Roland E. Murphy, The Book of Job. A Short Reading

Roland E. Murphy, The Book of Job. A Short Reading – Book Review

David M. Bossman

New York: Paulist Press, 1999. Pp. vii + 136. Paper, $14.95.

Known for his jovial wit, superb language skills, erudition and insight, Roland E. Murphy gifts his readers with a work of refined wisdom, dedicated to his Carmelite brothers of Whitefriars Hall in Washington, DC. It is more than just another book on this puzzling book of the biblical canon. Rather, it is a lean and sinewy examination of the book’s deepest issues, expressed in direct language that a layman can readily grasp. It is a work of art.

In the Preface, Murphy presents the purpose of the book as “intended to prompt a more intense but leisurely reading and thus to achieve greater understanding and love of the book,” which he respectfully deems as a masterpiece. While Murphy’s comments are succinct, “for the sake of concentrating upon what is generally agreed to be the meaning,” he still effectively “provokes the reader to a more aggressive analysis of the book” as only a master can.

The Introduction of the book lays out key questions that critical readers should want to have answered, and engagingly responds. Here are some excerpts: Q. Do we know anything about the author(s)? A. “Nothing, not even if there were one or (as most think) many authors….” Q. Did Job ever exist? A. It’s not so simple to answer this. “It is wise to distinguish between two Jobs: an historical person and a literary character.” Q. The date? A. “A linguistic analysis of the work does not yield a sure date, and the result is the same if one attempts to assign a date on the basis of the theology….” Q. How does Job fit in with the ancient Near Eastern wisdom that has also been handed down? A. “It can be said at once that no true parallel to Job as yet has appeared….” In each of these cases, the answers expand the issue enough to whet the appetite but not so much as to lead the reader away from the book itself.

The next seven chapters engage the text of Job section by section. Murphy points out the distinctive features of the book, its troubling moments, its problematic readings, with an eye to digested scholarly studies but mainly with his own best judgments. For the epilogue of Job (42:7-17), which he regards as “so important that it is wise to set it apart,” Murphy ponders the meaning of the critical verse 6. Did Job “repent in dust and ashes,” as the text is typically rendered? Murphy suggests not, and translates the text, “Therefore I retract and change my mind, being but dust and ashes.”

In chapter 9, entitled After Thoughts, Murphy sketches the history of interpretation of this classic book whose impact extends to innumerable literary works and many of the arts, such as painting, music, dance, and film. It is notable that an Aramaic targum of Job was found among the books at Qumran. The rabbis found Job to be a gentile of note, while Gregory the Great (d. 604) explored the book for its moral issues. Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the issue of divine providence in Job. Ambrose and Calvin focused on the problem of suffering, echoed in recent liberation theologians. Rene Gerard interprets Job as the community scapegoat, a driving idea behind the focus of hatred on the innocent. At the end of this section, Murphy provides his readings of the key characters and issues in Job.

Finally, in the last chapter, Does the Book of Job Have a Theology? Murphy explores a topic of particular concern to readers of BTB. He begins with a disclaimer that every biblical theology is to some extent in the eye of the theologian, a worthy caveat for those who espouse the notion of one meaning. Thus Murphy sagely asks, “What does the book do to you if you read it?” Then he slips in his charge: “Even more important than this is the distinction between what is true and enduring and what is merely culturally conditioned, a mere world view, in biblical thought.” One might ask how exactly one can distill such transcendent truth from what is inherently culture-bound.

Under the headings of God, Creation, World-View, Retribution, and Spirituality, Murphy reviews Job and its interpreters for glimpses at biblical meanings and values. I found the section on spirituality to be particularly noteworthy. Job is not a model of patience but of endurance, Murphy contends. He was another case of one who is tested to the core, even as Abraham, when he was ordered to sacrifice all hope in the Lord’s covenant with him by offering up his son, in whom rested his unique promise. Murphy ends with A Postil, his own “afterwords,” (post illa verba) characterizing what reading the book again meant to him. Here he likens Job to Jesus, one who must give all with no explanation of why. Murphy’s words sound the theme of Job: “The attempt to defend the `justice’ of a mysterious God is bound to go down in defeat.” But the struggle energizes the inquiring mind.

David M. Bossman

Seton Hall University

South Orange NJ 07079

COPYRIGHT 2000 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc

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