The Book of Job The Book of Job trans. Stephen Mitchell
Publisher: Vintage
Year: 1992
Pages: 176

The Book of Job continues a recent trend of books I’ve read that I received as gifts—specifically from my brother, who has similar taste.

Stephen Mitchell’s The Book of Job probably isn’t something I would have normally picked up. I’ve read the Biblical book, after all, and likely would have dismissed it as an undersized Cliff’s Notes to understanding the story. But with Brady’s explanation (possibly after seeing my puzzled face when I unwrapped it) piqued my interest.

What you must understand about the Biblical book of Job is that the story itself is very ancient, a fixture of Hebrew oral history since long before the Bible was ever compiled. In that way, it is one of the oldest stories in the Bible, and very, erm, Jewish. Like any old story, however, it’s been subject to a lot of revision, interpolation, and translation. What scholar Mitchell proposed to do in this 1992 work was revisit the purest possible texts—in the original Hebrew—and try to recapture that sense of poetry that imbued the original. As a result, this text differs somewhat from the Biblical version, with obvious later additions and glosses removed when they couldn’t be restored.

And there is definitely a sense of poetry inherent to the verse. It’s a very…particular…kind of poetry, of course; Job is, if nothing else, marked by a taste for the interrogative, and a particular structure of phrase that marks most of the text. But what you have to remember about any translated text is that the moment you remove a creative work from its original language, you are introducing ambiguities and uncertainty into the text. I remarked upon this same phenomenon in my review of Snow, and it holds true for a lot of works. The Book of Job has an extensive notes section which remark upon decisions that Mitchell made regarding particular phrases in the text, usually glossing the original Hebrew for the benefit of us slovenly English-speakers. Unfortunately, the notes seemed designed to follow the Biblical chapter:verse structure, which was not included in this translation. Certainly, it seemed a bit odd to me, and forced me to get out my Bible and doublefist the books for a bit while I compared notes. Certainly a tiresome approach to reading, if nothing else.

Ultimately, though, I found both my brother’s and Mitchell’s insistence true: there is both a particular quality of poetry about the pure(st possible) verse of Job, as well as marvelous theological/theodical1 questions that are—in the usual traditions—never quite answered to the satisfaction of us mortals.

For those of you who don’t know the story of Job, here’s a basic summary. Job is a prosperous, pious Jew. One day, Satan2 sidles up to Yahweh and says that Job is only so pious because he’s successful and happy; surely if he were to suffer, he would curse god instead. So Yahweh tells this mysterious Satan to do to Job what he will without harming him. Thereafter, Job’s entire family is killed, his possessions are ruined, and he is left destitute. Ever the resolute Jew, Job attributes this mysterious misfortune to a dry spell and remains upbeat. After another conservation in which Yahweh allows Satan to harm Job without killing him, Job developers terrible boils upon his body. It is at this point that Job enters into a long conversation with his three pious friends (the text of which comprises the bulk of the book). Job maintains his innocence, and his friends assert that (in line with a mode of thinking typical of ancient Hebrew theodicy) Job must have sinned if Yahweh were to punish him so. Finally, Yahweh (as a whirlwind) answers Job, berating him for assuming he knows all the moral intricacies involved in godhood. Job does an appropriate mea culpa and eventually, Yahweh reinstates Job’s riches and family when he proves to be a stalwart believer.

Mind you, there is a lot of subtext here—fabulous amounts of subtext and meaning and metaphor which I have glossed over for brevity’s sake. Mitchell’s translated addresses some of them; his lengthy introduction addresses others. However, I would have liked to see more copious annotations which explain some of the strange bits of the story; as well, I would prefer of Mitchell’s notes didn’t require constant reference to a second book in order to understand where the edit/gloss/revision has taken place.

For all this pedantic criticism, however, The Book of Job is a marvelous read. It’s complex despite its deceptively short length. It also shows you the great culturally and linguistic beauty inherent to the story that sometimes gets lost in the straightforward nature of a recent Biblical translation. For both historical and linguistic (and theological, if that interests you) reasons, put The Book of Job on your reading list.

  1. “Theodical” is a semi-neologism, clearly the adjectival form of “theodicy” or theological justice. For more on theodicy, see my review of Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem[]
  2. “Satan” is no more than a translation of the Hebrew for “the adversary.” Whether this character is supposed to represent the proper-noun Satan is a debate among scholars[]
§3795 · April 26, 2009 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

3 Comments to “The Book of Job”

  1. Jim says:

    Regarding your assertion that Job was a jew, in the very first sentence of his introduction, Mitchell asserts that Job was a gentile. I’m curious as to how you conclude that he was a jew (and how Mitchell concluded that he was a gentile).

    • Ben says:

      Good question. It’s a topic of some debate among biblical scholars, and not yet entirely settled. My calling Job a “Jew” is more an easy convention than a theological point (more on this in a moment).

      Job is described as a native of “Uz”, or, as Mitchell points out, one of the “sons of the east” (1:3), or b’nay qedem. This distinction sets apart Israelite and non-Israelite tribes, this latter sense being known very generally as “Gentiles”.

      Some of the problem, of course, as that opinions vary as to when the story of the Book of Job takes place. Some have it as pre-Abrahamic, in which case it occurs in a period of polytheism, before the preeminence of Yahweh, and the distinction between Jew and Gentile is moot. Others think that Job is the son of Issachar and grandson of Isaac (the Isaac), and therefore very definitely Hebrew (Gen. 46:13). This latter scenario is doubtful if only because it omits the possibility that there were two guys in history with the same name.

      In the strictest sense, then, Mitchell is probably more correct to label Job a Gentile. My own impression is that the story of Job (in some form) likely predates this period entirely, and is told by each successive generation through their own particular lens (Mitchell notes that there are Sumerian versions from 2000 BCE…). In the case of the Biblical version, though Job is described as coming from a land almost “certainly Gentile”, he nonetheless seems like a faithful follower of Yahweh. One of two explanations is possible: Job was a polytheist, and dealt with the Hebrew god because he/it was the center of Job’s misery, or Job was indeed a devotee of the Hebrew deity. I can’t speak to what makes someone officially a “Jew” in that sense, but the Hebrew tradition clearly uses Job as a Jew, or at least tries very hard not to notice as he isn’t.

      tl;dr Mitchell is more technically correct in calling Job a Gentile, but he is an accomplished translator and I’m a schmuck with a blog, so this surprises no one. I nonetheless maintain that for all intents and purposes, in this particular version of the story, Job is of the Hebrew tradition.

  2. Jim says:

    Thank you for the prompt and detailed response. I’m in a book group that reads only literature in translation. The Mitchell translation of Job is our next book and I came across your site while looking for reviews and commentary. I’m impressed by your erudition!

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