I’m Fed Up!

Job: A New Translation BY Edward L. Greenstein. Yale University Press. 248 pages. $26.

The pivotal moment of the book of Job occurs in its final chapter. Job, the paradigm of piety—God-fearing and evil-shunning, as he’s introduced in the book’s first lines—has, despite his moral uprightness, suffered profoundly. He has endured the deaths of his ten children; an excruciating, all-consuming skin disease; and haranguing by four friends who have insisted, relentlessly, that God wouldn’t torture Job without just cause, despite his repeated insistence that he has done nothing to deserve his fate. In response to Job’s pleas for answers, God himself has spoken to him from a whirlwind. Job’s anguish, the text’s prose frame makes clear, is the result of a bet between God and a being called ha-satan—Hebrew for “the accuser” or “the adversary,” but often rendered in English simply as “Satan”—over whether even Job can be made to curse his creator. But rather than offering explanation, God has instead delivered two confounding speeches detailing his power over creation, including vivid accounts of the mythological beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. Job has responded once, briefly, between God’s speeches. But now the time has come for him to offer his final word, on which the ultimate meaning of the text seems to hinge.

So what does Job say? It depends on who you ask. Edward L. Greenstein, in the introduction to his recent, heterodox translation of Job, writes that the verse in question (Job 42:6) “has always stymied translators.” But lately there has been some relative consensus. He offers this as a “typical modern translation”: “Therefore I despise myself (or: recant), / and repent in dust and ashes.” Greenstein is skeptical. The major point of contention is the first verb, ma’as. Greenstein promptly dispenses with those who translate it as “recant”—these include the major literary translator Robert Alter, as well as the committee responsible for the Jewish Publication Society’s edition (common in contemporary Jewish liturgical use), though Greenstein politely names neither—by stating that “no such usage is attested in ancient Hebrew.” He finds another translation, “despise,” more plausible, but points out that this requires one to assume an implied object (“myself”) when ma’as doesn’t demand one. It has an established intransitive sense—which, Greenstein emphasizes, appears more than once earlier in the book, in speeches by Job. This meaning is quite different: “I am fed up.”

This simple but unprecedented lexical suggestion has major interpretive consequences. Where other translations show Job ultimately submitting to God, cowed by the creator’s assertion of divine might and description of a magnificent (if amoral) cosmos, Greenstein’s finds him protesting until the end. Accordingly, Greenstein reads the second clause not as repentance, but as humanistic condolence: “I take pity on ‘dust and ashes!’”—in which “dust and ashes” is meant not literally, but metonymically for the abjection of humanity. (This, too, has a marvelously nitpicky philological justification.) Elsewhere in this chapter, where other interpreters read Job as conceding to God, Greenstein—as he emphasizes in the introduction and in the footnotes to the text—sees him as doing so mockingly, parodying and taunting a deity whom he has judged unworthy of respect.

Greenstein is the latest in a long line of biblical scholars to take on the notoriously challenging task of translating Job. Mark Larrimore, in his insightful study The Book of Job: A Biography, writes that this text “arguably has more puzzles than any other book of the Bible”—puzzles that range from the theological to the philological, the latter inextricable from the former. As Larrimore points out, the book is filled with what scholars call hapax legomena—words that appear only in a single extant text—and there are many “passages of such great obscurity that interpreters have sometimes felt obliged to change letters to make any sense of them.” Moreover, the text as it’s come down to us seems to include significant interpolations, omissions, and rearrangements—likely exacerbated by scribes and editors striving to make better sense of a fraught text, in the process only garbling it further.

Greenstein, who has been publishing on the question of translating Job since 1981, is unsparing in his assessment of most prior attempts. “There is no delicate way to put it: much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged,” he writes in his introduction. His disappointment is not, principally, a matter of quibbles over diction (though he has plenty of these, as well). Rather, he holds that the fullness of the text’s core radicality has been suppressed for centuries—particularly in the crucial moment of Job’s response to God—as a result of translators hewing too closely to ancient interpretations of the text and therefore, he writes, “dispensing with the painstaking work of original philological investigation that might lead to new and proper understandings.” Correcting this state of affairs is the primary impetus behind his reparative translation.

