2014.5.10 | C. L. Seow. Job 1-21: Interpretation & Commentary. Illuminations Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. 999 pages. ISBN: 9780802848956. Hardcover.
Review by JiSeong Kwon, Durham University
Many thanks to Eerdmans for providing a review copy.
The work by C. L. Seow is among the most thoughtful and insightful commentaries on the book of Job. Seow divides this commentary into two parts: ‘Introduction’—whose subsections include ‘Texts and Versions’, ‘Language’, ‘Integrity’, ‘Provenance’, ‘Setting’, ‘Genre(s)’, ‘Structure’, ‘Artistry’, ‘Theology’, and ‘History of Consequences’—and ‘Commentary’—whose subsections include ‘Interpretation’ (with ‘History of Consequences’), ‘Retrospect’, and ‘Commentary’ (textual notes). Each section deals with important issues in the book of Job with thoroughness and scholarly depth. Especially noteworthy are Seow’s discussions of literary technique in the book of Job and the book’s history of interpretation.
The virtue of Seow’s commentary is that he attempts to compensate for the weak points of previous commentators. For instance, the literary genre of Job as a whole is a longstanding matter of debate. Interpreters have suggested probable literary genres for the book of Job like lament (Westermann), lawsuit (Richter, Magdalene), parody (Dell), etc. However, all such attempts to determine the book’s genre as a whole have not proven satisfactory, since Job actually includes many different forms/genres. Seow points this out, saying:
‘As for the overall genre of the book, we must admit that there is no precise parallel anywhere. The book is one of a kind in form, though it employs a rich variety of genres, which together contribute to the theological conversation encapsulated in the book’ (p. 61).
Furthermore, what this commentary notably provides are both ‘the history of interpretation’ and ‘the history of reception’, though Seow prefers the expression, ‘history of consequences’, that is, the understandings and significances of the book that are ‘found in commentaries, theological treatises, homilies, catecheses, letters, liturgies, literature, visual arts (including dance and film), and music’ (p. 110). He even traces the wide impacts and applications of Job’s text in different religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Readers will definitely benefit from the richness and theological diversity of this hermeneutical spectrum. However, the advantage of such an openness towards different interpretive principles is, in some ways, a double-edged sword. Since the methodology which Seow adopts is more inclined to the present or to a church context rather than to the social and historical context behind texts, the original meaning of the biblical texts sometimes fades away (p. xii). He deals with various dialogues and traditions surrounding the biblical texts, even in secular contexts, but he tends to fail to discuss the historical and social context in which the book of Job was produced. Contents are understood in the history of interpretation or reception, but the cultural and theological context behind given texts tend to be ignored. The interpretive framework which Seow places in front of the text-critical section in every passage seems to place an obstacle between understanding the Hebrew thoughts and the ideas in the text.
Of course, Seow does draw heavily on similarities with other non-Israelite sources and attempts to connect Job’s texts with other probable parallels. However, they are just superficial connections based on linguistic and thematic resemblances rather than theological and religious ideas in them. For instance, biblical scholars have seen Ludlul as having the closest affinity with the book of Job among other ancient Near Eastern texts. The affinity is so close that some would even partly treat Ludlul as the origin of the book of Job. For instance, Gray proposes a parallel passage between Job 19:13-17 and Tablet 1 lines 82-92 in Ludlul, and Weinfeld points out the similarity between the pattern of Ludlul and Elihu’s speech in Job 33. Seow likewise argues that the similarities in expressions between Eliphaz’s hymn in Job 5:18-20 and ‘a Sufferer’s Salvation’, the Akkadian hymn praising Marduk, are ‘suggestive’ and concludes that the similarity is the genre of the hymn as in Eliphaz’s hymn and in other Akkadian ‘exemplary-sufferer texts’ (pp. 53-4). Nonetheless, such a linguistic link with Job’s text cannot lead us to the core of textual meaning, and it is moreover doubtful that the author of Job used an established hymnic form from Mesopotamian compositions, because these linguistic features are prevalent in all the other ancient texts.
It is true that traditions and readings according to the ideologies of social groups could develop meaningful dialogues, and the interpreters of Job have been successful in taking their respective roles. However, it does not mean that the original meaning in an Israelite social context can be neglected. The special relationship between God and humans, which the book of Job uniquely states, reflects the interests and ideas of the Jewish literate group. This should be highlighted in the content and context of Job.
David Clines’ commentary (WBC vv. 17A/18A/18B) provides a useful contrast with Seow’s work in many ways. The latter’s work is more acute and readable than that of the former by involving traditions and contexts from contemporary life, while the former puts more emphasis on the textual and original meaning of the Hebrew text but excludes the church contexts. This may lead readers to have more abundant thoughts from two contrasting views. In my opinion, Seow’s illuminating commentary should be esteemed in the list of standard commentaries with those of David Clines, John Gray, John Hartley, and Robert Gordis.
Jiseong.kwon [ at ] durham.ac.uk