Job and Radical Evil

Note: this translation is a work in progress, and I am not a professional translator. Caveat lector. Pagination is as per the original Tel Quel issue.

From Tel Quel issue 70, Summer 1977.

Philippe Nemo, “Job et le mal radical”

Job and Radical Evil


[76] The Book of Job, as read in certain Christian exegeses, is “unnerving”, or even “disgusting.” After this preliminary declaration, one imagines/expects that these exegetes will give up and proceed carefully with the text, strange indeed given their dogmas, a position of radical interrogation. Or they do nothing. They immediately note with satisfaction that the critical arguments and theological audacity of Job did not discourage those who admitted the book of Job to the canon of the Scriptures. They think without doubt that if Job figures among the Scriptures, without any echo of major contestation that has reached us today, it is due to a certain way in which it constitutes a system (“fait system”) with them, that it does not contradict them, that it contradicts them in a way that it itself theologically admissible. For example and to evoke immediately the most salient trait of the book, because the dereliction of Job recalls, and thus seems retrospectively to announce, the solitude of Christ on the cross. This unnerving text thus does not leave the exegetes at a loss (“depourvus”–also “unblessed”, “destitute”). They explain it by its situatedness in the plan of a progressive Revelation which must be read, by a subtle exercise, in the whole of the Biblical canon. As a matter of comprehending the range of the divine response in the “speech of Yahweh”, they see in this a “theophany” which they measure against (pit against) the other theophanies of the Old Testament. As a matter of evaluating Job’s “faith”, they compare it to the faith of Abraham. The “wisdom” of chapter 28 presents a difficulty, so they refer it to the hokmah (Hebrew: wisdom) in the collection of the books of holy wisdom, etc. In a word, they gladly play one text off against another.

And certainly this process is fruitful according to their standards (normes), which themselves form the theory of this fruitfulness: it is the Bible in its entirety which “speaks”, and in it is the “Spirit”. Playing one text against another, is not thus to force or obscure, it is to clarify in the only theologically justifiable way. And conducting an analysis of a lone text, without reference to others and tradition is to succumb to the false prestige of the human sciences and of simple “philology.”

One can, however, ask oneself whether it is necessary, to save the meaning of a text from linguistic or historic reductionism, to conserve the entire set of texts and [77] commentaries amongst which it is counted. For it may well be that a text inserted at one point into a corpus that has become sacred has never yet been read for its own sake, or at very least one day read according to different presupposition, and as part of a different corpus. Thus might Job be read as a tragedy and counted amongst the corpus of tragedies — and who judges that this corpus is not “sacred”? If the judge be Jewish or Christian, one does not read the Book of Job except through the prism of a tradition of Biblical commentary. This tradition in turn expresses the interest of a community. And lousy/crappy commentary cannot break from the community unless the commentator does not lead, sooner or later, to the verge of rupture with the community.

Thus Claudel, whose strongly traditional sensibility is to our eyes no less inevitably modern for its connection [rapport] with that of centuries past, sees well the weightiness in the views of Eliphaz, Bildad and Cophar. He perceives what they have not of the scandalous or unjustifiable, but rather of the laughable/derisory, measured by the lucidity of Job. He also writes: “the intention is of Joseph Proudhon.” Why then add that through their voice is it no less than the “Spirit of the Saint” [Saint-Esprit] that speaks? The Spirit of the Saint and Joseph Proudhon–are they not one, according to Claudel? But the Christian dogma demands that the morality, exposed and defended as brightly as possible by those whom Claudel calls “the three stooges,” does not entirely shatter under the formidable blows the Job-ian argumentation. It demands therefore that Claudel is victimized. The learned exegetes and theologians are more sensible than this literary hack; but fundamentally, they proceed in the same manner.

On the other hand, it cannot here become a matter of attempting an objective reading, itself as candid as the Book of Job. No reading is conducted entirely free from interest. But we call for/claim a reading that would be “blank” at least with regard to a connection with Jewish and Christian institutional hermeneutics, which wholly implicates [a ‘total’ implication] the book with the Bible and–this is another matter–with the one and only Bible.

Within The Book of Job, care to respect the givens of tradition leads to a new type of error. This time it is not a matter of abusive simplifications, but on the contrary of inextricable difficulties that have been artificially created. Exegesis agrees to consider that the book is composite. The prose prologue and epilogue, recounting the plot between God and the devil and his comfortable lot, are the oldest parts of the text, probably composed before the others, the 5th century editor probably having picked up, in his own way, a story transmitted by popular tradition. The poetic dialogue of Job and his friends, as well as the main party in the dialogue with Yahweh, would be by the same hand. The discourse of Elihu, the fourth friend, and the poem on Wisdom (Ch. 28), are each later additions. The wisdom of the exegetes again locates, here and there, brief interpolated passages. But a problem immediately poses itself. [78] It is the book as a whole which is canonical, and not just the work of one of the three or four principal authors. And yet the doctrine had to be established in the Catholic church, a mesure que the progress of exegesis renders doubtful the attribution of the majority of Biblical books to a a single noble/grand prophet who we could naturally conceive of as “inspired”–of considering all the authors of the same text as canonical as equally inspired lest one prevail over the other. If one wishes to establish an orthodox theology of the Book of Job, it will therefore be indispensable to take account of three or four contributions: if, in effect, one thereby disregards a “tout a fait”, one disrupts the canonicity of the ensemble, compromising the contributions one wishes to preserve. Now, each of the (perhaps) four pieces is, to a varying degree, difficultly/problematically compatible with the three others. The setting in prose–prologue and epilogue–presents a man resigned before his test, who praises God in stead of revolting against him and to whom God responds without hesitation in re-establishing his health and fortune. The core of the poem, on the contrary, presents the complaints of Job at length. Whereas Job’s three friends attribute his misfortune to a misdeed committed by him or his children against the Law, Elihu, the fourth and last interlocutor, evokes a sin more “interior” that would not have been a transgression of the Law: the pride which Job makes apparent in professing his innocence.

For the orthodox exegete, one must grant all these themes. And thus an avalanche of problems, which may be peremptorily resolved according to a partial point of view, handled carefully, but at the price of taking a minimalist [minimaliste — reductive?] position.

It thus appeared to us more coherent for us to hold on to that which constitutes the core of the Book of Job, on to the texts without which the name of Job would not have lasted the centuries: the dialogue and Yahweh’s concluding discourse. if we can resolve ourselves to sacrifice the rest, which is not by the same hand, it is because for us no orthodoxy of canonicity or inspiration makes it a crime. And we recover in this expedient way the text of a sole author, psychologically, dramatically and philosophically coherent. We recover the theology of a thinker, not that of a mosaic of inspired authors who together made a cloud of confusion which form the all-too-easy material for a certain falsely or truly naive theology.

The author of the dialogues possesses a strength of spirit foreign to that which we see in God and Satan’s apologue. His concise style is reminiscent of the rhetoric of Elihu. He argues without great reliance upon references to Yahweh’s Alliance with Israel, nor to an “oriental” mythology, [79] nor likewise to a wisdom tradition (since he is not the author of chapters 28, 36 or 37). His god is without name, without revelation, and without a particular plan for his creature.

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