle Ages, until Aquinas wrote his Expositio super Iob as litteram in the 13th century, she said.

    Schreiner shows that Gregory's work, intended for a monastic audience, portrays the Job story as that of the moral and spiritual progress of the sufferer who strives for purification. She also discusses Maimonides' 12th-century work The Guide of the Perplexed, which was intended to instruct an educated Jewish audience that had become troubled by the language and teachings of ancient writings. Maimonides saw the Job story as that of the conflict between the teachings of traditional religion, with its emphasis on rewards and punishments, and the true wisdom about God's providence that Job finally attains.

    Schreiner then shows how Aquinas used his work to extend this idea of God's providence to argue that providence -- not suffering, as Gregory contended -- is the key message of Job, that divine wisdom is the source of order in the world.

    Schreiner spends the bulk of the book demonstrating how Calvin's Sermons on Job, intended for a broader audience of laymen in the church, was deeply influenced by all three previous writers on Job, particularly Aquinas and his emphasis on the importance of providence in the story. She shows how Calvin -- writing at a time of religious, social and political upheaval -- centered his interpretation on the inscrutability of divine providence.

    "For Calvin, Job's story demonstrated the spiritual temptation, anguish and faith evident during those times when history appears disordered and God's rule cannot be discerned," she said. "On the basis of Job's story, Calvin directed his congregation to a God whom they could trust despite the deepest darkness and the most awful of divine silences. For him, the story of Job was a timeless model or lesson for his audience."

    Schreiner contends that Calvin's emphasis on the timeless nature of the Job story -- as opposed to the interpretations of Gregory, Maimonides and Aquinas -- has deeply influenced interpretations of Job up to the present day. Indeed, she argues that many current religious commentators do not know how indebted they are to Calvin, and showing this debt was one of the purposes of the book, given the increased interest in and use of the figure of Job.

    In conducting her research, Schreiner was surprised to find how little work had been done on the history of the exegesis, or interpretation, of Job.

    "It was surprising to me that there wasn't more to read on how different commentators throughout history have interpreted the story of Job. Maybe this is because the history of exegesis is not a very old field, but it is that gap that I, among others, am trying to fill."

    Schreiner was also surprised by the change in her perspective on Job during the course of her research.

    "When I first started the study, I really expected it to be strictly on questions of suffering -- unjust suffering. That was how I was brought up to read Job. Except that in the tradition of commentaries on Job, the suffering isn't really unjust -- it can't be, because God is inflicting the suffering. So, because the text of Job is written from different angles and uses different speakers, I began to see how it is really a text about the relationship between wisdom and suffering. And then I began to see how, for early writers on Job, wisdom is a term that brings out the issue of perception -- that which you perceive while suffering.

    "In some ways, for many of these authors, the suffering was good. For Gregory, the suffering is what led Job to higher perception. So it brought out a whole bunch of issues that I didn't initially expect to examine."

    While Calvin and his predecessors put forth a variety of explanations for Job's wisdom -- focusing on suffering, enlightenment, faith and providence -- Schreiner said the one unifying feature in the early commentaries on Job is a concern with intellectual perception.

    "In all the readings, the same issue arises -- what did Job see or understand? And this issue raises other questions: Can suffering elevate a human understanding about God and self? Can humans truly perceive the workings of providence in their personal lives? Different writers provide different answers, but the questions about perception remain -- and, indeed, become crucial in modern interpretations of the Job story."

    The issue of perception is important to Schreiner, who also has an interest in popular visual culture, particularly cinema. One of the quotes that begins a chapter in her book is taken from Errol Morris' film "The Thin Blue Line," about a man unjustly convicted of murder -- "If he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have had none."

    "It's my all-time favorite movie," Schreiner said. "It's a film about unjust suffering that is also more about matters of perception than any film I've ever seen. The combination of the story, which is about a man ripped out of the blue and put on death row, and Morris' cinematography technique -- different re-enactments of what might have happened at the murder scene -- is too good to be true. It is a perfect illustration of a 20th-century Job story that has unconscious connections to a tradition that began in the 6th century."

    Schreiner said she is highly committed to moving beyond older exegesis to newer interpretations, and the final chapter of her book is devoted to modern interpretations, illustrating the similarities and differences between modern and earlier writers.

    "Working on Job stories by Kafka or H.G. Wells is a way of showing that the history of exegesis is not a purely isolated kind of concern, and that it enriches readings that we can do in the 20th century. It also works the other way around -- what went before can be enriched by what's being said in the present.

    "The tradition of commentary on Job -- the fascination with the story's implications and the need of writers to comment on earlier interpretations of the story's implications -- is ongoing."

    Ultimately, Schreiner hopes the book will also be used to address issues within the field of exegesis.

    "The history of Job exegesis is tied into debates about current theories, such as postmodernism, which offers, sometimes, more indefinite readings of a text," she said. "The history of Job exegesis shows that there is no one reading to a text -- that there may be similarities between interpretations, but that texts have manifold meanings. Some Job scholars aren't familiar with these current theoretical debates, and I hope this book explains these connections.

    "On the other hand, the history of Job exegesis also shows that texts don't have infinite numbers of readings. There are such things as silly readings, and there are things that are not true about a text. Theorists such as the deconstructionists have raised questions about the multiplicity of a text, and I want my book to speak to that audience as well, to say to them, 'You know, you're not the first people that recognized that there was more than one reading to a text.' "

    -- Jeff Makos