Thursday 29 September 2016

Reflections on the book of Job

Recently, I've really enjoyed the Thomas Burns Memorial Lectures 2016 from Otago University School of Theology.  This year they were given by Professor Choon-Leong Seow, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East with a delightful Singaporean accent.  He's been lecturing on the Old Testament Biblical book of Job (pronounced to rhyme with 'robe'), through which he's introduced me to a number of ideas that have furthered my thinking on what the Bible is.

I found lectures one, two and four particularly helpful: if you can spare four hours or so, I highly recommend them.  And if you don't, here's what I've taken from the series :-)

In part one (Job in the Cradle of World Literature audio video) he did a survey of other ancient texts written before Job or around the same time.  I didn't follow all the details, but was somewhat surprised to learn that Job isn't just an entity in it's own right but is actually a Biblical take on an existing genre.

At the end, an audience member asked a poignant question.  She said that her son was very skeptical of Christianity and that she felt, had he been at the lecture, he would have simply gained more fuel for his position.  He would have taken from the talk that Job is simply derivative - and why should we take the Bible seriously if it's full of derivative works.

Professor Seow basically pointed out that all the bits of the Bible are written in a cultural context.  Rather than ignoring that fact we should pay attention to it, because that will help us understand them.  But we should also remember that each Biblical text is far more than an example of a genre: coming out of a context doesn't stop it being the Word of God.

It reminded me of a helpful article I read recently: What is the Bible, and How Should We Read it?  The author there talks about how many Christians (including me!) have this idea that the Biblical authors kind of sat down at their desks, were 'inspired' and then wrote down what God told them.  And yet, that's not even what the Bible claims itself to be.  The books are written through the ordinary human processes of writing: letters, works of history, reports of events compiled after interviewing multiple witnesses etc.  Somehow, through these human processes, God makes his word known.

Then, in part 2 (The Artistry of the (Hebrew) Book of Job audio video), Professor Seow looked at the structure of the book.

The main thing I took from this lecture was that he doesn't see Job as an exploration of the question of suffering; he thinks it's asking 'why do you worship God?'  Do you worship God because he does good things for you, or do you worship God because he's God?

He illustrated this in particular by looking at the use of the words 'bless' and 'curse' in the text.  Apparently they're actually the same word, so originally it was up to the reader to decide if Job (or whoever) was really blessing God in their hearts, or whether they were just saying going through the motions in order to try and get what they wanted. There were also some things about the art of translation in the question time at the end that I found helpful.  I found this by far the most helpful of the first three lectures and recommend it highly.

Part 3 (Theological Conversations in Job audio video) unfortunately went completely over my head.  I suspect it might have helped if I'd been watching the video rather than just listening to the audio, as he frequently referred to slides that may well have made what he was saying easier to follow..

In the latter three lectures he looked at how people have interpreted/responded to Job through the ages.

Part 4 (Job as a Contested Classic audio video) introduced me to one really interesting key idea.  The Old Testament/Jewish Bible was originally written in Hebrew, but a Greek translation (the Septuagint) was made well before the time of Jesus.  Until the time of Luther (around the 15th century), basically no Christian scholars were familiar with Hebrew, so their Old Testament was the Greek translation (or a Latin translation of that), rather than the Hebrew original.  It turns out that the Greek translation is rather interpretative.  It's been a while now since I listened to the lecture, but I think Professor Seow said that there are whole chapters in the Greek version that are missing from the Hebrew and vice versa.

The existence of these two versions explains why I'm familiar with the idea of 'the patience of Job', but never find that mentioned when I read my Old Testament.  In the Greek version, Job is explicitly described that way, but not in the Hebrew one: my Bible is based on the Hebrew Old Testament.  There were other similar examples, also.

I found this information really challenging.  Had the church, for most of its history, been using the 'wrong' Old Testament?!

Professor Seow would say 'no': but only because he doesn't exactly believe there is a 'right' version.  Our Bible is the product of numerous human processes (including mistranslation), and through it all, God speaks.

The last two lectures looked at interpretation of Job in art (including pre-medieval examples, and looking at Jewish and Islamic examples as well as Christian ones) and literature.

Part 5: Job Through the Eyes of Artists audio video
Part 6: Job in Modern Literature audio video

It was interesting seeing how many of the art-works included tropes (such as Job's wife feeding him bread with a stick) that apparently come from the Greek translation of the Old Testament rather than the Hebrew original.  These persisted centuries after the church began to read the Hebrew version: Professor Seow was big on how interpretations/understandings formed at one point in time can have consequences long into the future.  He clearly finds this is a sobering thought that encourages him to take great care in his own work of Biblical interpretation, and he was keen to encourage us to approach such work with similar respect.

I'm so pleased I came across these lectures - they've given me lots to think about and hopefully will for some of you, too!

PS I highly recommend the University of Otago Humanities podcast (here), which is where I found this series.  Another gem I found there recently was:
Theology and Religion: Towards an Ecumenical Political Theology: Charisms Catholic, Reformed and Anabaptist (audio video)

Rev Dr Doug Gay is the Stuart Residence Halls Council Distinguished Visitor for 2016. In this public lecture, he traces the outline of an ecumenical political theology incorporating the Catholic, Reformed and Anabaptist traditions of narrative, discipline and witness, with particular reference to the political and economic environment and events leading to the post 2008 economic crisis.
I was interested to realise, as I listened, how much my own theology has been formed by the Anabaptist tradition.  I tend to think of them as an obscure, historical, movement, rather than direct ancestors of my Baptist self!

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