Review by William C. Pohl IV
C. L. Seow, Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, makes an important and substantial contribution to Joban studies with his recently released commentary in the Illuminations series. He has authored numerous articles on the book of Job as well as a Hebrew grammar, a commentary on Ecclesiastes, and other technical monographs on politics and inscriptions from the monarchy period.
Serving as the general editor of this new commentary series, Illuminations, he has established a high standard in providing this inaugural commentary of the series. The Illuminations series intends “to illumine the text from a wide variety of perspectives, including engagement and impact of the text through the centuries” (xii). In an “accessible and enjoyable” way (xii), the series seeks to highlight the literary nature of the Scriptures, while also paying close attention to their meaning and significance and what Seow calls the “history of consequences”—his term for the history of interpretation, reception, and influence of the book. (You can see his explanation of the series in the video below.) With this end in mind, Seow has succeeded. This text-focused study is primarily a literary-theological interpretation, but it is also attentive to the history of interpretation and reception. This contribution will serve the academy and the church well for years to come.
Summary of Contents
The commentary provides the reader with an extensive introduction to the book (248 pp.), covering ten different issues: Texts and Versions, Language, Integrity, Provenance, Setting, Genre(s), Structure, Artistry, Theology, and History of Consequences (comprising 139 pp. on how the book of Job has been interpreted and received in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Following the introduction, Seow treats each of the first 21 chapters of the book in turn and in great detail. (Job 22-42 will be treated in a second volume.) A substantial bibliography follows each section of the introduction and each chapter of the book.
A review of this kind does not provide the space for treating all of Seow’s conclusions and contributions of the book of Job, but it is important to summarize some of the most important conclusions. His treatment of the language of the book is helpful in that he provides a compelling argument for seeing the orthography, vocabulary, forms, and stylistic features as “literary affectations” by which the poet establishes a distant and international setting for the book (17-26). Related to this, Seow further argues, again compellingly, that the book was probably written in the late-sixth century to mid-fifth century B.C.E. (though he admits it could have been written as late as late-third century or mid-second century), and that it is a Cisjordanian (i.e., Israelite/Jewish) work intentionally set in an international and archaic setting (39-47).
He reads the book as a unity, noting that, despite the numerous diachronic compositional theories, there is no evidence of an extant edition of the book of Job that attests to any other structure than the one we have (26-39). Admitting to the obvious fact that taking the book as a unified whole still leaves tensions between ostensibly disparate sections, he suggests, “[I]nstead of performing textual strategies to suit modern preconceptions of coherence, it is necessary to give the ancient narrator-poet the benefit of the doubt and to grapple with those dissonances and asymmetry that may well be a part of how the book means” (38). Indeed, the dissonance, gaps, and ambiguity force the reader to engage the text.
Rather than treating the theology of the book as a whole, Seow provides a summary of the theology of different sections of the book. He suggests Job’s theology is a theology of personal experience, rooted in the present, concrete circumstances, while the friends’ theology is sapiential (i.e., it is rooted in observation) and traditional (i.e., it is rooted in the traditions of the elders, but in the end is restrictive and idolatrous) (87-97). He suggests the friends miss God because they choose their system over robust truth. Seow is kinder to Elihu than most modern interpreters, suggesting that Elihu represents “mediated revelation” (while Yahweh’s speeches are “unmediated revelation” [69-72; cf. 31-38]). Intriguingly, Elihu’s theological contribution is important as he argues Job is not guilty of sin but of speaking incorrectly. Whereas he suggests that Job’s theology has ethical implications (he is one of the few who rightly note this), he suggests that Elihu’s response to Job is intended to counteract the ethics of Job’s legal charge (97-101). The theology of the Yahweh speeches is that Yahweh is both sovereign and free (101-104). He notes that the theology of the narrator is not about the justice of God or the nature of suffering, but of “how one speaks of God in the face of chaos” (108).
The remaining issues of the introduction are also important contributions. His treatment of genres of the book, the artistry of the book, and the history of consequences are also helpful for student, pastor, and scholar alike. His “History of Consequences” is one of the most important contributions this commentary makes. The breadth of research represented here is remarkable and provides a great resource for history of interpretation and reception throughout history and contemporary culture through music, art, and literature.
Chapters 1-21 of the book of Job are each treated in turn following the introduction. For each chapter Seow provides a translation of the passage, introduces the main theme(s) and the structure of the chapter, and includes a summary of the “history of consequences.” He interprets each section of the chapter in an accessible way, grounds this interpretation in detailed philological and text critical analysis, and provides a bibliography that informs his scholarship.
It may prove helpful to provide an example of Seow’s typical treatment of the text. His work on Job 6 serves well in this regard. After providing a translation, he outlines the poem’s movements into four stanzas: vv. 2-7; vv. 8-13; vv. 14-20; vv. 21-30 (453-454). He is keen on noting how Job is replying to Eliphaz’s previous speech in Job 4-5. Job’s “vexation” (used in 6:2, following Eliphaz’s use in 5:2) refers to Job’s anguish over his experience (454). In the first stanza (6:2-7), Job defends his right to protest, as found in his opening words in Job 3 (456). In the second stanza (6:8-13), Seow understands Job to be responding to Eliphaz’s concept of “hope” (4:6; 5:16). Job’s “hope” has run out; his limit has been reached (459-460). Yet in the midst of this, Job takes on a role of speaking dangerous truth about God (6:10). In the third stanza (6:14-20), Job discusses the role of the community, noting particularly the failure of the friends in their role as comforters. His treatment of the difficult 6:14 is helpful as he outlines different interpretive options and links them with English translations (462). In the final stanza (6:21-30), Job deals with the issue of speaking courageously: “To Job . . . people who are afraid of confronting tough, faith-shattering questions are not fearers of God. Rather they are simply fearers, theological cowards, for they fear the truth” (464). The friends have failed Job and he is not afraid to let them know (465). Seow concludes, “Theologically and ethically, Job 6 is one of the richest chapters in the book. Here are profound insights about the inadequacy of rigid doctrines, about courage in speaking truth to power, even divine power, and about friendship as a manifestation of grace” (467). His treatment is profound and provocative, rich and rewarding.
