Job – the drama and its questions

Notes and comments based on Declan Hurley’s presentation entitled “Reading the drama of Job through its questions”, paper presented at the Institute of Theology’s Biblical Studies Seminar, Queen’s University of Belfast, 4th November 2009.

What is Job’ message? What is the book about? On a first look, everyone feels they can answer these questions straightforwardly. But on a closer look, the answers given are often a summary of the book’s narrative line, where the speeches lose their importance.

Why was it written?  What are the historical conditions which made place for the book. A nation  in crisis? Hurley concludes that 2 centuries of historical criticism have left us no wiser. Job is entirely devoid of even the most vague historical allusions.

What is the message of the book? A hermeneutical approach identifies main themes like: the problem of innocent suffering, divine justice, theodicy etc. Some of the dominant features of the  book are revolt, lament, debate.

Hurley asserts that these approaches are less than successful because they tend to focus too much on one aspect, ignoring the form of the book.

He proposes a two-fold literary approach, focusing on the interrogatives as a means of reading the drama, where drama is not understood in an existential way or in terms of classical notions of genre (poetry, prose, drama), but as a textuality inherently theatrical, predisposed to stage production. In this regard he argued that along with the Song of Songs, Job is the most suited to be immediately transposed into theatric performance due to its inherent theatrical qualities, of which the interrogatives are a significant part.

One of the main presuppositions he employs is that the book should be read as is, in the form that it exists in the Hebrew text, resisting any fragmentary readings as prompted by historical critical investigation.

Job is impressive, at a formal level, through its countless interrogatives. Based on word count, approx 22% of the book is in the form of questions. All characters ask questions. Predictably, Job, more than any other human speaker. However, the most interrogative character in the book is none other than Yahweh! 50% of what he is recorded to say is in the form of interrogatives!

A grammatical analysis reveals a rich variety of interrogative forms. The semantic analysis reveals the dominant form, namely the rhetorical question. Rhetorical study allows the form to be shown in all of its complexity. Is a rhetorical question a question in the first place? Inquires Hurley. Some say it isn’t since it does not really ask for an information not known beforehand. Information acquisition is not its objective. Rather, rhetorical questions communicate what is known to both speakers in order to perform a variety of pragmatic functions.  In Job, the pragmatic function of rhetorical questions is, among others:

–       interjecting in a debate. A character begins with a question to attract the attention of the interlocutor. Ch. 8. 2 Bildad to Job: How long will you say these things…

–       impact on the topic of dispute. E.g. Ch.7.1 Job: “Do not human beings have a hard service on earth…”

–       LAMENT. Job expresses sadness, anguish,the  tonality is one of incomprehension and despair. Job’s search for consolation and comfort e.g. 11.3: Why did I not die at birth.. – Job does not say that he wants to die now, but that he regrets he did not die then. It is quite a peculiar interrogative-expressive,  which is more of an affirmation of life as misery and suffering. It is thus a multiple speech act, in John Searle’s terminology. The interrogative performs several illocutions: expresses anguish, but also declares, in covert form, that the essence of life, as he perceived it, is misery and suffering.

Job invests many of his questions with the pragmatic form of revolt, accusation. Many of his questions are addressed to God in the second person. God is presented as an unjust ruler (for Job) e.g. 7.2

–       THE CHALLENGE FUNCTION. Yahweh performs most of them, challenging Job to asses his standing before Himself and reach the natural conclusions.

With regards to the hermeneutical function of questions, Hurley points out that they are good indicators of the genre of literary sub-structures. They can also aid in character study – temper and personality.

It’s remarkable to observe how Job’s first speeches contain much revolt, anger. The tone is high pitched. But as the book progresses, the lament form becomes dominant in the latter part. A change in character. Job moves from revolt to lament.

Intermission: What is the book of Job and what does it do to you if you read it?

The book of Job as drama

The dramatic hypothesis of the book of Job: A dramatic reading of Job is both coherent and justified. How is Job a drama if drama did not exist of the time, particularly end of 5th century, beginning of 4th? Answer, as previously noted: the theatricality of the text. It can be staged immediately.

What is the intrigue of Job: Human piety is suspected as being self-serving.

The wife’s interrogative and imperative (2.9: Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!) ushers in a heavy dramatic weigh which announces a possible resolution of the drama. It is fascinating to observe how wife’s interrogative recalls God’s conviction concerning Job (2.3: Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who gears God and  turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity…,), while the imperative recalls Satan’s challenge (1.12/2.5…and he will curse you to your face).

Yahweh’s WHO Questions. These reflect on the one who is at work in the universe. Only Yahweh can accomplish the things he describes and presents to Job in interrogative, highly provocative form. They all revert back to Him and his sovereignty.

Job – WHY me?

Yahweh – WHO?

In the final section of the book we have a dialogue between Job’s WHY and Yahweh’s WHO?

Yahweh presents himself as misterium fascinans, but more surprisingly, as misterium interogans – He is the mystery that questions job. He challenges Job to make an existential shift and acknowledge the privilege of being addressed by the sovereign God and to trust in Him unswervingly. Consequntly, overwhelmed by the unexpected avalanche of WHO Questions, Job shifts from his WHY to God’s WHO. He  thus finds a new space where he can find a new perspective on his misery.

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.(Job 42.2-6)


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