Greenstein aims to rescue Job from earlier translators, whom he believes “have blunted Job’s attack on the deity’s justice” because it “may not accord with the image of a pious, Bontshe the Silent–type Job that most interpreters have wanted to find.” For Greenstein, Job is a modern humanist avant la lettre, indignant at cosmic injustice to the point of talking back to God to his face. This is a welcome corrective to the dominant amateur understanding of Job as an archetype of patient endurance, which—even leaving aside the question of Job’s final response to God—undoubtedly misrepresents the questioning, argumentative figure who spends much the text approaching blasphemy.

But with regard to other careful readers of the book itself, Greenstein’s assessment is unduly harsh, discounting the degree to which the text’s heterodoxy comes through in other versions. It’s true that in other translators’ versions, Job—who has spent the book contesting the orthodox view that God metes out happiness to the just and suffering to the wicked—recants or repents, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Job comes around to the orthodox opinion. After all, in his speeches, God never claims to adhere to human systems of justice, but rather seems to suggest that human justice has no claim on the divine, meaning that Job folds in the face of a view of the divine that is far from orthodox. Moreover, in the epilogue, God chastens Job’s friends—champions of the orthodox view—because they “did not speak about [him] in honesty as did [his] servant Job” (Greenstein’s translation), another way in which the text contests the traditional understanding of divine justice.

Part of what makes the book of Job so fascinating is the way its inherent heterodoxy wars with its own more orthodox elements. For instance, Job’s seething, visceral meditations on the suffering of the innocent and questioning of the idea of a just God appear in poetry framed by a prose narrative in which the mystery of his affliction is given the simple, fable-like explanation of God’s wager—and in which, in the end, God “blessed Job’s latter-life more than his former-life” and provides him livestock and ten more children, a seeming affirmation of the doctrine of an orthodox view of divine justice. (Indeed, many scholars agree that the prose frame and the poem were composed separately, though it’s difficult to say whether the prose was added to contain the radicality of the poem, or whether the poem was added to subvert the conventionality of the prose.) The book of Job has for centuries been the site of a contest between orthodox and heterodox views of the divine, with scribes, exegetes, and translators—as well as those who have directly tampered with the text to alter its meaning, creating an increasingly inscrutable palimpsest—arriving at vastly varying understandings. Greenstein’s translation joins in this tradition, which has itself became an image of the dramatic theological disputation that animates the text.

Greenstein’s provocative rendering of Job 42 would justify the existence of his translation, even if it were otherwise uninteresting. But he makes other intriguing restorations, which he argues for in commentary weaved throughout the translation. For instance, he transplants chapter 28, which scholars sometimes call the hymn to wisdom, and which they tend to regard as an independent, interpolated poem, to the final speech of Job’s fourth friend, Elihu (himself, as Greenstein acknowledges, widely understood as a later addition to the text). Whether or not it will convince Hebraists, Greenstein’s argument for understanding these lines as a displaced portion of one of Elihu’s speeches—that they complete Elihu’s account of wisdom by describing the subterranean world after he has described the sky, in a structure that accords with other literature of the time—is ingenious.

Taken as a work of literature in its own right, Greenstein’s translation is engaging and unusual, at times even strangely sublime, as when Job imagines demanding of his creator, “Have you not poured me out like milk, / And jelled me like cheese?”, or when God asks Job, “Have you ever in your days summoned daybreak, / Made known to the dawning its place?” But it’s consistently less arresting than the finest literary translations, such as Alter’s, or the inimitable King James version (though error-ridden, still tough to beat, four centuries later). Greenstein’s project, though, is neither to replicate the experience of reading Job in Hebrew, nor to produce an outstanding piece of literature in English. Rather, it is a self-consciously reconstructive, rehabilitative attempt “to suggest what is actually being said in accord with the earliest established meanings.” One can easily imagine a league of later translators following in his footsteps, drawing on his corrections while attempting to bring the reader closer to the book’s poetic brilliance—not to mention the whole school of newly invigorated and complicated commentaries Greenstein’s Job seems destined to inspire. What Greenstein’s translation testifies is that, despite innumerable interpretations and incalculable religious and literary influence, we’ve yet to exhaust Job’s potential for provocation.

Nathan Goldman is the associate editor at Jewish Currents.