Saturday, August 04, 2012

More on "You Didn't Build It..."

I reprinted some of the "Voice out of the Whirlwind" passage from the Book of Job the other day (in response to Mitt Romney's claim that he sprang forth ex nihilo).  Here's an interesting gloss on the passage, in the context of the Bible as a whole:
The chief problem raised by God's answer to Job (chap. 38-41) is to relate the panorama it paints of God's amazing creativity to the issues the interlocutors have been wrestling with.
In opening his speech (chaps. 38-39), God exchanges roles with Job; till now, Job has demanded answers from God; now God sets unanswerable questions to Job about the foundations of the universe.  Does Job know anything about the fashioning and operation of the cosmic elements--earth, sea, the underworld, and darkness  Has he knowledge of, can he control, the celestial phenomena of snow, hail, thunder, and lightening, or the constellations?  From these spectacles of nature God turns to wilderness animals and their provisioning: the lions,  who lie in ambush for their prey; the raven, whose young cry to 'God for food; the mountain goats, whose birth only God attends; the wild ass, who roam far form civilization; the wild ox, who mocks man's attempt to subjugate him; the silly ostrich; the war horse, with his uncanny lust for battle; the soaring falcon and eagle, who sight their prey from afar.  None owes man anything; the ways of none are comprehended by him.

How different this survey of creation is from that of Genesis 1 or the hymn to nature of Psalm 104.  Here man is incidental--mainly an impotent foil to God.  In Genesis 1 (and its echo, Ps. 8) teleology pervades a process of creation whose goal and crown is man. All is directed to his benefit; the earth and its creatures are his to rue.  In Psalm 104 nature exhibits a providential harmony of which man is an integral part.  But the God of Job celebrates each and and product of his creation for itself, an independent value attesting his power and grace.  Job, representing mankind, stands outside the picture, displacing from its center a remote periphery.  He who would form a proper judgment of God cannot confine himself to his relations with man, who is, after all, only one of an astonishing panoply of creatures created and sustained in ways unfathomable to the human mind.

Instead of confessing his ignorance and, by implicaiton, his presumptuousness, in judging God, Job replies (40:3-5) that he is too insignificant to reply; that he can say no more.  This response, as Saadya Gaon observed in the tenth century, is ambiguous: "When one interlocutor says to his partner, 'I can't answer you,' it may mean that he acquiesces in the other's position, equivalent of 'I can't gainsay the truth'; or it may mean he feels overborne by his partner, equivalent to 'How can I answer you when you have the upper hand?'"
--Moishe Greenberg, "Job," in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode eds.,  
The Literary Guide to the Bible 282-304, 297-8 (1987)

 I first ran across the passage from Job not in the Bible (it wasn't part of the Sunday School curriculum) but in Edith Sitwell's Planet and Glow-worm (1944), sandwiched in between passages from those other classics of wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. It occurs to me now that the venue I've most frequently heard (of) it, is the funeral, perhaps most often of a non-practicing Jew.

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

The Old Testament and for that matter the New Testament were written by a variety of people with very different backgrounds and personal ideologies. Why people think of it as a unified work (let alone any relation to history) is beyond me and totally an act of blind faith.