This commentary exhibits numerous strengths. A commentary of this size could be dense; this one is not. It is remarkably readable, even, winsome. The breadth and depth of the scholarship evident is to be commended. The introduction will prove helpful for readers at all levels in that it provides important background material for understanding the book. His appreciation of the beauty of the literary nature of the book is evident and contagious. The “History of Consequences” section makes an important contribution on its own, while also setting a context for interpreting the book. The summaries of the vast interpretations of the book throughout the centuries will help refine the thinking of the student, scholar, and pastor as they interpret the book themselves.
Regarding more specific strengths, I would highlight three. First, though his detailed work on the Elihu speeches will have to wait for the release of the second volume, his treatment of the Elihu speeches in the introduction is one of the finest available. Notoriously difficult to interpret, Seow has provided a good framework for students of the book of Job to begin thinking about the issues raised by the Elihu section of the book.
Second, Seow consistently highlights the interactive nature of the dialogue between the characters of the book. The Interpretation section of each chapter is littered with references to previous speeches. His keen awareness to how the friends respond to Job (and vice versa) helps the interpreter of the book make connections between speeches that can often be lost without the erudite guidance of such a capable interpreter (though these are less frequent—yet still there—in the second cycle as Seow argues they talk past each other more as the dialogue breaks down).
Third, though it is left undeveloped, Seow is attuned to the ethical and theological issues of speech the book raises. His treatment of this understudied topic in the book sometimes raises questions (see, e.g., his comments on the lament genre as being “subverted” in the book on pp. 56-58 and his conclusion that “[t]he lament tradition is . . . reaffirmed, even for laments in extremis, even for words that border on blasphemy” ), but he is to be commended for raising the issue as a theological concern of the book.
A few weaknesses emerge as well. Though somewhat minor, two critiques relate to the general format of the series. First, the Interpretation is intended to be accessible and unencumbered by superfluous references to scholarly literature, original languages, technical jargon, etc., while the Commentary is intended to be a “thorough accounting of the text in its original language and an engagement of other scholars,” thereby supporting the Interpretation previously offered (xii). On the one hand, this is helpful for the pastor, who can get an understanding of the passage without the distraction of a host of technical matters. Seow does this fairly well. On the other hand, the Commentary ends up feeling more like an appendix. The Commentary contains details on comparative Semitics and textual criticism. These details lay an important foundation for Seow’s interpretation, but by the time the reader gets to them they seem anticlimactic. The pastor may not find this section as helpful; where it is helpful it becomes somewhat redundant because the main issues have already been fleshed out in the Interpretation. That said, for the student and the scholar, the Commentary is incredibly important, and Seow’s attention to detail is extraordinary.
Second, the “History of Consequences” – especially the music, art, and literature Seow explores – may prove more helpful for the scholar than the pastor in that it provides a thorough accounting of the book’s interpretation, reception, and influence through the centuries that can open up new avenues of research. That said, a creative pastor may find ways of bringing these kinds of materials into teaching and preaching for contextualization or illustrative purposes.
Two other more specific critiques need to be suggested. First, Seow’s treatment of the theology of the different voices in the book, while helpful in some ways, seems to be rooted in more recent postmodern approaches to the book (e.g., Carol Newsom’s monograph The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations [Oxford University Press, 2003]). Each voice in the book does have a contribution to make, but what is left unattended in this treatment is the question of the theology of the book as a whole. What is the book of Job teaching or contributing to the life of faith? Second, while Seow’s attention to the interactive nature of the dialogue is helpful, he often fails to go one further step in accounting for the rhetorical effects of many of the speeches. For example, in his treatment of Job 6, he notes that in 6:4 Job stresses that his predicament is not benign (as Eliphaz suggests in 5:17-18) but divinely caused – maliciously so (455). What is the rhetoric of this image doing for Job in his response to Eliphaz? Seow leaves this question unanswered; this emerges as a consistent pattern throughout the commentary.
To be sure, the strengths of the commentary far outweigh the weaknesses.
The academy and the church will undoubtedly benefit from this commentary. The size and scope of the commentary as a whole may prove more helpful for the scholar than the pastor, but all should find great value in this work. For the pastor, the Interpretation section of each chapter provides an excellent guide for understanding, exhibiting thorough attention to detail while being written in an accessible way in accordance with the series’ goal. Even where Seow’s interpretations may not prove as convincing, his contribution will certainly refine thinking as a dialogue partner. Used in conjunction with other interpreters, this volume certainly can help those wrestling with the difficult literary masterpiece that is the book of Job.
William C. Pohl IV is a PhD student with a concentration in Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
C.L. Seow talk about the Illuminations Commentary Series here:
Buy the books
Job 1-21: Interpretation And Commentary