donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: Samuel E. Balentine, Job (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2008; in: Interpretation

Samuel E. Balentine, Job (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2008

Review in: Interpretation 2008 62: 78
Review door: Carol A. Newsom
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by Samuel E. Balentine
Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Smyth & Helwys,
Macon, Ga., 2006.
750 pp. $65.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-1-5731-2067-8.

OF THE MAKING OF COMMENTARIES there seems to be no end, and one often wonders if the reduplication of effort on the part of so many senior scholars is the best use of intellectual capital. But there can be no question that Samuel Balentine's commentary on Job represents a major contribution, not only to studies of the book of Job but also to the project of renovating the biblical commentary as a locus for intellectually serious hermeneutical work.

The Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary Series sets out an ambitious agenda for its authors, asking them to engage not only the standard range of historical-critical methods but also aspects of the history of interpretation, including the theological tradition, literature, visual arts, and popular culture. Above all, the emphasis is hermeneutical. While such a comprehensive agenda is commendable as a general goal, the book of Job lends itself exceptionally well to this approach, and in Balentine the project finds an interpreter brilliantly equal to the daunting task.

By and large, Balentine situates his reading of Job within the range of interpretive options that are representative of contemporary Joban scholarship. One will not find here radical challenges or strikingly novel frameworks for interpreting the book. And indeed, that is not really the task of commentary writing. In this volume, however, are many new and creative exegetical insights and juxtapositions with other biblical texts. Balentine takes a moderate approach to the issue of the history of the composition of the book of Job (e.g., the prose tale as probably the oldest part, the Elihu speeches in chs. 32-37 and perhaps the wisdom poem in ch. 28 as later additions, the third cycle as a difficult but intelligible part of the original design of the book). As he notes, although each addition to the book may have been intended to address perceived difficulties, each nevertheless ends up increasing the tensions. Balentine lets exegetical judgment guide him in his decisions about how to read these sections within the book as a whole. He lets Elihu remain as an "intruder," a later addition to the book, though he grants him a full and thoughtful interpretation. But the rest of the book he reads as a tensive but intelligible whole, however it may have historically come to be. Thus he decides to interpret ch. 28 as Job's words (though clearly describing other interpretive options). While I am still not persuaded by this interpretive option, Balentine makes the strongest case yet for what these words mean for understanding Job as a character and for the developing issues of the book if they are spoken by Job himself. Similarly, Balentine opts not to treat the transition from the poetry to the concluding prose at 42:7-9 as a sharp fracture line in the book, but rather "as the conclusion to the whole story" (p. 708). Balentine rejects the notion that the prose tale represents simply a return to the status quo ante and instead sees it as reflecting and effecting several transformations. Thus it serves as a genuine conclusion, signaling a resolution of key issues. Yet if these characters return to inhabit the world of the prose tale, none of them—including God—is quite the same as he was in chs. 1-2.

Balentine's interpretation of the conclusion is mediated through his understanding of what occurs in the divine speeches and Job's response to them in 42:1-6. What happens there is the culmination of an issue that Balentine sees as having run like a red thread through the dialogues: an examination of the nature and meaning of human existence. Indeed, it is one of the signal strengths of Balentine's commentary that he shows how deeply dialogical the book really is. Although many perceive the friends, Job, and God to be talking past one another, Balentine carefully demonstrates that certain core issues are repeatedly addressed from a variety of different perspectives. Moreover, he gives each one its due, exploring what needs to be taken seriously, even in positions that may have little appeal for the contemporary reader. The dialogue about the status, roles, and responsibilities of humans in the cosmos emerges as the most central of these extended conversations. Thus Balentine sees the animals in the divine speeches as oblique but provocative moral exemplars and God's harsh address to Job in 40:6-14 as "challenging Job to live still more boldly into the role that God has specially created for human beings... to participate in the governance of the world with the pride and courage that derives from being charged with responsibilities that are only a littler lower than God's" (p. 682), a legitimately "proud" role that finds its surprising analogue in Job's fellow creatures Behemoth and Leviathan. Thus Job's final, syntactically ambiguous words in 42:6 are his acknowledgment of his transformed understanding of humanity (i.e., "dust and ashes"). If Job is thus transformed, Balentine suggests (though he does not develop the idea in full) that God, too, is transformed through the encounter with Job, subtly acknowledging through the double restoration of Job's possessions that humans have a right to call God to account for injustice and responding to a prayer that Job prays not only for his friends but also for God (pp. 715-17; see also p. 573).

Balentine's reading of Job is immensely powerful, and this brief summary of some of its major points does not adequately convey the exegetical richness of his interpretation. Yet there is something that gives me pause. The book emerges from Balentine's reading as disconcertingly "useful." Although he acknowledges the sublimity of the divine speeches, the emphasis seems to be on the speeches as providing lessons for Job to learn about himself. God encourages Job's participation in their mutual task of just governance. But does this interpretation blunt the edge of a wilder, more terrifying encounter—one that may not be quite as amenable to theological ethics? Does it fall prey to the temptation to "put Leviathan on a leash"? This is the same critique, in fact, that I would make of my own earlier (pre-2003) work on Job. The tension between addressing the legitimate needs of an interpretive community and being able to bring to that community something more disturbing than perhaps even the interpreter wishes to hear is one of the most difficult aspects of Joban interpretation. I suspect that Balentine and I simply disagree about the exegesis of the text, but the meta-issue is important in its own right.

Thus far, I have been discussing Balentine's commentary as though it were an ordinary commentary—but it is far more than that. One of the features that distinguishes the Smyth and Helwys commentaries is the use of extensive artwork and of sidebars. The sidebars may provide additional critical information (e.g., analyses of the structure, ancient Near Eastern context, discussion of textual problems) or the complementary or divergent views of other scholars, but Balentine often uses them to include poetry and excerpts from novels and literary essays that bear on the issue in question. Sometimes Balentine comments on the excerpts. At other times he simply lets them speak for themselves. It is as though Job were visited not just by the three friends named in the text, but by a whole host of more congenial friends he never knew he had—friends like Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, John Updike, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, and Längsten Hughes. Balentine gestures the reader toward further conversations with these poets and writers, drawing Job squarely into dialogue with a wide swath of the western literary tradition, often in unexpected ways.

While the sidebars enormously enrich the commentary, they do remain, as their physical location indicates, somewhat marginal to the work of the commentary itself (some are not even in the book but only on the accompanying CD). The sections entitled "Connections," however, are more central, and here one recognizes fully the extraordinary accomplishment of Balentine's commentary. In too many commentaries, hermeneutical engagement is thin, slapdash, theologically trite, and not much related to the preceding exegesis. Balentine's hermeneutical work deftly teases out the deep issues of the text and draws out the implications of what the biblical text is talking about for related explorations in philosophy, ethics, theology, popular culture, and life itself. How refreshing to see a biblical scholar engage Martha Nussbaum on the moral significance of the emotions, Elaine Scarry on beauty and justice, or George Steiner on the perils of reading Kafka, and on and on. Yet for all the intellectual breadth and seriousness of these discussions, they are eminently accessible and deeply evocative for the pastoral tasks of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Balentine's commentary stands as a model for what commentary writing could and should be. Even more, what he has accomplished has profound implications for what theological education should be doing to equip the interpreters of Scripture.

Carol A. Newsom
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