Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Problem of the book of Job in the Liturgy of the Hours

Last week closed a two week cycle of readings from the book of Job in the Liturgia Horarum. Job, as mentioned elsewhere, is one of the more difficult books for liturgical use. There is a fundamental paradox to the text and legitimate challenge to God himself that is (purposefully) never resolved. A wager between God and satan sets the stage for Job's trial - Job doesn't need to suffer, the Deity, however, wants to prove a point. The legitimacy of Job's complaint against God, though rebuffed, is not rebuked nor ever seriously challenged. One may add, it is the moral force of Job's complaint against God that forces the concluding theophany in the book - God must respond, in some manner, to the situation he has, ultimately, created.

Christianity has had a more difficult time reconciling with the text of Job as it stands. The traditional approach to Job has been to read the text as primarily a pre-figurement of the sufferings of Christ or, equally, as a moral exemplar of the human person/soul. In either interpretive framework, there is a certain amount of invention related to the actual content of the book; there are times when the interpretation abandons the actual content of the book in favor of an independent philosophy or theology.

While the above mentioned interpretive frameworks have sufficed in previous eras, historical-critical study of the Biblical text has, perhaps forever, altered the boundaries of acceptable Biblical interpretation and use. The intention of the author must be fully understood and, ideally, worked with as opposed to any presuppositions of a religious confession. As such, it is impossible to avoid holding the liturgical use of Scripture up to the standards of historical-critical scholarship. A difficult question must be considered: to what degree are we engaging the thought of the human and divine author and to what degree is our liturgical interpretation of our own invention?

The two weeks worth of readings from the book of Job are as follows: 1:1-22; 2:1-13; 3:1-26; 7:1-21; 11:1-20; 12:1-25; 13:13-14:6; 28:1-28; 29:1-10, 30:1,9-23; 31:1-8, 13-23, 35-37; 32:1-6,33:1-22; 38:1-30; 40:1-14, 42:1-6; 42:7-17. We must note that these are the readings as they appear in the Latin typical edition. Originally, a two year cycle of readings was planned for the revision of the Roman breviary, however, an additional volume with the full two year cycle has not come to light. The typical readings are literally a mish-mash from the proposed two year cycle.

The readings from Job appear to be utilized in order to propose a theology of human suffering in the pages of the breviary. One readily notes above that there is some editing to the biblical text for certain readings. The readings from Job have been carefully selected; there is an intended understanding of human suffering and the content of the book of Job that is desired for this particular liturgical use. Zophar's explanation of Job's suffering (11:1-20) is followed appropriately by Job's reaction in 12:1-25, under the descriptive heading "Job explains that divine omnipotence is beyond human understanding." The problem: Job's response to Zophar is not so much to prove that God's omnipotence is beyond human understanding as it is to prove that Job's suffering was brought on by the strength of an omnipotent will that cannot be so readily coaxed into reversing its decisions as the ritual bartering suggested in the previous discourse. As the breviary continues, Job's appeal to God in 31:1-8, 13-23, 35-37 is followed by a portion of Elihu's rebuke of Job in 32:1-6;33:1-22, the theophany in Job 38:1-30, and  Yahweh's rebuke of Job coupled with Job's obeisance to God (40:1-14;42:1-6). Texts from the book of Job were utilized in such a fashion so as to convey a particular theology of human suffering, one in accordance with long standing Catholic piety: patient endurance and a reticence to question the will of God. Yet, it is important to follow the narrative of Job: the credibility of Job's case against the will of God demands God make some appearance in order to defend himself. The book leaves the reader with numerous instances of paradox. Some of these examples have been mentioned above when detailing the literary setting of the book. One may also add, although God's answer to Job is to effectively tell him he cannot possibly critique the will of God unless he himself were similar to God, God nevertheless must answer Job in the narrative. We thus have a conflict between Yahweh's discourse to Job and Yahweh's very action. That Yahweh eventually has to respond to Job (according to the book's narrative) implies that there is some degree of truth in every complaint Job makes against his situation and whatever corresponding role God has in it. The breviary denudes the text of this power and, I would argue, extracts a theology of human suffering from these particular selections that cannot be justified by the book of Job itself.